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Are America's National Parks Becoming Parking Lots?

Would you like to visit one of America's awe-inspiring national parks? Yosemite in California, perhaps, with its soaring cliffs and cascading waterfalls.

Well, get in line! About 3.5 million people will enter Yosemite this year. Four and one-half million will beat a path to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. So much for undisturbed wilderness.

The National Park Service, which administers these wild places as well as historic sites like Civil War battlefields, must walk a fine line between preserving vistas and wildlife -- and making parks accessible to people and cars.

Thirty years ago, according to the Christian Science Monitor newspaper, 80% of Yosemite's visitors stayed the night in camps or a lodge. So they c uld take their time, stroll through the evergreens, and soak up the sights. Last year, 80% of visitors showed up, paid the entry fee, searched for parking spots at the overlooks, took some photographs, bought some postcards, and left the same day.

People want paradise prepackaged, park rangers say. When do the bison and bears come out for the next show? When's the next rainbow?

To moderate the tourist crush, the park service has closed vast sections of some parks -- like Zion in Utah -- to all vehicles except guided sightseeing buses.

American naturalist John Muir, who introduced the pristine Yosemite Valley to the nation, once wrote, "In God's wilderness lies the hope of the world -- the great, fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness."

"That's really nice," a visitor to today's Yosemite might tell him. "Say, do you happen to know if there's a McDonald's near the waterfall?"

This is one of VOA's Only in America radio essays on events and trends that are peculiarly American. To visit our Only in America home page click here.