Scenic Vistas: Tunnel View Overlook Project

Group gathered for Tunnel View dedication in 2008
With Yosemite National Park's granite monoliths as a backdrop, the Tunnel View overlook was re-dedicated in an October 24, 2008, ceremony attended by former Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne.
 

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Historic photo of Tunnel View Overlook as seen from inside the tunnel, black and white image.
The Tunnel View overlook has captured the awe of visitors for nearly 75 years. This historic view has been an iconic part of Yosemite National Park’s viewshed.

What is Tunnel View?

Best known as the namesake for Tunnel View, the Wawona Tunnel was completed in April of 1933 and was dedicated on June 10 of that year. The tunnel leads park visitors from the South Entrance to an unforgettable view of Yosemite Valley. Reaching a length of 4,233 feet, the structure is the longest highway tunnel in the state of California.

Taking nearly two years to complete, the Wawona Tunnel was created by boring a road through a mountain of granite. The formal tunnel dedication ceremony served as a way for the park to celebrate this successful feat of engineering. Proclaimed as a “Pageant of Progress,” the event featured a parade, historical reenactments, speeches from park staff, and hundreds of spectators. The Tunnel View scenic overlook is a historic site, located adjacent to Wawona Road, affording expansive views of Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, and Half Dome. The overlook was constructed during an era that heralded a boom in design and development throughout the National Park Service (NPS), and helped initiate the National Park Service “rustic design style.” Wawona Tunnel and Tunnel View were determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 because of their exemplary design.

Since then, the Wawona Tunnel has served tens of millions of park visitors, providing a breathtaking introduction to the iconic granite walls that surround Yosemite Valley. The Tunnel View overlook was renovated—the first changes to this area since constructed in 1933—and re-dedicated in an Oct. 24, 2008, ceremony.

Improvements from the 2008 renovatation include an expanded handicap accessible viewing area, improved traffic flow, educational exhibits, and historic rockwork. This $3 million project was funded by The Yosemite Fund (now known as the Yosemite Conservancy) and the National Park Service as part of the President’s Centennial Initiative. Very little physical change occurred to Tunnel View’s physical features (including rockwork, circulation patterns, and configuration) since it was built. The site remains one of the most popular scenic overlooks in Yosemite National Park, with an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people visiting per day during the height of the tourist season.

 
Tunnel View prior to 2008 rehabilitation project, showing more trees blocking view
Tunnel View just prior to rehabilitation project on a quiet winter day. You can see more trees blocking the view compared to when it was first completed in 1933.

Why Did We Undertake This Project?

The purpose of the Tunnel View Overlook Rehabilitation Project was to remedy long-standing vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-pedestrian safety issues, to correct drainage deficiencies and problems, to provide clear circulation patterns for pedestrians and vehicles, to enhance and maintain viewing opportunities for visitors, to provide accessibility to viewing areas, to correct safety problems associated with the Inspiration Point trailhead, and to address sanitation issues, while maintaining the naturalistic, rustic character and integrity of this historic site.

Several factors demonstrated the need for this project:

  • Since the Wawona Tunnel was completed in 1933, the NPS has responded to vehicle-to-vehicle accidents, single-vehicle accidents, and vehicle-to-pedestrian near-misses. Drivers traveling east through the tunnel often speed, are blinded by light as they exit the tunnel, encounter ice-patches at the east portal, and are faced with crowds of pedestrians and slow moving vehicles moving in
    and out of the roadway from the Tunnel View parking areas. Combined, these conditions create a sustained and serious safety problem.

  • Visitors who have parked their vehicles in the south parking lot are directed to access viewing areas by crossing Wawona Road at locations that are on blind corners and not clearly visible by motorists.

  • Currently storm-water and melting snow drain from the tunnel directly onto the north parking lot. From here, the water flows in sheets over the parking area, and eventually drains down the Wawona Road. In the winter the surface water on the entire parking area often freezes, creating hazardous driving and walking conditions.

  • The northern parking area has an indistinct circulation pattern. Drivers of single-family vehicles and tour buses have ill-defined parking.

  • The existing viewing area in the north parking lot consists of a five-foot wide sidewalk, which is insufficient to accommodate the existing pattern of visitor use. Often crowds three to five people deep form to see the view of Yosemite Valley. The problem is further compounded because vegetation such as ponderosa pine and incense cedar has grown and obscured much of the historic view. The vegetation forces visitors to cluster into smaller viewing areas than what existed historically.

What Did The Project Entail?

This completed project provides a safer, rehabilitated scenic overlook from which to experience one of Yosemite’s most spectacular views.

  • Restored the historic view by selectively thinning conifers that currently obstruct it
  • Provided clear parking areas for cars, RVs, trams, and tour buses
  • Improved traffic flow to lessen congestion
  • Improved visitor safety at viewing platform
  • Improved accessibility at site
  • Installed new wayside exhibits

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Last updated: April 19, 2022

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