YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — There was a time not long ago when a climb to the top of Yosemite National Park's Half Dome was a solitary trek attempted by only the most daring adventurers.
Over the past decade, however, the route has been inundated with up to 1,200 nature lovers a day seeking to experience the iconic mountain that is stamped on the California quarter, stitched on a line of outdoor clothing and painted on the side of the park's vehicles.
Now officials want to permanently limit access to the granite monolith, frustrating both hikers who journey there for a transcendent experience and advocates who say the plan doesn't go far enough to protect a place in a federally designated wilderness area.
"At the end of the day, if the visitors and users of wilderness aren't willing to make sacrifices to preserve the wilderness character of these areas, then we just won't have wilderness. We'll have some Disney-fied version of it," said George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch.
"If people want solitude in Yosemite, there's another 12,000 square miles to do that," counters hiker Pat Townsley, a Bay Area resident who has been to the top nine times.
This past week the park released its environmental assessment of options for the future of the Half Dome trail, which studies show is the busiest by far of any in the National Park's designated wilderness areas. The aim is to improve safety on the Dome and make the trail to get there less crowded.
Options range from doing nothing to removing the cables that hikers use to pull themselves up the 45-degree final climb, rendering it inaccessible to all but experienced climbers.
Nickas calls them "handrails in the wilderness," and says his agency might sue to have them removed if park officials don't choose that option.
"There is often an attempt by agencies to make wilderness all things to all people, and they can't do that and still be wilderness," he said.
The park's recommendation is something in between a complete ban and the free-flowing days of the past when hikers packed together on the cables like cars in rush hour traffic. It would allow 300 people a day past a check point two miles distant beginning in 2013.
"There's some subjectivity to this decision," said park spokesman Scott Gediman. "But we considered how wilderness is managed and personal interviews with people about their experience on the trail. Finding balance is something we have to do."
In 1874 the slick dome that rises 5,000 feet above the valley floor was described as "perfectly inaccessible." But in 1919 the Sierra Club installed the first cables along the 400-foot final ascent so that visitors without rock climbing experience could hoist themselves to the summit —the size of 17 football fields— to drink in stunning views of Little Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, endless Sierra and the Valley floor.
"Once you get up there it's like 'holy cow.' It's just one of those moments in your life when you go 'wow' and you question your existence and space and time and everything else," said hiker Townsley, who thinks everyone should be allowed the experience.