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With exhibits, eateries, and stores, Yosemite Village draws millions of people each year and is often visitors’ first stop in the park. As the village nears its 100th anniversary, outdated facilities — especially the often-crowded visitor center — offer a less-than-ideal welcome. But that’s about to change.

This winter, construction crews broke ground for the re-envisioned village plaza and Yosemite Valley Welcome Center, which will dramatically upgrade visitors’ arrival experience and provide an accessible, self-service orientation to Yosemite National Park and its many wonders.

The $10.4 million project is supported, in large part, by Yosemite Conservancy donors.

An artistic rendering of the planned plaza and informational signs outside the new Welcome Center in Yosemite Valley. Yosemite Falls is visible in the background. The Welcome Center will be located in a refurbished building (formerly the Sport Shop/Village Store) in eastern Yosemite Village.

AN ARTIST’S RENDERING of the Welcome Center in Yosemite Valley, which will be located adjacent to the Village Store. The 3,000-square-foot building was formerly the Yosemite Sports Store and is situated closer to the main parking lot. © RHAA LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTS.

It will transform the 3,000-square-foot former “sport shop” at the south end of the village into a state-of-the-art space where visitors can learn about safety and stewardship, talk to rangers and Conservancy volunteers to get oriented and plan their itineraries, shop for guides and maps, and more. Outside, a 20,000-square-foot plaza will provide ample seating; a new restroom facility; and educational signs, displays, and maps with information available 24 hours a day — all with quick access to nearby parking.

The current Valley Visitor Center, which opened in 1967 when park visitation was a fraction of what it is today, is currently about a half-mile from the hub of visitor parking. The trail connecting the two is sometimes confusing to visitors, especially firsttimers, and difficult for those with mobility challenges.

“I remember what it was like going up there,” says Pam Starr, whose family made a significant gift to the project. “I knew how much this was needed.”

Starr worked five summers in the park in her early 20s — as a housekeeper, cafeteria worker in Camp Curry, and server in the restaurant at Wawona Hotel. She met her late husband, Jim — who grew up in Yosemite Valley as the son of the park’s resident dentist — during her summer at Wawona Hotel, and they were married in the Yosemite Valley chapel.

“Dad’s love for the park went on forever,” Jon Starr says. “Mom knew she wanted to make a gift to the park and recognize him.

“Yosemite has been a very special place for our family. We went backpacking in the High Sierra for years! The love for the park was something Mom and Dad both shared with our family.”

A draft concept for the interior of the new Yosemite Valley Welcome Center, which will be located in an existing building in Yosemite Village.

The new Welcome Center will provide an information hub for all visitors in Yosemite, offering information on how to access the park safely and sustainably.

Overall, the project represents an unparalleled opportunity to transform the visitor experience in the heart of the park. The new Welcome Center will ensure that Yosemite’s millions of annual visitors enjoy a best-in-class welcome when they arrive in the Valley and that they will have access to the information they need to experience the park safely and sustainably. The current Valley Visitor Center lobby will also be updated and transformed into an educational and learning hub in the next several years.

The following demolition and construction are currently in progress or slated to be complete by summer:

OUTDOORS:

  • The site has been cleared, including demolition of the patio on the south side of the building and removal of select trees, to make way for the restroom and plaza.
  • Trenching for utilities for the updated Welcome Center and the nearby restroom has begun, with Tribal representatives monitoring the site for buried artifacts.

INDOORS:

  • The interior of the building has been demolished and hazardous materials abated.
  • Exhibits are being written and reviewed.
  • The tech team is assessing needed IT and AV systems.
  • A firewall is being constructed between the new Welcome Center space and the grill/market next door.

The majority of construction is expected to be complete by fall 2022, with the outdoor plaza, exhibits, and restroom finished and open to the public in spring 2023.

This piece was written by Kimiko Martinez for the Spring/Summer Yosemite Conservancy Magazine (published in May 2022). Click here to read the magazine in full.