updated 11/1/2011 2:35:39 PM ET 2011-11-01T18:35:39

On busy days, more than 8,000 cars pass through Yosemite Valley in the nation's third most-visited national park. But, there are only 1,100 parking spaces.

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The scarcity of visitor parking in the narrow glacial valley is just one of many challenges facing Yosemite National Park officials say as they launch their third attempt at a master plan to protect its heart, the Merced River.

After striking out twice with the courts, park officials are asking the public to do what $65 million spent over the course of 15 years and four park superintendents have failed to do — come up with a viable strategy to balance public access against the strict protections that come with the river's 1987 congressional designation as "Wild and Scenic."

"The Merced River Plan is a big deal that the public is snoozing through," said Rick Deutsch, who has written a book about the park. "It could radically alter the facilities, parking and recreation at the park."

The end result could do the unthinkable in a place that belongs to the people: set limits on the number visitors allowed in the gates, even as some worry whether the park with a hotel with big city prices has enough access as is for those of moderate means.

"In the past the park steered clear of difficult decisions," said Greg Adair, co-founder of the group Friends of Yosemite Valley, which successfully sued to stop previous plans it deemed inadequate to protect nature. "They left any real capacity decisions to be determined later or never. The court ruled against that approach."

Yosemite is remarkable among America's national parks with a combination of stunning beauty, inspiring hikes and easy driving distances from populous metropolitan areas. Despite the park's 1,200 square miles of wilderness, 95 percent of the 4 million visitors each year end up in the valley, where senses are overwhelmed by the towering Half Dome and El Capitan granite monoliths, stands of pines and stair-step waterfalls.

It means traffic congestion that can rival a major city, degraded air quality, a lack of parking, and a strain on the centerpiece river that John Muir called the voice of Yosemite.

"We have very limited space on which we can build," said park spokesman Scott Gediman. "So for us it's always a question of if we can build."

It's not just parking that's complicating the park's access problems. El Nino's fury in 1997 caused the river to breach its banks, obliterating hundreds of lower-cost lodging spaces.

Stressing the park further is recent acknowledgement by officials that the hazards of boulders sloughing off the granite icons along the valley's edge are a threat to public safety.

Between rock fall risk and floods the park has lost 400 campsites, 500 lodging rooms and 300 employee cabins over the past decade and a half. Many were inside the half-mile-wide corridor that the new plan must set aside to allow the river to ebb and flow as nature intended.

The loss of lodging has coincided with increased demands on the revered park. Only the Great Smoky Mountains and the Grand Canyon see more visitors, but over a much larger area.

Recreational demands have become so strained that this year the park instituted a daily lottery for permits to climb Half Dome, where congestion often was so bad that hikers followed heel-to-toe up the steep, slippery grade.

The new plan could force a different way of looking at everything from Yosemite's restaurants and gift shops to a hike along the river. Those who comment on the plan can assign a value to their favorite pursuits, such as picnicking, rock climbing, rafting and hiking back country trails.

"In past plans the pizza parlors and retail shops were as protected as trail walking or family picnicking," Adair said. "We think — and the ruling in the 9th Circuit strongly agreed — that all recreation is not equal in a protected river corridor ... and those that focus on experiencing nature are deserving of a plan that protects and even enhances."

The Merced River flows for 81 miles in the park, from its source 13,000 feet high in the Sierra-Nevada wilderness to its crashing 317-foot drop into and through the tourist mecca.

Park officials are asking the public to weigh in on everything from picnic area placement and intersection configuration to trail access. They will hold a series of meetings, including one five hours away in San Francisco Nov. 9, a week later in a webcast, and four others in and near the park. The comments will help shape an environmental report due by June 2013.

Almost certainly the end result will be reduced access to the river. Visitors already are funneled to riverbanks along paths instead of cutting through forests. Kayaking and rafting might be limited for the launching impacts on riverbank erosion. Some picnic areas could be closed or made smaller to reduce the trampling of vegetation. High country camp sites could be made fewer.

"We are looking for the public to tell us what they value," park spokesman Gediman said. "How that will affect park visitors remains to be seen."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: America's national parks

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  1. Acadia

    Acadia National Park in Maine boasts the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Visitors beware: temperatures can vary 40 degrees -- from 45 degrees to 85 degrees in the summer and from 30 degrees to 70 degrees in the spring and fall. (Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rocky Mountain

    Bear Lake, with mountainside aspens changing colors in mid-autumn, is one of the popular attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Badlands

    The climate in South Dakota's Badlands National Park is extreme. Temperatures range from minus 40 degrees in the dead of winter to 116 degrees in the height of summer. Visitors are drawn to the park's rugged beauty as well as the area's rich fossil beds. (Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Yosemite

    One of the nation's first wilderness parks, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, scenic valleys, meadows and giant sequoias. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Cascades National Park

    The North Cascades National Park complex offers something for everyone: Monstrous peaks, deep valleys, hundreds of glaciers and phenominal waterfalls. The complex includes the park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Zion

    This spectacular corner of southern Utah is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Redwood

    Created in 1968, Redwood National Park is located in Northern California. Today, visitors to the national park can enjoy the massive trees as well as an array of wildlife. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Joshua Tree

    Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California. The area was made a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Great Smoky Mountains

    Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can expect mild winters and hot, humid summers, though temperatures can differ drastically as the park's elevation ranges from 800 feet to more than 6,600 feet. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Arches

    More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, many of them recognizable worldwide, are preserved in Utah's Arches National Park. Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and can drop to below freezing in the winter. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Grand Teton

    The Snake River flows through Grand Teton National Park, and the jagged Teton Range rises above the sage-covered valley floor. Daytime temperatures during summer months are frequently in the 70s and 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. (Anthony P. Bolante / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Haleakala

    Visitors watch the sun rise at 10,000 feet in Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii. If weather permits, visitors at the top of the mountain can see three other Hawaiian islands. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most recognizable national park. Nearly 5 million visitors view the mile-deep gorge every year, formed in part by erosion from the Colorado River. The North and South rims are separated by a 10-mile-wide canyon. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, was established in 1872. The park spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk live in the park. It is well known for Old Faithful and other geothermal features. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mount Rainier

    Glaciers. Rainforests. Hiking trails. Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state, offers incredible scenery and a diverse ecology. The park aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hawaii Volcanoes

    Two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1980, the national park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve; in 1987, it was added as a World Heritage Site. (David Jordan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Everglades

    Everglades National Park covers the nation's largest subtropical wilderness. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors to the park can camp, boat, hike and find many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Glacier

    A view from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails the park is known for its glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes. (Matt McKnight / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bryce Canyon

    Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its distinctive geological structures called "hoodoos." (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crater Lake

    The brilliant blue Crater Lake, located in southern Oregon, was formed when Mount Mazama, standing at 12,000 feet, collapsed 7,700 years ago after a massive eruption. Crater Lake is one of the world's deepest lakes at 1,943 feet. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Olympic

    Washington state's Olympic National Park offers visitors beaches on the Pacific Ocean, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between. Keep the weather in mind when visiting, though, as roads and facilities can be affected by wind, rain and snow any time of year. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

    A woman stands among a grove of a Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in Central California. The trees, which are native to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the world's largest by volume, reaching heights of 275 feet and a ground level girth of 109 feet. The oldest known Giant Sequoia based on its ring count is 3,500 years old. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Denali

    Alaska's Denali National Park spans 6 million acres and includes the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Many park visitors try to catch a glimpse of the "big five" -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bear. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Kenai Fjords National Park

    The National Park Service considers the 8.2-mile round-trip on Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park to be strenuous, saying hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. (National Park Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Death Valley

    California's Death Valley encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness. In 1849, a group of gold rush pioneers entered the Valley, thinking it was a shortcut to California. After barely surviving the trek across the area, they named the spot "Death Valley." In the 1880s, native peoples were pushed out by mining companies who sought the riches of gold, silver, and borax. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Wind Cave

    Bison graze in Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Recovery programs have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Canyonlands

    The Lower Basins Zone is outlined by the white rim edge as seen from the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Shenandoah

    Fall colors blanket the Shenandoah National Park, drawing tourists to Skyline Drive to view the scenery. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images
    Above: Slideshow (28) America's national parks
  2. Image:
    Stephen Saks / Lonely Planet Images
    Slideshow (18) America’s lesser-known national parks

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