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Can You Fly a Drone in Yosemite?

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Yosemite National Park is one of the best-known parks in the United States and perhaps even the world.

The park attracts anywhere from three to five million visitors a year[1]. You’re interested in visiting Yosemite too, but you’re unsure about their drone policy.

Can you fly a drone in Yosemite?

Using a drone in Yosemite National Park is strictly prohibited, with no exceptions such as permits. That rule has existed since 2014 and doesn’t seem like it will change anytime soon. Flying a drone in Yosemite means violating National Park Service rules and potentially facing federal charges.

This article will take a deep dive into the drone usage rules at Yosemite so you can stay on the right side of the law and have a fun trip to California!

Can you fly a drone in Yosemite? #

Most pilots dream of entering Yosemite National Park with a drone in tow, launching that baby into the sky, and capturing magnificent aerial footage.

You’d see the 3,593-foot El Capitan (a granite monolith), Glacier Point, Yosemite Falls, and maybe even Tuolumne Meadows.

Unfortunately, a dream is all it can be. The National Park Service, a United States federal agency, strictly forbids the use of drones in Yosemite.

Here’s the NPS’s full policy on drone use in the park.

“Yosemite National Park advises visitors that the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Drones) are prohibited within park boundaries due to regulations outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Specifically, the use of drones within the park boundaries is illegal under all circumstances. Thirty Six CFR 2.17(a)(3) states, ‘delivering or retrieving a person or object by parachute, helicopter, or other airborne means, except in emergencies involving public safety or serious property loss, or pursuant to the terms and conditions of a permit’ is illegal. This applies to drones of all shapes and sizes.”

Although the quoted part of CFR that NPS mentions brings up the use of a permit, that’s purely anecdotal. The NPS does not permit drone pilots in any national park in the US, Yosemite or otherwise.

As we mentioned in the intro, this ban does not have any loopholes or ways out.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a commercial or recreational pilot; you cannot launch or use your drone in Yosemite.

It’s been that way since 2014 and seems highly unlikely to change anytime soon, perhaps ever.

Why can’t you fly a drone in Yosemite? #

If the whole reason you planned to visit California was to fly your drone around Yosemite, you’re going to feel very disappointed by this news.

That’s warranted, but the NPS does have its reasons for banning drones.

Let’s look at them now.

Drones are too popular #

The reason the drone ban came about in 2014 was because drones were beginning to enter mainstream popularity around then.

The number of drones used in national parks, the NPS reports, increased substantially in a very short period.

Here’s what the NPS stated:

“The park [Yosemite National Park] has experienced an increase in visitors using drones within park boundaries over the last few years. Drones have been witnessed filming climbers ascending climbing routes, filming views above tree-tops, and filming aerial footage of the park.”

While that all sounds innocent enough, you are but a singular drone pilot.

When you add hundreds or even thousands more drones to the mix, all converging on one location, you can see how the number of drones in Yosemite becomes far too many very fast.

The NPS had to take a stand, and that’s exactly what it did.

» MORE: Can You Bring a Drone to Coachella?

Too much noise #

Further, drones can create a lot of audible disturbances. Again, your drone on its own may not be that noisy, but when you add hundreds or thousands of other drones, it does create a loud environment.

Millions don’t visit Yosemite National Park every year to hear the burr of a drone’s motor. Many people get away in nature for peace and quiet. They want the sounds of animals and insects in the distance.

When that’s taken away, it makes Yosemite an unattractive place to visit. Yosemite’s visitor numbers can begin going down until it’s usurped by many other parks and eventually deemed not worth visiting.

» MORE: Can You Fly a Drone in Lake Tahoe?

Can interrupt the park-going experience #

If you want to stay at a lodge at Yosemite, you’re recommended to book your stay four to six months ahead of time. Yes, there is a waitlist.

Of course, you can get into the park anytime, but the fact that the lodges have a waitlist is a testament to their ginormous popularity.

Imagine waiting to get a stay at Yosemite and it’s interrupted by drones. You personally like drones, but you must consider that not everyone feels the same way.

Besides the sounds of drones, the sight of them can take away from the experience of visiting Yosemite.

Park visitors hope to see birds like the Western tanager, steller’s jay, lesser goldfinch, bullock’s oriole, acorn woodpecker, or willow flycatcher. They don’t want to see drones in the sky instead.

This goes back to our point from before. When visiting Yosemite becomes an unenjoyable experience, people won’t want to go anymore. Visitor numbers will drop, which hurts the park.

Can disrupt emergency response efforts #

Yosemite, being in California, is prone to wildfires.

If firefighters or other emergency personnel like first responders or police officers have to get to the park, drones can sometimes get in the way of these emergency response efforts.

That’s dangerous, as it puts people’s lives at risk. Every second that an emergency responder wastes is a second too many, so they must have the capacity to work unimpeded.

» MORE: Can You Fly a Drone in Death Valley?

Can impact wildlife #

The effects that drones have on wildlife are well-documented, including on this blog.

At the very least, the presence of drones can scare away animals and birds. Park visitors who come to Yosemite hoping to see one or two particular species may go home disappointed.

However, the impacts that drones have on wildlife are more insidious still. Drones look threatening to wildlife, so animals will abandon their nests and their young and otherwise behave self-defensively.

Yosemite is home to some rare animals, including the Pacific fisher, California wolverine, and Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, among others. These animals must be protected, so drones shouldn’t fly here.

» MORE: Can You Fly a Drone in Joshua Tree?

Can damage the park #

Finally, there’s the risk of potentially harming the park environment itself. It’s not unheard of for drones to end up in deep canyons and atop mountains because pilots lose control.

Finding lost drones strewn about ruins the park-going environment.

An out-of-control drone can also chip away at rock structures, harm trees, and otherwise negatively impact the landscape.

Can you fly a drone outside of Yosemite? #

Now that you understand the reasoning for not being able to use a drone in Yosemite National Park, you wonder if you can fly outside of the park.

Let’s look at what’s in the area to help answer that question.

Once you venture northward beyond Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Falls, and Glacier Point, you’ll reach Twin Peaks, Eagle Peak, and Tower Peak.

To the west of Yosemite National Park is more cities and towns in California, including Mather. To the east, it’s Lee Vining and Lundy, with Mount Lyell and Mount Dana in the vicinity.

Southward is Foresta and Yosemite West.

It appears that you’re legally allowed to operate your drone in these places but check your drone map.  If you have a DJI drone with geofencing, your drone won’t fly once you enter restricted airspace.

Keep in mind that temporary flight restrictions go up around Yosemite all the time because the area can experience wildfires.

Thus, even if you’re usually allowed to fly in an area near the park, you might be prohibited if a temporary flight restriction goes into effect. 

What happens if you get caught using a drone around Yosemite? #

Using a drone in Yosemite National Park is illegal. While you could receive a warning to cease drone activity, you might be fined or imprisoned.

These are federal punishments, so it’s serious stuff!

Yosemite has the distinction of being one of the top national parks in the country.

Unsurprisingly, to preserve the park for generations to come, the NPS prohibits drone usage on its grounds. No permits, waivers, or exceptions are allowed.

If you break the rules, you could receive a fine or a jail sentence for your crimes, so skip flying in Yosemite.

References:1. Statista (link)


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