Yosemite National Park Interpretive Waysides

First, Do No Harm

In one of the world’s most-visited parks, interpretive graphics need to be beautiful enough to live up to all that scenery, and tough enough to weather extreme conditions.

When your artifacts include 2,400-ft. waterfalls, groves of ancient giant sequoias, and some of the most breathtaking vistas on the planet, interpretive signage is important, but needs to fill a supporting role. When that signage is buried under snow for much of the year and exposed to strong UV rays during the rest, it needs to fill a very tough supporting role.

Such are the challenges of creating signs at Yosemite National Park, says Victoria Mates, the interpretive exhibit specialist responsible for managing the development of interpretive waysides for the 1,200-acre park. Yosemite contains thousands of trailhead and regulatory/safety signs, as well as about 200 interpretive waysides being created, updated, and installed on an ongoing basis.

Many of the 3.5 million people who visit the park annually won’t get the chance to interact with a park ranger, “so interpretive signage really does expand our ability to help them understand the park’s unique resources and find meaning in them,” says Mates. “It also helps us communicate how they can minimize their impact on those resources.”

Leslie Stone, principal of Leslie Stone Associates (Sausalito, CA) has been working on Yosemite signage for 12 years, and helped the park develop its standards for the wayside signs. Designing stationary signs interesting enough to stand in for human beings is a tough storytelling challenge, she says, but creating signs that will outlast the park’s extreme weather conditions is yet another.

Given the cold temperatures and October-to-May snow season, heat and intense UV rays in the summer, and normal wear-and-tear from park visitors, porcelain enamel is the material of choice. “We tried other alternatives but found through trial and error that porcelain enamel works best and is the best long-term value for Yosemite,” says Mates. “The thing that really puts it over the top is the high resolution and graphic quality you can achieve with it.”

Stone designed a tapered Corten weathering steel base that supports and frames the porcelain enamel graphic panels. “The ones we put up 12 years ago still look great,” she notes. And the Corten steel bases are durable, require no maintenance, “and seem not to invite vandalism, probably because they’re already rusty.” The units are low-profile but quietly elegant. “We certainly don’t want them to be a distraction,” says Stone. “They need to look nice, but stay out of the way.”

The Corten base is important, says Steve Vandyk, vice president of marketing for KVO Industries, which supplies the bases and porcelain enamel panels. “We always tell people that the porcelain enamel is only as good as the base that supports it. Another advantage of the Corten steel is that it actually looks better as it ages, not worse.”

Protecting the waysides during the long cold winters is important, so KVO devised wood “sleeves” that fit over the units and keep them safe from the greatest danger: the poles of cross-country skiers traversing the park during the heavy snow season. “The snowdrifts get so high they literally ski right over them, and their poles can scratch up the panels,” says Stone.

Like many other national parks, Yosemite receives funding from a private “friends group” that supplements federal government resources. “The Yosemite Fund gives us the ability to do projects above and beyond what the Park Service budget could ever support,” says Mates.

That funding has allowed the park to create and install what amounts to the Cadillac of interpretive waysides, in special cases including extras like bronze bas reliefs, bronze topographic maps, and other tactile elements. The waysides deviate from the Park Service’s national graphic standards, but they were developed before the national standards, notes Mates.

“Yosemite decided this style and these materials work for the unique conditions of the park, and decided not to create a visual cacophony by having different types of signs everywhere,” she adds. Trailhead, regulatory, safety, and shuttle bus signs all follow the graphic standards developed by the Park Service’s Harpers Ferry (WV) Center. The waysides also use the Park Service-standard typefaces, including Adobe Frutiger for headlines and short lines of text and NPS Rawlinson for body text.

Despite Stone’s efforts to make them quiet and unassuming, the waysides are often the focal point of visitor’s photos. At Tunnel View, the first spot many visitors see after entering the park, Stone deliberately sited interpretives away from the main viewing point.

“We were trying to keep them out of the way because everyone wants to take a picture there. But humans being who we are, we tend to gravitate toward human-made things. People are always moving over to the panels to take pictures,” she laughs. “What are you going to do?”

--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 23, 2009



Client:  National Park Service, Yosemite Fund

Interpretive Signage Design:  Leslie Stone Associates

Design Team:  Leslie Stone, Danny Skurow

Consultants:  Michael Faw (fabrication consultant)

Landscape Architects:  Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey (Olmsted Point and Tunnel View overlooks), Lawrence Halprin (Lower Yosemite Falls trail)

Fabrication:  KVO Industries (porcelain enamel and Corten steel bases), Gloria Nusse (bronze sculptural elements, Yosemite Falls and bronze topographic maps, Olmsted Point and Tunnel View), Vicki Saulls (bronze sculptural elements, Yosemite Falls), Dan Stingle (bronze topographic map, Yosemite Falls), Bronze Plus (bronze fabrication) 

Photos:  Leslie Stone, Doug Nelson 

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