YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- Instead of a steeple, pine trees reach heavenward. Rather than stained glass, there are lakes that mirror the sky. And instead of icons and altars, there are towering rock formations and glacier-cut valleys that draw a hushed awe.
Yosemite is nature's cathedral, a place that inspires near-religious reverence among the millions of pilgrims who flood its gates every year. That is why what has happened in recent months seems so blasphemous.
"It's a national park. You think: serenity. You think: God's country," said Jeanice Sainz, one of three generations of a family from Arizona and Washington state that gathered at the park for a reunion last week only to be greeted by news of an alleged serial murderer's confession.
Cary Stayner, 37, a handyman at a hotel just south of Yosemite, has reportedly said he killed three tourists in February and a park naturalist July 21 to satisfy a lifelong fantasy of killing women.
The murders are the worst of the recent troubles to beset the country's 378 national parks. Increasingly, much of what people are trying to escape by going to parks -- urban ills such as traffic congestion, crowds, noise and crime -- have followed them to these refuges of natural beauty.
At Yosemite as well as other national parks, for example, the strain of their increasing popularity has started to show in crumbling roads and overcrowded visitors' facilities.
At Yellowstone, an aging sewage system spilled more than 225,000 gallons of wastewater into Yellowstone Lake and the waters around the famed Old Faithful geyser last year. And at the Great Smoky Mountains, air pollution has greatly reduced visibility and damaged many species of plants.
Here at Yosemite, the signs of trouble are evident from the start: As one enters the park from the south, for example, the narrow mountain pass is lined not just with the expected sentinels of pine trees and craggy mountain faces but the orange-and-white drums that mark a road under construction. Cars -- many of them hulking RVs and sports-utility vehicles -- rumble over steel plates and join the procession to find a parking space.
Arranging for lodging or campground space takes months of planning, especially since a flood in 1997 wiped out 200 rooms at a lodge in the park and nearly 400 campsites. All those visitors mean, among other things, much more food and trash. And that prompts the wilderness version of the car-radio thief -- bears who will tear open a car to get to the Doritos or even the stray McDonald's french fry left in the back seat.
Threat to a paradise
Against that backdrop, the murders of the four women have made Yosemite seem if not a paradise lost, then a paradise threatened.
In February, Carole Sund, 42, and two teen-agers, her daughter, Julie, and their friend Silvina Pelosso, vanished from their room at the Cedar Lodge motel south of the park. Weeks later, their bodies were found. Then, last month, Joie Armstrong, 26, a naturalist, was found beheaded.
The deaths struck home with many.
"With the Sunds and Pelosso, it was like a murder in our neighborhood. This time, it's like it's in your home," park ranger Kendell Thompson said last week. "Here is a place that had a perceived innocence. This was a place that didn't lock its doors. What was taken was not just lives; it was the feeling of innocence."
As park officials scrambled to quell the unease over the murders, Yosemite continued to draw its usual summertime crowds. An expected 4 million people will visit the park by year's end.
Few if any people appear to have canceled trips to Yosemite in the wake of the murders, Thompson said.
"I think visitors recognize that it's an isolated incident," he said. "In many cases, they've planned long and hard for this trip, and so they aren't going to cancel it now."
Some visitors did express unease.
"I've never had a gun in my life," said Joe Palko of Bryn Mawr, Pa., a hiker who with his wife stayed at Cedar Lodge during a trip to Yosemite last week. "But now I'm starting to think about it."
Others said they were careful to hike in groups and finish trails before dark. Indeed, in the campgrounds and at the most popular spots of the park there did seem to be safety in numbers. Tents appeared to be crowded together, and there was rarely anything resembling solitude at the most frequented vantage points to gawk at Yosemite Falls or Half Dome.
For those who venture into the more remote reaches of the park for a true wilderness experience, there was a different sense of protection.
"Maybe I'm naive, but I've always thought people you meet in the back country are more trustworthy than people in cities," said Linda Bakkman, a Swedish university student.
"The people you meet seem like you," agreed her traveling companion, Henrik Johansson, also a student.