Yosemite National Park in California is a photographer’s mecca. While John Muir may be the “Father of Yosemite”, it wasn’t until Ansel Adams came here in 1916 and began to photograph it did the world really “see” the beauty that the High Sierras offered. It was in those Adams photographs that my love for photography was spawned when I first picked up a camera in the early 1980’s, and since then I had been wanting to visit this wondrous place.
I finally made the trip west this year for the first time and traveled there with a friend of mine and fellow photographer Darren Barnes. This trip was planned for February in hopes to catch the “Firefall”, which was made famous by photographer Galen Rowell in the 1970’s. The Firefall happens only (about) 2 1/2 weeks out of the year when the sun lines up between the mountains and shines its light right on Horsetail Falls. Of course there is a bit of luck in actually seeing this happen due to Mother Nature not letting the sunlight shine due to clouds and storms. Thousands of photographers flock to Yosemite each year during this time in hopes to catch this “phenomenon”, and we were two of them this year. I thought spending 4 days there would ensure us having at least one afternoon of ideal conditions to see this phenomenon, and if not then we would at least have some wonderful winter scenes to shoot with all the snow.
Unfortunately for us California is going through one of the worst droughts in 100+ years, so the water was extremely low and the “winter” was extremely warm. Yep, you guessed it, Horsetail Falls was completely dry and there was hardly any snow on the mountains. Not the conditions I had hoped for when reservations were made. BUT, me being the type of person not to let the glass get half empty I set my mind on seeing the beauty that was around me in hopes of coming home with a few keeper shots.
I quickly figured out that the water conditions I was seeing were that of early summer when the waterfalls typically are drying up. So once I wrapped my brain around that I found the positives… the temps reached the low 60’s vs. the 80’s so hiking and walking around was pleasurable. There were less crowds than there would have been in the summer as (per the Yosemite website) there can be around 18,000 people per day in the Valley. There were NO mosquitoes or any other bugs ~ YAY! Also we had clear skies to see ALL of the rock formations surrounding us.
Darren and I also quickly figured out that since there was no snow, that the trails that are normally closed in the winter would be accessible. Now of course they were “officially closed” since the Park Service closes them according to the calendar and not the weather. So we went around a few gates, and as Darren pointed out.. the closed sign is “just a suggestion”. HA!
One of the hikes we took was the Vernal Falls Trail. Now as I said, normally the trail closest to the river is closed in February with VERY good reason as this steep trail would NOT be something I would want to take in a rain more less snow and ice.
As you can see from the shot above, there are no guardrails along most of this trail. At this particular spot we were about 150ft above the canyon floor, where one wrong step could cause you to trip and go tumbling over the side straight to the bottom. Here is a shot looking back down into the gorge from atop of Vernal Falls. If you look closely you can pick out a couple of hikers coming up the trail, one of them is wearing a blue jacket.
Yep, my “cheeks” were clinched pretty tightly on this trail. 🙂 But as you can see from the shot below this hike is well worth the effort.
Unfortunately a lot of the hikes in the Northern section of the park were closed due to Tioga Road being closed. So we were limited to spending our time in Yosemite Valley, and I think we made the most of that time there.
We decided that since the days and nights were so clear that this gave us an opportunity to take in some night time shooting. By staying on east coast time that allowed us to get up before 3am local time and get out into the valley for some star shooting. Without trying, every day and night we ended up at the famous ‘Tunnel View’ overlook which allows one to see most of the valley. After the second night I actually was able to pull my eyes off of this view and I turned around the scene below caught my eyes.
I jokingly named this the “Fire Tunnel” since I couldn’t get a shot of the ‘Firefall’. 🙂
Probably the most famous of all of the formations in the park is Half Dome. Half Dome rises more than 4,737ft above the valley floor, it is a favorite of serious hikers and mountain climbers alike.
Here is a shot from the Upper Yosemite Falls trail which was taken at 4am-ish in the morning. This is a VERY strenuous hike, and I only made it about 1,300- 1,400 ft up (about 1.5 miles) before having to stop. I returned to a spot close to here to photograph the sunrise this particular morning…and to rest. 🙂
Now during the early morning the sunlight hits the mountains from the side and let’s us see some amazing details within the formations. One of the most famous of these is El Capitán, which means “The Chief”. El Capitán towers 3000ft over the valley floor and is also a favorite of climbers and face jumpers.
The shot below is of Cathedral Rocks in the early morning hours.
This was taken from the Valley floor, where I REALLY enjoyed being on our last day there as my knee and foot were sore from the previous two days of hiking. Here are some other shots from the Valley floor.
Here is a wider view of the valley…
Cooks meadow also offers wildlife photographers something to photograph…
..as this bobcat took a leisurely stroll amongst a bunch of us photographers.
Conclusion: I by no way, shape, or form claim to be any sort of expert on Yosemite after only one trip here. I though do have an educated opinion of Yosemite from this one trip, and here it is…
Upon entering Yosemite Valley the first time, I was expecting..more. What I mean by this is I was expecting more space along with the grandeur. I didn’t expect Yosemite Valley to be so quaint and town-like.
Now part of this was due to the fact that the mountains tower so high above you that it shrinks your sense of scale. Yosemite Valley is 7.5 miles long, by about a mile wide, so it was not until I hiked up a 1000+ ft did I fully appreciate the size of the Valley. Also the fact that the water was so low I didn’t get to take in the sound of the thundering water that I had heard so much about. This fact was realized upon me when I was hiking the Vernal Falls trail and the sound of the waterfall was so refreshing. It was on this trail that Yosemite really bit into me and I fell in love with it. I realized that unlike parks like the Grand Canyon (which I am going to be visiting this summer for the first time) and Shenandoah National Park (what I call my home park as I live 40 minutes from it) which have a hundred plus miles of gorgeous vistas that you can drive along, Yosemite’s beauty is in it’s intimacy of grand scenes. The Merced River offers reflections galore (I wish Shenandoah National had something like this) which when the water and light are right will give a photographer unlimited photo ops.
If you are willing to put in the effort, you can hike up 1000, 2000, 3000+ feet and get a totally different look and feel with your shots, or if you’d prefer you can walk or bike along miles of flat trails to take in the nature that is all around you.
So yes, I have fallen in love with Yosemite and I do plan on returning to this magical place soon.
Here are a few thoughts for my return trip…
I would consider flying in to a closer airport than San Francisco due to the fact it made for a VERY long travel day. Fresno would be my choice right now, though it is a little more money.
I would definitely stay at Yosemite’s ‘Lodge at the Falls’ again!! It is costly, about $185-$250 per night, but you are RIGHT THERE!! You can see Yosemite Falls as well as Half Dome right from the hotel. Also by staying in the park you can literally walk to Yosemite Falls, Cooks Meadow, and if you want you can use the bus system to get around. Though if I go in a warmer season I may rent a bicycle as I think getting around by bike would be a lot easier than car when it is crowded.
I will be sure to make a stop at the Yosemite Store right away to get some food & snacks vs. trying to eat breakfast/lunch at the Lodge at the Falls. The food there is nothing more than cafeteria food and the service was less than inviting.
Now for dinner I would recommend eating at the Ahwahnee Hotel, as we ate at the pub/bar 3 nights. This hotel is where the money is at! I wouldn’t recommend staying here in the winter as we were “upgraded” to a cabin the first night and quickly asked to return to the Lodge at the Falls as the heater wasn’t really up to par. But if it were a warmer season then I might’ve enjoyed the cabin. The other downfall in any season to the cabins is that there are walkway lights along the wandering paths. This by itself is a pain, but then add to the fact you have to carry all the luggage out to the cabin… “Let me think..NO!”. We didn’t get to see what the rooms were like in the main hotel, but for the money they charge I hope they’re nice! I assume most of the people who stay here are well off (*in my most snobbish tongue in cheek voice* they must be the one percenter’s. Ha! I totally say this jokingly!) and probably want to be away from the hectic hustle and bustle of where the Lodge at the Falls is, which by the way is about 3/4 mile away but down a short private road.
So when I do return it may be a late April/early May trip so that I can take in the beauty of the spring in the Valley with the water echoing throughout the park, along with the bugs and the crowds. 🙂
Thanks for reading, and all comments are welcome.
I will leave you with one last shot, this one being an infra red image from the Tunnel View.