The Seasons of Yosemite, A Photographer’s Guide
Article and Images by Yvonne BuffYosemite National Park located in central California, to me, is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Yosemite National Park changes with every visit and I seem to discover something new to capture on film. Each season depicts the wondrous formations and waterfalls in completely different ways. To get to the park you can enter one of three ways: the first is traveling East on Highway 120 out of Manteca; the second is traveling East on Highway 140 out of Merced; and the third is traveling North on Highway 41 out of Fresno. Each entrance sports its own special things to see. If traveling in on Highway 120 you will pass along the Eastern most point of Yosemite Valley. Several turnouts boast some wonderful views of Half Dome and of rock formations such as Elephant Rock, which closely resembles the head of an elephant. Cascade Creek is your first waterfall and at full capacity is a gorgeous 500' drop right off the road. You will, on your way to the Valley, also pass the turn off that will take you up to Tuolumne Meadows. On the Highway 140 entrance you will pass through the Arch Rock formation and can see Cascade Falls in a fuller view On Highway 41 you will enter the most Southern area of the park and will first come upon the Mariposa Grove Big Trees, then pass the Glacier Point turn off and then finally pass through a tunnel emerging upon a fantastic view of Yosemite Valley named Tunnel View before descending into the valley. Lodging within the park ranges from campgrounds to five star hotels. Be warned that lodging fills up fast and reservations for any of the lodging can be made up to one year and one day prior to your arrival date.
Yosemite Valley is home to many species of trees, birds and animals. Some of the species of trees you can find are Black Oak, Live Oak, Big-Leaf Maple, Willow, Pacific Dogwood, California Laurel, Quaking Aspen and White Alder, to name a few. During spring the wildflowers explode onto the scene painting the grasslands and trails with vibrant color and texture. Indian Paintbrush is the most vibrant red flower I’ve seen in the Valley. It can be found in moist areas just after the snow melts growing low to the ground. Some of the animals you might see on your trip would be California Mule Deer, Black Bears (in many colors), Squirrels, Raccoons, Chipmunks and Coyotes, The deer and coyotes are abundant during spring. They can be found in the grasslands along the Valley loop road. The deer are munching on the new spring growth, while the coyotes are dining on the multitude of rodents found burrowing in the fields. The Black Bears, although mostly shy during the day, love to enter the campgrounds and Housekeeping camp at night to look for a careless camper’s food. I ran into a big cinnamon colored black bear on one visit and was very happy when we parted ways.
If you only have a day or two to spend in the park I would recommend spending your time driving around the one way loop road in Yosemite Valley and or doing some short hikes. For this articles purpose, I’ll start the Valley loop at the Highway 120/140 junction. The first sight to see is Fern Spring, to your right. This is Yosemite Valley’s smallest waterfall at less than 12". It is a naturally fed spring, so it is the one waterfall in the valley that flows year round. It is a difficult place to shoot because it’s a small area and in a dark part of the forest. I’m not sure this area has a good time of day to shoot. Next is Bridalveil Falls on your right. Bridalveil Falls also known as Po-ho-no or Puffing Wind by the Miwok Indians which used to inhabit this valley, drops 620' free falling all the way. Occasionally a rainbow dances on the spray created by this fall in the afternoon hours. The walk up to the base of the falls is a short one from the parking lot, and with the large amount of spray created by the falls it might be tricky to get a shot off here without you and your equipment getting wet. Make sure you bring an ample supply of gear protection and lens wipes! You can get some nice shots of the run off creek further into the forest from the fall base. If you continue up the road on Highway 41 you will come upon Tunnel View parking lot. The late afternoon lights up this breathtaking view of the whole valley. The faces of the formations are fully illuminated and you might catch sight of a rainbow off the spray of Bridalveil Falls. Looking to the South from the Tunnel View parking lot can see silver Strand Falls (1,170' high). For many years these falls were know as Widow Tears as “they dry up soon,” so to see this particular fall calls for a visit in the spring. Follow the road back past Bridalveil Falls and turn right back onto the loop. Just down the road is El Captain on your left. This gigantic monolith formation catches the setting sun in late fall turning its western face red-orange. The face otherwise is best illuminated mid to late afternoon. El Capitan is a sheer cliff that raises about 3,000' from the valley floor. During early spring, late winter Ribbon Falls appear to the left of El Capitan and is 1,612' high. Ribbon Falls is a narrow fall and will dry up as the spring turns to summer. Ribbon Falls is the highest free leaping waterfall in Yosemite. Directly across from El Capitan are the Cathedral Rocks. The Cathedral Rocks are a tri-peak formation that resembles the Three Brothers formation, in mirror image.
The areas mentioned next are nicely lighted mid to late afternoon to eliminate shadows. Further down the road on the right are the Cathedral Spires (1,900 ' and 2,100' high) and Sentinel Rock (3,073' high). Both formations are column like formations jutting up from the Valley floor. Sentinel Falls (2,000' drop) flows over the south rim in a series of minor falls dropping from the rock ledges ending in a 500' drop. This cascading falls can be seen from the north side near Three Brothers, or from the southwest of the Four-mile parking area. Continuing down the road is your first view of Yosemite Falls (upper 1,430' high and lower 320' high), to your left. The Three Brothers formation follows next on this road. The three peaks were named in honor of the three sons of Chief Tenaya of the Yosemite Indians. The upper most peak stands 3,800' above the valley floor and is named Eagle Peak. If you look close or if you have binoculars, you can see what is said to be the first tour guide in the valley; you can make out a rock formation of a bear facing east, sitting up holding a microphone. On my last visit to the valley last year, I looked at the little bear and I think he lost his microphone! The little bear formation was still there. The Three Brothers photograph best mid morning to early afternoon. During the springtime, this next stretch of road will be bursting with purple lupine flowers. I was passing through this area wondering if the deer eat lupine, only to come upon a large buck munching on a mouth full of purple flowers. The forest is dense here, so maximum illumination is recommended for shooting through the shadow of the trees. The Merced River can be seen flowing on your left side along this part of the loop. Next, on your right, you will see the Yosemite Chapel erected in 1879, the oldest structure still used in the park as wedding services are still performed here. This chapel is most photogenic during winter with a coating of snow. As you proceed into the more populated section of the valley you will come upon the Royal Arches on the left near the Curry Village area of the park. A 1,000' cascading waterfall streaks down the cliff to the left of the Royal Arches in the springtime. Directly behind the Royal Arches is North Dome that is 3,571' above you.
The Washington Column is to right of the Royal Arches. The Washington Column juts out and stands 1,920' from the valley floor. Across from the Royal Arches stands Half Dome. The summit of Half Dome is 4,748' and is the most well known formation in the valley. The sheer 2,000' face of Half Dome catches the setting sun colors in late fall. The face of an Indian legend, Tissaack can be seen as she looks towards her left, crying. The black streaks on the formation show her tears as she cries over the death of her lover. Being this close to Half Dome is a difficult shot. Half Dome photographs better from a distance rather than from close up. However, if you like this shot, it is illuminated nicely mid to late afternoon. From this point turn around and face southwest to see the Glacier Point vista high above. The elevation of the vista is 7.214' and was the place where the Fire-fall would occur between the 1870's and 1899. Nightly during the summer, two or three times a week glowing embers from a fire of red fir bark were pushed over the precipice at the tip of Glacier Point dropping 1,000' feet through the air creating a glowing "Fire-fall". The spectacle was discontinued because it was seen as an artificial attraction that was incompatible with the National Park idea of preserving America’s wonders in their natural state.
Just below Glacier Point to the right and above Camp Curry is Staircase Falls. This small, cascading falls flows best in early spring and is 1,300' long. Take the road across the Merced River to come upon the main hub of the valley, the Yosemite Village. While walking though this village you can see wonderful views of upper Yosemite Falls. Mid morning to early afternoon illuminates Staircase Falls and Yosemite Falls nicely, as they have eastern exposures. Outside of the village is a turn off onto a two-way road that cuts back over the river and connects to the loop near Yosemite Chapel. Taking this road will take you to a meadow view of the upper and lower Yosemite falls. I find this to be the most appealing shot of both of the falls. From this vantage point you can see Sentinel Bridge to your right which commands the most photographed view of Half Dome. From the bridge you have the Merced River in the foreground with a perfect shot of Half Dome’s face in the distance. Make sure to shoot in brackets and/or use a gray graduation filter to help tone down the light reflection off the face of Half Dome and balance the darker foreground of the river and forest. The face of Half Dome has a western exposure, but depending upon the time of year and the weather conditions, this vantage point needs to be visited throughout the day for the best lighting conditions. I found that early afternoon was a great time to shoot this image during the winter season.
Turn around and go back the way you just traveled turning left onto the loop road heading towards Yosemite Falls. The Black Oaks in this area have mistletoe growing within their branches and are wonderful to shoot during afternoon hours. Speaking of afternoon hours, Yosemite Valley has typical mountain weather. It could be a beautiful, clear morning and around 2:00 pm the clouds roll in and a downpour could start. Weather protection will be helpful even if you are only visiting for a day or two. Near Yosemite Lodge is a parking lot on your right. Park here and take a short easy hike up to the lower Yosemite Falls base. The spray and wind here, as well as at Bridalveil Falls, can be fierce so protect that gear! On the trail to the lower falls you can get a great shot of an almost perfectly vertical view of both upper and lower Yosemite Falls through the trees. Mid morning to early afternoon works well at this location, using a graduating gray filter to tone down the illuminated falls to the dark forest foreground. After leaving the parking lot of Yosemite Falls, turn right and continue to follow the road further down. You will come to a road that will cut over to the other side of the loop or you can continue past the cutover to a wonderful valley view of El Capitan, Half Come and Cathedral Rocks on the left side of the road. Fall colors enhance this view with the reflections in the calm Merced River waters. Between Yosemite Village and Fern Springs you can see different views of Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Spires, Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Falls, to your left. On a short visit to the park, this would be the most advantageous way to see most of the spectacular sites by only taking a few steps from your car. If you would like to park your car and take the free shuttle bus; it loops around from Curry Village to Yosemite Village up to Yosemite Lodge then back down and across Sentinel Bridge on its way back to Curry Village.
If you have 3 or more days to spend in the park, I would first recommend the valley loop. Then perhaps hiking up to Mirror Lake/Meadow and/or Vernal and/or Nevada Falls. Mirror Lake is in high succession now and is fast becoming a meadow. Birds, Flora and Fauna are in abundance here. It is a lengthy but easy hike from the shuttle bus drop to Mirror Lake. The hike goes along the river that has nice rapids and calm pools although some scenes are in shade most of the day. Once up at Mirror Lake/Meadow, it opens up and can be shot mid morning to early afternoon. Another hike, if time permits, is the trail outside of Happy Isles (which has a shuttle drop too) up to Vernal Falls. The trail from Happy Isle to Vernal Falls is a steady uphill climb on a mostly paved path. Try and travel light as you are in for a hefty hike. At 1.2 miles the trail offers a view back across the valley to Yosemite Falls. At 1.4 miles you can catch a glimpse of the wispy Illilouette Falls (370' high), up-canyon to your right. Illilouette Falls have a northeastern exposure, so best illumination is early afternoon. At 2 miles you are at the bridge which offers the most famous shot of Vernal Falls (317' high). The falls from this vantage-point are in open sun and can be shot late morning to late afternoon. At this point the Merced River pounds over large boulders and offer an exceptional opportunity for shots of white water. I’ve tried my hand at slow speed exposures to feather the water and they turned out very nice.
For the more adventuresome, past the bridge along the right side of the river starts the trailhead for the Mist Trail (2.5 miles to crest) which is a deeply cut staircase of rock steps that goes all the way up to the crest of Vernal Falls. Personally I think the trail should be called “Soaked Trail” because the spray from Vernal Falls can be tremendous! If you have any desire to make this straight up climb along the Mist Trail, you will need weather gear or plastic bags to protect your equipment. Use caution when walking on any wet surface. Too many people get caught up in the sights and forget about their footing. Vernal Falls is one of the most symmetrically perfect falls because of the unbroken wide sheet of water flowing over it. For the physically fit hikers among you, the trail continues from the Vernal Falls crest to Nevada Falls another three miles to the base of the falls. Nevada Falls (594' high) jumps from the cliff into a large free fall then hits and slides the rest of the way down. You can take the Mist trail back down or head more inland to the John Muir Trail, which is longer in distance and switches back and forth, but is dryer.
If hiking isn’t your thing, a trip up to Tuolumne Meadows might be in order. Drive out of the valley back up onto Highway 120 following the signs to Tuolumne Meadows. You will make a right onto Tioga Road. The first site you will come upon will be Yosemite Creek view on your right. This is the river that feeds Yosemite Falls. To see the size of this river boggles the mind that it feeds billions of gallons of water to the magnificent falls you can see from the valley floor. You will see groves of Red Fir, Western Junipers, Western White Pine, Lodgepole Pine and Quaking Aspen while traveling on Tioga Road. Down the road you will come upon a view of the backside of Half Dome on your right side. Early to late morning is a nice time to catch the sun coming up the backside of Half Dome. Tenaya Lake is next. This is the largest natural lake in the park. Tuolumne Meadows follows further down the road. The meadows are huge and marshy. I’ve had personal experience with gigantic mosquitoes buzzing me while out of the car! The meadows during spring time pops with fields of wildflowers and deer. The meadows look best during this time of year and have the nicest illumination mid morning to late afternoon. Tioga Road is a nice drive winding through beautiful forests with an occasional glimpse at the Tuolumne River. You can take a beautiful light hike to Lake Elizabeth passing through high meadows with silver streams.
Another fantastic drive would be to Glacier Point. Follow Highway 41 off of the Valley loop road (Tunnel View) to the turn off, Glacier Point Road, on your left. This is a very narrow, winding road at times, so take care. This road, along with Tioga Road is closed during the winter due to the snow and ice. You will pass over Bridalveil Creek that feeds Bridalveil Falls. If you want to photograph wildflowers, the Bridalveil Creek trail is 6.6 miles of beauty. Peek of the season for the flowers that bloom on this trail is late July and early August. This trail may be long, but it is nearly level. Once at the Glacier Point parking area you will need to walk about 300 yards to the point. With the fast elevation climb to 7,214' you might find yourself being a little short of breath. Glacier Point is one of the most inspiring viewpoints in the park. All of Yosemite Valley can be seen from this vantage point. You can see Vernal and Nevada Falls on your right all the way over to Yosemite Falls. Early morning and late evening can create a lot of shadows in the valley.
If you still find yourself with some time on your hands, my last suggestion would be to visit the Mariposa Grove Big Trees at the Southern entrance of the park on Highway 41, past another great lodge—The Wawona. This grove of giant sequoias is a sight to be seen. You can walk throughout the grove, but I would highly recommend the open-air tram tour that is offered for a fee. The tour information really gives you a chance to hear about the history of these ancient trees. The Grizzly Giant is the largest tree in Yosemite and the fifth largest giant sequoia in the world. The Grizzly Giant is estimated to be over 2,700 years old and is over 30 feet around its base. If you travel from Yosemite Valley is visit the grove, I would plan on a full day’s trip. The groves are tricky to shoot due to the large shadows; however, some of the trees are out in the open.
In all the years I’ve been visiting Yosemite each time I go I see something new. The changing of the seasons, the time of day, and the changes in nature itself lend to a guarantee that you will experience this beautiful and magically place differently each time you visit. The springtime finds the valley with an explosion of wildflowers and waterfalls flowing at full volume. The weather is clear and crisp most days and the light as it moves over the valley from Half Dome to Tunnel View illuminates the formations and fixtures differently everyday. The animals and birds are very active and your chances on seeing them are good, if you are patient. The deer and coyotes favor the fields and meadows during the early morning and early evening. I’ve even seen coyotes heading for the meadows even after sunset. The summer time finds the valley full of warm, clear days. Waterfalls are drying up, but those ancient formations beg for another peak through your viewfinder. Wildflowers are still popping and adding color to the landscape. The fall time finds the valley in wondrous autumn colors. All the deciduous trees are sporting their turning colors, especially in the valley meadow area. The wintertime finds the valley in a coat of white. On my fist trip to the valley during winter, I rode a bus out of Merced and arrived at the Yosemite Lodge after sunset, with it snowing like crazy. Upon exiting my room in the morning I found the air crisp, but not cold; blue skies and my jaw dropped open at my first sight of Yosemite Falls. Very little water flowing, and the cliffs dusted in white. This image of the falls was so very different than in the springtime, it took my breath away. the whole valley had been transformed into a brand new setting of beautiful imagery. I walked around all day and rode the shuttle bus awe struck by the overwhelming beauty. During the winter, of course, a lot of the trails are closed and some of the roads as well; so you are a bit limited in the amount of different places you can visit; but believe me, what you can see is worth it’s weight in gold!
Yosemite is one of my most favorite places to visit. This article touches on aspects of what you can find in the park, but there is so much more. Tons of trails, tons of things to see. At many points in the Valley you can stand in just one spot and turn in any direction to see something completely different with each turn. There is no bad season to visit the park. Given the mountain elevations, rapid weather changes can make photographing in Yosemite somewhat challenging. However, I have never visited a place that can wear so many faces. The same waterfalls or rock formation look so fantastically different wearing the red setting sun, misty resting clouds, fabulous fall colors or a blanket of snow. Photographers beware you will be a shutter-bug on your visit to this magical place!