The Valleys beyond Yosemite
By Jesse Stuart Mechling
A family reunion over Thanksgiving in Monterey, California presented a wonderful opportunity to finally visit and photograph one of the country’s most awe inspiring sites, Yosemite National Park. Loaded down with photo gear, my family and I flew out to San Francisco and after two days sightseeing, and a morning in the Muir Woods National Monument just north of San Francisco, we headed east toward the Sierra Nevada’s and Yosemite hoping for a autumn snowstorm to hold off long enough to get in and out of the park. Passing the orchards and fields of the Central Valley, we gradually began to climb up the foothills of the Sierra before summiting and heading down into Yosemite Valley. I had been reading for weeks about photographer’s favorite sites in Yosemite, pouring over maps of the park, and planning when and where I wanted to photograph. Arriving late afternoon, we drove through the towering ponderosa pines, trying to catch a glimpse of the numerous falls and El Capitan. As the daylight was fading, I raced out to try and catch the warm evening light hitting off Half Dome, only to discover that I was not in the area, I thought I was. I hopped back in the car and raced back through the valley and started to climb to Tunnel View. I had missed the sunset, but did manage to capture some glow over the valley.
For the next two mornings and evenings I set out trying to capture those iconic images of El Capitan, Half Dome, the Merced River and the numerous falls throughout the park. After two days and with a big late autumn snowstorm threatening to prevent us from going further east, we left the valley and headed for the Tioga Road. Before heading over the pass, we stopped to see the largest trees in the world, the Giant Sequoia at the Tuolumne Grove. Unusually, Yosemite had experienced warm weather following the first of the autumn snowfalls and reopened Tioga Road for a few days, which allowed us to pass to the east. I left Yosemite Valley quite disappointed with what I had been able to photograph. Just as with a new movie or restaurant you hear so much about, my anticipation of the photo opportunities in Yosemite Valley outweighed the experience I had. Driving out of the Valley, however, we headed into the high country of Yosemite where I found photo opportunities in abundance. Driving through the high country meadows made me wish I had spent two days above, rather than in Yosemite Valley. I was able to photograph at a number of sites, before weather forced us down off the Tioga Road and into the valley to the east.
Though our original plan had us heading to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park after Yosemite, the impending storm literally drove us toward the east, right into an unexpected and amazing new opportunity. Just east of the Tioga Pass sits Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area, and at its heart Mono Lake. We followed the signs to the new and well-equipped visitor center where we were given valuable information on trails and sites around the lake. Meanwhile, the sky was filled with long, wispy clouds, which one of the rangers told us was called the Sierra Wave. Hoping to capture this phenomenon, we dashed down to the area of the lake known as South Tufa. Tufas are limestone deposits that are formed when calcium from underwater springs mix with carbonate in water. The calcium carbonate precipitates and forms a tower like solid. Normally, these towers are only found underwater, but at Mono Lake, the level on the lake has dropped over the decades as water was diverted from the Sierra to the parched cities on the California coast, and the tufas have become visible. For a photographer, what these means is other worldly formations that surround Mono Lake. As we arrived at South Tufa the sky was setting up for a spectacular sunset. It blew me away when the small handful of people photographing the lake actually left just before the sun went down. What happened was one of the most amazing celestial scenes I have witnessed. The sky kept growing more colorful by the minute and with a nearly full moon rising in the east, the tufas provided the spectacular photographs, I had been hoping for in Yosemite.
The following day, with the storm right behind us, we drove south through Long Valley, an ancient volcano caldera over twenty miles wide and 11 miles long, and just north of the town of Big Pine turned east and started climbing the windiest road imaginable toward the Inyo National Forest and the ancient Bristlecone Pines (Pinus longaeva). Ever since seeing a movie about Methuselah, a nearly 5000-year-old Bristlecone Pine, my wife had greatly wanted to see these ancient plants. We found the gate to the area closed, but happened across a ranger who let us in, gave us the combination to get out and said we could walk one of the shorter trails, while he checked the rest of the park for any visitors. While we couldn’t hike out to Methuselah, we did wander completely alone among a grove of Bristlecone pines, some in excess of four thousand years old. It was if we were in another world. We left the gnarled Bristlecone to slowly twist and turn as they continue their life into the next century and beyond, and drove down out of the White Mountains briefly passing into Nevada, before arriving in the largest park in the continental United States, Death Valley.
I had been to Death Valley once before over eighteen years before, but certainly didn’t remember how breathtaking the valley truly is. The storm had detoured us to this brilliant desert landscape. Though we were out of range of the snow that had closed the Tioga Pass, the entrance to the Bristlecone Pine Forest and a number of passes heading over the Sierras, we did not escape the wind that blew down off the high Sierra. The wind blew through the park at such velocity that the sand blowing off the sand dunes could be seen swirling high into the desert sky over thirty miles away. We spent a day and a half photographing the colors and textures of this desert landscape, all the while trying not to get blown away. On the morning we left, the wind died down enough to capture some morning images of the sand dunes highlighted against the dark backdrop of the Grapevine Mountains. As our family reunion beckoned, we left Death Valley with the intention of not waiting another eighteen years to get back and photograph the richness and uniqueness of the park.
Though I try to minimize my gear when traveling, anticipating that I might view wildlife as well as landscape images, I brought my two trusted lenses with me, Canon 100-400mm IS and Canon 17-40mm IS. I use a Canon 5D with full frame sensor, so as not to lose any of the angle from the Canon17-40mm. I also carried with me the Canon 35-105mm IS, a polarizing filter, two stop Graduated Neutral Density Filter and a Singh Ray Variable Neutral Density Filter with 8 stop control. In Yosemite Valley, with the high valley walls, a ND filter is a must, particularly for early morning situations. Light hits El Capitan much earlier than the surrounding valley, and trying to capture reflections in the Merced River can lead to El Capitan being blown out. A good telephoto is important for getting close-up shots of the numerous waterfalls and subsequent rainbows in the park. In the higher elevations of Yosemite along the Tioga Pass, a wide angle can help capture the high alpine meadows with mountains in the distance
Many of the tufas along the edge of Mono Lake are located on land. In fact some tufas are a few hundred feet from the lake’s edge illustrating just how much the level of the lake has dropped. I worked with my 17-40mm and a two stop graduated ND filter to capture the sunset at Mono Lake. There are tufas in the lake, which provide nice reflections, but which you need a good telephoto. One of the highlights of the lake is the abundance of eared grebes and phalaropes numbering in the millions, which stop at Mono Lake during their autumn migration to feed on brine shrimp. The birds begin to arrive in late summer, and unfortunately were all but gone by mid-November. A polarizer helps reduce the reflections and glare when photographing tufas in the lake. It is illegal to enter the lake, or climb on the tufas, but there is enough space and a few paths that let you wander in and out of the tufas. Mono Lake is part of the Mono Basin National Scenic Area in the town of Lee Vining, California. There is a relatively new and very helpful visitor center just north of Lee Vining on Highway 395. The south tufa area, which is a few miles off the highway, can be photographed during the fall both in the morning and in the evening. Along the north side of the lake are tufas in the shape of mushrooms. These are best photographed in the morning.
Photographing the Bristlecone Pine Forest, I used my wide angle. There are two trails that lead through the trees. One path is a one and a half mile loop, while the other trail to the Methuselah tree is five miles round trip. It is discouraged to deviate from the path, but some trees are close enough that you can touch and photograph them with a wide angle, or macro lens. In addition to the Bristlecone Pine Forest located off of Highway 168 which heads east of Highway 395, there are a number of Bristlecone Pines along the Tioga Pass in Yosemite, particularly at the Olmsted Point scenic view. Bristlecone Pines are located at around 9000-10000 feet in elevation, so it is necessary to prepare for rapidly changing conditions, and possible closures during the fall.
Autumn in Death Valley offers a respite from the life-threatening summer temperatures, but also more people and higher prices. Death Valley is large and there are numerous sites where one can spend half a day: sand dunes, Zabriskie Point, Badwater Basin and Devil’s Golfcourse, the Racetrack, Scotty’s Castle and more. Death Valley offers broad vistas and grand views and wide angles are particularly useful. The shades of colors among the rocks are so varied, however, that a telephoto allows the possibility of detailing areas such as the Artist’s Palette and Zabriskie Point. The National Park Service and Forest Service have valuable information on weather and travel conditions for all of these areas.
California offers a variety of flora and fauna and habitats and landscapes for nature photographers. Not only does it contain a number of America’s most treasured national parks, but it also boasts the tallest (Redwood), largest (Giant Sequoia), and oldest (Bristlecone Pone) trees in the world, all within a day’s drive of each other. While originally my sights were set on trying to capture the grandeur of Yosemite Valley, where so many landscape photographers from Ansel Adams to Galen Rowell have come before me, as so often happens in nature photograph, the unexpected reward for this trip was not to be found in the shadow of Half Dome, but rather in valleys just to the east, where solitude and starkness offer limitless possibilities.