Yosemite National Park is the gem of the Sierra Nevada.
It is a spectacular national park filled with granite monoliths, glacial valleys, raging waterfalls, and bending rivers. Outside of natural beauty, the park is home to a great history of conservationism and photography. It was within the granite walls of today’s Yosemite where Galen Clark convinced the nation that natural areas are worth protecting and where John Muir advocated for conservation and preservation. Although Yosemite was not the first official national park designated by the National Park Service, Yosemite was the first wilderness area ever set aside for protection. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act, which set aside Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove for protection. It was a landmark piece of legislation that would open the door for the future creation of the National Park Service.
The natural beauty of Yosemite National Park has drawn people from all over the world, and that includes many talented photographers. It was in Yosemite National Park where Ansel Adams captured many of his iconic images, Galen Rowell followed in his footsteps shortly after, and today you can see the work of Michael Frye scattered in many buildings across the park. And of course, there is the iconic El Capitan with its 3,000-foot sheer face of pure granite.
It is perhaps the most famous climbing destination in the world and a place where Alex Honnold completed his free solo attempt with no ropes or assistance. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, also began his career in the park as an avid climber who started to create his own gear for his climbing pursuits. Obviously, in a few brief paragraphs you can understand the amount of history nestled in the park, it is an incredible place, and I haven’t even touched on the scenery of the park yet.
Like many places in the west, Yosemite National Park is transformed from season to season. Spring brings lush greenery and winter runoff that amplifies all the waterfalls in the park, summer opens up the high country and alpine wildflowers, fall lights up the park with fiery orange and red foliage, and winter drapes the park in fresh snow.
Our latest Backcountry Journeys workshop brought us to Yosemite National Park in the heart of winter.
After an extremely dry summer and fall, snow graced the valley and alpine areas of Yosemite National Park, and ‘graced’ is the kind term, but we will get to that later in the trip report.
Our workshop began with introductions and a quick evening dinner and in Fresno. The next morning, we were off to the park. Blizzard conditions brought 3 feet of snow to the park the previous weekend and the weekend our trip started another 2-3 feet fell in the valley alone, so all of us were excited to really experience a winter wonderland. Forecasts looked promising at the start of the week with a mix of snow and clearings. We arrived early on our first day and took advantage of what light we had. We stopped at some of the iconic locations around the valley, including Tunnel View and Valley View. Although weather seemed to be deteriorating, we had a slight clearing at Tunnel View.
Tunnel View is shot by every photographer who visits and can often be crowded, but it always offers the most unique and mysterious views in winter. We arrived to see snows covered in trees, ephemeral waterfalls and creeks rolling down hillsides, and icicles lining some of the rocks. It is a great introduction to the park, and although it is so popular, it has to be one of the most magnificent views in any national park. From Tunnel View, we made our way around the 15-mile or so loop that encompasses Yosemite Valley. We made another stop at Swinging Bridge to photograph Upper Yosemite Falls with the Merced River cutting in front of it.
After the morning shoot, conditions worsened and overcast skies moved into the valley. So, we figured it would be a good time to grab a bite to eat and check into the Yosemite Valley Lodge. A quick check of the forecast foreshadowed a turn for the worse. Heavy rains for two days and then the transition to a blizzard loomed in our immediate future. Sometimes the best conditions are born out of approaching and passing storms so we were hopeful that we could wait out the bad weather with the possibility of an amazing clearing.
We visited Tunnel View again in the evening, skies did not cooperate, but we had a great view of El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls. We stayed out to see a bit of blue twilight light hit the sky and then called it a day. We headed for The Mountain Room, a place where we dine each night of the trip. The Mountain Room has fantastic food, but also incredible prints from Ansel Adams, Michael Frye, and Galen Rowell. It is always a great place to eat, but a place to also enjoy some of the great artistic captures from Yosemite. After some steaks and trout, we retired for the evening.
A ‘pitter-patter’ awoke us early on day 2 and we drearily opened our room doors to see rain. Rain is not a welcomed element in the winter in Yosemite, but it would become our good friend for the next two days. Heavy at times, the rain slowly chipped away at the beautiful snow lining of the Valley, leaving a layer of slush on the valley floor. The rain did bring some great atmospheric conditions that we took advantage of however. The rising temperatures began to release heat from the snow and fog began forming everywhere.
We spent some time at Tunnel View again and watched the fog wisp between the pines and cedars below us.
We were eventually rained out and had to retreat to the comforts of our rooms for some post-processing instruction. We spent some time reviewing images, discussing composition, and going over techniques such as exposure blending, focus stacking, and masking. We ended up doing a lot of that for Day 2 and Day 3. Rain continued to fall, making it difficult to shoot. However, as we were processing on Day 3, we noticed a ray of sunshine beaming onto the snow out the window of our processing room. It was the first hint of the sun we had seen since the trip began so in a rush, we quickly packed up the cars and high tailed it out to shoot. We drove to Cook’s Meadow, which offers an expansive view of Half Dome and perhaps the most famous oak tree in all of Yosemite.
Some of the oaks around the valley still had some leaves and the sunlight gave the illusion that the leaves were bright red and orange, almost fall-like. We took advantage of that and photographed Half Dome with amazing conditions. The warmth of the sun melted the snow even more and mist rose off the snowfields in front of us, providing great diffusion between our foregrounds and Half Dome. We tried to do a 2-for-1 and headed to Valley View immediately after wrapping up at the meadow. The sunlight was fading, but we got a great display of light on El Capitan. One thing that stuck out to us was how much the rain had added to the flow of some of the waterfalls around the park. Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil, Ribbon Falls, and even Horsetail Falls all had flow equivalent to that of spring.
That’s usually unheard of. Our shots from Valley View actually had a raging Horsetail Falls catapulting off the top of El Capitan. We had spent the last 3 days shooting forest scenes and waiting for a break, and we were so grateful to get it. It was much needed as well. As skies transition back to overcast, we retreated to process once again and we had a fun time working on some shots from Half Dome.
That evening heavy snow began to fall, which was much better than rain, but the snow was forecasted to remain throughout the remainder of the trip. Yosemite was scheduled to accumulate 10-15 inches per day…just think about that. Thus, our next few days of the workshop were spent in an absolute winter wonderland. We shot tree abstracts, we shot falling snow, we shot snowy creeks, and we shot fog moving through some of the peaks in the Valley. As a guide, I actually really appreciated the conditions. We dream of fiery skies and expansive views, but the blizzard brought something unique to the valley and we were able to capture a lot of unique imagery that we can say no one else has.
We spent a lot of time experimenting with different shutter speeds to capture the falling snow. Our last morning was very enjoyable too. All the rain and snow had really added to the flow of the waterfalls, as I mentioned earlier. So, we took a stroll over to Lower Yosemite Falls before heading back to Fresno. The falls was flowing great and the entire foreground was covered with fresh snow. The streams around the falls were raging as well, so we were able to capture the falls with some great water texture and snow in the foreground. It was a good ending to the trip.
We had an amazing group too. Every single person was eager to get out and face the elements to get the shot. At times it felt like we were the only ones in the park and had the place to ourselves, which is a feeling you don’t usually get at Yosemite.
Car conversations and shared meals were a blast too, it is amazing how like-minded most of us photographers are and we had some great talking subjects, which ranged from ‘The Big Lebowski’ to some of our favorite photographers. It was a memorable trip for me as a guide, you never know what conditions you will be dealt with on a workshop, but you can always approach them with an open mind and camera in hand. All of us did that this week and came away with some great (and unique) images.
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image.
Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world.
As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals.
You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com