Trip Report: Yosemite in Winter – February 2020

“Truly a ‘Range Of Light’ as John Muir defines it, the Sierra Nevada rises to the sun as a vast shining world of stone and snow and foaming waters, mellowed by the forests growing upon it and the clouds and storms that flow over it”
– Ansel Adams

Winter in Yosemite. It conjures up images of snow-capped granite domes, snow puffs on rocks in the Merced River, snow-covered meadows, and the rare and elusive Firefall.

We were all looking forward to this type of scene, and hoping to capture the Firefall specifically, but Mother Nature had other plans this year. With minimal snowfall in the previous months and temperatures in the 50s to 60s, the chances were very slim for Firefall. But snow, or not. Firefall, or not. Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful and iconic places in all of the world. One can always capture beautiful images of this area, no matter what the weather conditions.

It was with this positive attitude that we all met at the Doubletree Hotel in Fresno to have our first introductions, pre-trip presentation, and welcome dinner. There was disappointment that the Firefall most likely wasn’t occurring, but we bonded in the fact that this first denial was the beginning of a journey for us all to get that “White Whale” someday.

Day One
With our convoy packed up and loaded, we set forth towards the Yosemite Valley. The drive from Fresno to the Valley is roughly two hours. We arrived at our first view of the iconic valley at the Tunnel View. Many classic Ansel Adams shots have been taken from this impressive vista. Notably, “Clearing Winter Storm.”

With our first view and shoot of the Valley, we figured that a quick lap around the park to get everyone acquainted with the area would be appropriate. While we were doing this, we noticed that the late morning light on Yosemite Falls was too good to pass up. Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in North America (2, 425 feet) and generally runs November – July. We stopped, shot the scene and enjoyed soaking in the sunshine by the Merced River. We all decided that lunch was appropriate, so we continued on to Basecamp Eatery.

The locations for the afternoon shoots were focused on Bridalveil Falls, or “Po’ho’no” to the Ahwaneechi. Bridal Veil is the first waterfall you see when you’ve yer the valley. Plunging 620 feet to the valley floor, the wind creates a gentle sway, giving it its characteristic veil-like appearance. We first stopped at a viewpoint on the north loop that has the Merced in the foreground. Then, we drove around and parked at the trailhead to Bridalveil and walked the short distance to the base of the falls. This is a spectacular, closet perspective of this waterfall. A perfect spot to take it its mesmerizing and hypnotizing beauty.

After checking into our rooms, we then headed off to our sunset shoot, returning to Tunnel View. We set up early, with plenty of space for everyone. The crowds were minimal, due to most still attempting the Firefall.

After sundown, we packed it up for the day and returned to the Yosemite Valley Lodge to get cleaned up for dinner. A delicious meal was enjoyed at the Mountain Room that evening, with discussions of attempting Firefall the next day.

Day Two
The second morning we woke up early enough to get to Valley View and claim our spots early. Valley View is an amazing place to shoot, no matter what time of day, but is particularly popular at sunrise and sunset. So we arrived with perfect timing to set up early before the crowds and before the good light. As blue hour was fading it revealed some fantastic clouds in the sky. There was some great potential for colors and textures in the sky. As the sun rose we had a flash of some pink and then it disappeared. We thought that might be it, but a few minutes later there were some reds, yellows, and orange accents on the clouds. With the towering cliff of El Capitan framing the valley on the left, and Bridalveil Falls to the right, and the Merced River in the foreground. It was a great scene and we even had a visit from a Great Blue Heron that was calmly fishing directly in front of us.

We headed to breakfast and afterward spent the morning at Cathedral Beach and a little farther upstream. The Merced River is very calm in this area of the park and you get some fantastic reflections of the surrounding cliffs in the water. From this location, you get excellent compositions of El Capitan and the Three Brothers (Eagle Peak, Middle, and Lower Brothers). This location was many of our folks’ favorite.

The group took a short walk over to Cathedral Beach, where there was some great patches of ice that had formed around an alcove in the river. Kenton used this unique feature to walk through a demonstration on focus stacking, which is where a photographer combines, in post-processing, a series of exposures which are focused in different areas of the image so as to maintain sharp focus throughout an image with exceptional depth. 

After the morning shoot we drove up to the Tioga Pass Road towards the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoia. Tuolumne Grove is one of three groves of Giant Sequoia in Yosemite. Everyone in the group wanted to see and capture images of these ancient sentinels of the forest, so after a picnic lunch at the trailhead, we all walked down the paved 1-mile trail to the loop. It’s always amazing to be in the presence of something that has been alive as long as these trees have been, some dating over 2,000 years old! It’s a fun challenge to capture their enormous size with a wide-angle lens and getting as low as you can get. The “Dead Giant”, a now burned stump with a stagecoach tunnel cut through its base, was a particularly interesting subject.

The Tuolumne Grove had given us our steps for the day, so after our hike out, we descended back to the valley in our comfortable vehicles, taking a couple of easy stops along the way. One stop offered a great view of Half Dome. And another with a fantastic view of Bridal Veil Falls and the Merced River.

Returning to the hotel early, we had time to rest a little before the sunset shot at Sentinel Bridge. We arrived at the bridge and there was an enormous crowd of photographers set up for this iconic shot. We snuck into the space available and waited for the good light. Some of us decided to forgo the crowd and shoot from the other side of the bridge and get a closer shot of Half Done without the river.

As the crowd thinned out, most of us were able to slide in and get a good composition with Half Dome and the Merced River. The light on Half Dome was good, however, the clouds just never came around to give us any color. So, as the temperatures dropped, we called it a day and headed to the Mountain Room for dinner.

Day Three
We decided to head back to Sentinel Bridge for sunrise this morning. This time we arrived early to make sure to get there in time to get a spot for sunrise and a chance to get a sun star through the trees as the sun came up. We were successful and all set up in prime locations. The sky was still clear, so we never saw any colors at sunrise, unfortunately. We waited for the sun to pop over the ridge south of Half Dome. When it eventually did, it flooded the river and the bank with wonderful, golden light. When the sun became visible, it shined through the pines needles and formed the sun star we were hoping for. After a chilly morning standing at Sentinel Bridge, we walked out to view Yosemite Falls in hopes of a rainbow. When we reached the area to view the falls they were just getting its first morning light. A rainbow did appear, off and on, and we were thoroughly entertained by it, as well as a very cheerful and chatty fellow shooter who was also there. When the lighting changed, and the rainbow was gone, we decided to get some breakfast and then enjoy some time off to rest.

We continued to monitor the conditions for Firefall, but with some clouds in the skies, we figured our efforts were better served at a different location for sunset. With everyone loving the Valley View location, we decided on that. It was a popular spot that evening, so we all split up to find space to make our compositions. With a large crowd of photographers, it’s always a great time to swap stories, beta, tips, and tricks. I was able to chat with a couple from San Diego who had been coming to Yosemite for Firefall for 15 years. They said they had only been successful 3 times! In discussing this year’s lack of water in Horsetail Falls(El Capitan Falls to Ansel Adams) and the chances of any color reflecting off of the wet rock. The conclusion was, “don’t waste your time”. Something we had all been thinking but didn’t want to accept.

We wrapped up our sunset shoot and headed back for another lovely dinner at the Mountain Room. During dinner, we discussed the possibility of doing some astrophotography that evening. Everyone was excited to do so, and we decided on Tunnel View as our location. Astrophotography is a challenge. With the lack of light, it is often difficult to compose and focus. This is why many astrophotographers recommend setting up before sundown and waiting. If you don’t have that luxury of time, as we did not, it really comes down to good, old fashioned, trial and error. We spent a decent amount of time there, tinkering with our new exposures, with billions of stars illuminating the sky over the Yosemite Valley.

Day 4
After an evening’s rest, we reconvened for our sunrise shoot, returning to Three Brothers. We arrived with great timing to witness and capture the pre-dawn colors streaking across the granite peaks with the perfect reflections in the calm Merced River.

As the colors faded, and we were all seeking out different compositions to create, we were treated to a rare subject. A river otter, not often seen in the valley, was swimming amongst some submerged tree fall, catching its breakfast of small fish, and periodically harassing a Great Blue Heron perched on one of the logs. This was quite a treat, and a great way to wrap up the morning shoot when the otter swam downstream. To other fishing spots, no doubt.

After breakfast, we walked up to Lower Yosemite Falls for a new perspective on this feature. When we reached the base of the falls, we were welcomed with a beautiful rainbow appearing in the mist of the falls. The light lasted so that we all were able to shoot the rainbow to our hearts content. I’m confident that no one walked away without a shot they could be proud of from this location.

We all took a short break and then drove over to the Yosemite Village to switch up our venue for lunch. With it being Ansel Adam’s 118th birthday, we felt that a visit to the Ansel Adams Gallery was very appropriate. As we entered I started the group off singing “Happy Birthday”, but it was quickly apparent that this was going to be a solo. After finishing the song, and being welcomed by the staff, we enjoyed walking around what was the creative space for this legendary photographer and inspiration to so many others.

At the gallery, we noticed a dry erase board on the wall, in the employee office. On it was written an outline of a tombstone with the inscription, “RIP Firefall 2/15/20”. I inquired about the inscription and was told that the waterfall had stopped running on that date, killing any chance of the event from occurring this year. It was something that we had all already thought was true, but this was the final confirmation of our getting shot down for Firefall…..this year.

We took a break in the afternoon and reconvened to shoot a couple of different viewpoints if Half Dome. First by the Curry Village Campground Bridge and then to Cook’s Meadow for our final sunset shoot.

Day Five
For our final sunrise shoot of the trip, we decided on returning to Valley View. We arrived early enough for everyone to find a composition that they hadn’t tried yet at this location. After everyone was finished shooting, we took our group pictures and some extra fun “clowning” pictures with both Kenton and myself donning “side-ponies” with all of the ladies in the group.

Truly a fun time with this group and these pictures were a true rendition of the silliness that ensued the entire trip. There was a genuine feeling of shared experience on this trip, and I’m thankful for everyone’s participation and a positive attitude.

We had our final breakfast, packed up the vehicles for this returning to Fresno, and said farewell to the travelers that were departing from the Valley. We left the Yosemite without capturing what all of us had hoped for, but our chase for its White Whale had begun…..

“And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land and over all sides of earth”
– Captain Ahab

 

 

 

 

 

 

PJ received his first camera, a Nikon 35mm SLR when he was 16. He obsessively studied photojournalism in high school, contributing to both the school yearbook and newspaper. He discovered a love of landscape photography while on a hiking trip in Grand Canyon with his uncle while still in high school. Many years later he randomly found himself guiding photography trips at the Grand Canyon for National Geographic Expeditions. What was originally thought to be a job for one summer season turned out to be a career that has lasted over 10 years. He has contributed to magazines, websites, and advertisements over the years while guiding guests around the many beautiful national parks and public lands in the U.S. He calls Northern Arizona home, but feels most at home “anywhere it’s wild.”