While leading photography tours for Backcountry Journeys, I am often asked which trip I like best. It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Time-after-time I’d never have a good answer. “Well, this one, of course,” I’d say. It began to occur to me that I should probably come up with an answer to this question, as it kept coming up. So, I thought about it.
The question is difficult because all of the locations we visit are remarkable for their own reasons. I enjoy them all. A lot. They all seem to provide a perfect amount of adventure, great photography, and a relaxing experience with friendly people. But, there has to be that one trip that really stands out, right? After careful contemplation, one itinerary kept rising to the top of my list. There are few places in the world that can stir a nature-lovers’ insides quite like Yosemite. And winter is when Yosemite is at its best.
Wintertime at Yosemite National Park remains a somewhat well-kept secret. For now. The hoards of people who visit the Park during the rest of the year peal back, giving way to the silent majesty of winter. The light is better in the winter, and the colors are vibrant.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Valley during winter, and have seen its variety. From completely covered with snow – chest-high snowpack, socked-in for a week kind of weather, to perfectly snow-blanketed with deep blue skies and sunshine, and of course those February days that were pleasantly warm and dry as a bone. The funny thing, though, is that each of those experiences worked. The place simply abides, regardless.
Whether you are standing at Tunnel View, arguably the national park system’s most iconic spot, or being sprayed in the face while peering up from the base of the highest waterfall in North America, Yosemite Falls, the experience in winter, especially for photographers seeking color, contrast, composition, is flat out unmatched.
As the sun says “good morning,” as it rises behind Half Dome, a shot from Sentinal Bridge provides an image featuring a glistening and sometimes steaming Merced River, the aforementioned Half Dome, complete with sun star. Picture perfect in my book.
And for whatever chill your fingers and toes endure while photographing El Capitan and the Three Brothers from Cathedral Beach, your heart will warm later sitting fireside at the lounge following a delicious dinner at the famous Mountain Room.
While on Backcountry Journeys’ Yosemite in Winter photography tour, we’ll see and do these things as we spend nearly a week together, maneuvering around the Valley, chasing the light from our “home base” of Yosemite Valley Lodge.
John Muir, who is synonymous with Yosemite once wrote upon seeing for the first time this little cross-section of the greater Sierra Nevada: “It seemed to me the Sierra should be called not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light…the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen.”
Firefall is one of Yosemite’s most popular annual events. In 1973 National Geographic photographer Galen Rowell captured an image of Horsetail Fall, an ephemeral fall located off the side of El Capitan, as it fashioned a red hot orange from the glow of the setting sun. This photograph kick-started the popularity of the Yosemite Firefall. Photographers from all over the world visit Yosemite for this annual event, which takes place only during the last few weeks of February.
This event has become a worldwide phenomenon and attracts as such. Believe me, it is special to witness. As with most things in the natural world, Firefall is not a guarantee. Liken the quest to see Firefall with a quest to find wildlife. You may, or may not see it even during the time of year that it can be seen. There are a few components that must come together for Firefall to happen, so a bit of luck is required.
Over the years we’ve had groups find success with Firefall, and we’ve missed it, too. In 2020 there was no water up high to create Horsetail Fall. No matter what the setting sun or the clouds did at any point, there would be no real Firefall that year.
Spending time with Yosemite in winter will certainly change your life. The experience is only rivaled by the photographic opportunity. Both will give you chills.
So, I finally have my answer. And, I’d like to turn the table for a minute: Which Backcountry Journeys photography tour is YOUR favorite? Tough question, I know. Join us in Yosemite this winter, and perhaps you’ll find your answer.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.