If you took the time to read my last trip report on Yosemite, you’ll surely have gleaned from it the fact that Yosemite is one of my favorite U.S. national parks. Throughout the year, the park offers something different for every season; the technicolor foliage in fall, the snow and atmosphere of winter, and the incredible waterfalls in spring.
We don’t run a trip here in summer, primarily to avoid the enormous crowds the descend upon the park after Memorial Day, but in spring the crowds are at a minimum, and the waterfalls are at full force. Snow and ice melt make the streams and rivers swell on their journey to the cliff’s edge at the walls of Yosemite Valley. And here, they plunge thousands of feet to crash on the rocks below.
At Backcountry Journeys, we run consecutive Yosemite in Spring trips back to back, beginning with the standard (little to no hiking) version and ending with the hiker. Though the standard trip offers a smorgasbord of interesting vantage points in and around Yosemite Valley, I always look forward to the hiker trip for the opportunity to get into the backcountry and photograph some of the lesser-visited parts of the park. I also love the hiker trip because the trails of Yosemite National Park are some of the most challenging that we take on at BCJ, with over 2,000 feet of elevation gain and moving into some very high altitudes. But for those whose knees and cardio can take the challenge, they are rewarded with some of the most awe-inspiring views to be found anywhere on our beautiful planet. I was especially excited this year to reach the pinnacle of the Mist Trail and photograph Nevada Falls at full force from above.
But for those wavering between which Yosemite trip to book, standard or hiker, know that the hiker version also visits many of the iconic viewpoints that Yosemite is famous for, like Tunnel View, Valley View, and if we can squeeze it in, Glacier Point.
I also enjoy the unique challenges of photographing in Yosemite, one of the most photographed locations on earth. To visit some of the better-known locations and find a vantage point or approach that is your own is one of the aspects of Yosemite photography that keeps me on my toes and always on the lookout for new ways of seeing and approaching my photography.
For this year’s hiker group, we would have plenty of opportunities to recreate some of the most classic depictions of Yosemite as well as exploring a multitude of looks that were hatched from our own heads and the sense of beauty that the park instills.
I always start my hiker groups with an easy day of walking to get everyone acclimated to the altitude. The valley floor of Yosemite Valley sits at about 4,000 feet elevation, and the hikes we do later in the week start and end well above that. So, for our first full day in the park, we do some waterfall photography from the valley, specifically focusing on Yosemite Falls, which was flowing at full force. Starting at Swinging Bridge, we photographed the falls from afar, featuring the reflective waters of the Merced River in the foreground.
From here, we walked to the base of the falls to photograph lower Yosemite Falls from up close. After that, it was a quick walk to the Base Camp Eatery for lunch and an afternoon’s break before heading to our hotel to check-in and prepare to chase the light of the setting sun at some of Yosemite’s most iconic viewpoints.
The following day we spent sunrise at one of my favorite spots in Yosemite Valley, the unofficially named Tahiti beach. From here, you can see the light of the rising sun slipping down the faces of three of Yosemite’s most famous rock faces, El Capitan, Three Brothers, and Cathedral Rock. Once the light had become unappetizingly harsh, we packed up and got ready for one of my favorite hikes in the park, the Mist Trail to John Muir Trail loop.
This trail is a great test of cardio, as it climbs over 2,200 feet in elevation gain over a span of 3.5 miles. Named for the clouds of mist that roll off of Vernal Falls at the first section of the hike, the Mist Trail begins as a paved path before turning into a section of stairs hewn from the rock face itself as it ascends past the picturesque Vernal Falls. We timed our ascent perfectly to witness a bold and perfect rainbow refracted from the billowing mist of the falls.
After navigating the steepest stair section, the trail reaches a large rock shelf at the top of Vernal Falls where we took a short break before taking on the last two miles to reach the pinnacle of Nevada Falls and the vantage point I was hunting. As we climbed, the light of the sun sank lower, illuminating the world around us in a soft warm glow. The granite faces glowed with warmth and magic as the landscape grew more beautiful with each passing minute.
Just before sunset, we reached the pinnacle of the trail and the source of the surging Nevada Falls. Then it was just a short jaunt down a stone path to reach the vantage point I was seeking, and it was at the perfect moment, as the setting light illuminated the falls and peaks, while just kissing the treetops. Once the magic hour had passed, we donned our head torches and descended back to the valley floor via the John Muir Trail in the deepening twilight of the approaching night.
The following day we would be driving up to Glacier Point Road and exploring the Taft Point to Sentinel Dome loop trail. The road had just been opened for the season, and there were still large patches of snow and ice leftover from the frozen winter. But, a little snow would not deter us from reaching two of the best vantage points in the park, the knee quivering heights of Taft Point and the 180-degree vista atop Sentinel Dome.
The trail first heads down from the road to reach Taft Point. Here, you can walk to a small section of handrail and peak over the edge of a cliff and the 1,000-foot drop below. After Taft Point, we backtracked half a mile before reaching the Sentinel Dome loop. This section of the hike is initially quite easy as it gently descends to the foot of the dome. But after a mile, the trail begins the ascent to its pinnacle, climbing just over 1,000 feet over the span of one mile. But the payoff is remarkable. After reaching the edge of the tree line, the trail disappears and it is a short scramble to reach the top of Sentinel Dome, a solid granite cap with only a couple of windblown and stunted trees on its top.
From the top of Sentinel Dome, you can see Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Three Brothers, and Cathedral Rock. It is rife with photographic vantage points, as well as one of my favorite sunset views in the park, looking westward towards Half Dome as the warm light slips up its sheer rock face.
We photographed here through sunset and then made the one-mile completion of the loop to return to the car. That is when something weird happened.
We were at the car, peeling off our camera bags off and stowing gear for the drive home when I happened to glance skyward. What I saw left me frozen from bewilderment. A line of perfectly spaced lights was zipping silently across the sky. There must’ve been thirty of them traveling westward at perfect intervals about a thumb across from my point of view. I immediately asked our clients, “What the hell is that?!” We all stopped and stared as they disappeared into the distance. Before we even had time to contemplate what we had seen, a new set of lights appeared in the east, traveling along the exact same line as the first group. It must’ve been at least 100 lights, as it took somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes for them all to pass. Immediately, my mind went there; it was UFOs, perhaps an alien invasion. Of course, though it was not. A short google search the following morning explained that they were in fact SpaceX Star Link satellites, all flying in a coordinated pattern across the sky, waiting for their day to deliver free internet to the entire world.
Even if it wasn’t aliens, they were space ships (of a sort), and the perfect way to cap off an amazing two weeks in Yosemite National Park. And as always, I want to offer a big thank you to an amazing group of clients who were as excited to take on Yosemite’s backcountry as I was and take some beautiful photos along the way.
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as an video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See his most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com
Don’t miss the next session of BCJ Live!
Big Alaska: Stories & Slideshow
with Grant Ordelheide
Tuesday, February 1st, 2022
11 am – 12 pm Mountain Time