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Trip Report: Yosemite Fall Colors 2018 (hiker)
by Ben Blankenship
Day 1: Orientation

For the first day of our Yosemite in Fall trip, we met the group at the Piccadilly Airport Inn in Fresno, CA.  Fresno is the fifth largest city in California, and the largest in the Central Valley. It is a metropolitan city, which makes its proximity to Yosemite National Park somewhat of an interesting juxtaposition.  For our first night, we conducted an orientation meeting and spent the evening dining at the Steak and Anchor Restaurant and getting to know each other.  For most everyone, this would be their first trip to Yosemite National Park.

Day 2: Entering Yosemite

This would be our earliest start for the week.  We left the Piccadilly Airport Inn by 5:45 am to begin the drive into the park.  With sunrise happening at around 7:00am this time of year, we wanted to get into the park in time to shoot with the morning light in Yosemite Valley.  During the summertime, Yosemite National Park can be very busy.  But by Autumn, the crowds are thinned out, and we were able to drive into the park without encountering any traffic.  As we drove into the park from the west entrance and made our way down into Yosemite Valley, we made a quick stop at Tunnel View, a pullout parking area at the beginning of the valley to give everyone their first glance at the incredible granite monoliths that Yosemite is famous for.  We did not stay too long though, because we would be returning to this spot to photograph it in earnest during sunset later that day.

Next, we drove down into the valley, getting our first look at the fall foliage that lined the Merced River.  We first encountered groves of broad leaf maples that were at the peak of their fall color.  Intense yellows and oranges lined the river and the road that runs alongside it.  The maples slowly gave way to alder, quaking aspen, and black cottonwood, all rich with color.  As we moved along through the valley into the sunnier and drier areas, California black oak became the dominant species.  These trees were less technicolor than their shade-loving counterparts, but still showing a deep orange.

Due to California’s ongoing drought issues, the valley was very dry this year.  Yosemite Falls and Horsetail Falls were completely dry, but Vernal, Nevada, and Bridal Veil Falls were all still flowing.

We drove to Swinging Bridge, a section of the park with a wooden footbridge that crosses the Merced to do our first shooting for the morning.  The bridge, especially during spring, offers an excellent vantage point for photographing Yosemite Falls.  But, with the waterfall dry this time of year, we focused on the incredible fall colors.  The Swinging Bridge area also offers excellent views of Sentinel Rock and Cathedral Rock.

Next, we headed to Half Dome valley, a grassy clearing that lies near the foot of Half Dome.  Here, we walked along a boardwalk and down to the Merced, shooting great views of Half Dome and some beautiful angles looking up the river towards the stone bridge that leads hikers to the famous Mist Trail, which we would be hiking the following day.

After the light had graduated from soft to verging on harsh as the midday hour approached, we packed up and headed towards the lodge for lunch.

After eating lunch and getting checked into the lovely Yosemite Valley Lodge, we took a short break to wait for the sun to continue its trek westward and for the conditions to be right for our sunset shoot at Tunnel View.

The vantage point from Tunnel View is truly remarkable.  From there, one can see El Capitan, the world-famous granite wall, in all in all of its 3000-foot majesty, as well as Cathedral Rock, both of which standing at the entrance to Yosemite Valley like two enormous sentinels.  Due to the notoriety of this location, we shared our perch with a few other photographers.  After a bit of instruction on panorama shooting and bracketing exposures, the group watched the light turn to a rich orange as the sun slipped behind the mountains to our rear.  El Capitan glowed with the setting sun, and the few clouds in the sky transformed into streaks of pink and orange.

Once the setting sun had made its way past the westward horizon, we packed up and headed back towards the lodge for dinner.  We would be eating at the Mountain Room, a wonderful restaurant attached to Yosemite Valley Lodge.  With walls lined with exquisite photographic prints taken throughout the years in the park, the Mountain Room was a great source of inspiration as well as some incredible food!

Day 3: The Jumpers // Ascending The Mist Trail

We began our day just before 7:00am this morning.  We met everyone at the lodge lobby and then headed out to Cathedral Beach.  This beach provides two excellent vantage points.  The first is a look at El Capitan with an aspen lined Merced River in the foreground, providing ample reflection and color.  El Capitan is great to photograph in both the morning and late afternoon due to its facing due south.  So, both the rising and setting sun light up its face.  The second view is a short walk down the banks of the Merced where one can gain an excellent vantage point of the Three Brothers, a series of three dramatic peaks that lie just east of El Capitan.

While some of the group moved down the banks to photograph the Three Brothers, I and Karen, a client, stayed to shoot El Capitan as the sun rose.  El Capitan is surely most famous amongst rock climbers, who travel to Yosemite from around the globe to take on the 3000-foot granite wall, a three day climb for most. From Cathedral Beach, if you look closely, you can see small figures clinging to the wall and slowly making their way upwards.  At night, specs of light are scattered against the wall like stars, which are in fact the head torches of climbers as they anchor their bivy sacks to the rock to sleep through the night.

On this morning though, our attention was drawn up the wall after we heard someone shout “WooHoo!”  My heart dropped as I saw what was unmistakably a human figure plummeting from the top of the wall.  But then, a parachute opened.  Another figure leapt from the wall followed by another parachute.  These people were base jumping from the top of El Capitan!  The first parachute glided in circles as its wearer navigated towards a safe landing spot.  He chose a clear expanse of river bank directly across the Merced from us.  Upon landing, he quickly stuffed his parachute into its pack and sprinted headlong into the woods.  Base jumping in Yosemite is forbidden by the National Park Service, and if these guys were caught, they’d no doubt be dealt a hefty fine.

After the morning’s excitement, we shot for a few hours in the meadow of the “famous oak,” a beautifully twisted live oak tree that has been featured in many published photographs. From there we made our way to lunch and to prep for the afternoon hike up the Mist Trail.

The Mist Trail is one of the most popular in the park.  It is a 7-mile loop with 1,900 feet of elevation gain.  It first makes its way to the top of Vernal Falls, and then onto to the pinnacle of Nevada Falls.  This is a great hike with excellent vantage points all along the way.  It is also a challenging hike, especially the sections that directly precede reaching each waterfall.  These sections consist of roughhewn stone stairs carved from the mountainside.  We took our time making our way upwards, and the group did an excellent job, reaching all the way to Nevada Falls to shoot sunset before we needed to head back down.  We made it down past the difficult sections by the remaining light of the day and completed the last mile and half by the light of our head torches.

Once down, we headed to the Mountain Room for a well-deserved dinner and good night’s rest before beginning day four.

Day 4: A Day in the Valley
We began our fourth day of the trip before sunrise.  With sack breakfasts in hand, we headed to Valley View, a famous vantage point at the west end of the valley that looks east towards the rising sun.  With excellent views of El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, this location lends itself to inspiring panoramas and long exposure shots with the Merced River flowing in the foreground.  We shot here through sunrise, capturing some excellent shots of the soft morning light beginning to illuminate the face of El Capitan.

Next, we moved to a sandy section of riverbank alongside the Merced. From here, one has an incredible view of Cathedral Rock, framed perfectly by the converging lines of the riverbank.  This section of river was also especially well adorned in fall color, providing some beautiful reflections on the calm, clear water.  We spent the remainder of the morning light here before breaking for lunch.

Today, we had a picnic lunch at Swinging Bridge consisting of charcuterie, fresh fruit and veggies, smoked salmon, and some delicious cheeses.

After cleaning up from lunch, we headed back to the lodge to do a post-processing workshop centered around Adobe Lightroom. We split the group into two, with Matt Meisenheimer teaching one group and myself teaching the other.  We spent a good two hours going over workflow, moving from camera to Lightroom to a finished image.  We worked on color correction as well as some more advanced techniques like panoramic stitching and HDR photo processing.

After a short break, we headed out to do our last shooting on the valley floor for the trip.  The next day, we would be doing another big hike and shooting sunset amongst the peaks. So, we wanted to make sure we made good use of the afternoon light on the valley floor while we could.  We headed first to a location that Matt and I had discovered during a scouting trip that provided excellent views of Sentinel Rock with a color lined Merced river as a foreground.  The location also was conducive to walking around and finding interesting vantage points of El Capitan, Cathedral Rock, as well as Sentinel Rock.

After we were satisfied we’d gotten what this location had to offer, we packed up and hastily made our way back to Cathedral Beach to photograph El Capitan again from this vantage point, but this time making use of the light of the setting sun.  This did not disappoint, as the rock face of El Capitan glowed orange as the last light of the setting sun slid up its enormous granite face.

After the last light had faded, we were visited by a herd of mule deer grazing along the river’s edge.  We then packed it up and headed back to the lodge.  This was the night that clients would be dining on their own.  I know at least a couple clients went and checked out the Magnificent Yosemite Hotel’s restaurant.  This famous restaurant has been visited by multiple U.S. Presidents since its opening.  We were told that it did not disappoint!

Day 5: The Bear and The Dome

This was to be our last full day in the park, and we began it dark and early.  For dawn, we headed to some off-the-beaten-path locations at the far western end of the valley.  This was the section of the park showing the most fall color, with its groves of broad leaf maples and quivering aspen trees.  We spent an hour working the river bank, shooting long exposures of water features, using the contours of the Merced River to frame shots of El Capitan and Cathedral Rock.  We were all focused on our shooting, and it came as quite a surprise when we encountered a Yosemite local.  Suddenly aware that we were not alone, we looked up to see that perched atop a fallen tree was a black bear, eyeing us suspiciously.  We quickly made our way to the opposite side of the river to give the bear some space and to find a vantage point from which we could observe her safely.

As soon as she seemed confident that we weren’t there to interfere with her, she went back to her work of feeding on a deer carcass.  Due to the proximity to the road, we assumed this was most likely the result of a vehicle on deer collision, of which the bear was taking advantage. After watching her for a short while, we noticed movement in the tree high above her.  There, clinging to tree branches well over 25 feet from the ground were two bear cubs, no more than several months old.  While we quietly watched, the two cubs descended to the ground and joined their mother in picking some meaty morsels from the deer carcass.  As they did, a coyote roamed the perimeter of the scene, looking for opportunities to steal a quick meal.  Twice, the mother bear chased the coyote off.  It was a scene of wildness rarely witnessed in Yosemite National Park, a park known for its amazing scenery and geography more so than opportunities for witnessing wildlife.  We were extremely fortunate to be able to witness such a scene from such proximity due to the river being between us as a buffer.

We left the bears as we’d found them, feeding on the banks of the Merced River, and headed back to the lodge for lunch.  After a short break, it was off to our next big hike; a loop that would take us to the brink of an 800-foot cliff at Taft Point and then to the pinnacle of Sentinel Dome, a treeless granite dome that reaches over 8,100 feet into the sky.  We would be able to start our hike at a reasonably high elevation, but the trail descends a good ways before beginning the ascent to the dome, requiring an elevation gain of about 1,100 feet over the course of the 5.4-mile loop.

This hike is reasonably easy, until you begin ascending the dome.  And then, it is a bit steep.  But, everyone made it in great time, allowing us plenty of time to catch our breath and get setup to shoot what would be the most epic sunset of the entire week!  Sentinel Dome has an amazing 360-degree vantage point, providing incredible views straight down into the valley 3000 feet below, as well as all of the major granite features of the valley, including El Capitan, Cathedral, and Half Dome.  This makes it an ideal location for shooting sunset, and it also has the distinct advantage of being devoid of crowds due to the steepness of the hike, and its proximity to Glacier Point, which can become a bit of a zoo during sunsets.

As the sun began its descent, we had enough clouds in the sky to make for a technicolor light show, with every hue of orange, red, yellow and pink painting the sky.  As the sun dipped lower,        the granite rock faces glowed red, and the sky turned a deep purple.  And we had the mountaintop nearly to ourselves, with only a pair of German tourists to share it with.

With the sun tucked in behind the westward horizon, we donned our head torches and began the 1.1 mile to complete the loop trail at the parking area where we’d begun.  Then, it was another delicious dinner at The Mountain Room and off to bed before beginning the last day of the tour.

Day 6: The Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree

As the final day of our trip commenced, we packed up our belongings and began the drive out of the park.  But, we had one more, very important destination to explore on our way out; The Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees.  This section of the park was actually the first federally protected area of what is now Yosemite National Park, officially gaining protection when Abraham Lincoln signed an Act of Congress in 1864.

The Mariposa Grove has several hundred mature giant sequoias, including the Grizzly Giant, a massive tree that is estimated to be between 1,900 and 2,400 years old.  Photographing these behemoths is no easy feat, so we focused on using the soft light filtered through the foliage to illuminate the textures of the trees’ trunks, as well as doing a few wides to show the full size of some trees.

At the end of our trail was the California Tunnel Tree, a sequoia that had a tunnel cut through it in 1895 to allow horse drawn wagons to travel through it.  Today, you can see the hundreds of carvings left by past visitors, many with the year they traveled there carved next to their initials.  The oldest carving I could find had a date of 1899.

After taking our time walking through the Mariposa Grove, we headed back to the vehicles to begin the drive back to Fresno and our trip’s conclusion.

Throughout the week, we had beautiful sunny conditions, all be it a bit devoid of clouds until the fifth day when we made our way to the top of Sentinel Dome. We had several great hikes and found ample opportunities for dramatic landscapes throughout Yosemite Valley and amongst the peaks overhead.  I, for one, cannot wait to return!

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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 a 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
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"Backcountry Journeys offers guests the unique opportunity to explore our natural world from behind their own lens. We run a selection of hand-crafted Photo Tours, Workshops & Safaris connecting passionate people to exceptional experiences. Locations include Yosemite, Alaska, Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, Hawaii, Utah as well as Botswana & Costa Rica."
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