The storm descended upon us with drenching rain and sleet. Safe and warm inside our vehicles as we made the commute from Fresno into Yosemite National Park, we marveled at the intensity of the precipitation, anxiously curious what the higher elevations would hold in store for us. For several days, news reports of a bomb cyclone off the coast of California had gone national. The drought that had engulfed the west coast of the US for the last three years was about to be broken wide open. And, we had front-row seats.
I’ve run photo tours in Yosemite since the fall of 2018, and during those three years, autumn conditions have always been very dry. Every fall, the roaring Yosemite Falls vanishes from existence, leaving only lichen-hewn rock where the mighty falls had been surging a few months prior. The sky would turn to a hazy blue, devoid of clouds or atmosphere. For photographers during the dry years, the lightest wisp of cloud was enough to excite, anything to reflect the light of the sun on the horizon. But, with the coming of 2021’s bomb cyclone, our greatest landscape dreams would crystallize into reality, even if just for a couple of days.
This year’s Backcountry Journeys’ Yosemite Fall Colors workshop was unique in that it was a group of eight men who filled the ranks of our clients. And the trip is led by myself and my colleague Alex Hansen, also men, our week would be all testosterone all the time.
By the second or third day, the trip began to feel like a men’s retreat, one of those events where guys head out into the woods to get back in touch with their sacred masculine, to ground themselves again and bond with their fellow men. It was a feeling I quite enjoyed, and it provided some amazing moments of honesty and camaraderie amongst the guests and the guides.
But, before we get too touchy-feely, let’s talk about the weather some more. Because that bomb cyclone created a spectacle in Yosemite I’d never seen before, and one that even the locals could hardly believe. By the time we entered the park at the south entrance, the rain had turned to snow and was accumulating. We crossed the park’s southern reaches, following the winding route 41 towards Yosemite Valley watching the ground turn white and the road disappear under the fresh snowfall. It was beautiful to behold.
Once past the highest reaches of the highway, where the road begins to descend into the valley, the highway became clear and travel much quicker. We did a quick stop at the always awe-inspiring Tunnel View to find a whiteout, the famous peaks of Yosemite Valley completely obscured by thick clouds. We continued down into the valley to find the tranquil Merced River in full flood. Water surged and jumped the banks, creating rapids and flooded meadows.
We spent the morning there on the valley floor, fighting the rain and cold, searching out compositions that made use of the fall color and surging water. But, it was a struggle, especially with the park’s famed granite peaks locked in the clouds. We wrapped shooting for the morning and headed to lunch knowing that the weather was on the verge of breaking, creating the conditions that I had long dreamt of seeing.
By mid-afternoon, the sun began to find its way to the valley. The marvelous peaks of El Capitan, Cathedral Rock, and Sentinel Rock emerged from their cloudy shrouds coated in fresh white snow. The storm was breaking, and it was absolutely stunning.
With a thick atmosphere racing around the peaks, gorgeous dappled light, and the fall colors being a true peak, conditions were ripe for photography. That afternoon turned quite frantic as we raced around the valley gobbling up every photo opportunity we could find. But, in the end, I knew where I wanted to take everyone. We would head to Tunnel View and make the hike to Artist Point to behold the valley in its entirety, to see the snow, color, and atmosphere all come together as they might’ve looked for Ansel Adams when he took his famed photograph A Clearing Winter Storm.
We hustled up the 700 feet of elevation and out to the viewpoint to find the sun sitting just behind a cloud. At first, I was disappointed for the sun to be hiding. But after the first camera click, I knew we were in the right place. The clouds turned pink and orange above El Cap and Cathedral Rock while distant light played off of the snow-covered Cloud’s Rest Peak. A snake of fog hovered above the Merced River, and Bridalveil Falls surged over the cliff’s edge. It was the most dramatic look into Yosemite Valley I had experienced.
Over the following days, conditions cleared and Yosemite returned to its normal autumn state. But, the waterfalls continued to surge throughout our week in the park, something I’d never seen in Yosemite in the autumn.
One of the highlights of our week was certainly the hike up the John Muir trail to photograph Nevada Falls and Liberty Cap. Snow still covered the highest reaches of the park, which made the hike both beautiful and slippy, but all managed to stay on their feet and be rewarded with some beautiful sunset views of the Nevada Falls at full flow. And the pizza dinner that followed the 8-mile hike was perhaps one of the best ever recorded in the tomes of pizza history.
As I mentioned, our all-male photo group was a curiosity to me before the trip’s start, but by the end of our week in Yosemite, we felt like a band of brothers, having survived the bomb cyclone and some challenging hiking into the higher reaches of the park.
At lunch on our final day, as we sat around the table waiting on our food, we all went around and spoke of what we had learned from our week together. Most everyone spoke of new photographic techniques or principles that had solidified over the week. But, all spoke of the laughs, the new friendships, and the camaraderie we had created through our time exploring one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth.
And the incredible conditions we experienced during that first afternoon and evening triggered an obsession in me, perhaps an addiction. For, I need to go back to Yosemite as often as possible, just on the off-chance that another cyclone, blizzard, or an autumnal dusting of snow should happen, to see that kind of beauty again, to see it all come together in front of my own eyes. Such beauty is rare and worth chasing to the ends of the earth. Luckily though, it can happen anytime in California in a place called Yosemite.
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 the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com