This would become the mantra for our group during our second Backcountry Journeys ‘Yosemite in Winter’ trip, which ran Feb. 16th – 22nd.
We were arriving just in time for the world-famous Firefall Event, which happens only once a year for a brief time in February. And it became, for good reason, was the focus of the trip.
As is typically the case with Backcountry Journeys tours, day one of this tour involved an introductory meeting and meal. Dinner and conversation took place at the Steak & Anchor Restaurant, located inside the quaint Piccadilly Airport Hotel, near the Fresno airport. Easy access for folks flying into Fresno. We had a group of ten photographers, as well as myself and Matt Meisenheimer as guides. The group featured a nice blend of folks who have travelled on other Backcountry Journeys tours in the past, and those new to BCJ. It didn’t take long to figure out that we shared several things in common, most of all a desire to photograph a certain once-a-year event.
Back to the mantra.. Repeat after me: F-i-r-e-f-a-l-l
We arrived at Yosemite on our first day where we were welcomed by cloudless blue skies and an unbelievable amount of visitors revelling in the snow covered valley. Sledders, cross country skiers, snowshoers and of course photographers. It seemed as if the entire photographic world had descended upon the Yosemite Valley that weekend for… Firefall.
We decided to make Tunnel View our first shoot of the trip. For the handful of folks in our group making their first visit to Yosemite there was simply no better introduction to the Valley than the view from this point. This is the view you’ve all seen on postcards and wall calendars. Seeing it for the first time is a moment most folks will cherish forever. El Capitan framing the valley on the left, Half Dome in the center background, and the Cathedral Rocks and Bridal Veil Falls on the right wall as you look down over the green of the valley. Simply one of the more iconic National Parks views.
Weather reports were indicating that this day just might be the BEST day of our entire week for Firefall.
You might be asking ‘What is this Firefall’?
Firefall is a natural event that occurs when the setting sun hits Horsetail Fall (an ephemeral waterfall located on El Capitan) just prior to sunset, making it glow a burning orange and red almost as if there was a waterfall of fire spilling down into the valley below. Only between Feb 16 and 23 does the sun set at the necessary angle to create the fire.
And the sun is not the only thing that must oblige. There are a handful of necessary components that have to come together as well.
One ingredient, clear skies, was predicted for this night, so we decided that we needed to battle the crowds and get the shot! Following a late lunch we made our way over to the El Capitan picnic area to post up for the event. Early. We sat and waited, paying our dues, so to speak.
Boy, oh, boy was the Park busy! So busy, in fact, it felt a bit more like Disney on this day. Such a contrast to the week prior when oftentimes we felt as if we were the only people in the Park. As it turned out, day one of this trip landed not only on day one of the Firefall, but also on President’s Day so the Park was bursting at the seams with visitors from all over the world, all hoping for a glimpse of the Firefall.
It all set up so perfectly.
The clear sky and late February sunsets aren’t the only two things that must happen for a successful Firefall. Horsetail Fall must be flowing as well. Horsetail is an ephemeral fall, which means that it doesn’t flow all the time. Its water comes from snowmelt, not from a spring or lake. If there is not enough snowpack in February, there will not be the water necessary to flow. If all that snowpack is still snow, it of course isn’t going to be flowing. Temperatures at the top of El Capitan must be warm enough to have that snow melt into water. And for the fire, the western sky needs to be clear at sunset. After all, it is the sun that puts the final touches on this magnificent scene with the oranges and reds. Some wispy clouds, of a bit of snow blowing across the scene can certainly add a nice touch.
There had been lots of snow. It had warmed and the Fall was flowing. All of the things were happening! The ‘stoke’ levels were high.
And then, right about the time the sun would hit just right, after we waited there for hours with our cameras aimed perfectly at the Fall… a cloud moved in, making for a less than excellent Firefall.
Shucks! Patience, right? We still had three more nights to get it.
So after a crazy long day that began in Fresno, we really appreciated the retreat to the comfort of our rooms at nearby Yosemite Valley Lodge.
In the morning we set our sights towards Sentinel Bridge. Sentinel Bridge is famous for its spectacular views of Half Dome reflected in the Merced River. From the bridge it is also possible to see Yosemite Falls, so it is a really nice shooting location, and we were blessed with amazing light that seamingly danced across the Merced River, simultaneously glossing snowy Half Dome.
For all of our Ansel Adams fans out there, this is the spot where, in 1938, he photographed “Half Dome, Merced River, Winter.” It is a classic Yosemite scene.
Wildlife enthusiasts on the trip got a really cool close encounter with a pair of coyotes who wondered up on the bridge, looking to cross the easy way. They were either accustomed to people, or just very brave, but their familiarity provided anyone who wanted a good shot plenty of time, and poses, to capture a decent image before they ran off down the riverbank.
We moved on down to Valley View to take advantage of the nice light, prior to breakfast and a break. Valley View is a spot along the Merced River on the eastern end of the valley. From there El Capitan, Bridal Veil Falls and the length of the valley are in view. An iconic scene, indeed.
The skies seemed right for another chance at Firefall, and predictions for subsequent evenings made it seem as if this could be our last shot, so we decided to go after it one more time. Again, it was not to be. This time it wasn’t even close. Maybe this Firefall was just not to be for us this year.
Morning three was marked by some really nice atmosphere! Lots of good, low, clouds moved in over the Valley in advance of an approaching storm. El Cap Meadow provided a nice spot to enjoy, I feel many of us made some really nice photographs from this spot. After getting what we wanted from El Cap Meadow, we moved down to Valley View where the same clouds provided for even more wonderful compositions of El Capitan, Bridal Veil Falls, and the rest of the Valley. A delightful morning, indeed!
The storm moved in just as we shooting behind in lieu of a hot breakfast. The storm would provide needed fresh white snow to the landscape. After a few days of melt, it was appreciated. We needed some fresh snow to cover up all those footprints from all the visitors playing in our snow. Ha Ha!
We decided that we’d make good use of the stormy, socked in, afternoon by working on some post-processing instruction. We spent a few hours reviewing images, discussing composition, and going over techniques like exposure blending, focus stacking, and masking. These are some photoshop skills that can really take your photography to new heights, and Matt Meisenheimer is excellent with teaching these techniques.
We began our evening by taking a chance at Half Dome from Cook’s Meadow. The sky seemed to be behaving, casting nice light across Sentinal Dome. We just needed to wait. We waited, cameras pointed at Half Dome. It seemed eminent. It just didn’t happen. The sky was still fantastic, so we zoomed down northside drive as fast as we could to Valley View, where the scene was spectacular! The best evening light of the trip, no doubt. We certainly lucked out by timing our landscape evening shoot for the this sunset, as it was the only one of four that provided for a sky full of color and clouds.
After another dinner of steak and trout at the Mountain Room, we set out to Cook’s Meadow for some night photography. The moon was full and we wanted to take advantage. While clouds moved in, covering the moon, we still managed to learn how to shoot the night sky, and were still able to capture some quality images. The ‘hoot’ ‘hoot’ of a Great Grey Owl was heard off in the distance.
Our final full day together began on the banks of the Merced, at a location that would allow for us to photograph Three Brothers, just upstream from Cathedral Beach. The Three Brothers are a series of granitic rock formations located just east of El Capitan, opposite of the Cathedral Spires. They are Eagle Peak (the uppermost “brother”), and Middle and Lower Brothers. John Muir believed the top of Eagle Peak provided the most beautiful view of Yosemite Valley.
We decided to spend the bright, and too sunny for good photography, afternoon visiting the Ansel Adams Gallery. A delightful place with a lot of history. What began as Adam’s (future) in-laws’ tent studio, the Ansel Adams Gallery has evolved into a place that cultivates and offers visitors a splendid variety of books, handcrafts, fine arts, and an extraordinary collection of original photographs. As we walked towards the gallery from the Visitor Center parking lot it occurred to us that the day prior was actually Adam’s birthday. He would have been 117 years young. The remainder of the trip would be a sort of homage to Ansel.
The expectation for our final evening was a sky full of clouds, perfect for a landscape sunset shot, terrible for another attempt at Firefall. The plan was to photograph a big landscape.
But then it all changed, as weather sometimes does. Clearing skies were now the prediction, so we decided that we could not sit idly by. We had one final chance.
Dinner reservations were moved to a time that would accommodate, and we once again found ourselves positioned at El Capitan picnic area, a very popular spot to view the event from just below the fall. On this night crowds were small, and we were able to get a really nice spot. Could this be the day? Might we have put in our time and were destined to reap some reward? Only time would tell. Recall on night one everything seemed to be lining up and then at the last moment we lost it.
Not this night!! We got it! And it was everything that it was billed to be. Lived up to the hype.
We were so jacked after getting Firefall that we just couldn’t call it a night. One more night session, for the (nearly full) moon rising over the valley was too good to pass up, so after dinner at the Mountain Room, we traveled out to Tunnel View. It was perfect. The moon rose over the Cathedral Rocks, creating a really special feeling across the valley below.
We also stopped near El Capitan as the moonlight cast a glow, and a spell, on the face of country’s largest rock monolith.
Following an earned night of rest we awoke early to take a stroll up the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail in order to get a glimpse of lower Yosemite Falls. Yosemite Falls, standing at 2,425 feet, is the tallest waterfall in the Park and also the fourth tallest falls in the world! From our perch we could see just the lower portion, but what a moment. A small rainbow appeared to the left of the falls as if a kiss goodbye from Yosemite to all of us who were there to see it. A trip whose beginning was marked by the craziness of the crowds and the rush to see Firefall, ended with a waterfall and a rainbow. Peace. Love. and waterfalls.
A glorious end to a glorious tour of Yosemite in Winter. Thank you to all who joined us!
Kenton Krueger grew up and spent the first 33 years of his life in the corn country of Omaha, Nebraska. After studying aviation at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Aviation Institute, he “conned” his way into the newsroom at the award-winning Omaha World-Herald where for 3+ years he wrote and photographed news articles on a variety of topics such as community events, travel and even mixed martial arts for the sports department. Yet something was missing. While on backpacking trips to Grand Teton and Grand Canyon National Parks in the mid-2000’s he was quick to realize that the wild lands of the western United States stoked a fire in his heart like nothing else could. This realization led to relocation to Flagstaff, Arizona, and he hasn’t looked back. He has spent the past several years guiding guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks as well as in the Grand Staircase Escalante in southern Utah. 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, newspaper photographer and writer. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of 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.
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Night Sky Post-Processing
with Ben Blankenship
Tuesday, May 18th, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)