Few places inspire the artistic mind like Yosemite National Park. And in spring, the wonders of the park are at their pinnacle. As winter releases its grip on the high Sierras, snow and ice melt cause streams to flood and explode over the high granite walls of Yosemite in a dazzling display of waterfalls. Yosemite National Park is a place that inspires the whole year round, but it is only in spring when the full force of its waterfalls are can be witnessed. And so every April and May, Backcountry Journeys takes a group of photographers there to witness and photograph Yosemite in its full splendor.
This spring also felt like the turning of a new leaf in our struggle through the pandemic. As many of our clients and guides have been vaccinated prior to the trip’s running, we were able to move through our travels in the national park with a newfound peace of mind. It is quite amazing the change that we all felt, to be able to move through airports, restaurants, and hotels with a sense of confidence and security that had not been felt since the spring of last year.
And so, with the park’s waterfalls and wildflowers peaking, and our group feeling a sense of freedom to explore that had long been missing, we were set up for an epic adventure into one of America’s first national parks and perhaps one of the most dramatic landscapes on earth in Yosemite National Park.
BCJ’s Yosemite trips all begin and end in the city of Fresno, California. Here, we convene for the first time and set out for the national park that is a couple hours drive to the north. Perched high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite’s landscape spans an enormous 750,000 acres (equal in size to the state of Rhode Island) and elevations as high as 13,114 feet. But, for our standard version of our Yosemite in Spring trip, much of our photographic destinations would be in and around Yosemite Valley, the landscape immortalized by Ansel Adams in A Clearing Winter Storm, and the numerous writings of John Muir. Here, in Yosemite Valley, the staggering granite monoliths that rise from the valley floor are adorned with such iconic names as El Capitan, Half Dome, and Cathedral Rock. Towering over 3,000 feet above the valley floor where the Merced River flows lackadaisically, these rock formations help create a landscape so dramatic that it is not uncommon for those who first see it to find their jaws hanging open for at least a few moments.
We would also have the great fortune of arriving during the peak blooming of the Pacific dogwood trees and redbuds. Large white and purple flowers appeared in dense patches throughout the valley, creating prime opportunities for foreground and color against the granite rock faces.
Every winter, the high elevation roads such as Glacier Point Road and Tioga Pass Road are closed for the season, making access to several beautiful vantage points impossible by car. But, BCJ times its trips to coincide with the opening of these roads, and so we waited with optimistic anticipation for good news from the park service.
Throughout the beginning of our week in Yosemite, we focused on several vantage points that we’ve scouted and developed over the last few years along with some of the iconic vantage points of the valley including Tunnel View and Valley View. Three years ago, Matt Meisenheimer and I had the opportunity to spend several days camping in the park and scouting out some of the best photographic vantage points. And from those few days, the intel we gathered serves to put our clients in some of the best positions and at the best light to create an array of stunning compositions. These spots still bear the names from my notes back ion 2018, spots like Ze Meisenheimer El Cap Spot and Ben’s Cathedral Rock River Vantage. Other vantage points have names known to other guides and Yosemite photographer regulars, but not mentioned in any guide books, such as Tahiti Beach. And it is from this roster of vantage points that we assembled a smorgasbord of sunrise and sunset photographic opportunities.
Yosemite Valley has the unique advantage of being aligned east to west, making it ideal for early morning and late afternoon photography. For the first half of the week, we found ourselves wanting for clouds and other atmosphere to decorate our skies. But, as the week moved on, a few white puffs began to materialize over the valley. This development also happened to coincide with some excellent news from the park service; Glacier Point Road was open. This all took place on our last full day in the park. Without hesitation, we took highway 41 south and then took a sharp left to begin the windy climb to one of Yosemite National Park’s most iconic vistas, the breathtaking Glacier Point.
After days spent down at valley level, the opportunity to see the park’s granite behemoths from above was an incredible change in perspective. From Glacier Point, if you look east, you can see El Capitan and Cathedral Rock. To look west you see Half Dome rising high above the other rock features of the park and the granite lined valley extending all the way to Olmstead Point. Glacier Point is one of my favorite sunset locations also due to the way the light of the setting sun slides up the face of Half Dome, illuminating its sheer granite walls in a soft warm glow. And, the clouds! Finally they appeared in a solid front above the western rim of the valley, catching hues of purple and red as the sun set.
It was a quintessential Yosemite moment, and a beautiful sunset. And it would perfectly encapsulate the Yosemite experience for our clients, many of whom seeing Yosemite for the the first time.
For our final morning, we hit Ze Meisenheimer El Cap Spot for sunrise before packing and heading back to Fresno to conclude our week in the park. After one more lunch together at one of my favorite restaurants. Wild Fig, in the town of Coarsegold, we ended our journey in Fresno and said our goodbyes until next time.
I want to give a big thanks to all the wonderful clients who shared this experience with us. It was a joy running the trip with several clients whom I’ve now known for years and had the opportunity to run several trips with. And also a big thanks to Tom Turner, a new addition to the roster of trip leaders at BCJ, for his tireless work educating our clients in all things photography.
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