“Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space” –Ansel Adams
Next to Joshua Tree, Yosemite is the nearest national park to me, and yet I have only made it up twice. Both times, I have been taken aback by its sweeping views, thunderous granite cliffs, and abundant greenery. Growing up I had always seen stunning landscape images of the valley, and of course half dome specifically, and so one day I decided it was about time I went. Of all the traveling I have done with my family, almost none of it has been to California’s parks.
The first time I went up, I hadn’t yet developed a passion for photography, but when looking into things to do and stumbling across Robb Hirsch’s pictures, I thought it would be cool to take a half-day with him and attempt to bring back similar ones. I went up in late August, and stayed at the Evergreen Lodge, which because I booked so late was basically the only place with space available, and offers relaxed ‘glamping’. While still beautiful, I don’t recommend that as the time to go for your first couple times going up to Yosemite. The valley is mostly dry by then, and so most our time was spent further North in Tuolumne Meadows; which, however, can only be accessed when all the snow has melted, usually not until June or so. Regardless, I was impressed by the creeks and swamps and viewpoints that we went along, learning how to adjust for lighting conditions so our exposure is right, how to understand a histogram, and how to compose a picture. By the end of it, I thought my pictures were incredible. Going back just the other day to filter and process them for this post, they certainly were not. But I was a beginner! It was my first time really trying my hand at landscape photography, and good thing I felt the way I did then and not now, otherwise I might’ve been discouraged from pursuing it. In my few days there, due to the conditions in the valley, I also didn’t tackle any of the famous, more commonly photographed trails. This gave me a reason to go back at a better time.
Yosemite, Round 2
Just seven months later, I thought going back during spring break would be a perfect season to go get better pictures of the valley. I wasn’t interested in going to Cabo for 3-5 days of crazy partying, I wanted to go into nature, and experience Yosemite as it should be (or what I thought should be then). I rounded up two of my best friends (shoutout Duncan and Phil) who didn’t have plans to go anywhere for break and we hit the road. Again, planning a little bit late, most places and campgrounds were pretty full, so we stayed at the Tenaya Lodge, about 45 minutes out of the valley. We wasted no time when we got up, heading to tunnel view just at sunset to treat ourselves to some of the beauty that we would see that week.
The following day we took it easy, a nice stroll around Mirror Lake, which was unfortunately largely dried up, but still offered some pretty ducks to look at. lol. Following the lake, we made our way over to Bridalveil Fall, the fall you can see on the right of the image above. We went up in early March, so it was still mostly winter, beginning to transition into spring in the valley, which meant the snow hadn’t really started melting yet. We hopped the trail rail at one of the viewpoints and climbed our way down onto the rocks where the bottom of the fall turned because I thought I could take one of those really cool pictures where the water is all blended together and stuff (how I thought about it back then). I didn’t realize that I needed a tripod for any shot less than 1/10 of a second or so, so all my pictures came out blurry. 🙁
Day 2 marked, for me, the most exhausting day. We took on the hike to Upper Yosemite Falls, and that was a wake-up call. The first half of the hike takes you to Lower Yosemite Falls, that isn’t too bad. But, right after you reach the bottom of those, the trail becomes significantly steeper and consists almost entirely of switchbacks. Yikes. At least I am a rather experienced hiker and relatively fit, so I didn’t have too much of a problem with it. Phil and Duncan, not as accustomed to such hikes, lagged a little behind, but to their credit I was still impressed with how closely they kept up. All in all, the view from the top was definitely worth it.
The viewpoint at the top makes it hard to really see much of the falls themselves, but gets you right up to the drop-off, which for us produced a beautiful double rainbow. The water roared and fell so fast that the mist refracted the light at that time of day to create a huge rainbow arc as you looked down at the falls. And the views from that high up of the valley were awe inspiring. What was probably the craziest thing about that day, though, were the slackliners at the falls. If you don’t know what slacklining is, read about it here. So yeah, these guys were highlining, over Upper Yosemite Falls, which measures 1,430 feet of the total 2,425 feet of Yosemite Falls. Just watching these guys was gut-wrenching, I can’t even imagine what they were feeling (especially if that is nothing). I’m all for adrenaline, and a bit of an adrenaline junky myself, but there are some things… Looking back at it now, seeing how they were tied in, it seems pretty cool. Maybe I’ll give it a try some time. But these guys were just hanging out, dangling from a slackline at a thousand feet over a roaring waterfall, going back and forth between anchoring points. Amazing, terrifying stuff. We spent a good hour just watching them. On our way down we met 2 hikers with a lot of photography gear (Keenan and Tyler), whom I was able to ask for a lot of tips as I was trying to sharpen up my skills and take some great shots on our last day.
Our last day in Yosemite was definitely the most memorable, to each of us for different reasons. I can’t help but laugh when I think about this day. I’ll get into that in a minute. That day we decided we would do the Panorama Trail, which goes from the bottom of the Mist Trail at Happy Isles (the beginning of the famous John Muir Trail, which goes from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney) to Glacier Point. Usually there is a bus at the top of Glacier Point that goes back to the valley, but at this point in the season that wasn’t an option. So we had to hike the way back down the 4-Mile Trail, resulting in a total trail length of about 14 miles and elevation change of about 6,500 feet. We started the day late, and so we had to hike the last couple miles in the dark with our headlamps, which I thought was pretty cool (Phil and Duncan not so much). This is one of the most beautiful trails I have ever hiked. The Mist Trail is always crowded because it goes past Vernal and Nevada Falls, and is not a tough hike, but the Panorama Trail goes farther, going over Nevada Falls, past lesser known Illilouette Falls, and along (very high) granite cliffs and breathtaking views of Yosemite Valley.
The highlight of this hike, however, was not the waterfalls, or the views, or the cliffs, it was Duncan and Phil, on our descent from Glacier Point. We reached Glacier Point a little late in the afternoon, after starting the hike at around noon, and I took a while up there taking a number of different pictures. My photography was certainly a priority on this trail. We were more than halfway done, we knew that, and so we could speed down the backside to beat dark. What we didn’t consider, however, was the snow that still persisted at that altitude at that time of year. On the way up, there was slowly more and more snow covering certain parts of the trail, and we didn’t think anything of it. The way down was a whole other story. The cliffs that lined the 4-Mile Trail were striking. To your right was a 3,000 foot drop off, and on a rather narrow trail that already instills some nerves for novice hikers. I was comfortable in a setting like that, but not in what we encountered. Here, many parts of the trail were completely covered with snow. And it wasn’t flat, like it was on the way up. Because the mountainside was so steep, the snow fell at an angle, and covered the trail as such. It was too late to go back down the Panorama Trail, we knew that, so we had to get across.
I was wearing my very trustworthy Asolo Fugitive boots. These things have ridiculous traction and support, and are very weather-proof. Phil had purchased a good pair of hiking boots before the trip, but nothing too fancy. Duncan was wearing running shoes, which, normally, would’ve been fine. I decided that I would need to go over the snow, kicking in a flat part for the two of them to walk on. So, I went slowly across, carefully planning each footstep, keeping my balance with my trekking pole, burying my feet into the snow, clearing a path. When Phil began to cross the first part, I saw the steps that he was taking, and realized I was going to also help him and Duncan get across. Obviously in a situation like this, knowing where and how to step is crucial so as to keep your balance and stabilization; knowing how to do this largely comes with experience. As I cleared each path, I would go back over to instruct Phil and Duncan how to get across with each and every step, holding them along the way as I walked backwards. Phil was pretty nervous, leaning into the snow on his left with his hand to shift his weight in that direction, while Duncan couldn’t look anywhere but his feet. I am not sure I have ever felt someone shake so much out of fear. I think Duncan literally thought he was going to die, especially when his feet would slip. It took us a while to cross over multiple stretches like this, so we hiked the rest of the way down through sunset.
When we were clear of the snow, the trauma with Phil and Duncan showed. Phil was leaning so much into the mountain, that his hand was numb, just like when you put your feet in an ice bucket. However, mixed with the nerves of that stretch of the hike, Phil began having a panic attack believing that he had frost bite. He was freaking out. He genuinely thought he was going to lose his hand. I went up to him and started rubbing his hand between mine to give it some heat, telling him that it was just numb, and if he had frost bite it would be a dark purple or black, but that it was just a light pink so he was fine. He didn’t believe me. I took off my fleece, wrapped his hand in it, and told him to keep it tucked under his armpit like that for a little bit. Duncan simply wasn’t saying one word. For the rest of the hike in fact, he didn’t say a word or have any reaction to the views during sunset, except for when he would yell at me to stop taking pictures and just get off the mountain. A little while later, Phil was invigorated! He regained feeling in his hand, and his adrenaline from traversing the snowy path latently kicked in. He was jumping around saying things like “Let’s go!” and running down the trail giddily. All these emotions and responses were quite entertaining for me to watch, because in the end, we were fine. When we finally got back to the car, the two of them asked me what was really going through my head as I was helping them and we were on the snow. I told them that, truthfully, it was a pretty precarious situation, and I was very aware that I needed to be very diligent with getting us across safely, including keeping a confident appearance while doing so. What a way to end the weekend.