Dan's Outside

I go, I see, I do, I walk, I think, I like…

To the Valley and Back in a Day, or Trying to Channel Ansel

Sometimes one must go to Yosemite.

Late last week we had some cold and wet weather in northern California, with the kind of late winter storms that bring lower than normal snow lines. In this case, snow in the San Francisco Bay area was found down to 2000′ feet or even a bit lower – low enough to also bring a good snowfall to the Sierra Nevada foothills and to Yosemite Valley. (The Valley is only at about 4000′ so snow there is not a sure thing; it can just as easily rain.)

I live about 200 miles from the Valley via the town of Merced and Hiway 140 – a bit less via Tracy and Hiway 120, but that route goes a bit higher and road conditions are more likely to be an issue this time of year. Being that my goals included a photo of the Valley in morning light from the famous Wawona Tunnel viewpoint, I needed to leave very early. I was up at 3:00 a.m. and on the road a half hour later.

It is a strange experience travelling to and from the Valley in nearly complete darkness, only to spend the day in brilliant light. In any case, the sky barely began to lighten near Merced and the sun was in the sky by the time I passed through Mariposa – normally a hot and bustling place, but this time quiet and cold. Shortly I passed through Midpines and then dropped into the Merced Canyon at Bryceburg, following the river toward the park beneath foothill summits covered with snow. I passed by nearly empty parking lots at the border hotels and then drove up the narrow section of road into the park.

First stop in June would have been Bridalveil Falls, but this time I headed straight up to Wawona Tunnel, to find a stunning early morning view. The entire Valley was still snow covered as neither wind nor warmth had time to remove the previous night’s snow from the trees. I joined the line of photographers at the edge of the overlook, finding a small open spot at the far left of “the zone” from which unobstructed shots are possible. Among the freezing photographers were several of us using digital SLRs, a few using point and shoots, and one fellow with a giant view camera exposing 17″ wide negatives.

Leaving this overlook, I headed back down into the Valley, thinking I would work my way up the road and eventually get a decent breakfast somewhere. But every turn revealed another view that demanded I stop, set up my camera and tripod, and quite frequently trudge through the foot-deep new snow. What would otherwise be unremarkable sections of forest were transformed by the new snow and the morning light. I even stopped for images I would normally pass by – as they are “done to death” – like the view of Yosemite Falls across the open meadows.

I finally made it to Curry Village for an overpriced coffee and pastry at around 11:00. Since the midday light is less conducive to photography I decided to hike – though I could have skied – up to Mirror Lake. I ended up hiking about a mile and a half past the lake to a bridge over the (Tenaya?) Creek before turning back and starting to think about the long drive back. The plan was to drive down the north side road, stopping for pictures at suitable points, and to pause at one of the turnouts for a nap before one last visit to Wawona and then the drive home.

By this time it was warming up on the Valley floor, treating hikers to a steady fall of “snow bombs” from overhead trees and slightly diminishing the magic of the scene, at least compared to the early morning. I headed down the valley, stopping for more photography at a couple of my favorite meadows, then taking a short nap before heading back up to the Wawona Tunnel overlook and a hope-for spectacular sunset.

I arrived at the overlook a bit earlier than 5:00 only to find a huge crowd of photographers. I thought for a moment about my plan B – the turnout just above the tunnel, from which spectacular photos of El Capitan, Half Dome, and the Merced Canyon are also possible – before deciding to see if I could squeeze into the line of photographers waiting for the magic.

A bit about this “photo space” at the overlook. There is a prime area along the low rock wall near the first entrance (when ascending from the Valley). This area might be about 30 feet wide; from here a view of the Valley mostly unobstructed by close trees is available – with the exception of a 6 foot wide section where one finds a tree blocking Bridalveil Falls. Usually my favorite spot is down low near the left end of the photo line, but that spot was totally gone when I arrived. So I headed toward the 6 foot gap described above and waiting… hoping that someone might become impatient and leave. I was lucky and a small space opened just far enough to the right of the gap and I set up my tripod.

While many visitors to this spot pull in, get out of the car, gawk for a few minutes, and leave, photographing this scene (or almost any scene, for that matter) requires much more patience and attention. Despite the obvious precedents for this shot, there are quite a few significant variables at work – ignoring for a moment the time of year – some of which are very fleeting. For example, the “normal” image tries to capture all of the famous Valley points: El Capitan, Clouds Rest, Half Dome, Sentinal Dome, Bridalveil Falls, and the Valley floor – usually in landscape orientation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. For example, a portrait orientation can create greater depth and give more attention to the foreground trees; a tighter crop can produce more detail, etc.

On top of that, as the day ends the scene is anything but static. On this evening there were clouds to the west and the light seemed to disappear quickly. But then the real show began: fog began to appear among the trees on the Valley floor, a band of light progressed from Sentinal Dome, to the ridgeline below Glacier Point, across Half Dome, and finally across the summit of Clouds Rest. High clouds gradually emerged, acquired texture, and began to take on a subtle pink glow. The clouds behind us turned golden and this light warmed the color in the Valley. In the end, capturing a photograph of this scene may turn out to be a fancy excuse for standing in one place and watching this slow transition.

No one wanted to break the spell and leave, but finally the light became too dim.

I got into the car, cranked up the heat to thaw out my frozen feet, drank the last coffee from my thermos, and began the dark drive back home.
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March 7, 2006 - Posted by | Trips

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