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Yosemite In Winter

Yosemite Valley 'First Light.' Yosemite National Park, California.

“It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” John Muir

The last time I was in Yosemite was summer when my daughter was eight and we did one of our first trips west from Maryland. I remember her urging “let’s get a convertible.” Then within minutes pulling over to put the top up because she was freezing. I remember our family rule of turning off headphones and video games, and putting down books, once we entered any National Park. Time to look around and let it all sink in. Once in Yosemite, we did drop the roof, and driving through the park with El Capitan on one side, Half Dome on the other, and waterfalls flowing in from everywhere was majorly spectacular. Since my entire family is addicted to running water and falls, we just had to start by hiking the mist trail to the Emerald Pool at the top of Vernal Falls.

Merced River Reflection. Yosemite National Park.

My very first visit to Yosemite was in October 1983 with my wife Stephanie and her brother Larry. A flight from Maryland to California was a wonderful birthday present from Larry to Steph. And I got to tag along.

My early wildlife photo aspirations were dashed on this trip when I tried to capture a coyote crossing the road at night (I swore it was a wolf, even though at that time the closest wolf was a thousand miles away). Talking about the sighting ten minutes down the road, with the wolf/coyote long gone and the camera sitting on the back seat, we finally heard the shutter click off! Can you say - long exposure?

Merced River Morning. Yosemite Falls in Background. Yosemite National Park.

I also remember the three of us getting in late in the dark and setting up the tent. In the morning, crawling out and finding the entire Yosemite Valley sun lit in all its immense glory and majesty. Grass level view to the top of El Cap at 7,573 feet. John Muir aptly called this the ‘Incomparable Valley,’ and even today that remains one of the most inspiring wake ups I have ever experienced.

Seeking Small in the Landscape. Yosemite National Park.

This year was a winter trip and taken primarily to meet friends and try to capture the Horsetail Falls fire fall flowing off El Cap (see my previous blog ‘Wild Beauty’ on both the fire fall and getting to California). To get the full force of this event, everything needed to line up. On this trip, that did not quite happen although the sunsets off the rocks were fantastic and well worth the trip. As Maxwell Smart said, “Missed it by that much.”

Horsetail Falls, flowing off the summit of El Capitan. Yosemite National Park.

Literally! On our first night to the park, we got there around sunset. There were hundreds of people there, and at that late time all parking along the road was closed. We settled for a drive-by to plan our timing and location for the following three evenings. The light that night was close to perfect, with good water coming over the drop, and Stephanie was able to capture shots of the fire fall with her phone. Good enough to show people what it looked like and to set our expectations.

Frozen River. Merced Valley, Yosemite National Park.

The following night, the light built steadily as the sun went down. But the water was a trickle, the sky hazy, and at peak the light just fizzled out. Same for the second night. Our final evening was a Saturday on the long Presidents Day weekend. Park attendance soared from hundreds to thousands. We opted for a view away from the crowds, and maybe their view was better? While the full glory of the fire fall did not appear to us, it was beautiful and wonderful to be there, and we got photos to commemorate the adventure.

Another photographer commented that, even if the fire fall does not happen, you are still in Yosemite National Park. Boy is that the truth!

Merced River Valley with Half Dome. Yosemite National Park.

The originally designated Wild and Scenic Merced River within the park flows among granite mountains and peaks, through alpine and sub-alpine meadows, and provides light, color, and reflection (both natural and personal). Mount Lyell, Mount Dana, and Kuna Peak are over 13,000 feet in elevation with another twenty-eight peaks in the park over 12,000 feet. Flowing out of the park, the Merced is just a riot of whitewater, wild gradient, swirling eddies and froth, and sun-lit pools of green and blue.

The Cascades. Yosemite National Park.

Inside the park boundary, everything flows downhill. Dropping 2,425 feet, three separate falls combine to make Yosemite Falls the tallest waterfall in North America. Sentinel Falls (2,000 feet) and Ribbon Falls (1,612 feet) also make the list of the world’s tallest waterfalls. Horsetail Fall drops a mere 1,000 feet. Bridalveil Falls, at 620 feet, is less of a drop but stunning and one of the first falls you see when entering the park from the West. Bridalveil, with El Cap to the north and Half Dome in the far ground is a spectacular view. There are more than twenty-five waterfalls in Yosemite National Park, most of which are visible from park roads.

Moon Over Merced. Yosemite National Park.

It was a great trip, and Yosemite in winter was a photographer’s dream. I had thought that with the crowds this would be a one-time trip – but I am intrigued by the possibility of an October visit. On those rare occasions when October river and fall flows are cranking, there is a chance to see the fire fall with fewer people. Always good to have a plan B and opportunities for another trip.

“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

Pacific Madrone. Yosemite National Park.

Trip Notes:

· In winter, high elevation roads, including all roads from the east, are closed. Both Glacier Point and Tioga Roads are closed. Your best bet is one of the three western entrances, about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from the San Francisco area. We came up Route 140 along the Merced River, stayed in El Portal, and came into the valley through the Arch Rock entrance.

· Between Covid, weather, and construction, many visitor amenities are closed in winter. Plan your trip and come prepared.

· Keep your eyes open. We were driving the park loop when a lynx came out of the woods and walked along the paved path. Too quick for a photo, but a super cool sighting just the same.

· Just as with trips everywhere today, be nice! We knew the fire fall on a long weekend would be a zoo. But understanding that helped us deal with the crowds. Listening to thousands of people cheering as the sun hit El Cap and Horsetail Falls was powerful and made it worthwhile to know you were sharing this with so many others.

· Be helpful! So many first-time visitors had just heard about the fire fall. Many had no idea what it was, where to see it, or anything about the park. If people are staring at Yosemite falls in the afternoon and ask if this is where the fire fall happens – be nice and be helpful.

· There are 423 parks in the National Park System and in 2021 297 million people visited our parks. As incredible and beautiful as Yosemite is, it only ranked twenty-first in annual visits with over three million people. For reference, Zion was tenth and Yellowstone ranked twelfth. The top two most visited National Parks were the Blue Ridge Parkway (nearly sixteen million visits) and Great Smoky Mountain (fourteen million). Wow!

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Laura Brauner
Laura Brauner
Mar 05, 2022

I remember going to Yosemite with Andy when Christopher was but four months old. It was spectacular (we were there in December), cold, and peaceful. Wish we had taken more pictures but there will be a next time for us someday...😊

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