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After a heavy week of presentations and meetings in Silicon Valley I decided to head out to Yosemite National Park for a well-earned break. I’d not been to Yosemite at this time of year before, so I hoped to find a range of Spring flowers, Spring occurring later at higher altitudes put this into doubt! Additionally, the snow-pack for this year was only 25% of normal and so I was worried that the waterfalls would not be as full.
This blog entry is intended to be a travelogue of this trip taken in the spring of 2014. This post has been paraphrased from the original text posted during the visit using very patchy Wi-Fi connectivity.
The images in this blog are just a few from the trip, you can also find more shots in this Gallery: Yosemite Spring 2014.
Day-1 (Saturday 5th April): After changing the hire car to a small Jeep early in the morning at San Jose Airport, I headed East out of the San Francisco area to the Sierra Nevada Mountains with a planned stop in a small town called Sonora. The intention being to shop for supplies (as I would be self-catering) and to photograph a little red church that I had seen using Google when I planned the trip. The café I stopped in for lunch, upon hearing my English accent, asked if I wanted ‘fish & chips’ for lunch! After my American ‘burger and fries’ I walked through the town which still looked and felt like a cowboy frontier town. As a bonus, the tree in front of the church was in bloom and the skies were clear blue, which polarised nicely to give a pleasingly colourful image.
For the next hour or so, I drove through a severely burned Stanislaus National Forest and then into Yosemite National Park. On 17th August last year, a devastating fire started by an illegal hunter’s camp fire burned 257,314 acres, this being the 3rd largest wildfire in the history of California.
Day-2 (Sunday 6th April): On the first morning I took a drive down to the valley floor, and decided to stop at Swinging Bridge to photograph Yosemite Upper Falls from a vantage point just upstream from the bridge where the Merced River forms a strong foreground. However, the shots are disappointing as the colours are somewhat bland due to the trees in the mid-distance not being in leaf yet. I felt good though, to be back in one of my favourite locations in the world, and to shoot waterfalls which were more impressive than I had seen them in the past with the morning sun being reflected off the highlights in the water.
I decided to shoot Mirror Lake in the afternoon as on previous visits the lake was more of a puddle. The low snowfall this winter meant that still the lake wasn’t that impressive, but at least I was walking in the fresh-air, and the lake run off has many interesting rocks and water flows; one of my favourite images of the whole trip was taken here, Emerald Pools.
In the evening I headed back to the condo and stopped at Tunnel View to shoot the sunset. The good weather with blue skies put paid to dramatic shots, and this time of year the setting sun illuminates Bridalveil Falls with it’s golden glow, El Capitan out of shot to the left is in shadow. This is always a great place to talk to other photographers, whether its to get the local knowledge, exchange ideas and tips on equipment or help the less experienced; I found out where I could find the elusive orange Californian Poppy!
Day-3 (Monday 7th April): I headed West, out of the Park to Hite Cove dressed in my serious hiking clothes, rucksack which included three lenses and a tripod. Very quickly into the walk, I had to find a bush and strip off to the minimum as it was getting extremely hot. The northern hillsides at lower altitudes around Hite Cove are covered in Californian Poppies and these photographs show the diversity and colour of the Spring flora in the Sierra Nevada.
In the evening, I decided to shoot the orange setting sun on Bridalveil Falls from Valley View to get the reflections in the Merced River.
Day-4 (Tuesday 8th April): The weather again was clear and hot making macro photography difficult and my boots melted! I spent two days looking for poppies in the shade (they seem to like bright sunlight), eventually I found a small clump by a tree, so I stepped down into this small rocky gully to set up the tripod, and less than a metre away was very angry rattlesnake; I made a hasty retreat! After a few more hours in the blistering heat I found a nice group of poppies to photograph.
Day-5 (Wednesday 9th April): I decided to make a reasonably early start at the base of Bridalveil Falls whilst it was still in shade, another favourite place of mine. It’s off the beaten track, the tourists tend to stay on the path heading for the base of the fall to get drenched in the spray whilst I set up in the creek itself. Although quite dark and cool, one can loose themselves exploring the rich source of colour and texture.
Next stop was to head towards the Southern entrance of the National Park and to stop off at the Wawona Hotel, built in 1876 and is one of the oldest mountain resort hotels in California. The rooms are furnished with antiques and vintage elements and contain no TV or telephone.
Day-6 (Thursday 10th April): Perhaps one of the more famous sights of the National Park are the Yosemite Falls, the drop from the top of the Upper Fall to the base of the Lower Fall, is 2,425 feet (739m) – the sixth highest in the world. The Ahwahneechee people called the waterfall ‘Cholock’ (the fall) and believed that the plunge pool at its base was inhabited by the spirits of several witches, called the Poloti. Although this place is crawling with tourists, it’s definitely worth going to see these Falls as you can wade through the shallow pools in the run-off and explore the area to get better shots. After shooting the falls, as I was driving the valley floor, I spotted a pair of mule deer so decided to make friends and walk with them for a while. Although wild, once they realise you are no threat they do allow you to get very close!
Another favourite spot of mine is a few miles from the condo, along the winding road heading south to Wawona, is to watch the amazing colours of the setting sun through a burned forest. Whilst standing in the dark with the tripod, a family stopped to see what I was doing, and they told me that tomorrow the Wawona Hotel is re-opening after their seasonal break and that there would be a pianist playing 1920’s repertoire.
Day-7 (Friday 11th April): Another late start to the photographic day, I spent the morning in the meadow looking up at El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks on the north side of the river Merced. I was hoping for more water in the foreground, but as the snowfall was light the previous winter, the meadows which are usually flooded, were not! In the afternoon, I visited the Pioneer Yosemite History Centre close to the Wawona Hotel; in the 1950/60’s they reconstructed historic buildings from around Yosemite originally built in different eras.
There was indeed a pianist playing at the Wawona Hotel this evening which had reopened. The Hotel is a lovely place; I sat in the lounge, ordered a nice cheese plate and cool glass of Californian white wine, and sat there listening to the pianist playing music and songs from the 1920’s, such as from The Great Gatsby; it felt like I was transported back in time for a while.
Day-8 (Saturday 12th April): I’ve been in Yosemite a week now, I’ve visited all of my usual places, and some others too, and I’m running out of ideas. This means I have time to revisit the places that I didn’t do justice to, so this morning, I hope to get better light and inspiration in the meadow again beneath El Capitan. I had the camera set up on the tripod for a slow shutter speed, ND-grads, polariser – the usual configuration for me, when I saw a young deer watching me, I discounted taking a photograph as it would take too long to change lenses. Then he decided to take flight and run past me, so I grabbed the camera and tripod assembly, tried to refocus on him as he ran passed, pressed the shutter, then realised it was set to 2 second delay – beep beep beep, and worse, the mirror was locked up and so the view through the view-finder was black! I panned the camera as he ran, pointing it roughly in the right direction; I quite like the resulting very blurred image!
After the deer incident, I decided to change lenses to the 70-200mm, but couldn’t get close enough to any birds to photograph. Whilst on the way back to the Jeep I saw a group of mule deer cooling off in the river. Next stop – Tuolomne Grove which was closed due to the Rim Fire last fall, but I went in anyway! What is usually a lush green forest was a very drab brown, all shades of brown! The forest is recovering, nature finds a way, but it will take time. The sequoias can naturally withstand fire due to their thick bark layers.
Full moonrise at sunset is in three days time, and two or three days before is best for photography when the light from the setting sun and the rising moon is just about balanced. Yosemite is a long way for me to come and it would be terrible to miss such an event. So armed with a torch and flask of hot coffee, I head down to Tunnel View to claim my pitch. Unfortunately, clear skies with no drama and the moon’s elevation is too high at sunset, clearly tomorrow is the day to come back, can’t win ’em all I suppose. At least, talking to other photographers, they all seem to think now is the time of year and the place to photograph moon-bows.
Day-9 (Sunday 13th April): Today I thought I’d do something new and walk part of the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls, the hike is quite tiring with a full camera pack and tripod in the heat. The trail was also quite crowded but there are plenty of places to stop and take in the view; except perhaps the last stretch which is a narrow staircase honed out of the steep vertical cliff. The closer you get, the wetter it gets, I was glad that my gear is reasonably water tolerant. I didn’t bother dressing up, I just got soaked, it soon dries off; but one advantage of lots of spray is rainbows!
Rainbows are tricky to photograph, a polarising filter helps, however any water droplets on your optics really detracts the image – take plenty of dry lens cloths. Once you get to the top of Vernal Falls there’s a nice flat area for a picnic and rest (Emerald Pools), seems that the critters there are friendly too, they probably get well fed! Oh that reminds me, when I sat in the grill in the valley one lunchtime, I spotted a notice screwed to the tables, it read “Please do not feed the animals and birds as our highly processed foods makes them fat and unhealthy.” Not just the critters me thinks!
This night, I had calculated, should be the best night for full-moon rise at sunset, so after a trip to the condo for dinner and another flask of hot coffee, I headed for Tunnel View. What a disaster, not only were the skies clear and lacking drama, the sunset didn’t cast any colour on the cliffs at all, and the moon was never in view as its trajectory took it behind Cathedral Rocks! So I decided to go back down to the valley floor and look for inspiration. Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge looked pretty boring, so I continued round the loop and decided to call it a night, but something compelled me to stop at Valley View before the winding road took me back to the condo.
I had previously discounted the ‘bulb’ setting on the camera (I don’t possess a remote shutter release) as the longest exposure the 5d mk2 can do is 30 seconds and I don’t want to wind the ISO up to keep the noise levels at an acceptable level. So, with nothing to lose, I stood there in the dark, balanced on three rocks, with my finger on the shutter release for 4 minutes! This can be quite a calming and therapeutic experience, especially in Yosemite that late at night. You might think this next shot is daytime, except for the star-trails. I slept that night pleased that I had redeemed myself from missing the full moon rise.
Day-10 (Monday 14th April): Another varied day, first off I decided to explore a little known part of the park, described as a residential region and off limits. This led to a dirt-track, it was great to put the Jeep into 4-wheel drive and throw up some dirt. I turned round a bend and saw a little waterfall; little by Yosemite standards, but still very impressive – about as high as a three story building. The road eventually circumnavigated two mountains, so I turned back and stopped by the Merced river as things were starting to bloom. I’ve seen quite a change in the valley in just a week. I’ve been wanting to photograph the dogwoods with the river in the background, but finding a suitable subject seems extremely difficult.
The Park opened the road to Glacier Point this afternoon, so I headed up there with the intention of seeing large snow drifts; but these had already melted, I wonder why the road was closed for so long. I took a few tourist shots of the amazing views including Half Dome and Yosemite Falls far below, but photographically, I find large panoramic views extremely boring. The left shot below is a record shot of Half Dome. At Glacier Point you can see the valley 3,214 feet vertically below, I couldn’t believe one guy climbed over the barriers, calmly walked to a balanced rock, sat down and dangled his legs over the side. I don’t do heights very well, and this sight was quite unnerving.
For a change, I decided to start the evening at Sentinel Bridge for sunset on Half Dome, the idea being, the Merced river would be in the foreground giving nice reflections. Again, a noticeable absence of photographers (except one), I really wondered where they were, maybe shooting moon-bows, or prefer to come other times of the year.
The other photographer was Bruce, he had more gear strapped to his body than most photographers own! A really nice guy, and we decided to try to shoot moon bows together in Cooke’s Meadow. Although we were not successful getting a moon-bow, the full-moon light on the falls and mountainside was surreal. Bruce also lent me his EF500mm f/4.0L IS II USM prime lens with 2X converter for a few shots of the moon (focal length = 1.0m!). I also did some light-painting of a tree in bloom before calling it a night. I decided to stop at Tunnel View although anywhere would have done, to watch and shoot the Lunar Eclipse!
Day-11 (Tuesday 15th April): I’m starting to think about the journey home now and feeling very relaxed about ‘my’ Yosemite and how familiar it has become; although there is still much to explore as it covers 1,200 square miles. I’m going to take things slowly today due to the 2am lunar eclipse last night. I shot some apple blossom next to the little wooden church in the valley, then Fern Spring.
Rain water and melted snow are naturally filtered underground and emerge in the spring which runs all year round. Native Americans consider this source of water, also the source of life and has great spiritual significance. In 2006, the area was cleaned of litter, native plants were protected and many more ferns planted. Most people just drive past this little place, the lay-by is 10 feet from the spring, admittedly it was very plain in April with few plants growing. When filling up my water bottle, I often sat with other travellers doing the same, or just enjoying the shady space. Ansel Adams made an image ‘Fern Spring at Dusk’ c.1961, when the spring was flowing with more water than can be seen here!
Day-12 (Wednesday 16th April): My last day in the States this visit, it’s been a full-on and very enjoyable time. Like most iconic places, I have a certain amount of trepidation; people at home will expect some results, will I be able to ‘see’ something worthy of photographing and be able to inspire others. Yosemite must be the most photographed place in the world, it’s all been done before, but from my perspective, I want to have a go and learn and to see this wonderful place for myself. I feel its very important for photographers to allow time for self assignments, to have the freedom for experimentation, and time to enjoy the landscape and under no time pressures to move on. We all know that photography is not about the gear, but it does help, or can hinder, and in my case, the weak link I have discovered is my travel tripod. It is too flimsy, I went for a good quality, light Manfrotto tripod and magnesium head, something to fit into the suitcase, but I now realise, this is not an acceptable compromise, I shall be selling my tripods on eBay and getting a much larger, carbon-fibre tripod for travel. I think I’ll also make myself a Bluetooth camera remote/intervalometer!
I checked out of the condo by about 9:00am and headed out of the Park towards Sonora. There is a little steam engine museum I spotted on the way in, the trains run at the weekend, this being a Wednesday they were sat in dark sheds which didn’t make good photography at all. Next stop – San Francisco International Airport to get the 11 hour flight home. Please drop me a line if you want to see more, or talk about my trip, or even plan future trips/workshops together to the US.