High up on the trail – above where the conifers start to cling to their purchase, and the cliffs begin to bend toward the sky – the low winter sun avoids any and all obstructions, a warming respite from the fervent chill lingering around Yosemite’s floor.   Down below, the recent flurries have colluded in the shadows to form a frozen tundra.  But up here, in council with the sun, the snow has already begun to melt – here yesterday, gone today – the promise of cascading ephemerals forming a garland of waterfalls around the valley rim.

Looking to the West from this vantage, the shoulder of El Capitan protrudes into view, and just off its lower eastern flank, the renowned ephemeral known as Horsetail Fall shows promise.  Beginning around Valentine’s Day, through President’s day and on into late February, this waterfall of contemporary legend begins its metamorphosis into “The Fire Fall.”  Between 5:00 PM and 5:45 PM (depending on the timing of your visit) the sun emblazons a narrow sliver of El Capitan with vibrant oranges, reds and pinks – the same sliver of cliff that Horsetail Fall happens to call home.  As a result, at sunset the waterfall (and only the waterfall) radiates the semblance of molten lava, as the neighboring granite walls withdraw into the dormant world of cool hued shadows.

However, for the waterfall to glow, conditions must be superb and not just “good.”  Typically, January and/or early February must be cold and wet (and if the current forecast plays out, and early February is indeed a wet one in Yosemite, circumstances may be ripe).  Added to this, during the window of time that the sun sets in the correct astronomical position, there must be clear skies in the far West over the Coastal Range of California (and not just clear skies over Yosemite).  Therefore, you cannot count on the event happening each and every day – if any day for that matter; an elusiveness that makes even those most veteran Yosemite photographer replete with anticipation.

This event has piqued the interest of many artists.  Photographers of record from Ansel Adams to (most famously) Galen Rowell, Keith S. Walklet and Michael Frye have made it a subject of their work – with arguably one of the most successful compositions being made in 1997 by Jeff Grandy.  Today, some come to photograph the fall, while others just come for the physical thrill of being a witness.  As time has progressed, it has even become a pilgrimage and social event where photographers congregate much earlier in the day to regale each other with stories of their travels and imagery, successes and failures, and future plans.  Then hopefully, at the end of the day, Horsetail Fall progresses through its motions, culminating in a flourish of colorful, liquid pageantry.  But if not, at least the now cold, soggy and perhaps nonplussed shutterbugs have experienced a veritable Photo-Con of Yosemite tradition; even eager and well-deserving of a warm meal back at The Mountain Room in Yosemite Lodge.

Now, back on the trail, today is wrapping up and the sun is commencing its final approach on the horizon.  It reclines on the back of The Cathedral Rocks, one last requiem for the day.  My camera made it out of the bag only a few times during the hike, recording very little of consequence.  But perhaps that is just as well, for February is here and the shutter will be frantic soon enough . . . and besides, all I can think about now are my fatigued legs and dinner at The Lodge.

*Please be safe and cautious while hiking in Yosemite National Park.  Take plenty of water, food and appropriate gear, clothing and footwear for everyone in your party – especially with consideration to the duration of your hike.  Trails can be hazardous regardless of length or amount of elevation gain.  Always seek advice from authorized National Park Service rangers before venturing out on the trail in Yosemite.  In winter, trails can be icy, even long after a storm has passed through the Sierra.  Never hike at night and/or in cold conditions without the proper gear.  Permits are required for any overnight stay.  Always let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.


Half Dome, Sunset Haze, Yosemite 2014
By Phillip Nicholas

Phillip Nicholas, Staff Photographer

The High Sierra Winter. These words evoke a feeling of deep contentment that resonates within my soul. I think about the bone-chilling nights that I have spent gazing out into the vast sky for a single glimpse of the crimson peaks as the sun sets on these magnificent monoliths. I think about the many nights I have spent huddled in my tent during a snowstorm waiting for the warm breathe of the early morning light. There is nothing in this universe that is quite like it – the peerless, white, snowcapped peaks extending as far as one can see, the wind-swept trees bending as if bowing to the greater power of the harsh winter, the gentle whispers of the chilling mountain air, and a silence that is both comforting and foreboding, a silence that beckons the artist.

Half Dome, Sunset Haze, Yosemite 2014 © by Phillip Nicholas – all rights reserved

During the winter months, the park goes mostly silent. The traffic dies down to a low rumble and faces become scarce in the expansive stretch of the valley. It is a wonderful time to be a photographer in Yosemite. The tripod holes of summer enthusiasts start to disappear and places that are as packed as any other summer beach become vacant. These are the times that I most enjoy photographing. Like my fellow artists, I also enjoy the views from Cook’s Meadow and Sentinel Bridge.  However, my favorite places are far away from any roads. As the weather gets colder and the park empties, I head out into the backcountry. It may take me a day or two to get to many of these spots, but I am rarely disappointed. I find that, the higher I go into the vastness of the Sierra, the more beautiful the light gets.

Recently, I stumbled across just such an example of beautiful light.  The accompanying photograph is taken from atop Mount Watkins during the first storm in February. Standing at 8,500 feet above sea level, the massive Mount Watkins offers outstanding views of Clouds’ Rest, the Clark Range, Half Dome, North Dome, Mount Starr King, and many more. As I stood on top of this enormous mountain, I watched the storm clouds build around me in every direction. I set up my tripod on the east side of the mountain to exemplify the sloping east face and add an interesting angle to the photograph. Just as the sun was setting, a few light and wispy clouds came into view and caught some of the vibrant orange light, creating a hazy effect. The hues changed from yellow to orange, and then from red to pink. I made this exposure just as the sun burst through a cloud system to the west, forming a hard line on the face of Half Dome and illuminating the sky a final time for the evening.

Getting to many of these locations requires a good sense of mountaineering and the ability to analyze a map. I would suggest packing a tent and camping at one of the designated use areas to spread the long hike out into a multi-day adventure. For a small fee, a backcountry permit can be acquired from the Visitor Center in Yosemite Valley.  The rangers will also be happy to provide some free maps and other useful tips. It is always a good idea to take an experienced guide with you if you are not familiar with the area, as the terrain can be extremely dangerous.


Young Cottonwood, Yosemite Valley
By Evan Russel


Evan Russel, Curator and Staff Photographer

I’m willing to admit it: I’m not much of a morning person. . . especially in winter.  As a photographer, this puts me in a bit of a quagmire.  And it makes any photographic success during the early parts of the day even more difficult to endorse.  This is due mostly to the fact that I know I should be out during those “artistic” hours, and that the light is magnanimous.  It is just that the outside, frozen world looks so uncompromising, and my heated Yosemite bungalow so cozy.

Last winter, the photographer in me woke up early one day, determined and well layered, to trace the banks of The Merced River.  A few weeks prior, I had been teaching a couple of eager visitors during one of The Ansel Adams Gallery’s guided photo sessions, and from our vantage point on the boardwalk, we noted the elegant light on the cottonwood trees right along the river’s edge.  We stayed and played a little while as the sun rose and shifted in the sky, but eventually had to leave in pursuit of a more comprehensive Yosemite experience.  Returning on my own time, and at a casual pace, I found several compositions worthy of consideration, compositions that compounded as the day progressed.

Young Cottonwood, Yosemite Valley © by Evan Russel – all rights reserved


About mid-way through my morning, while I stood on the north bank of the river near Swinging Bridge, I noticed “Young Cottonwood, Yosemite Valley.”  The sapling stood very resolute in the distance, backlit and regal on its plinth of brush.  Due to the distance between the subject and myself, a 300mm lens was required to crop accordingly.  Furthermore, this long focal length gave the added illusion of compressed space, exaggerated proportions and created a planar tapestry from the framework of cottonwood branches lingering in the shadows.  Symmetry was key to the organization of the space and to give weight to the main subject.  Therefore, much time was spent lining up the brush, young cottonwood and background branches to ensure a left/right balance without introducing extemporaneous pieces like a wayward foreground limb or a bright mottled sky behind the canopy.  Almost too much time in fact, as one minute after this exposure, light began to filter over the cliff and illuminate the entire scene, making the isolation of the young tree unfeasible.  Which just goes to show you, the early photographer gets the light – or perhaps, the right amount of light as the case may be.

Of all the exposures made that morning, “Young Cottonwood, Yosemite Valley” quickly became my favorite – although I have found myself in the darkroom revisiting other images made that day.  I find the bare trees, unable to hide their structural patterns behind a façade of leaves, full of photographic potential, and highly recommend their study for your next winter visit.

The Intimacy Of Changing Seasons, Yosemite National Park, 2014
By Michael Wise

Michael Wise, Staff Photographer

Recently, while guiding another photographer in Yosemite Valley, I was engaged in some interesting comments and conversation.

Chasing the winter light can be a fun adventure in Yosemite Valley. The sun is at a low access to the horizon and resides part of the day hidden behind the cliff walls. The south side of the valley remains in shade the majority of the day. And even though we have visions of being presented with amazing cloud formations and spiritual light beams, this surprisingly does not always occur, and brilliant blue skies prevail.

I accompanied an experienced photographer who traveled from his home in a warm temperate climate to Yosemite National Park. Unaccustomed to the snow, this gentleman anticipated the thrill of photographing landscapes in wintry conditions. Unfortunately, he was not afforded so much of the snowy scenery during his visit, as weather has been quite absent from the Sierra this year.  However, winter still presented its special charm.

Consequently, on this particular private photography guide, one involving relatively cloudless days, we found ourselves exploring the southern banks of the Merced River. Or, more appropriately stated, the thick ice leading into the water from the banks edge. We discovered many opportunities to photograph intimate landscapes: cracked ice patterns, water reflections, and frosted leaves for example.  And this is the setting that inspired some interesting thought.

The Intimacy Of Changing Seasons, Yosemite National Park, 2014

The Intimacy Of Changing Seasons, Yosemite National Park, 2014 © by Michael Wise – all rights reserved

Despite his participation and relative joy in this approach, my new friend stated that intimate landscape photography is somewhat “timid.”  Consider Ansel Adams, who encountered similar situations. Ansel writes about a time when he was photographing a very intimate subject and an honored friend questioned his purpose. This friend stated that the “abstract” landscape photograph had “no meaning,” and thus, no thrill of purpose.

I could elaborate, but perhaps that it best served in a future post. Instead, I will ask our readers for your thoughts concerning these statements and intimate landscapes. I wonder if there is “meaning” in the presented image.

Clearing Storm, Bridal Veil, Yosemite National Park
By Mike Reeves

Mike Reeves, Staff Photographer

It is said that sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. In the case of photography, I would say that is usually the case during heavy storms here in Yosemite. A photographer can wait for hours for clouds to part or for the sun to come out.  But other times, as if on cue, you can simply pull up to a viewpoint and have the clouds magically part as soon as you arrive.

Clearing Storm, Bridal Veil, Yosemite National Park © by Mike Reeves – all rights reserved

This image was taken in February 2012 as several small storms made their way through the valley. A couple of days before, the mountains were free of snow but all of a sudden the forecasts changed and storm systems brought colder temperatures and snowy conditions. Because of Yosemite’s tall cliffs, we often see drastic change in temperatures during storms, which can quickly cause fog to linger. As I was waiting for the right moment at Tunnel View, El Capitan was relatively clear but Bridalveil Fall started to become enshrouded by a persistent cloudbank. Over about 2 hours, two storm cells passed through the area. After each, the view was completely clogged by a soupy fog. The few people that remained waiting at Tunnel View were determinedly pointing their cameras directly into what amounted to a white abyss!

Trying to be patient during a storm is often easier said than done. The snow is wet, the wind is cold, and hoping the storm clears can often be little more than a pipe dream. However, on this occasion, the clouds parted to reveal Bridalveil Fall highlighted within successive layers of clouds and mist, as The Three Graces loomed above, dusted with fresh snow. Most of the crowd had left, and those that had waited were rewarded with this classic scene revealing itself one more time.  So I encourage one and all to be resilient (shy of being foolish), as they hope for The shot.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply