“A picture is worth a thousand words”, so goes the idiom.They can recall memories so profound; the song on the radio, the light in the room, or the laughter that surrounded you.They can make you feel the joy that was in your heart all over again in an instant. If I close my eyes, I can transport to the very spot where I felt truly alive. I can recall the smile spread across my face when I took a moment to look at the image I had just captured. I’m enthralled with my memories and photos as much as I was the day I was there. As I gazed down Tunnel View at Yosemite National Park, I truly found my paradise.
As we are enduring the hottest of summer months currently, all I can do is sit and plan for future trips. To get my mind off the mind-numbing heat here in Texas I started thinking about past trips, one of which was a winter trip to Yosemite National Park. Reminiscing about the snow capped Badger Pass instantly gets my mind off the sweltering heat. Winter trips to national parks are in my opinion under-appreciated by many, however to me, it's one of my favorite times to visit. Many stick to visiting most parks during the summer months, obviously for family vacations, and when everyone can escape away for a nature filled weekend. I can agree sometimes winter brings challenges, whether it be snow and ice, lack of lodging locations, school, work... really the list is endless, but the if you’re willing to conquer the obstacles in the way, the experiences will be worth it.
I have had the pleasure of experiencing Yosemite in the midst of each season. The most cherished season, for me, is right at the cusp of the winter thaw of late February and early March. This past year I watched on in awe, alongside spectators, the Horsetail Falls during the annual Firefalls event, where if the weather is just right and the sun hits at just the perfect angle, the water appears to catch fire. It illuminates into a spectacular array of yellow, orange, and red as if the sun were flowing down the mountain itself. There is no other place like it in the country.
While visiting, my wife and I decided to indulge in all that Yosemite had to offer. With a wide abundance of activities, we decided to enjoy skiing and snowshoe hiking in Badger Pass (information on Ranger guided tours can be found here). Photo tours are also available with the most prized and personal favorite of mine being the tours and workshops offered by the Ansel Adams Gallery. Venturing out just before sunrise and continuing through dusk to view the stars, our guide took us to some the of the most treasured locations in Yosemite, as well as a few off-path locations for a more personalized experience. With a limited amount of time and so much to see, it was a wonderful surprise from my wife that I’ll remember forever. Typically I’m in favor of hunting for original shot ideas, however it can be such an eye opening experience having a guide who knows the ins and outs of the park. For instance, one shot was set up in the back of a parking lot, through a small group of trees looking down the Merced River with the mighty Half Dome in the distance. Without my guide I would never have stumbled on that great location.
If you are considering a visit, and while there is certainly never a dull moment in Yosemite, I would definitely stress the importance of scheduling a trip according to the leisure you’re looking to enjoy. Summer in Yosemite (which is also stunning) is the busiest tourist season for the park. From personal experience, while passing though the valley on a cross country motorcycle trip several years ago, finding a parking space posed to be a very difficult task and I was unable to stop to enjoy the incredible scenery as I passed. Think of Disney World, Epcot, and MGM all piled together. I discovered during my winter trip that not only was I able to move from place to place more easily and freely, but that there were moments (especially when photographing late at night) where I felt as if I had the entire park to myself, giving me the opportunity to witness the power of nature in such an exclusive way. If you are planning on traveling to the popular overlooks, a trip in late winter may be more enjoyable to those looking to avoid the influx of crowds and have a more personal experience with their surroundings. Also, the prices during the off-season at parks drastically reduces. We were able to stay at Yosemite Valley Lodge, which is located right in the heart of the park, for less than $100 dollars a night and it also included free lift tickets for skiing at Badger Pass.
As a photographer, I am frequently asked what gear I would recommend when touring Yosemite. I personally travel as light as possible. I have found that the less gear I carry, the more I can enjoy my surroundings and capture photos that I’m truly satisfied with. Two years ago, I made the switch to the FujiFilm mirrorless X system from my Nikon DSLR gear, and I have been completely happy with my change. It also fits perfectly with my “pack light, travel often” theory. During my last trip, I brought along my trusted Fuji XT-1 mirrorless camera with a 10-24mm f4 wide angle lens, as wells as a 50-140mm 2.8 telephoto lens. I also packed my trusted Novo carbon fiber tripod. Unfortunately my go-to XT-2 was in the shop for some much needed TLC when I left for the excursion. My next visit to Yosemite will include just my Fuji GFX 50s, 23mm, 32-64mm, and the 110mm for some impromptu portraits, if the opportunity arises.
If you are planning on photographing Yosemite in all its glory, I would recommend a wide angle lens to capture the details in the vast spaces of the valleys. However, when photographing from a distance (which is the case of most of the overlooks), such as Horsetail Falls, I would recommend a telephoto lens to get a different perspective. While I was photographing the brief glimpse of the Firefalls I secretly envied the other photographers who had packed longer glass. However after returning to my studio and culling my images, I’m happy with the 200mm I had at my disposal. Ultimately, pack what you’re comfortable with. If you’re comfortable, your confidence will reflect in your photos.
With all Yosemite has to offer, stunning scenery to photograph, and miles to travel, I hope you decide to visit at this incredible time of year. Remember to capture all of the beauty not only with your lens, but but with your mind. Indulge in the peace and the stillness of the snow; commit it to the soul. It may just be the best experience of your life. Only a couple more months before the weather cools, the leaves drop, and its nice and crisp again. Are your bags packed yet?
"It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter."
~ John Muir