Posted by: kerryl29 | July 5, 2017

Yosemite National Park, Days 1 & 2

It took me roughly 14 hours to get to Yosemite National Park from my base in Chicago.  That included a flight of approximately four hours and a drive of about the same duration from San Francisco International Airport to Yoesmite’s western gate.  Add, in no particular order, the usual airport nonsense on both ends, the drive to O’Hare and a stop for provisions on the drive to the park and you have…a long day.

Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California

I had a bit more than an hour of daylight remaining once I finally reached the park.  As I mentioned in the intoductory post to this series, I’d been to Yosemite once before–16 years earlier.  I didn’t remember all that many details from the previous visit–when the conditions in the park were far different (hotter and drier–my previous visit was in early September) than I’d experience this time around, so I hoped that I’d have a few hours for exploration on this first evening–to establish a sunrise location for the following day, at the very least.

Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California

That wasn’t going to happen.  Not surprisingly, in retrospect, I was pretty much immediately entranced by early views of the Merced River and stopped at a roadside pullout where I spent about 45 minutes producing a few images that would prove to be pretty pedestrian.  I made it another mile or so, caught the sight of some dogwoods across the river and stopped again, in what was now fading light.  I still hadn’t set foot in the valley proper, and I really shouldn’t have stopped, but I couldn’t help myself.  I hadn’t expected to see blooming dogwoods in the valley–I’d been led to believe that I’d be too late for the dogwood bloom in all but the highest elevations of the park–so I was pleasantly surprised to have been misinformed.

Merced River and Dogwoods, Yosemite National Park, California

The sun was almost down by now and the granite peaks and towers high above me were catching the last rays of the day.

Merced River at Sunset, Yosemite National Park, California

By the time I finally reached the Pohono Bridge, at the far western end of the valley, the sun was down.  I rounded a bend on Southside Drive, just beyond the bridge, and saw a brilliant sky in the rearview mirror.  I pulled off the road, grabbed my gear and raced to a nearby, unnamed meadow.  I quickly sought out a composition–something I hate to do when the light is changing–and managed one image before the sky faded to gray.

Yosemite Valley at Sunset, Yosemite National Park, California

While the photography was over, I spent another 20-odd minutes finding my way to Bridalveil Falls and Tunnel View before heading out.  I hoped that this would save me some time the next day but it was evident that a good chunk of my first full day in the valley would be spent getting my bearings in the valley proper.

Sunrise during my time in Yosemite was around 5:40 AM, which meant a lot of days getting up at 4 to be out the door by 4:30 so I could be on site by 5 or thereabouts.  That pattern began on Day 2 (May 15), though there would be no sunrise this day.  The forecast was for cloudy conditions with a strong likelihood of showers moving in by late morning.  I found my way to the deserted Sentinel Bridge parking area by a bit after 5 AM and started wandering around.  I spent the next few hours amid Cook’s and Sentinel Meadows, in the eastern part of the valley.

Yosemite Falls Reflections from Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California

While Yosemite National Park is notorious for crowded conditions (more on that in a later thematic post) I discovered that for several hours after daybreak there were few people around, regardless of where I went.  This was helpful for exploring–and for image making, as I didn’t have to worry about people straying into my field of view.

Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge Black & White, Yosemite National Park, California

It didn’t take me long, given the wide views of the meadows, to orient myself with regard to some of the iconic Yosemite features:  Half Dome, Sentinel Dome, Yosemite Falls, Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, etc.  I spent the remainder of the non-crowded part of the morning doing a combination of scouting and photographing.  The light was even, which was good for some things; for those objects that did better with something other than a cloudy sky, I made some mental notes about what conditions would lend themselves to a return visit later in the week.

Yosemite Falls from Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California

The valley was very, very wet.  After a record winter snowfall, the melting snow pack was now filling the waterfalls to bursting.  And the Merced River had overflowed its banks in places, creating standing water in spots that are normally dry.  The marshy areas of the meadows invariably contained pools of water.  All of this made for an emphasis on reflections.

Sentinel Meadow Reflections, Yosemite National Park, California

And waterfalls.

Yosemite Falls from Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California

From Cook’s Meadow, north of the Merced River, I wandered over to Yosemite Falls and walked the short trail to the foot of the cataract.  I thought I’d see what sorts of compositions I could make from this spot, but the spray was overpowering.  Even though there was virtually no ambient wind, the breeze being generated by the waterfall itself was whipping the nearby trees back and forth and generating enough mist to make any attempt to photograph from this spot an exercise in frustration and misery.  I retreated back down the trail and found numerous spots from which to photograph Yosemite Falls.

Lower Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

One of the noteworthy things about Yosemite Valley is that the waterfalls are so large and the views are so commanding that there are numerous ways to incorporate the major falls into scenes.

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

Upper Yosemite Falls Black & White, Yosemite National Park, California

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

After several hours working around Cook’s and Sentinel Meadows, I moved west, took a look at El Capitan Meadow (without photographing, though I scouted extensively) and then moved on to inspect the area near Bridalveil View, at the western end of the valley.  I found blooming dogwoods at the edge of the Merced River and decided that the conditions warranted breaking out the camera again.

Bridalveil Falls from Bridalveil View, Yosemite National Park, California

It was difficult to get into position to produce the above image–which itself necessitated focus stacking to keep the foreground and background sharp.  I had to wedge my way behind a large rock while the tripod–low to the ground–was delicately balanced on a steep slope that dropped to the river’s edge.  It took some doing; the hardest part was establishing the exact composition because it was very difficult to see the image on either the LCD screen in Live View or through the camera’s optical viewfinder, given the position of the rig.  But I persevered.  I also found several other compositions I liked, none of which required contortions on my part.

Bridalveil Falls from Bridalveil View, Yosemite National Park, California

Bridalveil Falls from Bridalveil View, Yosemite National Park, California

Bridalveil Falls from Bridalveil View, Yosemite National Park, California

I wrapped my way around the drive to the area near the Pohono Bridge, where I admired some beautiful flowering dogwoods.  But this spot, by this time in the morning, was windy, so I while I put forth some effort scouting, I did no shooting.  Instead, I wandered on foot to the nearby Fern Springs, where numerous intimate images are possible.

Fern Springs, Yosemite National Park, California

Fern Springs, Yosemite National Park, California

I had to wait out a brief shower while at Fern Springs (a portent of things to come).  When I wandered back to my car, which I had parked in a pullout near Pohono Bridge, I walked across the bridge and found a shot that I thought I could make without much influence from the wind.  So picked my way down to the edge of the Merced River, just above the bridge, and set up.

Dogwoods, Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California

After making mental notes of several shots to attempt on return visits (there would be several to the Pohono area), I followed the drive to the Bridalveil parking area and more or less repeated the experience at Yosemite Falls.  I followed the paved trail–after picking my way through a partially flooded parking lot–up to the foot of Bridalveil Falls and, predictably, observed the massive breeze created by the powerful waterfall as it blew mist all over everything.  I retreated, again, without ever making an attempt to photograph.

It was late morning by now and I worked my way back to the west, out of the valley, to the parking area near Cascade Falls.  The crowds were coming in earnest now, and the less time I spent in the valley proper, the better, I figured.  The Cascade Falls lot was about 2/3 full, but people typically stop here only briefly before moving on.  I had no trouble photographing both the falls and the creek below, though I did have to wait out a couple of misleading peeks of sunshine.

Cascade Creek, Yosemite National Park, California

Cascade Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

The area containing Cascade Falls is a narrower canyon, of sorts, than the broader Yosemite Valley to the east.  Perhaps that’s why fewer people congregate here, even though Cascade Falls is ostensibly as impressive as the waterfalls in the valley.

Cascade Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

Cascade Creek, Yosemite National Park, California

Cascade Creek, Yosemite National Park, California

It was early afternoon by now and the rain still hadn’t fallen in earnest.  In fact, it was about as bright as it had been all day, though still overcast.  I decided, as long as it was cloudy, to head up into the high country, via Big Oak Flat Road, which leads up to the Tioga Road.  Tioga Pass was closed, due to all the snow (up to 14 feet in places, according to contemporaneous reports) but the road was open as far as the Tuolumne Grove of sequoias.  Another sequoia grove–the Mariposa Grove, located in the high country to the south–was closed (due to extensive trail work, the area closed in 2016 and isn’t due to reopen until fall of 2017), but the Tuolumne Grove, though less impressive from a sequoia standpoint, reportedly had a large number of dogwoods and, if they were in bloom, the even light of this cloudy day would be perfect, I reasoned.

On the way, I decided to make a side trip to Foresta Falls, located in a relatively newly obtained and very lightly visited parcel of the park.  Foresta, located on Crane Creek, is accessed by following a lonely road into the middle of nowhere, basically, which dead ends at a trailhead–an old decommissioned county road–that leads about 1.5 miles to the falls.  When I got to the trailhead I found the tiny parking area deserted.  I gathered my things and made the relatively easy hike to the falls.  I was there in about 15 minutes.  While much, much smaller than the main falls in the valley (and Cascade Falls, for that matter), the water flow was still prodigious and the spray significant.  I walked across an old bridge that crosses Crane Creek just below the falls; it was impossible to photograph Foresta from here as the spray was too great.  I went to the far side of the bridge and found a very photogenic tree skeleton to use for secondary interest and went about fine tuning my composition.

Foresta Falls Black & White, Yosemite National Park, California

I then went further down the trail on the far side of the bridge and broke out the telephoto lens.

Foresta Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

On the walk back to the parking area, I saw a scene down in the creek that looked interesting.  Getting to creekside for a closer look took some doing as I had to scramble down the steep hillside and then climb down a rocky ledge to the edge of Crane Creek.  But I was glad I did when I saw the scene before me.  I set up my tripod very low and produced the below image.

Crane Creek, Yosemite National Park, California

I was thinking about other scenes I might investigate along the creek bed when it started to rain.  Great.  I knew that I had to get back up that steep bank–I’d descended about 75 feet from the ridge that contained the trail–before it got extremely wet or I might not make it out of the gorge.  So I worked quickly, but carefully, and got out without incident.  But it continued to rain, lightly, for the rest of the uphill slog back to the car–a distance of about a mile.

It took me about 30 additional minutes to get up to the Tuolumne Grove–a couple thousand feet in elevation above Yosemite Valley.  The car thermometer was reading 39 degrees when I pulled into the parking area (it had been about 60 down in the valley).  Shortly after I arrived, it seemed to stop raining.  Against my better judgment, I decided to make the four-mile round trip hike (with several hundred feet of elevation change) down into the grove.  Sure enough, when I got about 3/4 of a mile down the trail, it started to sprinkle and it never really stopped, thought it slackened several times.  I used the opportunity mostly to scout.  The dogwoods were magnificent.

Sequoias and Dogwwods, Tuolumne Grove, Yosemite National Park, California

I pulled the camera out a couple of times, when the rain was especially light, and produced two usable images.

Dogwood Intimate, Tuolumne Grove, Yosemite National Park, California

Finally, I had to put the camera away for good as the rain got harder.  While cursing the rain–which, coupled with the cold, made for a pretty miserable experience on the hike back uphill to the parking area even though I’d come prepared with a garbage bag to cover my tripod–I had seen enough to know I had to come back at some point to capture more of what I’d seen in the grove.

It was about 6 PM by the time I got back to the car–a bit more than two hours before the theoretical sunset.  But the rain never stopped the rest of that day so I packed it in at this point.  The forecast for the next day was very similar to this one–cloudy with rain likely beginning late morning.  I was fine with the cloudy part (that would give me more chances to shoot at the Pohono Bridge area and to revisit the Tuolumne Grove.  The likelihood of even light was important, because the forecast for the rest of my time at Yosemite was for a series of bright, sunny days, but I was hoping to escape the rain…



  1. Great pictures!!!

  2. So excited to see your Yosemite blog. We made an effort to visit the Park in May, but were not able to enter the park from Mammoth Lakes. The Park had not attempted to plow the excessive volume of snow to open the Park from the East. Misinformation about Park access from the East was a huge disappointment as we were eager to visit Yosemite. Thank you for the wonderful photography, your travel locations, roads, and sites should we visit Yosemite next year. Wanted a few Half Dome photos for canvas art. Your descriptions will be most helpful for a future visit. We enjoy ALL your blog posts…excites us to visit your many beautiful destinations in U.S. and Canada.

    • Thanks very much for taking the time to leave a comment and, not incidentally, for the kind words therein.

      Access to Yosemite from the east is via Tioga Pass–at more than 10,000 feet above sea level, the highest elevation pass in the Sierra-Nevada. Tioga Road opened less than a week ago–on June 29. That’s the latest the road has opened since 1995, but is roughly commensurate with other years where similar amounts of snow have fallen in the Sierras. There was really never any realistic chance that the road would open at any point in May this year.

      To reach the Eastern Sierra I had to cross the mountains via Carson Pass…Sonora, Ebbetts and Monitor Passes (in addition to Tioga) were all still closed when I crossed on May 20. When I visited the Mammoth Lakes area (on May 22, as I recall) it was closed above Twin Lakes due to the still copious amounts of snow. I’m pondering a future trip to the Eastern Sierra in the early fall, when Tioga Pass (and Mammoth Lakes, Virginia Lakes, etc.) should all be accessible.

      In any event, I’ll be chronicling my experiences in Yosemite Valley and beyond in future posts in the series; I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

  3. Hi Kerry, Such beautiful scenes that you captured flawlessly, as usual. I really enjoyed this post and looking forward to the seeing the rest of this trip.

  4. I’m so glad you went to Foresta Falls and stopped at Fern Spring. These are definitely little known treasures in Yosemite. Your descriptions and photographs make me feel like I am back there again. We had the heavy flow in the rivers and waterfalls, but the dogwood weren’t as lovely as those you encountered.

    • Fern Spring is so close to the Pohono Bridge that I couldn’t see passing it up.

      The weather conditions were ripe for Foresta Falls and since I was on my way up Big Oak Flat Road I couldn’t see passing it up. The Foresta experience was truly unique because it’s a rare thing to be anywhere in Yosemite in the middle of the day and literally not see another soul for an hour or two.

      The dogwood situation was unexpected. I’d been led to believe that the dogwood bloom in the valley peaks in late April. Since I didn’t arrive until mid-May I figured there would be no dogwood blooms at all. Perhaps it was the impact of the volume of the winter snows; perhaps it was a cooler/wetter than normal spring…but whatever it was, the dogwood blossoms were at peak during my entire time in the valley. What was equally surprising is that as nice as the blooms were along the Merced River and Tenaya Creek, they were just as fully formed and at peak at the higher elevations–the Tuolumne Grove and at spots along the Wawona Road to the south. I wouldn’t think that they would ever be at peak at the same time in both places, but there it is.

  5. Hard to pick a favorite here with such lovely choices. The beautiful simplicity of the tree skeleton with Foresta Falls for a backdrop is luscious (in color, of course! 😀 ) with the dogwood intimate for frosting. Can’t wait to see the rest of your trip.

    • Thanks, Gunta! There’s plenty more to come. Truth be told, to date I’ve only processed a bit more than half the material I brought back with me.

  6. Stunning images, Kerry….wow….

  7. […] I continued west until I reached El Capitan Meadow.  Unlike the previous day, where I’d only scouted, I pulled out my gear and wandered around a bit, surprised to find […]

  8. […] Bridalveil Falls, under significantly different conditions than those I had encountered on my first full day in the […]

  9. […] by driving to a spot along the Northside Drive of Yosemite Valley that I’d checked out on the first full day of the trip:  a location where the Cathedral Rocks formation, on the south side of the valley, is […]

  10. […] signs were unmistakable from the word go.  On Sunday, May 14, the day I drove from the Bay Area to Yosemite National Park on CA-140, when I was within about an hour of the park […]

  11. Thank you for taking the time to blog about your trip. My family is planning a trip this year, the last week of May 1st of June, to California. While there I was trying to plan a 2 day trip for myself to photograph the park. This will be very helpful. Thank you again, and very beautiful photos.

    • Thanks, and I’m gratified to know that the Yosemite posts are of use to you. If I can be of any further assistance please don’t hesitate to let me know.

  12. […] when I returned to California in May of 2017–ostensibly to spend time photographing in Yosemite National Park and the Eastern Sierra, I specifically built in a few days to make the extremely long and entirely […]

  13. […] reminded me of what it was like getting close to Bridalveil Falls, or Lower Yosemite Falls, in Yosemite National Park–it’s impossible to photograph from this spot without water droplets getting all over […]

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