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Yosemite National Park - California
Yosemite National Park is one of the most visited parks in the U.S.A. It is here where Ansel Adams shot his most famous photographs after he fell in love with the awe inspiring landscape, the steep cliffs and the magnificent waterfalls.
Yosemite is like no other place I have ever visited. I have been to the Park many times and it is still my favorite destination. Every time I come to visit it looks different and something new waits to be discovered. It is not surprising considering the size of the Park (750000-acre, 1200 square miles). While most of the over 4 million visitors only see Yosemite Valley, the park has much more to offer. Mountain Climbers try their skills on the 3593 foot (about 1100m) vertical granite wall of El Capitan and Rafters ride the wild waters of the Merced River. The park draws a large crowd of professional and hobby nature and wildlife photographers.
If you are coming from L.A. you will most likely enter the Park on CA-140. CA-140 meets CA-120 in Yosemite Valley.
From the east, you can enter on CA-120. You have to cross Tioga Pass, which is not always open (see below).
The park entrance fee is $20/car. If you plan to visit at least 2 other parks within a year, you should consider buying a National Park Pass for $50. It does not include State Parks.
Prices have changed since this article was written. Now the Pass costs $80 the entrance fee is unchanged.
Yosemite Valley is unquestionably the most visited part of the park. During the summer month of June, July, August and maybe September the valley is full of visitors. Traffic jams are a common occurrence. Don’t let this discourage you from visiting the Valley. If you take a short hike along the many trails you can avoid the crowds easily. If you have only one day to visit Yosemite, this is definitely the place to go. It is also the only place in Yosemite where you can buy food. Free shuttle busses are available to get around. The bus stations are marked in the Newspaper that you will get at the entrance station.
The first photo on this page was shot during a visit in February from Tunnel View, another very popular spot. Tunnel view is where Ansel Adams took his most famous shot “Clearing Winter Storm”. As you can see, there is no bad weather for photography as dramatic weather can make a photo much more interesting. So don’t get disappointed if you get here during “bad” weather. I shot my photo under an umbrella in the rain.
To see a rainbow, you should have the sun behind you and the waterfall in front of you.
Make sure you take plenty of water with you and don’t drink the water of the stream as it has not been purified and may contain bacteria (I have seen many people do this as they ran out).
You can get a description of all hikes at the visitor center.
Very short hikes, like the one leading to Mirror Lake are even suitable for elderly people.
Very stressful hikes like the one leading to the top of Yosemite Falls (North Americas highest Cascade (2400 feet, 720m)) is only for the fittest.
If the Nevada Fall hike is too long for you, try hiking to the Top of Vernal Fall. You can stand on top of the fall and watch the millions of gallons of water rushing down 317 feet.
Two trails lead up to the fall. The one closer to the water is steeper and very wet, as the mist will wash over it constantly. It’s fun during a hot day though. If you are at the base of Vernal Fall during sunset you can see a rainbow forming across the fall (the sun rays should still hit the base of the fall – see photo). The last time I set up my tripod and waited around for about 90min. At the end of that 90min a crowd had formed around me, trying to figure out what I was waiting for. When the rainbow showed up, people couldn’t get their cameras out fast enough.
Probably the most popular hike leads to the base of Yosemite Falls. It takes about 5 minutes on foot to get here. If you are not into the longer trails, why not. I don’t care much for lots of people dancing in front of my camera. Yosemite Falls are much more impressive from Cooks Meadow (see 4th photo in this article).
My favorite places to shoot photos are (in order of importance):
During the summer month, waterfalls can be either dry or being reduced to a mere trickle. The valley will then appear less appealing. Since this is also the time when most people visit the park, I usually visit another place in Yosemite.
Glacier Point Road and Mariposa Grove
Glacier Point Road
About halfway to Glacier Point, there will be a bunch of cars parked. This is where you can find the Trail Heads to Taft Point and Sentinel Dome. Taft Point is an easy 1.1-mile hike that offers spectacular views of El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and Cathedral Rocks from high above. The best light from up here is in the morning. The trail is quite pleasant and leads through a mossy forest. You can still find snow up here in May and Wildflowers in June. Standing at the railing and looking down a 1-mile cliff can make you feel really small and insignificant. So if you have problems with your ego, don’t go there, take the trail to Sentinel Dome.
Sentinel Dome offers you a spectacular 360-degree view of the Park. The hike covers more elevation that the one to Taft Point.
Arriving at the huge parking lot of Glacier point, it is still a 3-minute trail from here.
At Glacier Point you can see almost the whole valley from about 1-mile up. Glacier point is another popular spot for sunset pictures. Come early though, as the best spots fill up quickly. The horizontal lighting of half-dome brings out its weathered face beautifully.
Mariposa Grove is Yosemite’s largest grove of giant sequoias. In winter it is not easy to reach, as the 2-mile road into the grove is closed. You have to hike on the snow.
Mariposa Grove is divided into upper and lower Grove. The largest tree (Grizzly Giant) is about 1800 years old and has seen the rise and fall of empires.
If you ever wanted to feel like an insect standing next to a tree, this is the place to go.
Up here is the perfect place to get on one of the many trails and loose the crowds. Most visitors do not explore the vastness of Yosemite, so you can find yourself completely alone. Just be aware that this is also the place where you can find most Black Bears and Mountain Lions. Unfortunately (or fortunately for others), Grizzly bears are now extinct in the park.
If you drive through the park from East to west, take CA-120 towards Tioga Pass instead of driving towards Yosemite Valley at the intersection near Crane Flat.
Immediately after the Intersection, you will come to Tuolumne Grove, another place to see giant sequoias. Even though it is not as big and magnificent as Mariposa Grove, it is still well worth the visit, especially since you can access it all year round. It’s about a hike of about 90 minutes (round trip). The trees are hard to isolate and photograph though.
About half way to Mono Lake, you will get to Olmstead Point (it is marked on the map you got at the entrance station).
Olmstead point offers a completely different angle to view the valley. You can see the backside of Half Dome from up here. Glacial erratics make a very interesting foreground (see picture below). The pine tree can make another very good subject (see picture above).
Continuing West, you will get to Tuolumne Meadows. Here you can find a gas station (hopefully you don’t need gas right now, as it is expensive), a Visitor Center and a BBQ Restaurant. I haven’t tried it though, so you are on your own. Let us know how the food was by posting it in the reviews, as an attachment to this article or in the forums.
In July Tuolumne Meadows is blooming with an unbelievable display of wildflowers. After the Snow Melt, the Meadow is usually flooded in early July. After the water is gone, flowers will show for few weeks. In summer the Meadow looks much less appealing when the Gras has become brown. Nevertheless it is a good place for hiking. Many trails do not have any significant elevation, so why not take a relaxing stroll in the woods.
For photo shootings it is usually best to be here in the late afternoon. A good place for sunset is Tenaya Lake as you can capture the reflections of the golden lit Mountains in the water or Olmstead Point.
During our last visit on a busy holiday weekend, we hiked about 5 minutes to a river. We were able to spend the better part of an hour all by ourselves before some “Intruders” walked past “our” spot.
If you continue towards Mono Lake, you will now decent from the pass. There are plenty of lakes on your right side, inviting you to stop and spend some time. If you drive continuously, you can get to Mono Lake in about 1 hour from Tuolumne Meadows.
Use one of the lower gears to brake. It is a long way down and every time I have that distinctive smell of burning brake pads in my nose from someone ahead of me. It is irritating as everybody seems to think it’s their own brakes. I have seen multiple cars pull over at the same time, people getting out and touching their brakes.
A few words of caution
If you are all by yourself in the backcountry, consider that help may not be close.
A large population of Black Bears lives in Yosemite. I had an encounter of my own with two of these wonderful animals crossing the road while I visited the park in 1996. Unfortunately my camera malfunctioned.
Bears have been known to break open cars to get food. Always wrap your food and pack it in such a way, that the bears cannot smell it. If you are camping and leaving open food containers around, that’s just asking for trouble. Remember, Bears can run faster then you and climb trees. If you see a mother with cups, don’t approach them.
Mountain lions are scared of anything really big. If you have children, pick them up and put them on your shoulders to prevent them from being attacked.
Bring enough film or memory cards. More than once have I seen people asking desperately around to buy them when all of a sudden the beautiful setting sun bathes the cliffs in red light and they ran out. On better days I shot a few hundred exposures.
Gas up. The park is big and gasoline is not available everywhere. If you come from San Francisco, get gas in Oakdale. There are still opportunities later if you don’t mind spending more money.
Mono Lake, Bodie
Hotels ‘n Stuff
As usual, traveling during the weekend has its price. If you can afford to come here during the week you will get better deals, as less people will compete for the same room.
I have been able to get some good deals in El Portal (on CA-140 just outside the park).
There are a bunch of Hotels on CA-120, but they are much farther away from the park. If you can bankroll a stay in the Park, it is obviously the better choice.
Hotels in the Park (from very expensive to less expensive)
Hotels in El Portal
These are the two main Hotels in El Portal. I stayed in both and I was very happy.
Hotels on the east side
If you exit Yosemite on the East towards Mono Lake you will get to the city of Lee Vining. The only Hotel I would stay in here is the Best Western. If you have no reservation, well good luck.
If you go south for about 40 minutes you will get to the town of Mammoth Lakes, offering plenty of Hotels. Alternatively you can go north towards Bridgeport.
Hotels near the south entrance (hwy 41)
The White Chief Mountain Lodge is located about 300 yards off highway 41 (near Fish Camp) and offers affordable rates as well as a restaurant. Tel.: 559-658-2002
The Restaurant that belongs to the Yosemite View Lodge is pretty good, but you have to wait to get a seat. They also have a Pizzeria if you cannot wait.
The Restaurant that belongs to Cedar Lodge is only a little cheaper, but the atmosphere is not nearly as good. I would rather wait for a table.
Next to the Visitor Center in Yosemite Valley there is a small Burger place and a Sandwich place. Both are not very good, but I bet after a day of hiking you wont care much and a nasty burger will sound just as good as Filet Mignon.
All Photos and Text are by Andre Gunther
I can recommend the books below. Michal Frye’s book (Photographers Guide) is one of the best I ever read. He tells you all the secrets and even teaches some photo tricks. His photos are amazing. The books by Andrew Hudson (Photosecrets) are a wonderful collection of secret places. If you don’t have the time to stalk out all hidden treasures, he did it for you.
They are very affordable (I have the one by Frye and Hudson’s book on San Francisco which also includes a chapter on Yosemite).