Yosemite in Autumn 2021 Trip Report

By Eric Rock on Nov 17, 2021

In the past I have spent my time in Yosemite National Park exploring the beautifully diverse evergreen forests and walking the shores of the Merced River leading natural history trips. These can be difficult trips to lead as not everyone can physically navigate the rough and varied terrain—especially if you want to get further into the wilderness setting this amazing park has to offer. Photography trips are a whole different story, as the access to most of Yosemite’s dramatic views are found along the valley’s road system or just a short distance from the road itself.

The back story for any photo trip to the American west these days is the extreme dry conditions that the changing climate brings to the region—and Yosemite is no different. The most recent three-year drought and its hold on the area streams has led to minimum or nonexistent flows of Yosemite’s waterfalls—with thick wildfire smoke choking out most chances to shoot distant vistas.

But we really lucked out. Just as our photo group was heading into the park the recent bomb cyclone moved over the High Sierra, dropping up to six inches of much needed rain, and at higher elevations the equivalent of snow. This translated into the wonderful rebirth of classic waterfall scenes like the center around Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls. This heavy precipitation over the Sierras brought refreshed views from clearing skies and new life to the wonderfully scenic Merced River, recharging the ribbon of life along the Yosemite Valley floor.

It was with great gratitude we welcomed moisture from the powerful weather event. We began our photo trip taking advantage of the rain and intermittent snow showers to get out and photograph the newfound autumn hues around some of the valley’s scenic landmarks like Cooke’s Meadow and Yosemite Chapel. The autumn colors seemed to emerge from every nook and cranny of this iconic national park. Each rainwater pool, rushing stream, and the now rushing Merced River provided the perfect medium for reflected autumn color and scenery.

The second full day of our photo trip in Yosemite promised a dawn of clearing skies so sunrise found us waiting at Tunnel view. We were rewarded with a morning of clearing weather enhanced by mist and cloud piercing light that would have Ansel Adams happily clicking away. From here on we would spend our days with early mornings to photograph the better part of blue hour over the valley and the procession of light as it begins to paint the valley’s granite monuments. With a break for lunch and a chance to regroup we were back out again for late afternoon and evening light, photographing our way to capture famous views of El Capitan, the Three Brothers, the Sentinel, and of course Half Dome along with many other valley landscape features. The popular views were enough to keep any photographer busy, but we also opted to seek out lesser-known and sometimes more intimate views of these same photogenic landscapes. Most of the time we had these “secret” spots all to ourselves—in a valley known for its popularity. With the sound of tons of plunging water from Yosemite’s roaring falls as a backdrop, we photographed Yosemite Valley—all in short distance from the road or a short distance down a neighboring trail.

The heavy snow lingered in Yosemite’s high country keeping the Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road closed and out of our reach for the entire trip. We could only imagine the snowy mountain scenery unfolding at the higher elevations. By Thursday we made it a point to venture our way to the famous Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees. Here we explored and photographed the parks largest grove of ancient conifers. Whether you are a nature photographer or not, there is something mystical about having the opportunity to stroll through this stand of towering monarchs during a raking California sunset.

On our final evening we ventured higher to obtain an elevated view of the valley. Along the way we stopped to

 photograph some of the now rushing cascades on the valley walls along with colorful stands of dogwood—now at its full autumn resplendence. The evening finished off with the sunset radiance bathing the higher monuments of Yosemite with the alpenglow that the Sierras are known for. Here we finished our shoot as the last glow faded from the granite of Half Dome’s distant face.