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Yosemite in Autumn
2023 Trip Report

I’ve visited Yosemite on different occasions over the years, primarily in spring when the valley is green and the waterfalls are flowing at full tilt. I recall on a number of occasions just staring up at any one of the falls and being fully mesmerized by the illusion they were falling in slow motion, but knowing they were actually falling at a terminal velocity of about 20 miles per hour over thousands of feet.

The scale of things is hard to discern in Yosemite Valley until you finally spot ant-like climbers part way up one of the massive cliff faces. Only with that human scale in the frame can you really appreciate the grandeur of the valley’s main geographic features. For reference, the sheer face of El Capitan is over 3000 feet high, 3 times the height of the Eiffel Tower, and 2 ½ times the height of the Empire State Building. 

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Those initial springtime experiences shaped my impression of Yosemite as a place of water and stone that’s best seen at that time of year. As a result, I usually told people to go to Yosemite in May, to witness this amazing spectacle of the waterfalls before the peak summer crowds arrived. But my recent experience of being there in autumn for a full week has turned that initial impression of Yosemite on its head. Yes, it may be a place of water and stone, but in autumn it transcends into a place of light.

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As awesome as the springtime is there, I think autumn offers more photographic opportunities overall. Most of the waterfalls are still running to some degree, but there’s also autumn color and more interesting plays of light and shadow that highlight different aspects of the terrain in dynamic ways. The light had a more ethereal, painterly quality to it than I ever recall, and after just a week spent chasing it, I’m already addicted.

I arrived in Yosemite a few days early to scout and reorient myself with its magnificence. It felt a bit overwhelming at first with so many iconic views and geographic features made famous by many photographers such as Carleton Watkins, Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell and many others following in their tripod feet steps, so to speak. But after a methodical, well-below-the-speed-limit route around the valley floor looking out the side windows more than the windshield to study every angle and viewpoint along the one-way loop, it became clear that a week spent amid this neck-bending corner of our planet would be full of potential. Note to self: rent a convertible when you go there next time so you can look up while driving. Note to Joe: let’s buy a van and cut the roof off of it just for this tour.

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Although Yosemite Valley seems incredibly grandiose, it’s actually quite compact and easy to navigate compared to other locations we photograph on most tours. From our Yosemite Lodge base, there were several field locations within a short walk or drive. How nice it was to leave the van parked at the lodge on several occasions and just walk out into a meadow with photogenic options in nearly every direction. That almost never happens.

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Case in point was day 1, shoot 1. Following an early breakfast at the lodge (believe it or not, there’s a Starbuck’s at the lodge too, for all you coffee snobs out there like me), we walked east out of the parking area to Cook’s Meadow to focus our lenses on a particular elm tree that, although beautifully symmetrical, was adorned by dingy brown autumn leaves.

I was hoping people weren’t thinking that I was nuts for taking them to a brown tree. After all, it looked terrible in that pre-dawn blue light. But I also was thinking, and perhaps saying out loud, “wait for it… waaait for it”. In this case, the “it” was the sun about to crest the flank of Half Dome and bathe the tree in golden morning backlight. And when it did, every single one of those dingy brown leaves transcended into a stunning, luminescent copper. As a bonus, a serendipitous wisp of ground fog only about 5 feet high blanketed most of the meadow around and below the tree. I felt like a hero. What a way to start a week in this treasured landscape.

Over the course of the following days, we settled into a comfortable rhythm exploring numerous locations and vantage points both low and high. One afternoon we decided to take a longer drive up the Tioga Pass Road out to Olmsted Point for sunset. Along the way, we stopped at Siesta Lake to photograph shimmering autumn grasses along its shore. At Olmsted Point, we photographed late afternoon and sunset light on glacial erratic boulders, ancient Sierra Juniper trees growing straight out the granite slick rock and a distant yet striking view of Half Dome to the south, glowing pink in the setting sun.

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In regard to autumn foliage, although a lot of it in the valley floor was either not turned or not there at all, we found beautiful pockets of color along the Merced River lower in the valley. Here, a kaleidoscope of foliage and leaf litter decorated the banks of the creek, with pocket views of the peaks above. Reflections and leaves caught in eddies made for creative long exposures. Another autumn color bonanza was found near the historic Yosemite Chapel, where oaks emerged from lichen-covered granite boulders. It was a secluded haven  for intimate landscapes with no wind, even light in the shade of the mountain, and texture everywhere.

Since any tour wouldn’t be complete with at least one challenging man-made environmental condition, ours was an unexpected, prescribed burn along a portion of the valley floor. When I first saw the “Controlled Burn” signs along the loop road, I couldn’t believe it. What would we do if the valley filled with smoke all week? I imagined how bad that could be for us, but thankfully the smoke from the burn tended to stay fairly close to the fire itself all week, leaving the rest of the valley relatively clear. In some cases, a light veil of smoke that drifted into our location provided a degree of artistic atmosphere, especially when backlit and in context with subjects at close proximity. Some of my favorite images of the week were in fact made possible by the smoke, with crepuscular rays beaming through trees and down onto the rugged landscape. Yosemite National Park became Yo-Smok-ety National Park at times, but we made lemonade out of it, and it was delicious.  

In keeping with the modus operandi of JVO tours that it’s good to start and finish strong, the final sunset shoot didn’t disappoint. At some point during the tour, I recall noticing the waxing moon above the valley as we returned from dinner. Later that night as my head finally hit the pillow, a light bulb went off. Would the moon come into play toward the end of the week?? We hadn’t timed this tour according to the moon phase at all, but after checking my Photo Ephemeris App, it seemed like we had.

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According to the data, the full moon would rise over the High Sierra within minutes of sunset on our last day—the perfect orbital synchronicity when you can capture detail on the sunlit face of the full moon and sunset light on the landscape all in one exposure.

As long as you’re standing in the right place at the right time. The hunt for a location was on, but unlike the days of calculating everything with a base plate compass, topographic map and high-school trigonometry, technology makes this task way too easy. Although I sometimes didn’t know exactly where we’d end up shooting on any given day, I knew exactly where we’d be at sunset on the last day of the tour; Glacier Point—the grandest view of the greater Yosemite region, with the profile of Half Dome right in your face.

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We arrived well over an hour before sunset to photograph other aspects and views from this perch over 2500’ above the valley floor but kept checking the time to make sure we’d be ready for the grand finale. After cross checking at least 3 apps to discern the exact azimuth of the imminent moonrise, we pointed our cameras and double checked the settings.

As the light on Half Dome and the mountains beyond turned a stunning shade of orange, the moon peaked above the horizon, almost exactly where we all had thought it would. The mathematical elegance of our Earth-Moon relationship played out in slow motion, to the delight of the crowd. Voices became hushed, cameras clicked away, and we all felt content to end the week on a high note, high above Yosemite Valley on a splendid autumn day.

Upcoming Related Tours

Yosemite in Autumn

The towering rock walls that form the bones of Yosemite’s spectacular valley are at their finest in the warm low-angled light of fall. The Merced River flows at a gentler pace and autumn-hued foliage and granite peaks are framed in mirror-like waters. Yosemite in autumn is a never-ending source of inspiration.

October 20 - 26, 2024
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