Photographing the Yosemite, Part 1: The Valley

By Steve Kossack


“Our national parks are America’s best idea.” The author Wallace Stegner said that.


“Yosemite is the range of light.” John Muir said that.


“Yosemite Valley is the best seven miles on the planet.” I said that several years ago and I firmly believe all these statements are true – even more so today!


The Yosemite, as I like to refer to it, is like coming home. In many ways it has become my home of sorts. I’ve discovered that more than 90 days removal can cause severe mood swings and almost all maladies can be cured with return. In a lot of places there I’m as familiar with the terrain as I am with the Nevada neighborhood I live in. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience this marvelous landscape in all four seasons, in many different locations in very different circumstances.


The Yosemite is 1,169 Square miles, about the size of Rhode Island. Its wilderness measures 1,101 square miles, making 94% of the park inaccessible by vehicle. However, this means that the six percent that is not wilderness can be almost loved to death by those that choose to do so. It is almost a two-world situation that has survived this somewhat rocky existence for more than a century.


David Brower of the Sierra Club and a strong supporter of conservation issues nonetheless described his joy at being able to get an ice cream cone at Happy Isles at the far eastern end of the valley – and be in wilderness in less than an hour!


John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt met at the other end of the valley some one hundred years ago to try and establish this magnificent landscape as a park in order to protect it. In most countries these rare treasures are set aside for people of privilege. Here we set them aside for the use of all our people. None seem to enjoy our National Parks more than visitors from other countries. I’ve always been able to tell which currency is strongest across the globe by simply watching and listening to visitors. It’s a wonderful chance to learn how others see and experience what many of us take for granted – and wonder why we all don’t feel the same way here.


In all that is offered here, there is truly something for everyone, no matter what age, ability or economic status. The biggest barrier for most is TIME. Time to see, breathe, relax and absorb. Time to be overwhelmed and then recover. Time to revel in the enormous and sometimes forbidding landscape and time to see how light, weather and seasons pass over the Sierra Nevada. Enough time to plan and know the trails that lead to unimaginable beauty and solitude.


To add to the already breathtaking geology of The Yosemite is the story of human existence in this isolated place. Stories of Muir and Roosevelt, stories of over-grazing and devastation of the landscape through misuse and mis-management. The establishment of the Park Service began here. The buildings in the valley show the history and the cemetery is sprinkled with familiar names that documents that history. To be privileged enough to follow somewhat in the footsteps of the hundreds, if not thousands of artists that have dedicated a portion of their lives here is indeed rarified air.


It all comes together here in The Yosemite!


In the winter months it’s the valley for me. Open to vehicles year round, this destination has three possible approaches. They are all from the west since the Tioga Road across the Sierra is closed in winter. Even in severe winter driving conditions, California state highway 140 that follows the Merced River into the park is available and usually without restriction. The valley holds many photographic treasures, most of them known and captured by artists such as Ansel Adams to Galen Rowell.


This said, I’m never disappointed whenever I get the chance. From Sentinel Bridge at sunset with its still reflection of Half Dome to Mirror Lake (meadow) for reflections in the afternoon, anywhere on “the best seven miles on the planet” will satisfy the appetite for grandeur and if you simply walk, the yearning for solitude that we all seek. This is the place to see deeper and photograph the unimaginable. If I practice patience and discipline, I’ve found that there is a photograph to be made at almost every step and certainly at every turn!


To get vistas of the valley you can follow the old Big Oak Flat road on foot to where the landslide took it out many years ago. The original stagecoach road at Inspiration Point, where Adams did “Clearing Winter Storm” is accessible on the Pohono trail, but you’ll find it overgrown now. However I still find myself trying for a vantage point just to grasp the history of the location.


Easier is its replacement where the highways jumps from the tunnel now aptly called Tunnel View. Walking the trail from Bridalveil Fall east provides great views, as does the Muir trail to the bridge that shows a stunning composition of Vernal Falls. The Merced River through the valley slows considerably in winter, providing wonderful reflections in places. Climbing over snowbanks just after a storm will sometimes seem magical, not to mention rewarding photographically.


Yosemite Valley Sunset

Everyone does this image and for good reason! It’s simply the signature of the valley. The trick is to be there when the light is right. I’ve done it dozens of times and I only have a few images that I show. Weather changes quickly in the Sierra and more often than not those hundreds of people that come up to tunnel view often leave with nothing more than a halfhearted selfie.


Gates of the Valley

Now known as Valley View, this area on the Merced River has been more than photo-friendly to me. I find myself more often doing quiet light at sunrise instead of the rising sun. After crawling out of a sleeping bag in the dark and standing for an hour in ankle-deep water, the light lasts only seconds!  This is a great example of the Singh-Ray Color Intensifier and 3-stop Galen Rowell graduated neutral density filter.


Yosemite Chapel

John Muir at the chapel inauguration asked if was not ironic to build a chapel in one of the world’s greatest cathedrals, obviously referring to Yosemite Valley itself. When the conditions and light are right, this setting is stunning. The snow-covered trees absolutely glow. The exposure was based on the front doors of the building and then opened up 1 1/2 stop, with Singh-Ray Color Intensifier.


Horsetail Fall

Now a legendary composition, normally with hundreds of spectators and photographers in the area. Each February has become somewhat of a human migration of sorts. It was not that long ago that Galen Rowell first discovered this mystical composition. The trick is to first have enough run off in mid-winter to make a waterfall in the first place, then all that is needed is a clear enough sky at sunset and a vantage point to see it. Photographing it is basic. Expose for the highlight and let the shadows fall where they may.


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