The plan was to photograph a full moon rising at the end of the Merced River Canyon, just to the right of Bridalveil Fall, at sunset. It was the final night of last week’s Yosemite Spring: Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop, and the moonrise was to be the grand finale. But after a day photographing poppies and waterfalls beneath a sky mixed with sun and clouds, the clouds took over and threatened to obscure everything. Nevertheless, most of the group hung in there to the bitter end, which is how we found ourselves at this vista point on Big Oak Flat Road about 45 minutes before sunset.
We could see Bridalveil but no hint of sky anywhere. Along with the clouds had come a biting cold (for April) wind that included a few snowflakes–most of the week and been quite comfortable, so we were a little unprepared for (and resentful of) the change. But there we stood, cameras poised atop tripods, shivering (us, not the cameras), chatting, and monitoring the horizon for any sign of an opening. I gave my standard “It’s impossible to predict Yosemite’s conditions in five minutes based on the conditions now” speech (it’s true), but the clouds were clearly lowering and even I was secretly pessimistic.
About the time people started eyeing the warmth of the cars, a small patch of light appeared in front of Bridalveil. Given the absolute grayness of the sky, we were a little perplexed, but that didn’t keep anyone from engaging their camera and firing off a few quick frames before the light disappeared. And disappear it did, but only for a minute or so, before returning. After another minute or two it was clear that the light wasn’t shrinking, it was expanding and soon we all started rooting for it to spotlight Bridalveil (photographers are greedy).
Which is exactly what it did. For the next thirty minutes we were treated to a light show that defied explanation. From our perspective there was no break in the clouds, but clearly the sun must have slipped beneath an opening on the western horizon, out of site behind a granite ridge, because soon the shaft expanded to a focused beam that traversed the entire canyon. We’d been so focused on the light that we didn’t at first notice a translucent cloud that had broken away from the flat gray ceiling. As the invisible sun dropped toward the horizon, its light warmed to gold, the shaft ascending the canyon walls, eventually illuminating the sky above Bridalveil. For the next ten minutes we watched the rogue cloud go from a brilliant amber to deep crimson veil draping the canyon.
About the time the color started reflecting in the Merced River far below, I noticed that we were all just standing shoulder-to-shoulder capturing pretty much the same thing, so I quickly moved about 20 feet down in search of a foreground. With the color peaking I managed a few wide frames, framing the Merced River and Bridalveil Fall with two nearby evergreens. After that the color faded quickly and we were all left wondering whether we’d imagined what we’d just seen. I’ve been photographing in Yosemite for my entire adult life and have never seen anything quite like this. I didn’t even think about the moon until it popped over a ridge about two hours later, on my drive home.