If there’s anything on Earth more magical than Yosemite with fresh snow, I haven’t seen it. The problem is, Yosemite Valley doesn’t get tons of snow—its relatively low elevation (about 4,000 feet) means the valley often gets rain when most of the Sierra gets snow. And when snow does fall here, it doesn’t stay on the trees for more than a few hours (if you’re lucky). Which is why I’ve always said the secret to photographing snow in Yosemite is to monitor the weather reports and time your visit to arrive before the storm. This strategy gives photographers within relatively easy driving distance, especially those of us without day job, a distinct advantage—from my home in Sacramento I can be in Yosemite Valley in less than four hours (that’s factoring a Starbucks stop in Merced and a fill-up in Mariposa), and I have no problem using darkness to make the roundtrip on the same day.
So last week, when the National Weather Service promised lots of snow in Yosemite for the weekend, I quickly freed up my Saturday. I usually stay just outside the park in El Portal, but because I didn’t want to risk being turned away by a (rare but not unprecedented) weather related park closure, I booked Friday and Saturday nights at Yosemite Lodge, right in the heart of Yosemite Valley—even if the roads shut down, from there I’d be able to walk to enough views to keep me happy all day.
I arrived in the dark to find lots of ice and patches of crusty old snow; I woke dark-and-early Saturday morning to about ten inches of fresh snow. Yippie! The snow fell intermittently throughout the day, with conditions ranging from nearly opaque to classic Yosemite clearing storm drama. Since I was by myself, I was able to deemphasize many of the most frequently photographed spots my workshop expect to photograph and explore random scenes along the Merced. In the morning I concentrated on El Capitan scenes; the afternoon was more about Half Dome.
Of course the classic views are that way for a reason, so, as you can see in this image, I gave them some attention to. Despite not being much of a tourist location, many photographers know about this scene just upstream from Sentinel Bridge. It’s a little hard to find, but usually fairly accessible. But this time getting there forced me to employ a creative parking strategy and to soil about one hundred yards of virgin powder. At this spot a couple of weeks ago I used a telephoto to isolate a single tree clinging to its fall color and reflecting in the river; this visit was my widest lens that got all the work.
The January issue of Outdoor Photographer will include my Yosemite El Capitan Winter Reflection image and a paragraph explaining how to photograph snow in Yosemite Valley. Here’s pretty much what I say there, with a little elaboration: