Rather than attempt the impossible task of choosing a favorite season in Yosemite, I find it easier to identify the things I like most about each season. From colorful fall to white winter to saturated spring, Yosemite becomes a completely different place with each season. (FYI, summer is for tourists.) But regardless of the season, I think it’s Yosemite’s reflections that make me happiest.
Yosemite’s reflection locations vary with the season. After a storm, small reflective pools form in Yosemite’s ubiquitous granite, then disappear almost as quickly as they appeared. The Merced River, is a continuous ribbon of reflection in the late summer and autumn low-water months, and a churning torrent in spring. But even in those high snowmelt months, reliable pockets of calm can be found along the riverbank, and there are a handful of spots where the river widens and smooths enough to reflect color and shape.
I think my favorite Yosemite reflections may be the ones I find in the flooded meadows during a wet spring, not necessarily because they’re any more beautiful than the other reflections, but mostly because they’re much more rare. Many years we don’t get these vernal pools at all, and even when they do form, their lifetime is measured in days or weeks.
Following years of drought, a record winter snowfall earlier this year translated to a record spring snowmelt, sending the Merced River well over its banks and into many of Yosemite’s normally high-and-dry meadows. This wasn’t “run for your life!” flooding, it was a gradual rise that seeped into and eventually submerged meadows, trails, and even some Yosemite Valley roads.
Leidig Meadow west of Yosemite Lodge is one of those spots that doesn’t usually flood, but flooding here is far from unprecedented. This year when I parked in my usual spot west of the meadow and attempted the normally relaxing 1/4 mile stroll along the river, I had to wade through eight inches of water to make it to the meadow. When I returned a few days later with my workshop group, even after choosing another somewhat less treacherous parking spot, we still had to pick our steps carefully or risk a shoe-full of water.
Meadows are always fragile, but never more-so than when they’re wet, so rather than venture further into the meadow, we set our sights on the numerous reflections among the trees near the (mostly submerged) trail. Even still, we ended up with a number of wet shoes and pant legs, some accidental and some by design (to get the shot, of course).
When it appeared the sunset show was over, the group started to pack up and head back to the cars. About the time I was ready to call it myself, I noticed a little bounce-back pink in the thin clouds overhead and warned everyone that they might be packing it in a little too soon. Many were anxious to get dry and escape the mosquito feast, but those of us who stayed were rewarded with about ten minutes of post-sunset color that went from pale pink to electric magenta, one of those moments in nature that you think just can’t get any better until somehow it does.
Reflecting a bit on reflections
A reflection can turn an ordinary pretty picture into something special. Of course they aren’t always possible, but when the opportunity exists I pursue reflections aggressively, scanning the scene for potentially reflective water and positioning myself accordingly. Too often I see people walk up to a reflection, plop down their tripod, and make a picture of whatever happens to be bouncing off the water at their feet. But maximizing reflection opportunities starts with understanding that, just like a billiard ball striking a cushion, a reflection always bounces off the reflective surface at exactly the same angle at which it arrived.
Armed with this knowledge, when I encounter a reflective surface, I scan the area for something worthy of reflecting. Sometimes that’s easy (Half Dome, for example), sometimes it’s a little tougher (like a rapidly moving sunlit cloud). Knowing that all I need to do is position myself in the path of the reflection of my target subject, I move left/right, forward/backward, up/down until my object appears. I’ve observed that many people are pretty good about the left/right thing, not quite so good with the forward/backward part, and downright miserable at the up/down. But I’ve found that once I get the left/right position nailed, it’s the up/down that makes the most difference.
For example, in the spring reflection of Half Dome at the top of this post, it’s not an accident that the Half Dome and North Dome reflections are centered and uncluttered by all the grass and leaves scattered throughout the water. The centering part was pretty easy, but finding a large enough clean surface to reflect the two domes required a lot of forward/backward maneuvering, combined with frequent up/down dipping—I’m sure to the uninformed observer it appeared that I was trying out a new dance routine.