A few days ago I posted an El Capitan in winter image on Instagram. Since it had been nearly three years since that trip, a lot of the specifics of that day had slipped my mind, but when I pulled up the Instagram image’s raw file in Lightroom to check the capture info, a few more of that day’s (so far unprocessed) images caught my eye. The next thing I knew, I was processing this one, and gradually, some of the day’s details returned to me.
Yosemite Valley had been brown and dry beneath an overcast sky when I checked into the lodge the evening prior, but I woke the next morning to a world of white. (This was no surprise—I’d made the trip because snow was forecast.) The snow was still falling after breakfast, and as usually happens in a Yosemite storm, the clouds completely obscured all of Yosemite’s icons. But knowing that the key to photographing snow in Yosemite is to be out in it when the storm breaks, I was quite content to drive into its midst and wait it out. And break it did, turning to flurries with a mix of clouds and blue sky by late morning. The conditions stayed like that the rest of the day and I was in photographer heaven.
I circled Yosemite Valley all day, sometimes targeting specific spots, other times just pulling over when something moved me. By the time the sun set I was pretty certain that I had lots of good stuff on my card, but most important, I was happy. (If just spending time with your subject, regardless of the photographic results, doesn’t make you happy, you probably should be photographing something else.)
On my way out of the park after sunset I made one last stop to photograph this Valley View scene. With its easy access and riverside views of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall, Valley View is low-hanging photography fruit. And it’s especially nice with fresh snow. I’d already stopped here at least once before on that day, capturing last week’s Instagram image late that morning, but I couldn’t resit taking one more peek before heading down the canyon and home.
After the trip I processed a couple of images right away, but like so many of my photo trips, most of the images from this day have languished on a hard drive, victims of the priorities of running a business. This whole experience has been a good reminder of how many unprocessed images I have “in the bank,” waiting to be processed. It has inspired me to make a concentrated effort to go back through my archives to see what might be lurking there. I’ve already excavated a couple besides this one, with more on the way.
And speaking of low hanging fruit, I’ve started by going through my Yosemite snow images, because, well…, how can you go wrong with Yosemite and snow?
Because winter is right around the corner, and we’ve already entered (just barely) the window when snow is possible in Yosemite, here’s my recipe for photographing Yosemite with snow.
The Early Bird Gets the Snow
If you delay your trip until you hear that it snowed in Yosemite, you’re too late. That’s because Yosemite is only 4,000 feet above sea level and actually warmer in winter than most of the United States. When it does snow there, as soon the snow stops, Yosemite’s relatively mild temperatures collude with sunshine, wind, and gravity to clear the trees in a matter of hours. Not only that, park visitors, driven to shelter by the storm, swarm outside to gape as soon as the snow stops, quickly marring the pristine beauty with footprints, not to mention the mud spread by their boots and tires. In other words, the key to photographing Yosemite with snow is being in the park during the storm (and working fast).
Monitor the weather
All winter I monitor the Yosemite weather forecast for hints of a cold storm. But even this isn’t as simple as you might expect—the single biggest mistake people make when planning a Yosemite snow trip is opening whatever weather site or app is convenient and simply typing in Yosemite. Yosemite Valley is only 4,000 feet above sea level, and virtually the entire rest of the park is higher—up to 13,000 feet elevation. And for some reason, even though Yosemite Valley is where you want to be for snow (and pretty much the only place in Yosemite you can be in winter), most weather resources don’t give the forecast for Yosemite Valley. Instead, they pick some other (random?) elevation that is almost always more likely to get snow than Yosemite Valley. You’d be amazed at how much more frequently snow falls just 500 feet above Yosemite Valley than falls in Yosemite Valley, which means a lot of people end up driving to Yosemite to photograph the snow their weather app promised, then end up marinating all day in a cold rain.
I know there are lots of weather forecast options out there, but most lack the resources of the National Weather Service (or they just use the NWS data). The NWS may not always nail the forecast, but they seem to be more consistent and reliable than any of the other options. But even selecting a generic NWS Yosemite forecast can lead you astray. I recently typed “Yosemite” into the NWS’s forecast input field and was given an assortment of similar options, each of which returned a different location in Yosemite (most not Yosemite Valley). So rather than leave it to chance, to ensure a forecast for the correct elevation, I’ve bookmarked the NWS point forecast for Yosemite Valley.
When it snows in Yosemite, they do sometimes require chains. Usually 4WD or AWD cars with snow tires are exempt, but not necessarily. Regardless of the conditions, park rules say if you plan to drive in the Yosemite in winter, you must carry chains—even if you have 4WD/AWD. My Subaru Outback is AWD, but when the weather is threatening, I have been asked if I have chains. So they’ve never asked me to prove it, or had to put chains on, but I always carry chains because if they do find that you don’t have chains when they’re required, you’ll need to just park until it chain requirement is lifted.
Driving to Yosemite
Sometimes the chain requirements aren’t for Yosemite Valley, but they do apply to two of the three routes into Yosemite Valley. When a storm is possible, the best way to avoid snow, ice, and chain requirements is to ignore the guidance of your GPS and Google Maps and enter via Mariposa on Highway 140, which comes up the Merced River Canyon and doesn’t ever get as high as 4,000 feet until Yosemite Valley. (Trust me on this.)
That said, any route into Yosemite is subject to closure or restrictions due to slides, flooding, or downed trees. Always check the Yosemite and Caltrans road conditions pages before you leave (I sometimes check them on the way too).
Weather in Yosemite is very changeable, and a storm forecast that looked promising one day can completely fizzle the next—or vice versa. Some trips I’ve had a week to prepare for, others I didn’t consider going until I woke up and checked the Yosemite forecast that morning. Because I want to be ready at the drop of a hat, all winter long in the back of my Outback are my chains and a duffle bag with all my cold weather gear: waterproof pants, parka, and shoes, wool hat and gloves, and an umbrella.
When possible, I like to be in Yosemite the day before the snow starts. That said, it isn’t usually difficult to get a room in Yosemite at the last minute when a winter storm threatens, and there have been times when I’ve actually waited until I arrived in the park before booking my room (not necessarily a strategy I’d recommend). Nevertheless, the later I wait to leave, the more likely I’ll be delayed or turned back by a road closure.
Once the snow arrives, rather than hole up in my room, I’m out shooting. Even though Yosemite’s storms often erase all signs of its most recognizable features, stormy weather is a great time to photograph swirling clouds and accumulating snow in glorious (and rare!) solitude. Nice soft light too.
As much as I love photographing Yosemite when snows, the poor visibility and near white-out snowfall can reach a point of diminishing photographic returns. But even then, I don’t go in (or home). Instead, I park at Tunnel View and wait for the weather to clear. Tunnel View is the perfect place to wait out a Yosemite storm because it’s on the west side of Yosemite Valley (where the clearing usually starts), provides an elevated vantage point with a view all the way up the valley to Half Dome, and is spectacular to photograph when the storm clears. It even has decent cell service. And if I’m looking for an excuse to turn on the engine and warm things up, I drive through the tunnel for the view westward, a preview of coming weather.
My final advice for anyone is, when the storm clears, move fast and don’t spend too much time at any one spot, no matter how beautiful it is. It’s a pretty safe bet that if the conditions are beautiful right here, you’re probably missing opportunities elsewhere. The peak conditions, with snow draping every exposed surface, don’t last long, so get your shots and move on—or risk missing out. (This is the voice of experience talking.)
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.