One of the most rewarding aspects of visiting Yosemite National Park in the winter, besides the lack of summer crowds, is the interesting alignment of the moon a few days before it is full against the iconic valley peaks such as Half Dome, El Capitan and Sentinel Rock. In the winter, you can get as close to peacefulness and solitude in the valley as is possible, while witnessing a lunar spectacle only possible in the winter.
In the summer, the rising full moon is obscured by the very peaks that make Yosemite valley famous. But, in the winter, the moon rises in a more southerly direction and aligns well with the valley’s orientation and places the moon directly adjacent to the valley’s most dramatic peaks. Weather permitting, the moon is most striking at sunset, when there can be dramatic color in the sky and it is still close enough to the peaks to provide a sense of scale and grandeur.
Unfortunately, the fourth straight year of drought is really taking it’s toll. In Yosemite, it was evident by the lack of snow you’d typically see this time of year, the waterfall flows, and a noticeable absence of the dramatic mist visible from Tunnel View that I was hoping to see. Likewise, the Merced River was noticeably lower than last year, and the Valley View photographs showed an abundance of river rocks that are typically beneath the surface of the river. However, there were still ample locations to find a calm, mirror like reflection in the Merced.
Sentinel Beach has always been one of my favorite locations to photograph, because it provides a wide variety of subjects in a relatively small location. From here, you can capture amazing shots of the Merced, El Cap, Three Brothers, and Cathedral Rocks and Cathedral Spires. Another unique winter phenomenon in Yosemite is the morning rainbow that on a sunny day graces Upper Yosemite Falls. This can be captured right off of the main road with a telephoto lens, tripod and a little bit of luck. If you don’t see it at first, be patient, as a rainbow will appear with the ebbs and flows of the falls and the mist they create.
Wildcat Falls was a newly visited location for me this year; these small falls are located in the western quarter of Yosemite National Park heading west on Big Oak Flat road towards Highway 120. The base of the waterfall is a mossy grotto and is a very short walking distance from the pullout off the road. It’s a small area, but there are several vantage points from which to take various compositions.
If you go to Yosemite in the winter, and even if you decide not to venture out of the valley, you’re likely to get some great photographs. Golden hour sunsets and sunrises provide a low-lying, ever-changing light that washes the dramatic granite peaks dramatically this time of year.