Lack of Crowds
With an astounding 4 million visitors a year, Yosemite is the 4th most visited national park out of 58 in the park system. However, only approximately 10% of park visitors enter the park in the winter months between December and February. According to the National Park Service, 75% of Yosemite visitors arrive during the busiest six months between May and October.
Between approximately February 16th and February 23rd every year, the setting sun illuminates Horsetail Falls, tumbling down El Capitan, in such a way as to illuminate the waterfall in vibrant reds and oranges so it appears like a lava flow. In addition to the angle of the sun at a particular time of year, the conditions have to be just right for this to happen: ample water flow in the falls as well as clear skies, unobscured by clouds, in the direction of the setting sun. Witnessing and photographing this phenomenon has become so popular, that the Yosemite park rangers close an entire lane of the loop road to accommodate parking, and photographers are standing shoulder to shoulder and even setting up their tripods in the Merced River to capture a shot of this brief and beautiful occurrence. This may sound contradictory, and is the one anomaly to my previous point regarding lack of crowds. My only advice is to arrive by 10AM if you can, preferably on a weekday, and exercise patience; there’s a good chance you’ll make a new friend or two in this shared experience.
Two Januarys in a row, I’ve consistently witnessed coyotes hunting in Cook’s Meadow, looking for tasty rodent treats beneath the snow. They seem to arrive after the rising sun crests over the granite peaks, allowing a fascinating peek into their hunting behavior before moving on to their next location.
In addition to the sun rising later, and offering landscape photographers a few more minutes of shut-eye, the low angle of the sun and the longer distance the sunrays have to travel through the atmosphere create colorful sunrises, with wavelengths of beautiful yellow, orange and red light.
There is something magical about the Yosemite Valley’s rugged peaks dusted with fresh snow! To make the winter photography experience more manageable and enjoyable, waterproof outer layers, including boots, synthetic inner layers, snow gloves and hats are a must. I purchased a box of handwarmer and footwarmer packets from Costco that are carried in my camera bag. I also have an awesome pair of waterproof and windproof gloves, specifically for winter photography, with magnetic fold-back finger enclosures to allow operation of your camera that I couldn’t do without.
The ever-changing, low lying mist that hovers at the valley floor creates an ethereal mood to photographs, particularly from popular vantage points like Tunnel View and Gates of the Valley (also known as Valley View). And at night, this mist illuminated by car headlights can lend an eerie, mystical quality in the low lying fog, making the valley appear as if it were on fire.
The robust precipitation from 2017’s storm season created calm, seasonal ponds not usually seen until spring. There are many locations along Northside Drive on the main loop road that offer reflections of Cathedral Rocks.
The parking area near Sentinel Bridge offers a beautiful vantage point from which to experience rainbows in upper Yosemite Fall after sunrise on a clear winter day. The mist vapor in the air caused by a turbulent waterfall acts like a prism, scattering light and creating rainbows. The opposing angle of the winter morning sun creates a reliable opportunity to witness this when the conditions are right. I use a circular polarizer filter on my telephoto lens, and manually rotate to enhance and maximize the rainbow’s colors.
Those are just a few reasons that make Yosemite National Park so magical in the winter months!