Yosemite National Park is located in California and has an area of 3,027km2. It has a large number of iconic landmarks and views which people travel from all over the world to see and photograph. As a national park, it was first protected in 1864 and became increasingly better known by photographers.
A brief history of Yosemite National Park
There is a long history behind this, now massive, tourist attraction. A large and significant part of Yosemite is that it is expected that Native American tribes could have inhabited the land for around 6,000 years before it began to be explored and known by anyone outside of these tribes. The Native Americans that lived on this land lived in the Sierra Nevada, and they moved around seasonally to make the most of hunting and gathering wherever they were and whenever they could. Generally, they would move between villages at the bottom of mountains and then move to higher-elevation camps throughout summer. Some of the paths and trails made by the Native Americans can still be hiked by tourists and visitors today, and include some trading routes.
Creations made by the Native Americans in Yosemite can still be seen as they’re exhibited in museums in the national park. An example of this is the basketry and needlework made by the Miwok and Paiute tribes. Behind one of the many museums in Yosemite, there is a reconstructed version of how a tribal village would have appeared. This feature is there as a commemoration to the Ahwahneechee people, who were led by Chief Tenaya. It is known that the Ahwahneechee tribe was initially called the Yosemite Valley ‘Ahwahnee’, which can loosely translate into the phrase “Place of a Gaping Mouth.”
In 1848, there was gold discovered in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The result of this was that many gold-seekers came to the area. This sudden influx of people meant that the land began to be taken over by people outside the tribes. By 1851, much of the Native American land had been stolen away, and there was too much murder, which caused the Mariposa War. After this, the first tourists arrived in 1855. During the American Civil War, some people who had a considerable influence in California managed to convince Congress and President Lincoln to make Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove the country’s first public preserve, which happened in 1864.
What to photograph in Yosemite National Park
When you begin planning your trip to Yosemite National Park to take amazing photographs, there’s plenty of research you should do and things you need to consider before leaving for your trip. The first of these is that you will have different results, experiences, and scenes depending on which season you decide to visit the park. As you know, winter and summer will often be entirely different. Therefore, you need to know what sort of images you’re trying to capture. In summer, there is likely to be a much higher number of visitors, causing some problems when trying to take clear photos of the environment and surroundings.
Additionally, you may likely struggle to find accommodation close to where you want to be, especially if you don’t book early. However, in winter, there are likely to be very few tourists, and you may even get to witness a snowstorm in Yosemite, which could add to the beauty and dimension of your photographs. Despite these apparent positives, some areas may be closed until April, including Glacier Point Road and Tioga Pass Road.
The second thing you’ll want to consider is which areas of Yosemite National Park You want to photograph as this is a big park and unless you have plenty of time, trying to cram in too much will leave you disappointed. There are many beautiful areas and landmarks within the park which may appeal to you; below is a list of some of the best locations.
Vernal Falls is a waterfall that is part of the Merced River within the national park. It measures 317-feet and is best viewed from two main areas of the park. These areas are Glacier Point, which is if you want to get a photo with a bit of distance and more surroundings in it. However, if you want to get a closer photograph with more detail, then visit it from the Mist Trail. This waterfall cannot be seen from the floor of the valley while in your car, unlike Yosemite Fall or Bridalveil Fall, meaning it is necessary to walk a trail to see it.
Half Dome & Glacier Point
If you mention Yosemite NP to someone, the chances are that this is the image they will have in their mind. The dome is part of the east end of Yosemite Valley in the park, and it is made of granite, and it appears to look like a dome cut in half as it has one flat side while the other is smooth and round. Half Dome rises to nearly 5,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley, and the most common way to hike up it is to use the cable route at the top, which can aid hikers with the final 400 feet to the summit. From a photography perspective, there are many places you can view the Half Dome from; the best of these is Glacier Point, as the view is unobstructed.
Other places you can view it from are; Cook’s Meadow, Washburn Point, or Mirror Lake.
Another of the famous features is Yosemite Falls which can be seen from much of the valley. There are three waterfalls that make up the falls with the middle one not visible from the ground. The best places to photograph the falls are from the Lower Yosemite Trail and Swinging Bridge. Be sure to pack your tripod so that you can capture slow exposure shots. To avoid the crowds head to the falls early in the morning when you may also be able to see a rainbow in the spray of the water.
Eagle Peak is one of the Three Brothers, a rock formation above the Yosemite Valley, and the peak is the highest out of the three rocks in the formation. The other rocks which make up this formation are known as the Middle and Lower Brothers. Once you’ve climbed the 3,500 feet to the summit, the view was described as the “most comprehensive of all the views” available from the north wall by John Muir, who was known as “Father of the National Parks”. This is a good enough reason to climb to the peak to capture the best photographic view you get at the top.
But if the hike to the top seems too strenuous you can also capture a shot of Three Brothers instead from Merced River. Head to Cathedral Beach picnic area and walk east for 5 minutes for an unobstructed view of the Three Brothers. If you get a calm day and a beautiful sunrise or sunset, the three peaks and the colourful sky will be perfectly reflected in the water.
This lake is a relatively small one, located on Tenaya Creek, but it provides some of the most beautiful views and opportunities for photography. The Mirror Lake is the last left of the massive glacial lake, which used to fill a large majority of the Yosemite Valley at the end of the last Ice Age. It is possible to swim in Mirror Lake, and as a result of this, if you don’t want to have many people in your photographs, it is best to either visit outside of the peak season in summer or to go early in the morning around sunrise.
Olmsted Point is a place within Yosemite, which gives some of the best views with minimal effort as it is only elevated by 100 feet. This point is just off the Tioga Pass Road, and it allows you to see multiple notable places around Yosemite. Being able to see these is great for photography as it gives you the chance to take a picture of these areas in the broader context of nature and Yosemite National Park itself. Some key places you can see from Olmsted Point are; Tenaya Canyon and Tenaya Lake, in addition to the northern side of Half Dome and Clouds Rest.
This is another spectacular view that should be a must on your Yosemite shot list. It is a pretty easy 2 mile round trip to the unfenced cliff edge. If you suffer from vertigo head over to the railed lookout which gives a stunning view. The best time for photos is at sunset but be prepared for big crowds even in the low season. If you want a quieter visit, then sunrise will be a better option.
Tunnel View (Inspiration Point)
One of the most popular views in Yosemite NP and due to the easy access to this viewpoint don’t expect to have the place to yourself. The view is spectacular (possibly the best in the whole park) and you can see the entire valley including El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls all in the same shot. In the right conditions, sunrise or sunset are both great times for photography. The added benefit of early morning is that you may also get some low fog in the valley which will enhance the scene even more.
For an alternative view walk the 2.5 miles (1,000 ft elevation) round trip to Inspiration Point and you will get a similar view as Tunnel View but without the crowds. The view is slightly more obstructed but you will find very few people there.
The huge granite face of El Capitan is as iconic as it is beautiful. The best spot for the grand photo of El Cap is from Tunnel View. But also try to get up close and capture some photos of the fearless climbers who scale this immense mountain face on a daily basis (in the summer). From El Capitan Meadow on the road into the valley, you can get great views (just make sure you pack a telephoto lens). But for the real close-up shots of the climbers head to the Yosemite Valley Loop.
This is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the park. Again for the grand view, Tunnel View will offer a good shot. For more of a close-up make the short and easy walk to the falls. But this will bring you right up to the falls which might be too close. There are several other good spots around the valley floor which offer good views of the falls. These include Sentinel Beach picnic area, the fields near Bridalveil Creek and arguably the best, from El Capital viewpoint on the Merced River.
Keep in mind that these are just some of the amazing locations on offer. You should try to set some time aside to explore the park and find some of your own unique locations. This is one of the world’s great photography locations and if you give yourself the time to explore it fully you won’t be disappointed.
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