Filtered sunlight on granite slabs, Yosemite National Park
While many may associate waterfalls with Yosemite, especially if their experience is mainly with Yosemite Valley, it is simply granite that comes to mind first for me. Yes, there are beautiful forests, and many wonderful lake, and rivers, and wildlife, and more — but all of those play out against the backdrop of the ubiquitous Yosemite granite. It comes as cliffs, shattered rock on mountaintops, domes, and beautiful slabs.
I spent a week photographing around a backcountry lake in early September 2015, during the time of awful wildfires and a lot of smoke — in fact, that smoke was partially responsible for the filtered light on the day I made this photograph. Within a few minutes of our campsite, huge slabs of granite rose up from near the shore of the lake and climbed many hundreds of feet up toward sharp granite ridges high above. This section, glaciated in the past and then fractured by ice and water, was sculpted into beautiful shapes.
Cloud-shrouded Mount Conness towers above the domes and forest of Tuolumne Meadows
I’ll take a break from the recent urban, night, and street photography and go back to the high country with a photograph from about this time a year ago. I spent a few days in the Tuolumne Meadows area, photography in the high elevation areas of the park. This was a particularly memorable evening that started without a specific plan, led to a surprise meeting with friends and photographs, including a hike down a river to a lovely area of granite slabs, and concluded with sunset back in the big meadow.
As we came back up the river we split up — some heading up onto a nearby high prominence and others (that would be me!) hanging out along the edge of the meadow, between the base of a granite dome and a large herd of grazing deer. As the final sun light touched the tops of the highest peaks, fog formed around the summit of Mt. Conness up along the Sierra crest.
Trees grow at the base of a granite face, Yosemite National Park
I originally worked up this photograph for an article on the relationship between supposed realism in photographs and post-processing. (“Photographs And Reality: A Complicated Relationship”) I selected it because the scene posted a particular common challenge, namely a dynamic range that was wider than the typical dynamic range of presentation media, and because capturing the full scene required me to make some exposure decisions that intentionally produce an original “straight out of camera” image that wasn’t lovely, but which protected the scene data I would need to work with the photograph in post.
The subject is a group of large-trunk trees growing on granite slabs at the base of a Yosemite high country granite dome. This landscape — more or less the landscape of much of Yosemite — is interesting in so many ways. Here the trees seem to somehow grow out of little more than cracks in solid granite, and shortly beyond where they stand the rock becomes too steep and too solid to support more large trees. While such scenes can be found throughout the park and in many more inaccessible areas, this one is right alongside Tioga Pass Road!
Forest and granite boulders at the water’s edge, subalpine Sierra Nevada lake
I’m looking backwards and forwards with this photograph. Backwards to a visit of more than a week to a Yosemite backcountry lake with a couple of photographer friends near the end of last year’s summer season — a season that brought another year of drought and tremendous wildfires. All of that aside — but, boy, did we deal with wildfire smoke! — we had a beautiful period of late season light on many days, and a few days of rain from an early season storm near the end.
And I’m looking forward… to getting back into the summer Sierra before too much longer. Spring has been quite busy since our last big adventure, a visit to Death Valley back at the end of March, and aside from bird photography and a few odd trips here and there, well, it is really time to get back into the field for a more extensive period. Tioga Pass Road has now been open for a couple of weeks, and the High Sierra awaits. I hope to be back there soon, and back at places like this one and it this high country light.
Trees along a rock strewn lake as first morning light strikes a southern Sierra Nevada backcountry ridge
This was the scene on the morning of this fifth day or a trip of over a week across the High Sierra Trail, a trip that would eventually summit Mount Whitney before descending the east side of the Sierra. To me, this route feels like it is composed of several distinct sections. The first couple of days are the approach, reaching the first high country from a west side trailhead. The next few of days are the crossing of the Kaweahs and the descent to the ridges above Big Arroyo, a portion of the trip that has the distinct feeling of remoteness and of dropping down to much lower country. Then there is the march up the Kern and the ascent to meet the JMT, followed by the lateral over to a base camp below Whitney, with the finale being the ascent of this ridge and then the long descent to Whitney Portal.
This morning was in that post-Kaweah phase, at our second camp after crossing the Gap. This lake, a bit off the “official” route, is a quiet and forested place with a gentle feeling that contrasts the rough edges of the higher country. We awoke this morning and I was out before dawn, photographing the first light on this high ridge beyond the trees and across the lake.
Evening wind on the surface of an alpine lake at dusk
When we reached this lake we were approaching the end of a long trans-Sierra hike on the High Sierra Trail. We had crossed the Kaweahs, descending into the Kern River canyon, ascending to the John Muir Trail and headed south, with the eventual goal being the summit of Mount Whitney and the end of our trip at Whitney Portal at the eastern base of the Sierra.
This little alpine lake is the traditional base camp for hikers heading to the summit of Mount Whitney from the west, a group that includes a number of people nearing the end of the southbound John Muir Trail hikes. It can be a crowded place, with many backpackers (sometimes too many) setting up marginal camps in tiny flat spots among the boulders. In the evening I left my group to wander and do a bit of photography, and as the light faded I lengthened my exposures and allowed the wind to blur the surface of the lake a bit.
Sometimes I backpack alone and sometimes I travel with friends — and both are great. While I treasure the freedom and solitude of solo backcountry travel, I have been fortunate enough to find friends who share my interest, some of whom have backpacked with me for decades. This trip marked the third time I had been across this section of trail. The first time was quite a few years ago, when Patty and I went on our first long backpack trip, spending two weeks along the High Sierra trail as we traversed it from west to east. The second time I was traveling solo. In fact, it was my first solo pack trip, a two-week journey that took me a ways out on this trail, after which I turned north, wandered up Bubbs Creek, over Glen Pass, and around the Rae Lakes before emerging at Kings Canyon.
This third visit was on another trip across the High Sierra trail. Although I had done it years earlier, it was a completely new trip to the rest of my group, a band of backpackers who have traveled the trails together for a long time, plus a couple of new additions. The first few days of the trip traveled up the Kaweah River drainage towards a ridge crossing at Kaweah Gap. The trail mostly stays high on the north side of the canyon, and here above Bearpaw Meadow the trail occasionally travels along granite domes an ledges, always with the spectacular high ridge of the Kaweahs looming ahead.