A colorful High Sierra granite cliff and trees in soft light
Sitting here on a late-winter day, this late September week spent photographing in the Yosemite back-country seems so far away. (At the same time, as I watch the inevitable progress of the seasons, the upcoming summer season seems closer and closer!) Three photographers headed out to a back-country lake, where we set up a base-camp for something like nine days of photography. It might seem like photographing in one tiny area for a week might exhaust its possibilities. In fact, at the start of such a trip I often harbor such fears — but by the end of every one of them I am again reminded that it virtually never works that way. The more time spent looking in such a place, there more there is to see, and at the end of such a trip there are, inevitably, things left to be photographed on the next visit.
Not far from our camp was a rocky area that we often crossed in order to make our way around the perimeter of a nearby lake and to get to areas a bit further away. After climbing slabs the route dropped into the lower extent of a deep gully traveling down from higher terrain, and eventually I began to know these rocks and this gully very well. We had “interesting” weather during our stay, and on the day I made this photograph the light was muted by various factors including clouds and wildfire smoke.
Trees grow on a peninsula at a Yosemite subalpine lake, late summer
We have passed nearly halfway though our annual circuit around the sun since I made this photograph. It is now slightly past midwinter, and the photograph was made in late summer, a few weeks before the arrival of solar fall, though the signs of autumn were already everywhere in this drought-affected portion of the Sierra backcountry.
The haze in the atmosphere beyond the peninsula with its sunlit trees comes from wildfires that were burning all over Yosemite and the rest of the Sierra. One small one was burning just across a nearby ridge and a more distant but larger fire periodically fill the air with thick smoke. Wildfire smoke is a normal feature at the end of the season, but this year it was much worse than normal. Fortunately, every day the winds shifted, the smoke moved away, and we got some beautiful near-autumn weather — time to enjoy the golden-brown meadow grasses, walks around the lake, and the occasional climb up onto grants slabs that rose from its shoreline.
A hazy late-summer day at a subalpine Sierra Nevada lake, Yosemite National Park
With all of the recent urban and street photography I have been posting — which is a bit seasonal pattern, given my travel tendencies — I’m also making an effort to go back through some older photographs from last year to find landscape photography that escaped my notice on the first pass. This always happens with photographs — for some reason certain images don’t make sense right after I make them, but when I come back to them later on with a fresh eye I see potential that I missed. Right now I’m revisiting late-summer photographs from a week-long backcountry stay at a Yosemite lake.
For me, this photograph holds many of the subtler elements of the High Sierra experience — not the spectacular grand vistas, but something deeper and ultimately perhaps more powerful. In this beautiful late-season time of year, the meadow grasses around this quiet lake have finished the wild growth phase of summer and have already turned golden-yellow in preparation for autumn and then winter. Lower angle light comes over the shoulder of the granite ridge whose base is visible beyond the trees. Widely spaced trees stand at the edges of the meadow and even trace weaknesses in the granite slabs on the higher slopes.
Morning light and reflections on the rocky shoreline of a subalpine Sierra Nevada lake
A wonderful thing about making photographs is that I get to travel backwards and forwards in time almost at will. Here it is in the middle of winter, and by looking back a few months in my archive I can go right back to a beautiful late summer week spent photographing around a Yosemite subalpine lake with a couple of friends. All of the sensory memories come right back: the stillness of the morning lake as the first sun worked its way through high clouds and haze, the memory of carrying my camera around the perimeter of that lake every morning as I looked slowly of subjects, the first colors of Sierra autumn.
We camped here for a full week, working intensively to photograph in and around one small area. If you haven’t done this you could be forgiven for wondering how in the world one could spend an entire week in area not much larger than a mile or two across. In fact, I still have those doubts at the start of any trip like this. All I can say is that, inevitably, the end of such a week comes too soon, I depart with many things left unphotographed, and I often return to these places again and find even more to see and photograph.
Evening light breaks through clouds to light trees growing on granite slabs along the Tuolumne River
This photograph takes me back to mid-summer days in the high county when I spent a big chunk of time in the Tuolumne Meadows area making photographs in July. It was an odd year — July seemed almost normal, despite the historic drought, except that it looks more like a normal August, with virtually all snow gone, low water in the creeks, and fairly settled weather.
One evening a group of us joined forces to wander along the Tuolumne River in evening light. Here we stopped at a curve where the river curves around a section lined with large granite slabs. It was cloudy, but a bit of late-day light slanted in from the left.
The shoreline of a Yosemite backcountry lake in the late season
This lake was our home for a good week this past September. I was among a small group of photographers who spend a week or more doing this every year. This year we camped by the shore of an accessible backcountry Yosemite lake. We woke up every morning to views of this lake and we went to bed in the evening with such images still in our minds.
At times on this visit the light was very subdued. Early on this was because of intense wildfire smoke — some of the worst I’ve encountered in the range. Near the end of the trip a Pacific weather pattern swept through, and in its wake there was a period of several days of raining, cold conditions.
September rain falls on a Yosemite backcountry lake
Autumn in the Sierra is time of wonderful transitions — it is my favorite time of year to be there. For the most part the weather is still beautiful, with warm days and pleasantly chilly evenings and early mornings. The light is special — it is hard to put my finger on the precise quality, but somehow it feels warmer and softer than in the summer. Meadows turn golden brown and many plants take on their autumn colors. It feels like everything is slowing.
There can also be storms. These are not the brief afternoon thunderstorms of summer. They are the first harbingers of winter — the large Pacific weather fronts that begin to push in and which will eventually bring winter snow. We had such a storm — though it was a gentle one — on our visit, and it rained off and on for the final two days of our stay. I made this photograph along the shoreline of “our” lake, with fall colors in the foreground and a passing shower in front of the distant peak.