Water seepage stains mark a wall of Cathedral Range granite, Yosemite National Park
During a week-long stay at a backcountry Yosemite lake my partners and I had plenty of time to explore our surroundings. A day in such a place is a joy, but we had a string of such days, with conditions ranging from Sierra blue sky, through wildfire smoke, to an early seasons autumn storm that dropped rain on us for a couple of days.
Being in one location for so long provides the opportunity to really get to know the place. After a day or so getting to know the main, iconic features, continuing exploration beings to reveal things that we miss at first. Across the valley from our camp was a long and low rock wall, at the base of steeply sloping granite walls and holding somewhat level basin. Not surprisingly, the evidence of water flowing over this wall was obvious, from the lush plant life to the beautiful water stain patterns.
Water seepage stains the surface of a Cathedral Range granite face, Yosemite National Park
During our week camped at a Yosemite back-country lake in September we had plenty of time to become intimately aware of the surrounding landscape, to explore its features, and to return to some of them more than once. One photographer who wasn’t with us this time but who has been a fixture on these trips in the past (Hi, Mike!) and shared some general information about a particular feature that intrigued him — and as a result the rest of us also became intrigued by it. The description of the location was a bit vague, but not so vague that a person who knows the area well would be unable to find it. (Think of directions like, “Near some granite to the south of a lake and west of another lake.”) So, once on the scene, this area was one that caught our focus.
Up from where we were camped, through some trees, and near the base of an incline, there is an odd section of cliff. In the sort of spot where you might expect everything to have been ground away by ancient glaciers there is a section of cliff that is hundreds of feet long and perhaps no ore than thirty feet high. A basin lies above it, and it seems that water finds many places to seem over and through these rocks, staining them in all sorts of diverse and amazing ways. This photograph is one of several close up studies I did of small sections of this face, where solid, blocky granite is cut through by cracks and water stains are everywhere.
Early evening light shines on granite slabs along the Tuolumne River as afternoon clouds dissipate behind nearby peaks
As I post it in November, this photograph takes me back to a wonderful Sierra trip last summer. I spent a few days in July camped at Tuolumne Meadows, doing a bit of hiking and a lot of photography. Each morning and evening I was out with the camera, in the meadows or somewhere else along Tioga Road. Although it was the fourth summer of California drought in the Sierra — a drought that did serious damage to the Sierra environment — on these July days it was almost possible to not think about that. There had been rain and it was the green time of year in the high country.
One evening I went out, this time by vehicle, to look for subjects. I had only a vague idea of some general things to photograph back along Tioga Pass Road, so I was easily distracted by anything that happened to catch my attention. Before I even left the Meadows I caught sight of some trees that were lit in an interesting way, so I turned around, drove back, and pulled out along the road. There were other cars there already and I hoped my sudden arrival didn’t annoy anyone, but I quickly saw a pair of photography friends at one of the vehicles. After exchanging greetings we decided to hear across the meadow together. By the time we got to the other side yet another couple of photography friends showed up! Mind you, none of this was planned. We all teamed up and spent a beautiful evening among friends making photographs along the Tuolumne.
Cloud shadows race across the landscape on a summer day near the Sierra crest below Mount Conness
This is an older photograph, made eight years ago back in 2007 on a late-season solo backpack trip into the Yosemite back-country. A week or so after the Labor Day holiday, the crowds almost disappear from the park’s high country, and everything seems to sort of slow down as the summer comes to and end and the inevitable signs of impending autumn remind us that summer is over and winter is not that far away. I think that this can be the most beautiful time of year in the Sierra, especially on a day with beautiful, warm autumn-like light, golden brown meadows, blue sky, comfortable temperatures, solitude, and perhaps a few passing clouds.
There is a story about how I found myself in this high spot overlooking this lake and the mountains beyond. That morning I had been poking around near by bivy sack camp when I saw someone napping in the lakeside meadow. It turned out to be a backcountry ranger. I made some wise-guy remark (intended entirely in jest, and he took it that way) about the challenges of the ranger’s life, and we got to talking. For him, this late season period was a time to slow down a bit and enjoy his own solitude. As we talked he pointed up towards a rocky saddle above the lake and pointed out what, in retrospect, should have been obvious to me — there was a well-used cross-country route through the saddle. So I decide to depart the lake via this alternative route, and when I reached the top of the climb and looked back I saw this spectacular Sierra panorama.
A “river” of aspen trees in autumn colors snakes its way up an eastern Sierra Nevada gully
I believe that I shared this photograph earlier in a different context — rather than a photo-of-the-day post, it was used to illustrate one of my reports on my Sierra Nevada Fall Color page. I made this photograph at an iconic eastern Sierra location in late September, which is a week or so earlier than I would typically expect to see such color in this place. This has been a strange year, the fourth in a series of drought years, and possibly the worst. The effect of Sierra Nevada vegetation is more apparent as we go into the fall, and there have been apparent effects on aspens. First, some of them changed color noticeably early this year, as much as a week or two earlier than what has been typical. Second, some trees seem to have been stressed to the point that they are almost foregoing the brilliant color stage and instead going almost directly from green to losing their leaves — and some groves were already completed bare before September ended. On the other hand, where the trees were perhaps a bit less stressed the color change seems to have come on a more typical schedule, with quite a few low elevation trees still green as of a few days ago. You can see almost all of this conditions in this photograph — trees changing colors early, trees that lost their leaves completely, and some that are still green.
This particular spot is intriguing, and quite a few people show up to photograph here — not just for the “river of aspens” in the photograph but also for some of the surrounding alpine scenery and for other accessible examples of aspen color. I’ve photographed here for quite a few years, so I often forego the chance to re-photograph some of the familiar subjects, but this time I found a slightly different location from which to make this photograph and I wanted to capture the unusual conditions. There were several things that appealed to me about this scene on this day. Obviously, the colorful trees are an attraction at any time, but the bare trees in the middle, between the upper orange trees and the lower yellow/green trees, were an unusual sight. The curve of the grove, as it passes around the hill on the right with its coniferous trees, seemed to enhance the character of the aspen’s s-curve as it descends the gully and transitions from orange to white to yellow and green.
Frankly, aspen trees are fascinating in a huge range of ways, in all seasons, and in many kinds of light. At the current time of year most of us focus, with good reason, on the annual spectacle of their fall colors — blankets of yellow, gold, orange, and red. But aspens are beautiful when they are bare and they are beautiful when new leaves appear in the spring, and they are beautiful in the middle of summer when their leaves shimmer in the breeze.
The trunks in this photograph are those of “fall color” aspens, and you can see a bit of that color in the background. However, there is another aspect of color in this photograph that I like to consider, namely the range of colors and textures in the bark of these trees. Ideally, we often think of aspen bark as being white. With the right trees and the right light it can, in fact, seem quite white. However, in most cases the bark colors are much more varied, ranging from gray to green to brown. The textures are also quite something — the trees can be almost perfectly smooth or they can be very rough and rugged. The pair of foreground trees in this photograph are an interesting case, especially if you think of aspen trunks as being white. A closer look reveals that the tree on the right has strong yellow-brown-golden tones while the one right next to it is covered with interesting red patterns!
Colorful autumn aspen trees along the rocky shoreline of a subalpine Sierra Nevada lake
The Sierra Nevada autumn color season seemed to start earlier than usual this year. The question of when it would start has been on the minds of many of us who chase the aspen and other color each fall, especially given the effects of California’s fourth year of drought. We wondered (and still wonder) how many trees would die, how early the color would arrive, how good it would be, and much more. The picture isn’t yet fully clear, but I think that I can perhaps make three generalizations. First, the color did arrive early — I made this photograph during the last week of September, and such color typically arrives in this location perhaps a full week later. Second, some trees have clearly been stressed by the drought — in places trees that would usually be developing colorful leaves have instead simply dropped their leaves early. Third, in places where the water situation isn’t quite as dire there are still a lot of very green trees, and they will possibly prolong the color season well into October.
When I visited this spot I already had a long familiarity with this colorful group of trees growing along the shoreline of this subalpine lake. Ironically, it was in this drought year, when I arrived at an atypically early point in the season, that I found what may be the best colors I’ve seen on them. In the Sierra the predominant autumn aspen leaf color is a sort of golden-yellow. However, there are other colors ranging from orange through read and even to some deep almost red-brown colors. In some ways, those are the “prize” colors that we look for. And this little strip of trees has those colors in abundance!