Tunnel View at sunset

Tunnel View at sunset

After our time camping, hiking, and exploring Sequoia NP and Kings Canyon NP, we headed out to go resupply our food stores, spend a night in a hotel in Fresno (comfy beds and warm showers! woohoo!), and then head on up to one of the nation’s first and easily one of its most famous national parks: Yosemite.

This park is known for is spectacular glacier-carved valley and unbelievable views. Would it live up to the hype? Let’s see!

Getting Oriented

Yosemite Map

Yosemite Map, courtesy of the NPS

So we came up from Fresno from the south, up through Wawona. The main section of the park that we would stay in was the C-shaped section of roads near the middle of the drivable area including Yosemite Valley and the road leading to Glacier Point. From the valley, the closest place to get gas (out of the park) is taking the 140 out towards Merced. Once we finished our time around the valley and the road to glacier point, we would exit by taking Tioga Road east across the park, out towards Lee Vinings. This road is an absolutely gorgeous drive, taking you up through the mountains at elevations, through some gorgeous meadows, and out to the eastern side of the Sierras.

(I’d been wanting to come up from the eastern side and enter the park going west along Tioga Road because the road coming up, highway 395, was supposed to be a spectacular drive, but there was easy way to get out of Sequoia/Kings Canyon and over to 395 and come up that way, so we entered by going through Fresno.)

Yosemite Valley is the most famous area of the park. It’s where you’ll find the huge rocks, many of the famous overlooks and viewpoints, etc.

Camping is available in the park. Most of the campgrounds are on a reservation system this time of the year. I like to keep my schedule very flexible. Wanna stay another day or two in this park and go explore that area? Let’s do it. Not too impressed with something and ready to move on ahead of schedule? Let’s hit the road! One of the trade-offs of flexibility is you don’t know exactly when you’ll be arriving and for how long you’ll be staying. By the time we started to get a feel for our arrival dates and anticipated length of stay in Yosemite, all the camping sites in the park were full. All of ’em. Nevertheless, there were some campsites that were first-come first-served. One of the great things about this is that while they may be full one day, people will often pack up and head out and if you get there early enough in the day before more people come, you can grab a recently vacated site. We wound up grabbing a campsite on that road that leads to Glacier Point. On the map you can see it labeled Bridalveil Creek. This would be our homebase from where we would go out and explore the park during our time here. and so with that said, let’s go exploring!

Tunnel View

There’s a few main things I’d like to point out from this view. On the left you have the sheer face of El Capitan (el cap-e-tan, not el cap-ten), juuuuust left of dead center in the back you have Half Dome, and on the right you have Bridalveil Falls being blown around by the wind.

Tunnel View is one of the most famous viewpoints in Yosemite. I thought it got is name from the tunnel-ish (more like a half-pipe) valley this viewpoint looks over, but when you actually go to the park, it’s quite obvious where it got its name. You see, to get here, you drive through a tunnel and as soon as you pop out the other side, this viewpoint is like BAM right in your face. There’s a parking lot immediately to the left of the tunnel exit (and another smaller lot to the right). The parking lot on the left is where you’ll see people lined up on the sidewalk to shoot pictures of this view. Cars, buses, and hordes of people.

I shot some still photos, realtime videos, and timelapse footage. The timelapse has been posted just above.

One thing that’s particularly cool about this park is that most of the viewpoints look best at sunset, making it very easy for people to get there. It’s so much easier to drive somewhere in the day, be treated to an amazing view, and let that top off your day before you drive back to camp than it is to wake yourself up way early in the morning, often at the buttcrack of dawn, groggily get things set up and/or broken down at camp, drive over to the destination in the dark, hike to wherever you need to be with headlamps if necessary, and wait for the sun to rise. While photographers will often do this to capture firstlight, people who are more into simple sight-seeing generally won’t. Because Yosemite really shines at sunset, no pun intended, this definitely ups its attractiveness to people.

Valley View

Complementing Tunnel View is another viewpoint called Valley View. To get to this one, you simply drive the road in the valley, and take the turn-out right along the side of the road. The parking lot is literally right next to the road. Pull out, park your car, walk up to the sidewalk in front of your car, and this is the view. Doesn’t get much easier than that.

Valley View

Valley View

For this shot, we got there just a liiiiittle too late, IMHO. As the sun sets, the mountains behind us block out the light on the river and bushes in the foreground as the shadow moves progressively farther forward, but nevertheless it still looks pretty cool.

Bridalveil Falls

The waterfalls in Yosemite are quite famous. Many of them are quite seasonal. For example, in the spring as the winter’s snow melts off, the falls will be flowing in full force. By summer, they will have much less water flowing or be totally dry altogether. Bridalveil Falls is one of the falls that flows all year. If you scroll back up to the shot of Tunnel View

If you scroll back up to the shot of Tunnel View, you’ll see a waterfall off to the right. That’s Bridalveil Falls. It’s quite prominent and there’a number of cool perspectives to see it from, some more popular than the others.

For example, we were driving through the valley one afternoon when this amazing rainbowy waterfall greeted us off to the side. (The valley is mostly one-way streets so its helpful to drive somewhat slowly in case something awesome catches your view and you quickly want to pull out and go shoot it. Backing up can be kinda tough, especially when you’re traveling with friends and the back of your car is full of backpacks which blocks your rearview mirror so you have to use only your side mirrors, and driving another several mile loop around the valley just to get back to where you just passed may take too much time and the shot could be gone.)

Anyways, we grabbed a spot in the pullout, hopped out of the car, I pulled out my camera gear, and the shooting commenced!

Bridalveil afternoon rainbow

Bridalveil afternoon rainbow

The rainbow in the falls doesn’t last that long. It starts at the base and slowly works its way up the falls as the sun lowers in the sky. The first time I saw the falls, I wondered why the heck there was all this black around the water. Turns out that’s because that’s the area of the falls that’s wet. The wind blows the spray of the water back and forth along the rockface.

Here’s a timelapse I shot of the falls from this location.

If you pay attention, you can see a sliver of rainbow in the beginning (note that it’s not always visible) and you’ll also see the sunlight fade off the tree on the right side of the frame. 🙂

About two days later we took another trip to the falls, this time to the base of it. Turns out there’s a hike you can take right to the base. We got up there around noonish and, well, not only were there a lot of people there too, but the light on the rock was uuuuuugly.

Bridalveil Falls full of people at midday

Bridalveil Falls full of people at midday

My french friends I was hanging out with climbed on up to the base of the falls, right underneath the water, but I hung back to shoot some footage.

While the light wasn’t shining on the rock, the angle of the light and the dark background actually helped make the water stand out that much more. Watch this video to see the top of the falls in realtime.

To see a timelapse version of the same view and get a better perspective on the way the light streams through the water, particularly thanks to the rocks on top of the falls, check out this timelapse version:

Now while the white water on black background looks kinda cool, I wasn’t particularly thrilled with shooting at this time of day so I decided to come back later on the day to get that sweet golden light against the rock face like we’d seen earlier when shooting the rainbow. Check out the difference it makes to come back later in the day when the light is different. Below are two pictures with nearly identical compositions and taken from the same location. The only difference is that one was taken at 12:30pm and the other a little bit before 6pm.

Bridalveil Falls during noonish light

Bridalveil Falls during noonish light

Bridalveil Falls in sweet afternoon light

Bridalveil Falls in sweet afternoon light

Big difference, no? Check out the sky, the trees, the detail in the water, and so on…

In any event, I was much more satisfied with this return trip to the base of the falls. Here’s a nice wider shot from this view:

Bridalveil Falls

Bridalveil Falls

and of course the video version so you can see and hear the falls in action:

(Note: The original plan wasn’t to post the raw unedited videos directly to the blog, though I’m very much enjoying sharing the behind the scenes views with you guys. Instead, the plan was to build up a collection of my favorite still photos, realtime videos, and timelapse footage and put them together into a single slideshow-like compilation of the highlights of my trip from Los Angeles to Alaska, but this is fun too in the meantime. The videos are doing double duty.) 🙂

Glacier Point

Now if you remember from earlier in the post when I talked about spending time on the C-shaped group of roads, the top half of the C was Yosemite Valley where all these photos thus far were shot. On the bottom road is both our campground as well as a nice sunset overlook called Glacier Point. It’s kinda out of the way from most everything else, but it offers one hell of a sunset view. Given how close it was to our camp, it was a no brainer to devote one evening to this place.

So we get up there, I walk up to the overlook near the parking lot, set up my camera gear, and start shooting a series of photos for timelapse.

The location here had the camera tripod set up on top of a short stone wall overlooking this area. It was somewhat of a precarious place to mount the camera, but I wanted it high enough to shoot over the bushes. Under the tripod I hung my camera bag because its weight would add stability and help make sure the camera stayed where I put it rather than fall down off the wall. To shoot wide enough for what I wanted, I had to include the bushes in the foreground. On the bushes in the timelapse you can see the shadows of people walking back and forth as they admire the view and happily snap some photos.

Shortly into the shoot, I happened to look over to the side and notice that the walkway continued over to the left. Wait a second… was this even Glacier Point? or was this just the first overlook towards the valley onto the way to the main overlook? I was about 20 min into the shoot and didn’t want to leave my gear unattended while I ran off to go check, so I decided to take the gamble and stop this shoot, take down all my gear, and walk down farther down the trail. Turns out it was a great choice.

Further down the trail was a much better perspective and a nice big overlook. This was our view:

Half Dome from Glacier Point

Half Dome from Glacier Point

Hell yeah! A clean view directly down into the valley with Half Dome proudly standing tall. Plus sweet light on the dome! Much better!

There was a sort of fenced off designated seating area that most people watched sunset here from. I opted to take a side trail to a less crowded location nearby directly on the rocks. This is where I set up to shoot all the way through sunset, battery life provided.

Camera shooting timelapse at Glacier Point

Camera shooting timelapse at Glacier Point

Again, you can see the tripod on the rocks, camera bag hanging under the tripod for stability, and even my timer remote clicking shots off for me automatically. Wanna see the timelapse version of this sunset? I’ll betcha do… 😉

The actual shooting time for this sunset was 1hr 20min.

(If you look closely, you’ll notice there’s a jump in the video about halfway through where it gets a bit brighter. This is because when I switched batteries halfway through, I had also accidentally changed the exposure on the camera by opening up the shutter a third of a stop. Whoops! That’ll be fixed in the final video. At least the jump in brightness helps us see the fading sunset a bit more easily!) 🙂

Few More Random Valley Shots

Here’s a few shots I wanted to share… they’re not part of enough of a mini-series to get their own section, but I wanna include them anyways.

Burnt trees in the valley

Burnt trees in the valley

Like in Kings Canyon where we saw the burnt trees and the forest fire, the Yosemite Valley had its share of burned trees too.

There’s some gorgeous meadows in the valley. I saw this one big open valley with sheer rock faces in the background I wanted to go shoot. We parked and hiked over, but by the time we got there, we had the same problem with when we shot Valley View at sunset… the shadow from the mountains was starting to cover up the foreground.

Meadow and rock faces

Meadow and rock faces

hm, can we still get the shot? Let’s try! Hitting the road, we found another meadow with a sweet background. This time it was Cathedral Rock giving us a sweet backdrop. I pulled over and got one of my friends to snap a portrait for me. 🙂

Ariel in the Valley with Cathedral Rock

Ariel in the Valley with Cathedral Rock

There was also some wildlife we spotted wandering down there…

Deer in the valley

Deer in the valley

Speaking of wildlife, they have signs up on the side of the road all over the park reminding you to slow down. Every time a bear is killed on the road by a car, the mark that spot with a sign featuring a red bear. A red bear is a dead bear. These signs line the roads all over the park.

Speaking of the roads, this next shot isn’t from the valley, but there’s road construction going on all over the place… and in the places where there’s road construction happening, traffic is only allowed to drive in one direction. Road workers stop traffic flowing in the other direction. Here’s a shot of my car parked in traffic as we wait for cars to come start flowing in from the other side of the road construction. Waits were often as long as 30 minutes… Make sure you’ve got gas as there isn’t any available in the park!

Sitting in traffic

Sitting in traffic

In the visitor’s center in the valley, they feature the Ansel Adams gallery with posters and postcards and books filled with his work. He put out some incredible work and was a big part of the creation of and interest in many national parks.

On a lighter side, they also had lots of educational displays up describing how the valley was carved out by glaciers, what happened to the other half of half dome (there isn’t an other half… it was just made that way), the animals that live there, and so on. One of the animals amusingly caught my attention… the pika! Apparently this is a real animal!?

Pika sign

Pika sign

He actually does look pretty similar to the pokemon version, no?

Pikachu

Pikachu

Driving out of the valley at one point, we spotted a bunch of people gathered by an area marked off with flags and roadcones, looking up into the air with not only their naked eyes, but also binoculars, telephoto lenses, and even telescopes! Okay, obviously something’s going on here… Let’s go take a look. Perhaps we’ll even get a chance to see through the binocular and telescope setup that was up there!

Watching the King Swing on El Capitan

Watching the King Swing on El Capitan

Turns out there were some climbers working their way up the face of El Capitan. They were doing the King Swing. What’s the King Swing? Well, you see there’s a whole bunch of routes you can take up this face. Some of the more popular routes include this section where you literally can’t keep going up because the rock is to sheer and there’s no good grips. So what you have to do is hang a rope up higher and then literally run sideways back and forth across the rock face gaining momentum until you can run far enough left to grab onto a far ledge and continue climbing up from there. The running back and forth creates this pendulum-like swing called the King Swing. The guy who was there shooting this with a camera connected to a telescope had set up a viewing station for us to look through with a pair of binoculars while was shooting video of the climbers attempting the King Swing. Here’s a video he created showing climbers doing the King Swing.

Note, this is not my video.

Where is this on the rock face? Well you see that vertical shadow on the rock face above the little kid’s head? Just above and to the left of the top of that shadow are three dark shadow dots that form a triangle. That’s the area we were looking at. The climbers were nearly impossible to spot with the naked eye. They looked soooo tiny from a distance! Through the powerful telescope used for this video, however, you can see them very easily.

Speaking of videos, if you go to the park, make sure you stop and see the 23-minute video they show in the theater called “Spirit of Yosemite.” It features some of the most incredible video of the park at its most beautiful moments. Highly highly worth checking out!

Tioga Pass

On our way out of the park, we took the drive from west to east across a road called Tioga Road. It’s only open during the warmer part of the year as it gets totally snowed in during the winter since it’s up at elevation.

Here’s a drivelapse of a 15 minute section of the drive featuring the entrance to the road, mountains, lakes, pull-outs, curvy roads and straight roads, and more.

(I’m still very much experimenting with things like how often to shoot, how fast to playback the images, how long to expose each image for, how to stabilize shaky footage, what subjects, road conditions, and times of day make for the best shooting conditions, and so on. Learning a LOT here which I may go into in a later post…)

We took one scenic pullout along the way to stop and refill our water bottles directly from a lake. (Hooray for water filters!) While there, we got to enjoy a gorgeous view of the mountains and water at Tenaya Lake.

Enjoying Tenaya Lake

Enjoying Tenaya Lake

A little farther up the drive, one of my friends asked for a stop so they could grab a bite to eat. We were all getting hungry. So I took a pullout on the side of the road, had a quick nom on some nuts, and then grabbed my video camera and took off into the woods while they ate. Turns out what I discovered was one of my favorite places in the whole park!

What was back there was a trail leading to amazing views of colorful wildflowers, decomposing logs, fire scorched trees, plump boulders, chirping birds, open meadows, sloping grass-covered mountains… I was seriously in heaven here. I could have shot for hours and hours. Woulda been an amazing place to camp. Perhaps even live! I’d like to find something similar to this… Perhaps I will somewhere along the way. 😉

One thing I really love about this place is its calmness and serenity. Contrasted to the grandeur of Yosemite Valley, this one didn’t make a big deal of itself. It was just simple and beautiful, something I really liked. By this point in the trip, I had been getting a bit jaded to spectacularness and I gotta admit it was so refreshing to find a place that was quietly beautiful.

Finally finishing up with this stretch of the trip, we headed out to go see Mono Lake that evening, a place I’ve been wanting to see for years. However, an unexpected event upon our arrival in Mono Lake would totally change our route for the next few days. That’ll be covered in the next post.

So until then, happy travels! 🙂

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