I’ve just returned from the west coast where I had an opportunity to spend Earth Day 2016 in the Yosemite Valley of Yosemite National Park in California. Yosemite is of course an icon for landscape and nature photographers the world over much as it is a national icon for Americans. The famed natural beauty of Yosemite was long ago immortalized in the poetic words of John Muir and the brilliant images of Ansel Adams. This cathedral of nature in the Sierra Mountains attracts something like three million visitors every year and there in lies the rub.
Everyone dreams of seeing, with their own eyes, the breathtaking “range of light” in the grey granite of the Sierra, its ever shifting illumination, weather and the immensity of El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and the countless other natural wonders.
What visitors are perhaps not prepared for is the intense busyness of Yosemite Valley. On any given day from spring through fall there are thousands of visitors to this area of the park. Due to its fame and relative accessibility the valley is a magnet for visitors. The human traffic is so intense that the Nation Park Service has put in place a shuttle system of large buses of the type you might see in a typical larger city, though in this case diesel-hybrids, that spend all day looping around the valley. Buses come and go about every 30 minutes at the major points of interest and they are typically packed and often get stuck in traffic. Towards late afternoon, as people get ready to leave, the roads out of the park become gridlock. Expect to spend an hour or more in slow crawling traffic if you try to leave at that time. My advice is not to bother if you don’t have to, just wait it out and enjoy the scenery.
As a photographer a visit to the valley can at first be a bit overwhelming. If you expect to have peace and solitude to contemplate the scene you may want to adjust your expectations. Everywhere you go there are numerous people taking photos of the very same thing you were probably thinking about shooting. They can be both distracting and in the way. The complex environs of Yosemite Valley are difficult enough to deal with given the great distances of the famous geology above the valley floor, many large trees and complex light.
All that said I’m not in any way trying to discourage anyone from visiting Yosemite. It is in fact every bit as spectacular as you might imagine, in fact even more so. That first awesome sight as you enter with the Merced river flowing into the valley with you as the astonishing mass of El Capitan, illuminated by the brilliant mid morning sun revealing itself between the trees, is truly unforgettable. This is only the beginning of your visit. Almost every direction you look is some other irresistible spectacle quietly demanding your attention.
To visit Yosemite Valley one has to almost learn to tune out the masses of humanity that surround you and focus only on the enveloping natural wonders. Then it all becomes clear just what is so very special about this place.
Sadly Yosemite Valley has become an almost microcosm of humanities impact on nature. The swelling masses of humanity with their machines going off in all directions running here and there and into each other.
The National Park Service, this year celebrating their centenary, has been tasked with a difficult if not almost impossible mandate. Protect the natural wonders of places like Yosemite from the waves of human visitors yet still make it accessible and enjoyable. They do work hard at it, from running the aforementioned shuttle service to acting as traffic cops to keep the vehicular traffic moving all the while remaining friendly, enthusiastic and helpful. They deserve a massive amount of respect from the public for doing this day in and day out.
So despite it all as the sun sets in the valley, dark clouds swirl around the top of El Capitan and a last flicker of warm light falls on the high rock you can take a moment, standing in a quite green meadow to appreciate everything that surrounds you. Even in Yosemite Valley today there are still some quite moments to be found.