First Snow in Yosemite

Winter in Yosemite National Park is a beautiful thing. I had previously been last February and caught the park in the midst of its winter season, even hiking in waist-deep snow along the way to this shot. Still, I had not seen Yosemite after any fresh snow in the Yosemite Valley, which I had heard was a game-changer. My friend William McIntosh, who is one of the best Yosemite National Park photographers out there, mentioned there was a chance that the Yosemite Valley might get its first snow of the year on Friday and asked if I wanted to go.

His plan was for a quick trek up that would basically involve little sleep and more driving time than it would actual time in the park, with just as much potential for overcast skies, rain, and brown trees as it did for nice skies and clouds, snow, and a white layer covering the park. How could I possibly say no? I mean, saying no probably would have been the smart thing to do when considering the time constraints and the probability of all the stars aligning so that we could come away with some good shots, but it should be clear by now that I’m anything but smart.

We set out early morning and arrived in Yosemite National Park a couple of hours before sunset. Along the way, we had been watching the Yosemite webcams to see whether it was snowing or raining in the Valley, and when we first entered, I was a little concerned by all of the rain near the park’s entrance. As we got closer to the Yosemite Valley, the temperature starting dropping, and that rain gradually changed to snow!

When we arrived in the Valley, we first came upon the Yosemite Chapel, a National Historic Landmark. At this point it was really snowing, and we had to stop to grab shots of the idyllic scene before heading to Tunnel View.

A bit of an aside, but I love taking photos while it’s snowing. I know some photographers like to wait until after the snow is done falling because falling snow can look like noise or make a photo look soft, but I think it gives most photos a nice texture. I also like dragging the shutter a bit (around 1/30th of a second for a landscape is ideal, in my opinion) to get some motion blur out the snow. All simply my personal preference…

Then, we stumbled upon a family of 3 deer. At first they were all wandering around together doing whatever it is that deer do in the snow, but then when it started snowing harder, the buck wandering under the tree and just sort of collapsed. The doe and fawn followed suit. When we went by this spot a while later, they were all still there, begging the question, is this the best thing deer can do in a snow storm? Lie down under trees?

The precipitation kept changing between a wintry mix and snow, and we were going nuts thinking about the possibility of fresh snow and a breaking storm at sunset. As I had learned from Bill and Michael Frye’s Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, this was pretty rare, but a breaking afternoon storm is one of the best times to photograph the Valley, as it provides for some crazy light and serious drama in the sky.

Unfortunately, the stars did not align that afternoon, and as it got closer to sunset time, the temperature warmed and the clouds refused to part. There was no visible sunset, just a rainy grey sky that slowly got dark.

One of the big things about successful photography, in my opinion, is being optimistic to a fault and always wanting to find ways to make lemonade out of lemons. With that in mind, instead of calling it a night when the sky got dark, we started thinking about the moonrise. To figure out what might happen, we regrouped and headed to the Yosemite Village to grab some coffee and start looking at weather radars.

Every predictive weather service we looked at showed something different for the late night hours, so it became a question of whether we wanted to wait it out for the moonrise at 11 pm, or call it a night and get back early the next morning for some potential night shooting before the sunrise. We decided to do both.

We stayed, driving around the loop over and over, waiting for the moonrise. It was a dud, with the same rain and overcast skies as the sunset. A bit defeated, we headed out to crash in Mariposa before sunrise. Somewhere along the way, we decided that we should just suck it up and get up early for potential night shooting before the sunrise. So, we arrived in Mariposa just after midnight and were back up right at 3 am to start shooting.

We were rewarded for our efforts with the same overcast skies and rain. I was beginning to think that Zeus, or whatever it is that controls the weather, was playing a cruel joke on us. The clouds didn’t seem to be moving at all. Then, finally, after driving around the loop a couple more times, the break happened.

Then, we really did start going crazy, as the clouds were clearing making for some beautiful nighttime landscapes and looked good for a promising sunrise with some epic clouds. All of this still didn’t go according to plan, but I’ll save that for my next post on this visit to Yosemite National Park. (Insert dramatic cliffhanger music.)

For this visit to Yosemite, I carried my a Nikon D750, Nikon D810Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 Lens, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR, Nikon 28-300mm VR Lens plus my MeFoto travel tripod, some other assorted junk, and tons of caffeine. I would not have carried all of this on a normal visit to Yosemite, but hiking wasn’t on the agenda, so the car was the one carrying all of the gear, instead of me.

To get some more Yosemite National Park photo ideas, check out my Yosemite National Park photo gallery, which includes additional shots I have taken during my visits.

Your Thoughts…

Does photographing or visiting in Yosemite National Park in the winter sound appealing to you? Do you like photographing the falling snow, or do you prefer waiting until it stops? Share any thoughts or questions you have in the comments!

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6 replies
  1. Cat
    Cat says:

    Your Yosemite winter photography tips are so incredibly helpful! I’m headed out there for the firewall but am just as excited to capture other areas!

  2. wendy
    wendy says:

    Tom, I have been following your Disney trips for a while now and I just recently discovered this page. Yosemite is my most favorite National Park. We have made it a point to take our kids on National Park Tours every other summer. We have been to more than 20 Parks and Monuments. I adore Yosemite, I have hiked all over that dang park. However, I have never been in the winter. I have it on my list. The interesting thing about being a Walt Disney fan, is that he taught us as children to love nature as well as our imagination. The National Parks are our greatest treasures and Walt Disney is one of the greatest icons of this counrty. All that aside, these pictures are gorgeous! Thank you so much for sharing all your adventures!

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      While it wasn’t Walt Disney who introduced me to nature, I know that was the case with a lot of kids, and I think that’s great.

      I also think the natural wonders are a great contrast and compliment to the Disney theme parks. I absolutely love the theme parks and think they offer some of the best entertainment in the world, but the National Parks provide a stark contrast to the manmade environments in the theme parks…which is why I think they go together nicely, providing a rounded-out travel experience, if that makes any sense!

      Plus…you can’t beat the price of the National Parks! 😉

  3. William McIntosh
    William McIntosh says:

    Your shots came out so well! Especially that buck under the tree! That was a great trip. We may not have ended up with the sunset and moonrise that we were hoping for, but your shots of the chapel and deer are exceptional. You even got a meteor in that Cathedral Rocks shot above! I agree with you now about shooting in the snow. That Chapel shot looks amazing. Looking forward to more banzai trips in the future…now that you’re a local!

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Thanks, Bill. Your first two shots have been pretty spectacular, and I can only imagine what else you have–it’ll be fun to see. It’s also interesting how *different* of shots we have, despite going to the same places!

      Can’t wait for the next trip…

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