If you’ve ever been to Yosemite National Park, you’re probably familiar with Tunnel View. It’s the iconic view in Yosemite, the place where everyone stops for a photo. It’s an incredibly cliched photo, but as I often stress, many photographic cliches are that way for a reason: because they are awesome. There’s no denying that Tunnel View is an awesome view. It’s inarguably one of the best views in any National Park in the United States. It’s also crowded, and can be a little demoralizing as a photographer when you wake up hours before the sunrise to make the trek out to Tunnel View for an incredible photo…only to find yourself surrounded by 20 other photographers. Not only will you not have that tranquil and serene sunrise experience, but you most likely won’t end up with all that unique of a photo.
While I see the merit in taking those cliched photos, I also strive for originality. More importantly, I prize the tranquility and serenity of the National Parks, and one of my big reasons for visiting is the feeling of being alone with nature. Because of this, I’m “over” Tunnel View. Yes, it might be the most iconic view in any National Park, but I’m more or less done with it.
Now, this isn’t because I’ve conquered Tunnel View or no longer have interest in photographing the Yosemite Valley–far from it. This is because Tunnel View is just one specific location of a few spots in the immediate area that offer similar views into Yosemite Valley. Most of these locations I’ve found require more effort to reach than Tunnel View (you can literally shoot Tunnel View from your car if you wanted), but I think there’s a greater sense of accomplishment in putting in a little more work for a photo. At least, that’s how I justify the hikes to myself!
Anyway, I don’t want to hype up these alternatives too much, as there’s really just one alternative, with a bunch of different views on the way to that spot. The alternative to which I’m referring is Artist Point, a beautiful vista about a mile up Pohono Trail. The trailhead for Pohono Trail is in the overflow parking lot for Tunnel View, and Artist Point is more or less directly behind Tunnel View (it’s a bit southeast and from a higher elevation). I first “discovered” Artist Point after reading this review on YosemiteHikes.com, and was surprised to hear them call it a superior view to Tunnel View (read that post for detailed instructions on getting to Artist Point). After visiting Artist Point numerous times since reading that, I have to say that I agree completely.
The added elevation opens up the view offering a better view of the Valley, and although some key portions of view (such as Half Dome) aren’t quite as good from up there, some things look better. The other upside to this, besides a slightly superior view and solitude (besides the people with whom I’ve hiked, I’ve never encountered another person at Artist Point), is in terms of photography. At Tunnel View, there’s a wall at the edge of the parking lot where everyone sets up tripods, and everything is off in the distance. This makes for a relatively flat shot, as there’s little in the way of a foreground. This isn’t the case at Artist Point, where you can work with a variety of foregrounds for wider shots, if you so desire. As you can see in the shot above (it’s totally posed–I found that antler near the trail and put it up on that rock), this can turn an otherwise bland shot into something a bit more interesting.
Every shot in this post up until this paragraph has been from Artist Point, so that should give you an idea of the view from there. However, it’s not necessary to hike all the way to Artist Point to get a great, uncrowded view. If you start on Pohono Trail, about one-tenth of a mile up the trail, on an early switchback to the right, you’ll see some rocks blocking what looks like a bit of a makeshift (or former?) trail heading west. If you head this way, you’ll find a clearing after about another tenth of a mile, that is nearly an identical view to Tunnel View, except a bit to the southwest. For the sake of reference, I’m going to dub this the “Tunnel Lot Perch.”
Getting to the Tunnel Lot Perch requires a bit of a scramble in some spots, and I don’t necessarily recommend it for beginners or in cold weather, as portions of the “path” out there are prone to ice over and become deceptively slippery. What I like about this view is that you can actually put the Tunnel View parking lot in the frame if you want, which gives the photo sort of a man v. nature kind of vibe (it’s just as easy to frame a shot so the lot isn’t in the frame, so don’t worry if you don’t want it in your shot).
The next spot is kind of a double spot, if you will. I say this because the spot I’m going to reference I haven’t actually shot from, as I went there in the middle of the day when the skies were blah. However, it’s a pretty good view, albeit not as open as Tunnel View, and you’re definitely still going to encounter people there. Basically, it’s the last pullout before you go through the tunnel (Tunnel View being on the other side of the tunnel). From the turnout, you walk along the road to an elevated position immediately before the tunnel. This offers a superior view of Half Dome than any of the other spots, but I think otherwise it’s inferior.
The reason this is a double spot is because I accidentally found a view that’s similar to this, except with more elevation. On my way down from Artist Point one night, I was trying to find the Tunnel Lot Perch as I came down from Artist Point, but I turned off the Pohono Trail too early, and started wandering…and got lost. (Hey, it was dark out.) Realizing I was lost, I kept heading west to see if I could find another opening, and I finally did, roughly one-tenth of a mile west of the Tunnel Lot Perch, and maybe 200 feet in elevation above Tunnel View. It offered a really excellent view of the entire Valley, but the opening was not a perch, but rather, on the side of a mountain. I’m going to unofficially name this spot after myself and dub it “Idiot’s View.” The easiest way to get to Idiot’s View is going to be continuing from Tunnel Lot Perch to the west for maybe another .05 mile, and scrambling about another 50 feet upwards until you see a large opening.
The photo above doesn’t really do this spot justice as I was intentionally trying to include trees as a foreground element, but it might just be the best view of the bunch. It seems to emphasize El Capitan and Half Dome (the main draws of Tunnel View, if you ask me) even more, and you can incorporate a lot of different foreground elements here. The problem with this spot is that it’s not easy to find, and is not for the faint of heart. The ground at Idiot’s View is steep; so steep that you’ll have to precariously perch your tripod on a large rock to prevent it from sliding down the mountain. Go to this spot at your own risk–it’s probably not safe or advisable for anyone who isn’t really sure-footed.
One final view that I’ll mention briefly is Valley View/Gates of the Valley. I’m only touching upon this spot as it’s not really a Tunnel View alternative (although the view is somewhat similar), but rather, it’s a common spot that you should go to in addition to one of the locations above. It’s also a location about which most people already know, since it’s a location on the map, and has its own parking area. Valley View is my favorite view in all of Yosemite National Park, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. This location is a must do, particularly for those early morning reflections, or during a full moon.
That about covers it as far as alternatives to Tunnel View–at least the ones of which I’m aware. Like I said earlier, Tunnel View is an amazing spot and you shouldn’t skip it, but if you find yourself disenchanted with the crowds there, the locations in this post make some great alternatives, and the hike up to Artist Point is pretty easy, and fun.
I took the photos here with a mix of different cameras and lenses over the course of several years and trips to Yosemite, but my go-to gear for shooting Yosemite National Park is currently my Nikon D810, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 Lens, and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR, plus my MeFoto travel tripod. If I were going on a long hike and trying to keep it light, I might forego the 70-200 in favor of something like the the Nikon 28-300mm VR Lens. Your mileage may vary on what gear you want to carry on a hike…
If you’re planning a visit to Yosemite National Park, please check out my other posts about Yosemite for ideas of things to do and photography tips. If you’re looking for more Yosemite photo spots, check out my Yosemite National Park Photo Spots & Tips post. Also, other great resources are Michael Frye’s book on photographing Yosemite National Park, and his blog on the same.
To get some more Yosemite National Park photo ideas, check out my Yosemite National Park photo gallery, which includes additional shots I have taken on my visits there. For photo licensing inquires, please contact me.
What do you think of Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park? Yosemite veterans, do you have any additional suggestions for great locations? Share any thoughts you have in the comments!