Yosemite National Park is one of the most visited parks in the country with over 3.8 million people coming to this protected wilderness every year. People from all over the world flock there mainly because of its (beyond stunning) natural beauty. In the summer months this park gets swarmed with people, reservations are scarce, and it can be regrettably harder to find your connection to this wonderful place.
Yosemite in winter however, is an entirely different story. Free of the crowds, and presenting an entirely different landscape than during the rest of the year, Yosemite takes on a different form, and we love it.
Traveling and staying in Yosemite as a photographer during the winter requires different considerations and advance planning. Here are some tips for photographers who want to capture this place during arguably it’s most incredible season:
Lightweight, quality outdoor-wear that will keep you warm and keep you dry will make the difference between a photographer who stays out to find that perfect light and gets the shot they’ve been waiting for, and the one that goes in early to bundle up and get into their sleeping bag.
It might sound obvious to someone planning a winter trip, but give your day pack some serious thought. Thermal layers made of advance fabric can be a lot lighter and offer more heat efficiency. And since the temperature can vary widely throughout the day, you need to be able to take off and add layers.
The Valley Floor may be all you need
Most outdoor-oriented people come to Yosemite with the intention of hiking the many miles of hiking trails that ascend from the valley floor and up into the surrounding mountain ranges and waterfalls. I do miles and miles of these hikes every year, and I love them.
However, during the times of year when those paths may be closed or iced-over, take advantage of the sparse crowds on the valley floor and truly spend some time just walking around. There is a reason that there are millions of tourists doing just that during the summer, it’s pretty magical.
Plan to stay for at least a few days
The roads may close, or you may get totally snowed in. Unless you are stuck on a strict travel schedule, you should allow yourself the possibility of getting snowed-in. Once you accept that possibility, experiencing Yosemite in winter as the weather changes dramatically is an incredible experience for a photographer.
Because the elevation in Yosemite isn’t that high, the snowpack in the Valley doesn’t remain on the ground that long. So in the span of a few days you may experience spring-like weather, and then this the next morning when you wake up:
This means you should be prepared for the possibility that the weather turns crazy. Doing so will let you adventure and see things that most visitors to this incredible place will never see.
Keep an eye out for new waterfalls
Especially if it’s been a heavy winter like it was in 2017, make sure you keep you eyes on the ridge-lines for waterfalls that aren’t there during the normal year’s summer months.
Bring serious boots
Our first night, we decided to stay up and venture out into the open field to capture some night photography of the incredible open starry night sky. It was amazing, we even had some fun playing with light. Walking back however, Matt steps into an unseen river. His foot instantly went numb, and his shoe didn’t full dry for the rest of the trip. By contrast my boot was waterproof, insulated, had real solid grip. It prevented me from slipping on the ice, and kept my feet happy the whole trip. Good, serious boots are worth the extra dollar, believe me.
Bring serious gloves
Operating a camera with gloves is a serious challenge, but at temperatures like this, you have to be able to prevent your fingers from falling off. You need a high quality fabric that is thin enough so you can feel the specific buttons, with a lot of dexterity, but at the same time provide a lot of warmth. A good pair of active synthetic gloves is a major investment.
This leads me to my next tip:
Know your camera inside-and-out
When it’s freezing, and there is a four second gap in the wind where that one tree opens up perfectly in the storm, the last thing you want is to be looking down trying to figure out your settings. Your fingers should be on autopilot, and your eyes should be studying the scene, not your gear.
Overcast? Look for contrast where you can find it
Prevent battery drain
In cold weather, camera batteries drain at alarmingly fast rates. To prevent against this as much as possible, we got in the habit of keeping our spare camera batteries in interior chest pockets of our inner layers – allowing our body heat to help avoid running out of power. It worked.
If you’re not staying in a heated lodge or hotel room, you’re going to need to reallllly think through how prepared you are for these seriously cold nights. We stayed in unheated tent cabins, and… yikes. Even with winter-rated sleeping bags, thermals, and wool blankets, we all still had a hard time sleeping because we were so cold.
If you’re getting a tent cabin, make sure it’s a heated one. If it’s not heated, make sure you bring a LOT of layers that you are happy sleeping in, inside your sleeping bag.