Half Dome and the Merced River by moonlight, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Half Dome and the Merced River by moonlight, Yosemite

We had a long stretch of rather dry weather here in central California, with just a few light showers here and there. But last week we finally got a decent storm. A cold front created a brief – but intense – period of precipitation on Thursday afternoon. At our house in Mariposa we saw strong winds prior to the cold front’s arrival, then the sky started dumping ice pellets, which quickly changed to heavy snow. None of the forecasts predicted snow at our elevation, but we got about four inches. After an hour or two the front passed, and the snowfall eased off into scattered snow showers.

Of course I watched the weather closely to see when this brief storm might clear. All the forecasts and models predicted showers lingering through the evening, and skies clearing sometime after midnight – but well before sunrise. That meant it was unlikely there would still be any mist at sunrise, so my best bet to photograph a snowy clearing storm was to go up to Yosemite Valley during the night. A half-full moon was due to rise just after midnight, so that could provide some interesting light during those wee hours.

After dark, satellite and radar images showed showers lingering, just as predicted. I decided to drive up to the valley and take my chances, and arrived around 11:30. There were about five inches of new snow on the ground. I couldn’t see any stars, and it was still snowing off and on, so I took a short nap. When I woke up the showers had stopped, so I went to a spot I had picked out that might work for the moonrise, with a view of Half Dome and the Merced River.

As I walked through a snowy forest by the light of my headlamp, I could see that the skies were definitely starting to clear. When I reached the river the moon was just cresting a ridge, but Half Dome was still socked in. I set up my camera and started taking a series of photos, waiting for Half Dome to make an appearance. Sometimes I thought I could see part of it through the moonlit clouds, but then it would disappear again. Finally the top of Half Dome appeared, but the moon had cleared the trees by then, creating excessive contrast. A bit later, however, some clouds partially hid the moon, with moonlight still backlighting the clouds. Conditions were just right for a couple of minutes, and then the moon emerged from behind the clouds again.

The mist disappeared completely a short time after that. I photographed moonlit water along another stretch of the river (see below), then drove home, pulling into the driveway at around 4:30 a.m. I didn’t get much sleep, but it was a great night – just me and the snowplows out in snow, under the moonlight.

— Michael Frye

Moonlit night along the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Moonlit night along the Merced River, Yosemite

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.