Yosemite Photo Conditions


Confluence of Cascade and Tamarack creeks, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Confluence of two swollen creeks, Yosemite, last Thursday afternoon. 1/2 second at f/11, 50 ISO.

California got doused by another series of storms last week. From Sunday (February 5th) through Friday (February 10th) Yosemite Valley received over ten inches of rain, pushing water levels near flood stage again.

My brother Peter came down to visit us from Washington state, and early on Thursday morning we drove up to Yosemite Valley, hoping for the sun to break through. We never saw the sun, but we found innumerable small waterfalls, including many I don’t remember seeing before in over 30 years here. And the big waterfalls were ripping. The overcast light was actually the perfect complement to many of these scenes, and I didn’t know when I’d get another opportunity to photograph the waterfalls like this, so we ended up staying in the valley for most of the day photographing the surging cascades.


Horsetail Fall Season

Horsetail Fall at sunset, February 18th, 2016

Horsetail Fall at sunset, February 18th, 2016

It looks like there should be plenty of water in Horsetail Fall this month. Yosemite Valley has received almost ten inches of rain over the past week, and that abundant rainfall has boosted the flow in all of Yosemite’s waterfalls, including Horsetail. In fact the Merced River reached minor flood stage Wednesday night. While the rain runoff will diminish quickly, there’s a healthy snowpack at the higher elevations of Yosemite, which should keep Horsetail flowing for awhile. I expect above-average flow in Horsetail this year.

But water flow is just one element. You also need the sun to set at the right angle to backlight Horsetail and make it turn orange, yet have the cliff behind it in the shade, so that the glowing, backlit, orange water is set against a dark background. My best estimate is that this happens between February 16th and 23rd, and perhaps even a few days beyond. (I delve into more detail about all that here.)


The Big Snow

Late-afternoon light on Half Dome from Cook's Meadow, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Late-afternoon light on Half Dome from Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite

I haven’t had a chance to post here recently, but I wanted to write about the big snow in Yosemite nine days ago. California was hit by three storms in a row, and the last two brought snow to Yosemite Valley – a lot of snow. The final storm in the sequence moved through slowly on Sunday and Sunday night (January 22nd), but by early Monday morning it showed signs of clearing, so Claudia and I woke early and drove up to the valley. We found about 18 inches of snow in open areas, more than we’d seen in years.


A Wild Week in Yosemite

Frazil ice underneath alders along the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Frazil ice underneath alders along the Merced River, Yosemite, Friday morning. The shutter speed was 3 seconds.

As most of you probably heard, Yosemite got hit with some wild weather last week. The National Weather Service was predicting a major flood for the Merced River in Yosemite Valley on Sunday, January 8th. Their initial projection, issued on January 5th (I think) put the water level at Pohono Bridge at 23.7 feet, slightly higher than the 1997 flood, which closed the valley for two months. Then the next day the projection dropped to 15 feet, considered a moderate flood. On Saturday the projection climbed again to 16, 17, 18, then 19.7 feet – just below the “major flood” level of 20 feet. And then the projection dropped again to 15 feet, and then lower still.


High Water in December

Upper Yosemite, rainbow, and reflection in the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Rainbow and Upper Yosemite Fall from Swinging Bridge, Yosemite, Friday afternoon

On Thursday night a large rainstorm hit California. The National Weather Service predicted minor flooding in Yosemite Valley during the night, so the park service pre-emptively closed all the roads in Yosemite Valley at 4:00 p.m. on Thursday.

That was disappointing, since I wanted to drive up to the valley the next morning to see the high water. As it turned out, the Merced River didn’t reach flood stage, everything was fine, and they reopened the roads at 9:00 a.m. on Friday. By that time it was too late to drive up and catch the morning light, so I decided to head to the park in the afternoon.


Misty Night

Misty night, Gates of the Valley, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Misty night, Gates of the Valley, Yosemite

After a long dry spell we finally got some rain. The first storm arrived Thursday, and then a second, wetter system reached us yesterday. Altogether Yosemite Valley received over three inches of rain since late Wednesday. It’s been warm, with the snow levels near 9,000 feet, so there was no new snow in Yosemite Valley, but that warm rain melted generous quantities of snow leftover from previous storms, so the waterfalls are roaring like spring.

Thursday’s storm cleared after sunset, so at about 9:00 o’clock I decided to drive up to the valley for some night photography. I arrived to find plenty of low-lying mist, with the two-thirds-full moon lighting the cliffs above. It was really beautiful, but the moon was high overhead, making the lighting challenging. Then as the moonset approached things got more interesting. Some higher clouds moved in, and those clouds started to catch some color from the setting moon. I couldn’t see that color, of course, but the camera’s LCD screen showed it clearly.