Yosemite National Park: A Place Unlike Any Other

As we drove into the valley, my heart was racing; almost as fast as Neemor was driving at one point. The trees whooshed by, quickly turning into greener, taller, more prominent living organisms. The GPS was showing another 30 miles, but I wasnt sure I could handle it. Both my head and my heart were fluttering, making it hard to think straight out of sheer excitement. I was finally going to be in Yosemite. The National Park that Ansel Adams photographed for years. The National Park that was Home to some of the most mind blowing, expansive, flawless pieces of granite in the entire world. The Park that so many others just like myself have flocked to to experience the inspiration that flows throughout this land.

The towers began to appear. Ten miles left until the entrance. The cars started flowing out of the park with an impending snow storm approaching. Five miles left until we get there. The park sign is approaching. All of a sudden, the sign appears, and we are in Yosemite National Park. We’re still here. I’m writing this as we take the shuttle bus in circles around the park so we can edit photos. At the time though, our trip had just begun. 

With no real set plan in motion, we drove into the park with an inclination to stay at Camp 4, one of the walk in campgrounds in the park. Usually popular and difficult to get a spot at, we drove in unsure of what to expect. Within minutes of entering the park, cars began to speed by, seeming to exit the park with the snow storm in the forecast. We were surprised, but enthralled with the idea of a park all to ourselves. The granite monoliths peaked above the trees while the last bit of light disappeared beneath them as we inched closer and closer to the park. We arrived to Camp 4 with minutes to spare as the darkness crept in. We piched our tents and the anticipation heightened with the days adventures ahead.

My eyes drifted off and the next thing I knew, it was morning and we were waking up for sunrise.

We awoke with excitement and anticipation flowing through our veins. We hopped in the car and drove out of the empty Camp 4 parking lot and down the road near the meadow that faces Half Dome. A massive piece of granite, Half Dome towers over everything around it, making it one of the more notable and prominent features I’ve ever laid eyes on. We grabbed our tripods, slung our cameras over our shoulders and began to fire shots off. The sunrise was subtle, creating a beautiful color palet of pastels that painted the wall of Half Dome behind the layer of fog. The skies changed as quickly as my camera settings, creating a unique and utterly beautiful stream of images. 

Half Dome from the Meadow

Half Dome from the Meadow

It seemed that we were the only ones there for sunrise. Everything was going as I had only could have imagined. I was staring at Half Dome as the clouds whipped above, finally in one of the most sought after locations on the planet.

Another perspective on Half Dome

Another perspective on Half Dome

We packed up after an hour or so as our hands began to freeze in the cool morning air.  

Our plan for the day was weak, as was our plan for this entire roadtrip. We figured we’d find stuff to do without much difficulty, and it actually went perfectly. Our first side trip of our time in Yosemite landed us at Lower Yosemite Falls. Usually jam packed with tourists, we were lucky to stroll up to the falls with zero folks frothing at the mouth for a photo. We snapped photos as the flurries began to dust the trees along the valley floor. The rest of our day was up in the air, and as the minutes ticked away, we finally made a decision to go check out Mirror Lake, one of the more popular spots, but with the lack of people in the park, we were hoping for a bit of solitude. 

Lower Yosemite Falls

Lower Yosemite Falls

The trip to Mirror Lake is around a 7 mile out and back hike, around 3.5 to where we were going, and another 3.5 back to the trailhead. Nothing crazy, but with the fresh layer of snow falling and the surprisingly warm feeling weather, it was bound to be a good day. There were a few people meandering about the half full lake that was generally overflowing this time of year with water that would provide a reflection, but this time with the lack of water and snow this Winter, the lake was nothing to behold. It was as beautiful as I could have imagined, but wasn't what it generally is. To me, it was nothing but a minor setback on the hike, if that. We walked around, snapped photos, and eventually wandered into a more desolate part of the park and found the seclusion we were after.

Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake

This trip for us was more about visually seeing some of the more inspirational places, in hopes to gain that inspiration for our own projects. Neemor has been working on a few separate videos, as well as rounding up footage for an overall trip video, while I was more concerned with continuing my "3 Questions with a Thru Hiker" series on YouTube. 

As we found our seclusion in the dense forest beneath the towering granite peaks, we began to film my next episode with my good friend Scooter. As the clouds whipped around and the temperature changed with the wind, we wrapped up the filming and headed back the way we came in hopes to get some warm food and water in our gullets. The entire time we were filming, I was still in shock that I was in Yosemite. My first real hike around the valley and through the iconic location was one I'll never forget. As the day went on, we went back to the cafe for more coffee, continued to drive and walk around the valley to snap photos, and eventually crawl into our tents as the temperature plummeted.

Prior to us hitting the hay, we decided to do a little night photography at Sentinel Bridge, a location that has a straight on view of Half Dome, one of the most iconic sights in the park. For over two hours, we stood at the bridge in the freezing temperatures, snapping photos, trying different techniques, taking night portraits, and just really taking in the fact that we were in Yosemite, all alone, at night, doing what we love. I still can't believe that we had the park nearly to ourselves for such a long time. After a few hours with little to no feeling in our hands, we called it a night and headed back to Camp 4. Luckily, we were all three carrying two sleeping bags/quilts along this trip so we remained nice and toasty as the condensation began to pile up on our top quilts. Our first full day in Yosemite was over.

Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge / Hyperspeed

Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge / Hyperspeed

Our next day in the park was bound to be something special. Scooter and I awoke at first light to drive around and snap some photos as Neemor chilled in the tent, hoping for a 'chill' morning as he called it. Scooter and I picked a nice location to enjoy a nice little walk at and when we arrived, we trotted into the woods for a nice view of some of the granite. We wrapped up our morning session by taking a stroll past our car to a Trailhead Sign that read 'Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point'. We immediately looked the trail up on All Trails, realized that it was actually quite a hike and a challenging trail leading up to Glacier Point, one of the more noticed and trafficked locations above the valley that provides unmatched views of Half Dome. We hastily drove back to Camp 4, picked up Neemor, grabbed a cup of coffee or two, and headed towards the trailhead again. We were set on getting above the valley, and what better way to do so than to take a trail up!

We weren't quite sure what to expect, especially with the recent snowfall, but as we began our ascent, I think we all felt extremely comfortable and ready for the elevation gain. We all hadn't really been extremely active in the most recent months, but as time would tell, our trail legs began to come back and allowed us an easy ascent up to Glacier Point. As we rounded each of the switchbacks, the view of Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls began to appear clearer, bigger, and more illustrious than in the valley. The view back through the tunnel between the granite peaks began to appear lush, well lit, and unimaginably big. With each step my heart raced quicker and quicker due to the sheer beauty. THIS is what we wanted out of Yosemite. We all wanted dearly to get to the peaks and plateaus, not just hang out in the valley. We finally were feeling like we were really getting a grasp of Yosemite. 

Looking into the Valley

Looking into the Valley

As we ascended into higher elevations, the snow pack began to appear and planned to stay. The cold began to bite into my body as the snow piled up under my feet. With only a mile or so left to the top of Glacier Point, we were ecstatic. So ecstatic really, that Neemor pushed on ahead of Scooter and I as we snapped photos at every turn.

Scooter taking in the view with Halfdome in the background

Scooter taking in the view with Halfdome in the background

Our time on the Four Mile Trail eventually led us to the top where Neemor was enjoying the view. We made our way over to Glacier Point as the wind picked up and a storm began to roll in from the high peaks of the Sierras. We wanted to go to the top of Sentinel Dome, but with the impending storm, we figured it'd be best if we just explored the area we were at and take in the sights before heading back down. I remember as we took in the last view before dusk took hold, I felt as if a weight was lifted off of my shoulders. I honestly wasn't worrying about anything. My mind seemed to be racing, but towards nothing. The present was legitimately taking hold, and for one of the first times in my life, I felt at ease with nothing to worry about. A mind usually ridden with thoughts and worries, all of a sudden seemed to be empty with nothing but appreciation for where I was currently at. What a feeling it is to feel nothing at all for a short period of time. 

Halfdome through the trees on Glacier Point

Halfdome through the trees on Glacier Point

We made the decision to head back down as the sun began to fall beneath the horizon line. Our hearts were full, our minds were racing of the beauty, and our feet ready to begin the descent. We picked up the pace on the way back down, and for some reason began to jog. All of us have a little bit of experience with trail running, some more than others, so we figured why not get back down as quickly as possible to get a view of the sunset before the colors were gone for good. The descent being much more forgiving on the legs, but much more detrimental to the joints, our pace was a moderate speed, combining both speed with precision to give us a comfortable pace. We eventually found ourselves taking in the last view of color from an overhanging cliff along one of the switchbacks. The trail was quite wide, giving us more than enough room to enjoy the view without risk. Our shutters were firing as the warmth we created on the way down began to fade. One of the more beautiful places on earth, Yosemite was providing one of the best days of my life at that very moment. 

Neemor taking in the view on the way down

Neemor taking in the view on the way down

The last few miles flew by as we set our sites on the warmth generated by the car. The snow crunched beneath our feet, the last bit of light fell over our faces, and eventually darkness took hold as we strolled into the car, unlocked the doors, and hopped in. We all kind of just looked at each other with nothing but happiness and clarity in our eyes. What a sight to see, Half Dome from Glacier Point, with not a single soul around other than us. 

We were planning on doing some more astrophotography that night, but sleep decided to come early, and we ended up crawling into our quilts much earlier than expected. A well needed rest, nonetheless. 

The next, and last day in the park was going to be something more along the lines of a nice, relaxing day in the park filled with small hikes, lots of coffee, and then an exit of the park via the High Route. We decided on a small hike up towards the John Muir Trail which would lead us to a few waterfalls, but really, at that point, I wasn't sure anything could even compete with Glacier Point and the hike up. We took our time, chatted, snapped more photos, but eventually just made our way back to the cafe. We let the minutes roll on as we edited photos and waited for nightfall to head out of the park. Before that, however; we had gotten wind of the available permits for 'Firefall', a rare occurrence that only happens two weeks a year where the last bit of light rays hit El Cap in a way that creates the illusion of lava flowing over the peak and down the face. This year, however; the water level was so low that the phenomenon was a stretch for actually happening. We picked up the permit anyways, and raced towards the area for the 'best viewing'. As we neared the parking area, the photographers and hopeful viewers began to appear in the bushes, and the next think I knew I was in a group of roughly 30 photographers all staged and waiting for the sun to set. I took a few photos at the normal viewing area, but as the sun began to produce colors and beautiful light, I moved around and became more mobile as the other photographers stayed stationary. The actual Firefall was quite lackluster, but facing the opposite way was a show more beautiful than most. The beautiful golden rays lit up Sentinel Dome and illuminated the surrounding peaks as well. I was in shock that not many others were actually turning around to witness what was right behind them. I couldn't believe that I was witnessing the light that was occurring. So many beautiful colors all wrapped up into one sunset. What a dream.

Sentinel Dome

Sentinel Dome

We eventually packed up as the light faded as our time in Yosemite was coming to an end. We had one more idea for a shoot, something a little bit different. We wanted to show a different perspective of the iconic location, 'Tunnel View'. A popular spot for tourists in Yosemite, you drive to the top of the pass and the entire valley of Yosemite gets presented to you from a high point. During the day, its beautiful location to gaze at, but at night, the stars and satellites light up the sky as cars drive by completely oblivious. We set up our tripods, and began to shoot into the night sky as the stars appeared out what seemed to be thin air. We chatted with a few other photographers as our shutters clicked every ten to thirty seconds for our long exposures. Cars drove by, creating light trails and a flurry of flashes as the shutters clicked again and again. As we realized we achieved what we set out to do for our trip in Yosemite, we all concluded that our time there was over; something that was both exciting and saddening at the same time. We were headed elsewhere, which is always a fantastic feeling, but I was bummed to be leaving one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. 

Tunnel View at Night

Tunnel View at Night

We loaded our tripods back into the car, drove down the pass, out of the park, and towards our next destination; Zion National Park.

Our time in Yosemite was up, but our trip was still just a fraction of what it would be soon enough.