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Beyond The Usual Yosemite

Ansel Adams’ famous images of Yosemite helped make it a photographer’s mecca. Today, finding your own vision of one of our most well-known national parks requires getting off the beaten trail.
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This Article Features Photo Zoom

Half Dome, from about one mile from the end of Glacier Point Road


Yosemite Valley at night from Tunnel View

When you’ve been photographing Yosemite National Park for as long as I have, there comes a point at which you just can’t shoot another one from Tunnel View. I mean, how many different ways can I shoot the same location. Day, night, late afternoon—yawn. So when conditions are right, I start looking for something different. Sometimes I walk along the Merced River on the valley floor and see what I see. Occasionally, there’s nothing inspiring, but often there is. And the great thing is, sometimes you only have to move a few hundred feet to completely change a view, or get different framing, or get a different angle to, say, create a rainbow in a waterfall. Varying the time of year offers differing shots, as well.

Just Take A Short Walk
Yosemite is a photographer’s Disneyland; there’s no shortage of opportunities. When you’re new to the park, it’s understandable that you would jump out of the car at Tunnel View, gasp in amazement and start shooting away because, truly, it’s a breathtaking sight. But force yourself to walk a quarter-mile above Tunnel View, up the Inspiration Point trail and shoot the same view from a slightly higher elevation through beautiful oak trees. Or go all the way up the one-mile trail to Inspiration Point itself and shoot Yosemite Valley with greater emphasis on the flat valley and greater views of Half Dome than from the parking lot, or simply frame your shot through foliage that doesn’t exist in the parking lot. Or, from the parking lot, walk down the road and find that spot that frames Bridalveil Fall through foliage that gives it a whole new look.

Upper Yosemite Fall photographed from just off the Yosemite Falls Trail

The same thing at Valley View on Northside Drive near Highway 41 and the Highway 120-140 fork. The view here is on thousands of trinkets in the gift shop, but walk just 200 feet east of the concrete and asphalt, along the trail that parallels the river, and you’ll find a spot that gives you an almost uninterrupted view of Bridalveil Falls through the trees and across the meadow. And when the light is right in April or March, late in the afternoon you can see a rainbow in the mist from the waterfall.

Off of Highway 41, just past The Wall turnout, you’ll find the service road to the Turtleback communications array. The repeaters for the Yosemite communications system for law enforcement, emergency vehicles, etc., are located here. Park at the bottom, near the gate, and hike up the road; in eight-tenths of a mile you’ll find a spot at the top for a tremendous view to the west for a great sunset shot.

The key is to think outside the box—or, more accurately, think outside the fence. There are places all over the valley that are plainly marked as protected; these need to be respected. But there are many other places that aren’t specifically designated off-limits to foot traffic. Look for those places, take the short hikes off the beaten path, and find your own special angle on things. Also, don’t forget that Yosemite is a west-facing park, and the time of day that presents more opportunities is late afternoon.

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Half Dome from just below Columbia Point on the Yosemite Falls Trail

Taft Point And Sentinel Dome
There are places all along Glacier Point Road that offer incredible opportunities. About a mile up on the left, right at the curve, there’s a spectacular view to the west where one can get a great sunset. Keep going, and you’ll find the Taft Point and Sentinel Dome parking lot. This trail takes you to Taft Point, a spot perched right on the precipice of the Yosemite Valley wall that will give you breathtaking views of El Capitan and most of the west end of the valley, along with an incredible view to the west for dramatic sunsets. The “fissures,” which are huge cracks in the granite that you can fall into if you’re not paying attention, are abundant. Plus, great shots can be had by lying on your belly and sliding up to the cliff over which is 3,000 feet of freefall to Yosemite Valley—not for the squeamish.

The trail also takes you on to Sentinel Dome, an outcropping of granite that lies at 8,000 feet. From here you have a spectacular, mind-numbing, 360-degree view of everything. There’s great night shooting of the stars, sunset, clouds, moon and sunrise from here. You can do it all from Sentinel Dome.

Close-up view of the lower part of Upper Yosemite Fall as seen from the Yosemite Falls Trail

Glacier Point And Beyond
Proceed to Glacier Point itself, and just in front of the gift shop is the beginning (or end) of the Panorama Trail, which covers eight miles of glorious vistas between Glacier Point and Happy Isle. Walk down the trail only about a half-mile, however, and you get ever-changing views of Half Dome and Nevada and Vernal Falls. The early part of the trail is easy—very level and offering variations in perspective of these iconic Yosemite wonders. Keep going across the river and up the John Muir Trail portion, and you’ll find a great east-to-west view of Yosemite Valley that includes Upper Yosemite Fall.

Several trails that originate from the valley floor offer stupendous views seldom photographed. About halfway up the Four-Mile trail, there’s a small rock outcropping just off the main trail that gives a 180-degree view of Yosemite Valley from the south rim. You can shoot the entire valley from Yosemite Falls to the Big Oak Flat road, the remnants of which are still visible from this special angle. Up further along the Four-Mile Trail are more great variations of views of Half Dome, again, seldom photographed.

Upper Yosemite Falls
From Camp 4, head up the Yosemite Falls Trail. After about a mile just as you enter the loose, sandy part of the trail, just below Columbia Point, a side trail goes off to the right through the heavy underbrush. Take this spur trail, and after about 100 feet, you’ll come on another outcropping of granite very wide and secluded from the main trail. Here, you can shoot afternoon sunsets of Half Dome, or storm clouds, among other things, and again you’ll have an elevated, sweeping view of Yosemite Valley that’s rarely photographed. Continue up the Yosemite Falls Trail, and you’ll come upon a view of Upper Yosemite Falls that’s tremendous, especially during early summer when the water is flowing very fast. Of course, if you go all the way to the top, there are endless spectacular photographic opportunities. Be aware, though, that the upper portion of the Yosemite Falls Trail above Columbia Point is mostly very steep and difficult, and in summer, very warm. Take lots of water, but if you make it, you’ll be richly rewarded.

Tioga Road To Tuolumne Meadow
On Tioga Road, on the way to Tuolumne Meadow in the high country, at an elevation of 8,500 feet, you’ll discover a whole new world of photography. The sky is a deeper blue, and the views are huge and sweeping. The weather is different than in Yosemite Valley. Thunderstorms are more frequent, giving the photographer a greater variation in clouds, late-afternoon light and endless photo opportunities.

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Half Dome from just below Columbia Point on the Yosemite Falls Trail

At Olmstead Point, there’s a trail that goes a bit west to a tremendous view of the east side of Half Dome and the east end of Yosemite Valley. At sunset, the shots of Half Dome in the fading sunlight are spectacular. Across the road from Olmstead Point is a broad granite face upon which you can hike to elevate above Tenaya Lake and the valley below.

Tuolumne Meadow is the largest alpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada, and photographing it can be intimidating. The best vantage point I’ve found is at the west end of the meadow, near Pothole Dome, a sloping outcropping of granite that rises 250 feet above the meadow, but is 8,750 feet above sea level. Another spot is at the east end, just past the river, where you can hike up the slope of Lembert Dome and get a great west-facing view of Tuolumne Meadow.

The granddaddy of views from Tuolumne Meadow is actually 7.5 miles into the backcountry at an elevation of 11,000 feet. Vogelsang Pass takes your breath away. I’ve only been here and photographed at midday as it’s part of the trail between Tuolumne and Merced Lake. My backpacking adventures haven’t allowed me to stay at this location for sunset, but it’s on my list of things to do. You’ll need to haul photo gear, food, very warm clothing and sleeping gear for the 11,000-foot elevation—in other words, lots of planning and expense.

Final Tips
There you have it—many examples of how to explore and go beyond what the eye can see from the main trail or roadway. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a strong admonition to use common sense and respect those areas where the park service is trying to return riverbanks and meadows to their natural state. And don’t be foolish by pushing the limits of common sense and putting yourself in jeopardy of falling or other injury. But Yosemite is a mind-numbing wilderness, pristine and untouched in more than 95% of its backcountry. It offers the photographer with an adventurous spirit everything necessary for spectacular shots over different seasons and weather conditions, limited only by your creative spirit.

Navigating Yosemite

Getting off the beaten track in a place like Yosemite is daunting for most people because there’s simply a fear of getting lost. The national parks are vast and largely wild so it can be uncomfortable to be out of sight of your car or other visitors. But if you want to find a view or a vantage point that hasn’t been photographed a million times before, getting away from the masses is important. With a little preparation, it’s also easy enough to do.

1 Get a book. There’s no shortage of titles about Yosemite. Pick up a book that provides information about the hikes and preferably includes contour maps that show the trails and elevation changes.

2 Get a map. Go to a good outdoors store like REI to find a proper trail map for the park, or use mapping software. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with the area.

3 GPS. Common handheld GPS units are inexpensive and easier than ever to use, but there’s still a learning curve. Get your GPS and practice with it. Also, if you think your smart phone that can give you directions is a replacement for a GPS in the wilderness, think again. An iPhone or a BlackBerry can get you to the closest Starbucks just fine, but they don’t cut it in the backcountry where a cellular signal is rare, and the maps don’t tend to show trails or elevation.

4 Compass. A standard magnetic compass will never have difficulty locating a satellite, and it won’t run out of batteries. A compass and a paper map can get you home safely.

5 Pack a first-aid kit. A small hiker’s kit can be a lifesaver, literally.

6 Bring a buddy. Especially if you aren’t very familiar with the area, don’t trek off alone.

To see more of Phil Hawkins’ photography, visit