Winter Storms Have Created Rare Photographic Conditions In Yosemite

After several years of drought here in California, we are finally having a true rainy season this year.  Over the past few weeks, a series of storms rolled through our state providing much needed water for our reservoirs and snow in our local mountains and the Sierras.  All of this extra moisture has caused some problems for the park rangers in Yosemite who had to close the park twice in one month due to flooding concerns as well as rockslides due to the heavy rainfall.  Having to deal with tire cables, road closures and delays on my two recent trips to Yosemite were definitely a  pain, but the opportunities that were waiting for me when I arrived were just too good to pass up.

I headed to the park on a stormy Wednesday night a couple weeks ago after checking the snow level and finding that they were expecting several inches in the valley over night.  This was just two days after park officials had closed the park due to flooding concerns.  On the Tuesday before I left, the Merced river reached flood stage, but by Wednesday, both the 140 and 41 were open and the water levels had begun to recede. By 2 AM, I was putting on the tire cables and it was snowing heavily. I grabbed a couple of hours of sleep and spent the next day…the ENTIRE day…waiting for it to stop snowing, but the weather never cleared.  It stopped snowing a couple of times, but it was snowing at 6 AM as I headed up to the tunnel and it was still snowing at 6 PM when I finally gave up and headed into a nearly empty lodge grill to grab some dinner.

While taking laps around the valley in the snow, I began to notice how incredibly high the water level was in the Merced and the Falls.  I also began to notice that several of the meadows were still flooded throughout the park.   As I was expecting the storm to break up over night under a full moon, I set my alarm for 1:30 AM.  By 1:45 I was up at the tunnel grabbing a few shots while trying not to freeze to death in the stiff 20 degree breeze.


After the tunnel I made a bee line for the Three Brothers.  As I came down to the river from the parking area, I really began to notice the elevated water level for the first. time.  During the past few Winters, I have have been able to simply walk out to my spot but my path was now blocked by large pools and the river itself was far wider than I had ever seen before, even in the Spring.  It was after 2 AM by this point, but I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that just after I arrived two other photographers made their way down through the trees.

While I still had a full moon I continued my way around the loop, stopping at Swinging Bridge and finally Cook’s Meadow before heading back to the lodge for a couple of hours of sleep.  This is a shot of the flooded Cook’s Meadow showing snow covered boulders in front of Ansel Adams’ Elm tree:

On the following morning, I scrambled up above the tree line while scouting a new location for a Winter Sunrise shot.  When I made it make down, I immediately began making my way around the loop again trying to catch what was left of the early morning light. As I was approaching Yosemite Village, I noticed that the recent flood had left huge pools of water in the Ahwahnee Meadow which had now spilled over the roadway.  This created some great opportunities for reflection shots of the falls:

After shooting this area for a while I continued by hitting some my traditional spots which now looked quite different when compared to my shots during January-February over the past several years.  As already mentioned, vast sections of Cooks Meadow were under water, creating some rather nice reflections of Half Dome and the Falls:

Further down I pulled over to shoot another flooded meadow which was just below Yosemite Lodge and Camp 4.  I had seen this meadow covered in water in the Spring, but never in Winter:

Just before reaching El Capitan Meadow, I pulled over again to grab some shots of the now swollen Merced River which was still very high and moving quickly.  I’m going to guess that the water level was more than double its normal size following a January snowstorm:

Just before leaving for the day, I stopped at the gates of the valley (Just above Pohono Bridge) to grab the standard Valley View shot, but I was disappointed that the water was moving a bit too quickly for a reflection shot and the typical snow capped boulders which usually made such a nice foreground where buried in at least a couple of feet of water.  I improvised by finding other spots to shoot from along the Merced:



A week later I was back with my buddy Eric Gail and the two of us spent most of the day photographing the snow which was still falling until mid morning.  The water level had come down a bit by then, but the overall level in the Merced was far higher than what you would usually expect for January.  Huge trees had fallen during the storms and one of them came close to wiping out the walking bridge that links Yosemite Lodge with the Chapel.  Again, these were mid Spring water levels in the dead of Winter.

In conclusion, I just wanted to encourage those of you who have been thinking about making a Winter Trip up to Yosemite to definitely head up there this year.  We are still only halfway through the Winter season and another storm is rolling in this weekend.  If you do decide to head up and snow is forecast for the valley floor, make sure you have chains or tire cables with you. (I just bought another pair as mine broke during my last trip.)  You will also want to monitor the road conditions closely as both 41 and 140 can close at any moment on stormy days due to falling trees (about 20 percent of Yosemite’s pines have died recently), mud & rock slides and snow removal.

If you are heading up to Yosemite in the snow, feel free to check out my post from last year on what to expect at:

Tips On Shooting Yosemite In The Snow



7 thoughts on “Winter Storms Have Created Rare Photographic Conditions In Yosemite

  1. Greg Stevenson

    What a difference from the bone dry conditions during my September trip. You should have lots of flowing water come next spring!

  2. Darrin Robichaud

    Wow!! The snow really gives these such a fresh and beautiful look and feel. Thanks again for sharing your incredible photos of such an amazing place. I am always glad to see when you have posted something new. Keep up the great work!!

    • William McIntosh

      Thanks Darrin!

  3. Gena Warrington

    Thank you for sharing your work. It is beautiful.
    A hopeful to photograph Yosemite photographer.

    • William McIntosh

      Thanks Gina!

  4. Jesse

    Hi William,

    Going to Yosemite this weekend for the first time! Your narrative is a BIG help! With all the recent rain I dont think the water will be as still as in this photo. Do you think there will still be snow near the river? We’re driving up from SF, hitting the road before sunrise, bringing chains just in case.

    Going with family (2 little ones) so I probably wont be able to cover as much territory, but I like the tip of driving up to the dome for the panorama.


    • William McIntosh

      Hi Jesse – I’m pretty sure the snow is gone from the river area by now, but late April is easily one of my favorite times to shoot in the park. The roads to the high country will still be closed, but two of the best places to shoot will be from the tunnel and from the valley view, which is the last stop before the loop ends at the turn off to highway 140. During this time of year, the late afternoon sun spills across the valley and lands on Bridal Veil, making for some epic shots, especially after a storm. Not sure if you have already gone on your trip, but I would expect to see green meadows, very heavy water coming down from the falls, a full Merced River, and possibly some early blossoms in the Dogwood trees. Please post a link to your shots if you upload them to social media. You can see one of my late April shots on the home page of this blog. I love shooting up there in late April!

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