The snowfall this Winter is already off to a much better start in Yosemite National Park. Last year, it barely snowed at all and when it did, only a couple of inches fell in the valley. This year, the fourth snowfall in the valley is due to arrive this afternoon giving the park it’s first White Christmas in several years.
If you plan on visiting the park this Winter to photograph the snow or simply to experience the park in Winter, here are some important things to keep in mind:
- 1. Take Highway 140. I’ll begin with what I consider to be the most important tip: If the forecast currently calls for snow in the valley, I highly recommend taking highway 14O through Mariposa and El Portal instead of highway 41. On my first Winter photography trip into the park, we had set off at 4 AM under heavy snow on highway 41. We put on chains and drove very slowly eventually making it to the park entrance only to be stopped at the Wawona hotel where we were told that the road had been closed due to heavy snow fall. After waiting for two hours, we finally had to turn around and go all the way back down to Oakhurst, across to Mariposa and finally over to highway 140 which was wide open with no restrictions. By the time we made it into the park, much of the morning snow had already melted off of the sunny side of the valley. It is also far less likely that you will need chains if you come up on highway 140. Highway 41 has a maximum elevation of 6200 feet compared to the 4000 foot max on 140. You will almost always have less snow to contend with on highway 140. It’s a slightly longer route, but you will definitely make that time back up if you avoid having to put on chains or if they simply close off the road for snow removal.
- 2. Make sure there is snow on the valley floor before leaving. . The National Weather Service often makes no distinction between “Yosemite” and “Yosemite Village.” I’ve seen plenty of forecasts that were targeted for the higher elevations with up to 11 inches expected only to find out, after digging around, that the actual snow level was 6000 feet. Yosemite is a huge park, and the valley floor is only a small fraction of it. The elevation of the valley floor is actually only around 4200 feet, so if you head up there with a snow level of 5000 feet, you will most likely be out of luck. To find more specific information, including snow levels, be sure to look at the bottom of the national weather service forecast page for Yosemite and find a link titled “Forecast Discussion.” The Yosemite page may be found HERE.
- 3. Carry chains or cables with you at all times. and make SURE that they specifically fit your tires. If possible, try to find Z cables as they are MUCH easier to put on than chains. Z cables allow you to simply swing the cables around behind the tire and begin making the connections. No backing up or pulling forward required. It is possible that you can drive around the loop if there are only a couple of inches of snow without chains as the valley loop doesn’t really have any steep sections of road to contend with, but if you want to catch the view from the tunnel, you might be better off stopping to put on your chains as that section of roadway can be very icy and steep.
- 4. Come prepared for the snow. Along with your chains, having a small tarp, gloves and maybe some channel lock pliers can be useful in getting the chains on as the ground can be muddy, and frozen fingers can cause problems in trying to get those tighteners on the chains. Hand warmers will be a good idea, and make sure you bring enough layers to stay warm. The wind is often blowing up at the tunnel, and when the temperature dips to 11 degrees, it will go right through you. But it can also warm up quickly once the sun comes out, especially if you are on a hike, so layers are always best. Body warmers, hand warmers, and toe warmers are available almost everywhere, and I now buy them by the case. I also own a pair of gloves in which the thumb and forefinger open up for access to the camera controls.
- 5. Don’t spend all day in one spot. Once it stops snowing and the clouds begin to lift, you might be tempted to spend the rest of the day shooting at the tunnel as the view is obviously awe inspiring. But after 10 or 15 minutes of shooting, I always force myself to head off around the loop as your time, especially during the daylight hours, can be very limited. Once the sun hits the sunny (North) side of the valley, the snow will come off of those branches in a real hurry. Given enough time, I generally head first to the Three Brothers pullout (just past Cathedral Beach), Swinging Bridge, big meadow pullout for shots of the valley and the falls, the chapel, the Merced River bend next to the village overflow parking, Cook’s meadow, Upper and Lower Falls, El Capitan Meadow, and finally, the Valley View. If I have more time before the snow disappears, I might hit some of the bridges, or find other spots along the river. Again, I try to shoot as fast as I can, especially if the sun is coming out. If you have to choose, shoot the sunny side first and come back for spots on the South side, i.e. bridges in the shade, the chapel, etc.
- 6. Consider keeping your camera in the backpack or in a plastic bag going in and out of the car. In cold, moist air, lenses tend to fog up quickly. A large plastic bag or your camera bag will help to keep the condensation off of the lens.
- 7. Watch your step! If you are considering any hiking or simply walking around on the ice, crampons are a good idea. Hiking poles can also help you to keep your balance on steep, icy trails.
- 8. Take advantage of the sunrise in the South During the Winter months, the sun will rise on the Southern side of the valley, which can make for some amazing shots at the bend in the Merced River across from Yosemite Village. Keep in mind that while the sun rises later in the Winter, it will also set in December before 4:30, so your time to shoot during the afternoon will definitely be limited.
- 9. Think in black and white. As Ansel Adams proved over and over again, Yosemite can look amazing in black and white, especially in the snow
- 10. Get up early for the sunrise and stay late for the sunset as color in a snow covered Yosemite can be just as amazing.
And lastly…between all of the extra precautions and and effort, don’t forget to have fun! There are few things on this earth as beautiful as Yosemite National Park under a new blanket of snow. I hope we get plenty of opportunities this year!