My first camping trip to Yosemite National Park was inspired by the flawless black and white photographs of Ansel Adams. I was captivated and mesmerized by his perfectly tinted images of Yosemite’s brooding mountains, misted waterfalls, and valleys of green carpet. Each of his photographs held a world suspended in the magic of shadow and light. I wanted to see for myself the starkness of El Capitan, the dark and stormy evergreens in the valley, and the naked luster of Half Dome laid out so perfectly in monochrome by Adams.
At age fourteen, Adams went on a camping trip to Yosemite where the scenery so completely caught his attention he immediately set about exploring the entire park. He spent the rest of his life photographing the region and most of his works depict the fascination that Yosemite’s varied landscape held for him. While I was captivated by Ansel’s ability to turn Yosemite into graceful tableaux, when I enter the park his photographs fade into the background and the vividness of the scenery captures me.
The best sight of the valley for me is from an overlook called Tunnel View situated on the main park road from Wawona. The view always leaves me amazed and speechless. Ansel shows Tunnel View as a royal portrait in his photograph, one that harkens back to the days of Da Vinci and Tintoretto. In full color, the vista pops with a vibrancy that is breath-taking in its hues of jade and slate. The sweeping, lush forest falls like an emerald curtain into the grass laden valley. On both sides smoky backed mountains guard the evergreen floor which seems to stretch to infinity. A ribbon of silver water cascades down the sheer grey face and disappears as mist. When I gaze at Tunnel View I see Yosemite as an enchanted kingdom.
Falling for Waterfalls
One of my favorite features of Yosemite are its many alluring waterfalls. They manage to turn what would be a delicate garden park into a jaw dropping wilderness. Ansel Adams photographed the area’s falls as silvery wisps misting onto dark rocks. In his works, the beauty of Yosemite’s waterfalls is in their ethereal nature, as each appears like a graceful veil covering the harshness of rocky terrain. While some of Yosemite’s falling streams, like Bridalveil Falls, do master this quality, most of Yosemite’s cascades add drama to the park. With over twenty cascades dispersed throughout the park, both torrential swirls and gentle trickles can be found as the ice and snow melt. The most famous of these and the ones most people see are the set of cataracts named after the park. Located near the park’s main lodge, Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls are a powerful but brief taste of the majestic vistas water provides visitors at the national park. I don’t know of any other national parks that boast waterfalls I can walk up to and shake hands with. At Yosemite, waterfalls are personalities, more provocative and bold in reality than they could be in any photograph.
The Majestic Watchers
Perhaps Adams most famous portraits of Yosemite are his works of Half Dome and El Capitan. Half Dome is a sheer cliff face that looms over the valley. Adams caught this structure in many lights, making it one of the most recognized features of the national park. My favorite version is a photo he took of the risen half-moon, solitary and insignificant as it peers down on the enormous presence of Half Dome deeply shadowed. Both in Ansel’s picture and in reality, Half Dome remains an enigmatic tower. Its hunched back and pitted surface evoke the same sort of awesome fear lightning induces. Whether covered in winter snow or overlooking the gold green summer meadows, Half Dome lends Yosemite a gravitas, complementing the park’s more romantic side.
When Adams documented this gnarled granite monolith, he portrayed El Capitan as a stern sentinel protectively hovering over Yosemite’s herd of evergreens. I’ve heard of the brave pioneers who have climbed the forbidding face of this cliff and every time I spy a tiny figure clambering up the austere and slippery walls of El Capitan, I silently salute them. Its flaky, eroded surface remains one of the most daunting challenges at Yosemite. El Capitan’s sheer multicolored face glowing in the setting sun is an intoxicating sight to me. More than any other sight, this rock formation shows me Yosemite’s sweeping personality. Ansel’s depiction of “The Chief” evokes moody contemplation of its rough-hewn face, but El Capitan’s imperfections create the quintessential backdrop to the park’s lush landscape.
Over Fields and Hills
With over eleven hundred square miles of territory, Yosemite has endless panoramas to admire. Despite my many visits to the park, I am constantly discovering another trail I had not known of, a new waterfall I had not seen, and endless valleys and fields. Ansel Adams’ skill inspired me to take my first journey into the riveting domain of Yosemite, but it is the park’s unending bounty of splendor that keeps me returning. I am determined to explore every corner of this vast realm, to see it in all its different moods as the seasons turn, to discover those very same vistas that ensnared Adams’ imagination and remain forever as guide maps to this evocative region of nature. Yosemite National Park represents the ultimate combination of beauty and elegance with an endless variety of views for me to enjoy.
Photographer Ansel Adams took over two hundred pictures at his beloved Yosemite National Park. They speak of the area’s quiet yet grandiose beauty, its serpentine rivers winding through suspended valleys, and its myriad waterfalls which fall like bridal veils throughout the lush landscape. Ansel’s creative eye and composition have continued to reveal the park’s many personalities, but Yosemite’s effusive appeal needs no human hand to transform it. Adams’ greatest achievement is his encapsulation of Yosemite’s moods as an inspiration for future generations.
Check out the waterfalls, meadows, and mountains of Yosemite National Park in our Bespoke Traveler Journal: Into the Blue.