Yosemite National Park was not on our initial itinerary. Everyone kept asking us, whether we’d stop there, and were baffled when we said we wouldn’t. Well, we did after all. Leaving Lassen Volcanic National Park two days early gave us the opportunity to squeeze in another stop before Death Valley, so we headed to Mono Lake, just east of Yosemite, probably the most famous national park in the entire world. Who can’t pick out Half Dome or El Capitain from a series of pictures?
Wanting to make the best of our single day in the park, we rose at 2.30 am and drove to Tunnel View, hedging our bets on a killer sunrise. We expected hordes of photographers to be there, so we arrived with an hour to spare. To our surprise, we were the first people there. Taking our time setting up, I marvelled at the unique sight that is Tunnel View. Despite having seen it countless times in photographs, it really is something else seeing it in person. For a while it did not look great for sunrise – as per usual there were none to very few clouds in the sky. However, this did not last (luckily): just in the right moment little flocks of clouds moved over the valley, ready to be illuminated from below by the rising sun. Fireworks are nothing compared to what came next, I’m telling you. What better location for such a great sunrise?
As the sun moved up on its arc, light started flooding the valley, providing a completely new sight every few minutes. We just enjoyed the spectacle, took the occasional photo (okay okay, I admit it, we took A LOT) and were happy that getting up so early was worth it.
Once the sun came into view, I switched gears, focusing on what is quickly becoming a new favourite for me: getting out the telephoto lens and isolating single subjects in the landscape, to get some more intimate shots of the scene in front of me. The haze, combined with the dense woods and the golden light made for some amazingly warm images.
Satisfied with our catch at Tunnel View, we headed onwards to Glacier Point, hoping we’d still manage to get some photos there in semi-decent light. Turns out we were just on time to capture some of the receding haze in the mountains around Half Dome! The sight reminded me a lot of the landscape in Avatar or Jurrasic Park and I absolutely loved the views from there!
Taking a moment to relax, pause and let the whole experience sink in, I set up my camera for a timelapse video and just enjoyed being in the magnificent place at this time. Soon we felt our energy fade and decided to have some breakfast in the parking lot – nothing beats porridge and tea on the road after a successful shoot, trust me.
Soon the park started filling up with an incredible amount of people, accompanied by maddening traffic in an otherwise such pristine and beautiful spot of nature, reminding me why I am so torn between liking and disliking those parks. We left the park in the late afternoon after I went for a short hike and got soaked by the spray of a waterfall (free shower, yay!), so we could explore Mono Lake in the evening.
Based upon meeting some rangers the day before, we headed to South Tufa on Mono Lake for sunset and possibly some astrophotography. Tufas are towering spires made out of brittle calcium carbonate, once submerged by the lake, they are now exposed as the water level dropped quite significantly. Apparently, South Tufa is the place to be, as we met quite a few photographers that evening. Capturing an amazing sunset, combined with chatting to all the nice people there made it a nearly perfect evening!
Having spoken to many of the photographers during sunset, it seemed like we were going to be at least eight people trying to shoot the Milky Way in the relatively small space that is South Tufa. A little worried about people ruining our images with headlamps and flashlights, we headed down to the shore again after nightfall. We ran into some people early on and formed a pact with them: we’d be moving together, shooting together, so that we would all be turning on lights at the same time and not interfere with each other’s images. This turned out to be a really good decision and we worked quite efficiently while having some great company. Derek, Frank, Karen and I held out the longest, shooting for a good two to three hours, getting some amazing Tufa astrophotos and enjoying the company.
Moments like those are why I love photography and the exploring and travel associated with it. Tired, up for 20+ hours, putting some serious mileage behind us, but still energetic enough to be fascinated by gorgeous landscapes, meeting likeminded people wherever I end up shooting and forming acquaintances all over the globe.
At 2 am it was time for bed, after having been up for 24 hours and having had the privilege to photograph so many stunning places in gorgeous light, I fell asleep completely satisfied and already thinking about our next stop – Death Valley.