Day 1: THE CHASE IS ON…
It was Friday morning. Julie and I weren’t in too much of a hurry so we didn’t leave the house until 11am. We intended to use this trip as the test for the new Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR; fancy term for a more professional model) camera we had bought online a week ago. Unfortunately, it was supposed to arrive anytime, but it ended up not arriving the morning of our departure.
That was too bad because I really wanted to use this trip as an excuse to learn how to use the equipment and start taking high resolution photos. After stubbornly resisting to change, I had finally resigned to the fact that the old 3 megapixel Sony camera wasn’t cutting it anymore… But all that would have to wait.
So with the old trusty but outdated Sony camera in hand, and the 1990 Legend all loaded up with our gear and some food, we once again headed for Yosemite.
What was different about this trip was that we’d actually visit the park in the Winter. The ulterior motive was to get that firefall effect on Horsetail Falls.
The firefall used to be a practice done during the Summer earlier in Yosemite’s heyday. There would be people lighting on fire some bark then push the stuff over Glacier Point before a delighted crowd at Camp Curry. This practice was discontinued in the mid 20th century because it wasn’t consistent with the National Park principle of natural attractions.
I’m sure that to a photographer who took a long exposure of the event, it would look like a long streak of fire – the so-called firefall. The late Galen Rowell successfully took a photo of Horsetail Falls in much the same light – only this time it was the setting sun that “fired up” the lightly falling water.
I had read local periodicals and news releases about how this was the time of year to actually be at the park. It was mostly because of its lack of crowds and the lack of the hasty atmosphere that many have come to associate with the park when they come in the Summer.
Of course driving the old car meant we had to leave the AC off when the car was climbing (not a problem since it was Winter) and having to worry about undetected problems that might leave us stranded hundreds of miles from help. I was also concerned the car might struggle to start in the cold weather.
Anyhow, we pressed on hoping for the best…
Fortunately, we made it into the park at around 3:30pm. Shortly after we bought the National Parks Pass at the window, we were told we had to line up behind those cars just to the right of the turnoff for the Mariposa Grove (which was closed for the season).
Apparently, there had been an automobile accident on Hwy 41 so we had to wait it out. There wasn’t a whole lot of snow in the area so I imagined there was probably even less snow in the Valley since we were higher in elevation.
Finally at 4:30pm, the people started their engines and it was time to move. Being that the sun was quickly setting, Julie and I went to chase Horsetail Falls. So we headed straight for to the Northside Drive west of Yosemite Lodge in search of the pullouts for the ephemeral waterfall.
The western part of the valley floor lacked snow. The cliffs and higher elevations still had snow. Bridalveil Fall was flowing as well as Ribbon Falls. Smaller waterfalls like Sentinel Falls were frozen. The park had an eerily dead feel to it as the meadows were brown and many of the trees lacked leaves.
The driving in the Valley wasn’t as trivial as we thought because of the way they rearranged the flow of traffic, which always seems to change outside the summer season. Eventually, we would show up at one of the familiar unsigned pullouts. The pullout was full of cars – apparently, many others were seeking the same thing we were going for.
There was still about another 45 minutes before the sunset. So we took this time to scramble around the forest looking for the familiar clearings to get an unobstructed view of the falls.
To our surprise, we saw a large group of photographers on their lawn chairs with their cameras mounted on tripods already pointed at the falls. Waiting out the event, many had cans of beer and were overall in a pretty jolly mood.
To me it seemed like we had stumbled upon a secret society of photographers eagerly awaiting some divine event. One of the ladies who thought the way I did said to us, “No password necessary?”
As Julie and I positioned ourselves to get a clean view of the falls, we managed to pass the time talking to a park employee. His story was memorable because he originally started out intending only to volunteer for a Summer. He ended up still employed and living in the park going on three years!
As we looked up at Horsetail Falls, we could see that the plume of water was glowing a whitish yellow. Clearly the sun’s light was still too harsh to cast that firefall effect. But to see a strand of water being lit up as it went down the cliff was still an interesting sight.
Finally, it was 5:30pm and the sun was clearly setting with its last rays of light squarely on just the profile of Horsetail Falls. We could see the color of the water change from a ghostly white to a bright orange. Everyone there was busy snapping photos as often as they could until the sun’s rays gave way to shadows.
One thing that really struck me was how the silence of the valley was only broken by the occasional echo of someone shouting or a vehicle starting. Of all the times I had been to Yosemite Valley, I never recalled being able to hear an echo in the valley. Perhaps this is what makes Yosemite in the winter so charming…
Afterwards, we checked into one of the cabins at Curry Village and went to dinner. We ended up eating at one of the upscale dining halls in Yosemite Lodge (I forget its name), which was pricey but pretty decent considering its location.
The rest of the night passed uneventfully, though walking around Curry Village was a little tricky considering there was ice and snow all over the ground.
At least we went to sleep knowing we chased down the firefall on Horsetail Falls. The rest of what we would see on this trip was just icing on the cake.