Yosemite is a land of rare beauty and power. It is a place that resides inside the veil of past and present. The Past Yosemite lives through the words of John Muir- explorer, naturalist, and environmental crusader- for not only Yosemite but countless other acres of land that have been turned into parks thanks to his life-long dedication to the natural world. Ansel Adams acheived these same goals with his photographs. Theirs is the Yosemite that I was familiar with in my mind, a land of inexplicable bounty and purity. Theirs is the Yosemite that I was expecting to find waiting for me that late July morning when I arrived for the first time.
But what I discovered was the Present Yosemite. Without sparing any drama or emotion on my part- what I discovered what nothing short of a tragedy.
It was Wednesday around 10 o'clock in the morning and the line of cars to get into the park was backed up for several miles. It took more than an hour just to get through the Kiosk and into the park. The feeling of dread began while waiting in that line, but up until that point I'd been trying very hard to stay positive about the experience. I'd read plenty during my research about the overcrowding of the place and I'd been mentally preparing myself ever since.
But what I witnessed went beyond overcrowding. Nothing could have prepared me for the parking lots the size of football fields, the golf course that spanned several acres, the countless roads that turned off onto 'private property', the screaming highways filled with semis and logging trucks ripping right through the center of the park, the signs on the side of the road stating 'speeding kills wildlife' but no one heeding them, lodges with giant swimming pools carving ugly bald spots out of The Valley, camping villages, restaurants, delis, gift shops, and grocery stores spanning blocks, and two lanes of traffic moving through the very heart of the park.
There was so much traffic that it took dozens of park rangers to direct it. I'd never encountered a grumpy park ranger before. Most of them seemed downright pissed off, but I couldn't blame them. Imagine getting your dream job at Yosemite National Park and your task is directing traffic...
This senseless commercialism, this materialistic greed that has taken over so much of America, even after every negative thing that I'd read- I didn't expect to find it so well and alive in Yosemite.
Through everything, the crowds and the traffic and the building sense of dread, I was still able to get many photographs of some of the most stunning scenery that I've ever been blessed enough to witness. That is how outstanding this place is- there could be a group of 40 people next to you on each side and a whining highway right behind you, but you point your camera in just the right way and the viewer would never know.
Here is the Tuolumne River at a place where it's grown wide and quiet, the clouds reflecting on top of the glassy surface, orange granite visible all the way to the bottom:
Lembert Dome in the middle of the afternoon underneath a billowing cloudy sky:
We drove the length of Tioga Road, a portion of the park that promises a little more solitude than the rest, tracing the crystal clear Tenaya Lake and admiring the ancient trees at Olmstead Point.
The Sierra is a magnanimous sight from a distance, but up close it's filled with countless small details.
Being Summer and an especially dry one at that, the waterfalls were barely trickling, so I didn't get any shots of the famous tumbling water. The Merced was low and still, a mirror for the hundreds of trees that line it on each side.
Strolling through The Valley at dusk, I came across this young buck. I did not approach him, just stopped and stood very still. The only sound I made was the click of my 70-300L into the body of my camera. I managed to get a couple good photos of him grazing.
He looked up from his dinner and right into the eye of my lens.
Fewer things attract the attention of crowds than someone pointing a big lens into an obscure piece of field or forest because one major idea comes to mind: wildlife. But for some reason most people can't just stand and admire. They approach, which is the last thing you're supposed to do to wild animals, especially in National Parks. But.... they do it anyway.
Within minutes of taking this photo there were about 30 people milling around me, in front of me, and getting closer and closer to the buck. The saddest part about it is that he wasn't even particularly frightened- that's how accustomed to crowds he was. He was just annoyed. So he bounded into the outer reaches of the field where no one could admire him anymore.
Paris Syndrome. Have you ever heard of it? It's strange, and I always only half-believed it, until I visited Yosemite and felt it for myself.
It's a curious disruption of the psyche that happens when tourists visit Paris for the first time and realize that it isn't the city of their dreams. They've built it up in their mind to be a place of utter perfection and beauty and when they visit they find that it can be a dirty, lonely, and utterly unromantic place. They have panic attacks and serious bouts of depression. Some never travel there or anywhere else ever again.
Yosemite is the first and only place to have ever given me a taste of this so-called Paris Syndrome, as I found myself incredibly dejected in what was supposed to be the highlight of my month-long trip,to a place I’d wanted to visit my entire life.
But I think the majority of my anxiety was due to the fact that the Yosemite John Muir and Ansel Adams (as well as countless others) dedicated their lives to preserving simply doesn't exist anymore. It disappeared under the golf course, the private properties, the industrial sized grocery store complete with liquor section, and the two lanes of traffic scarring The Valley floor.
No one, (myself included) takes photos of the ugly parts of Yosemite, because who would want to remember them? People who don’t travel to many National Parks probably just accept it as the norm and the people who do are probably just as appalled and devastated as I am, but want to try and forget it as soon as possible and only concentrate on what remains of the beauty.
What is left of Yosemite is a zoo, an attraction. There are fences up in front of fields, guard rails lining concrete paths that lead you to the base of waterfalls, parking lots placed feet away from essential overlooks, and carefully constructed roads made just so that you can view specific sights from the window of your car. In Yosemite, nature has been enclosed and molded to every convenience of man, and in doing so, instead of making it easier to connect with it, we’ve only managed to fence ourselves out.
Glacier Point is a long and glorious drive up to the very top of the Sierra. This point claims some of the best views in the whole park. It’s best known for the famous photograph taken of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt in 1903. On the very day the photo was taken, Muir managed to convince the President to preserve The Valley as part of the National Park. Did the view from Glacier Point play a crucial role in Roosevelt’s decision? Quite possibly.
Stepping off the trail and wandering towards sunny openings in the granite led us to an unnamed and lesser known overlook where we sat for a long while and watched the sun move westward through the sky, changing the light on the face of Half-Dome.
We sat on the cool granite and watched the sky change, the untouched clouds, the scene shrinking in the dusk.
There are several things you can do to avoid feeling the way I felt when I was at Yosemite. Some things I tried and tested during my visit, and others I simply observed for the future:
1) Consider visiting during the off season. July and August, even during mid-week, will be insanely crowded. Try for Winter, if you can. I imagine this is the most peaceful season at Yosemite.
2) Hike. Most of the visitors are just there for the overlooks. They're in their cars, out, then back in. The longer you hike, the fewer crowds you'll encounter. Just keep in mind that certain hikes will be busy all the time such as the waterfall trails. Do the most popular hikes early in the morning.
3) Find your own overlook. There is a reason why overlooks exist. Some are there for historic reasons but most are there because that very spot will offer you the greatest view that the area has to offer. For this reason these places will have hoards of crowds, visitor centers, and other unattractive amenities. But I would trade in a lesser view for more privacy. As a photographer, this also gives me more unique pictures. Everyone takes snapshots from the famous overlooks. Be safe and don't break any park rules, but don't be afraid to leave the beaten path.
4) Get up before the sun. This is my number one go-to solution. Not just because I'm a photographer and I want that golden light, but because there is a peace and stillness in the early morning that cannot be found at any other hour of the day. My guess is that 95% of any National Park's visitors are still in bed before 6am. So if you're up and around at 4 and 5 in the morning, the park is your oyster.
The best moments of my visit were during the morning when we got up at 3:30 and headed for the famous Tunnel View. It is the overlook from which Ansel took some of his most well-known photographs such as (my personal favorite) Clearing Winter Storm.
The sun was to rise just behind El Capitan and I sat there waiting patiently, listening to the birds and the wind through the trees in The Valley below.
The world was waking up beyond the silhouetted monoliths, the predawn blue filling in shadows.
Until suddenly there was the sun, a star stretching its rays into the sky and The Valley, bursting just between El Capitan and Cloud's Rest.
Light, light, everywhere light.
The Valley, El Cap, Cloud's Rest, Half-Dome, Sentinel, and the Cathedral Spires, all bathed in the glory of the purest and most beautiful morning, changing colors every moment with the movement of the sun.
I climbed beyond the stone wall, my feet stuck like roots with awe to the ground. The park was beginning to stir but it was quiet inside my camera. My eye in the viewfinder, my heart in there too. Time slows and the rest of the world cuts out when I'm inside my lens.
There is no limit to beauty and emotion in a place like Yosemite. Decade after decade, man will return. Some to make a profit, some for vacation pictures, some for peaceful memories, some to fill a lifelong dream, but they'll keep coming back. Every footprint with the potential to change it, the park is like a black hole that pulls people in with its immense gravity, a black hole where light escapes into so many cameras. I can only capture what I feel. There is a sadness but also an exhilaration.
My last night there I didn’t concern myself with The Valley or the monoliths. I just found some simple trees and a piece of sky.
My experience at Yosemite left me torn. The undeniable beauty that I was apart of for a few short days, and the abrupt realization that Yosemite needs to be saved. Again.
Would I be accepting of a Road Lottery to get into Yosemite National Park, one similar to Denali's? Alaska will do whatever it needs to do to protect its wildlife and resources, even if it means disappointing a vast number of people. One day, will Yosemite need to do the same? I believe that day is already here. And yes, I would support it.
What if I could only visit Yosemite one more time before I die? Would I be at peace with that if it meant the protection of its wildlife, trees, habitats, rivers, and mountains?
Yosemite is equivalent to the most precious gem in America- vast, sparkling, and universally aesthetic. But it shouldn't be picked at and mined upon any longer. It shouldn't be sold off piece after glittering piece at a time. It should be allowed to lie safe and tucked away for centuries to come. It should be able to remain a place where John Muir and Ansel Adams could return to and still feel like they were home.