YOSEMITE – Standing nearly 5,000 feet tall, Half Dome won’t fit in a backpack. The Ahwanhee Hotel can’t be strapped to the top of an SUV. And record-breaking drought notwithstanding, the Merced River would strain even the sturdiest water bottle.
But there is one souvenir worth taking home from Yosemite this fall – its colors. As temperatures cool and the tourist horde ebbs, it’s the perfect time to recharge the digital camera, dust off the binoculars or hunt down that long-lost watercolor set and capture some of the park’s seasonal beauty.
For budding Ansel Adamses interested in upgrading from Glacier Point selfies to sublime landscape shots, shutter experts Dave Wyman and Ken Rockwell will be leading a four-day photo tour through Yosemite in October.
Photographers of all experience levels will have the opportunity for one-on-one guidance, whether it involves basic camera operation or finding the best way to frame an early morning rainbow.
The Autumn Light tour covers the usual Yosemite Valley landmarks, including Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall. One of Wyman’s favorite subjects for fall photography, though, is not nearly so monolithic.
At only 2 feet tall, Fern Springs is known as Yosemite’s smallest waterfall. “It’s a great place to look for fall color,” said Wyman via email, “and to practice making long exposures to achieve the silky look of flowing water.”
If that sounds daunting, not to worry. Rockwell noted that although many people lug bulky cameras and gear into the park, it’s often better to keep things simple. “Unless you’re an expert,” he said, “bring your iPhone.”
Participants will spend nights under the stars at Upper Pines Campground or, for an additional fee, indoors at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls.
Immediately following their Yosemite tour, Wyman and Rockwell will lead a similar photo excursion in the eastern Sierra Nevada around Mono Lake and Bodie. That trip, Wyman said, will cover more ground than the comparatively intimate Yosemite one.
Whether on a guided tour or lone adventure, bear in mind that photography is an active pursuit. As Wyman put it, “you have to be ready to picture the fleeting moment. … You never know in advance with any certainty what nature will offer you.”
Bird enthusiasts are another group familiar with fleeting moments. With more than 160 resident and migratory bird species in the park, there are plenty of opportunities for fleeting moments to try to capture with a camera.
While the fall is not the most active time for birding, Yosemite Area Audubon Society vice president Len McKenzie said there are still productive areas in the park for a non-competitive outing, including Yosemite Valley, Wawona, Mariposa Grove and Foresta.
Some of the more common birds in the area are the Steller’s jay, the acorn woodpecker, the American robin and the dark-eyed junco.
Beginning birders can get their start through outings organized by the Yosemite Conservancy or the Audubon Society. All that’s needed is a pair of binoculars, guidebook, notepad and keen observational skills.
The Yosemite Conservancy’s birding workshop in October includes two nights of camping and a full day of guided birding around Mariposa Grove and the greater Wawona area.
The Audubon Society is organizing a birding day Sept. 10. Participants are to meet in Oakhurst before heading up to the park.
Even if the rarer species don’t make an appearance, McKenzie said that, like fishing, in birding “it’s not the catching that’s important, but the experience.”
Sketching and watercoloring
There’s some legwork involved with photography and birding, but not every activity worth doing in Yosemite requires hiking boots and frequent hydration. Sketching and watercoloring are great ways to relax and still connect with the park.
Artists – beginners, experts and all in between – will be propping up their easels near the historic Wawona Hotel in early October under the guidance of watercolor master Chris Van Winkle.
Participants will stay at the Wawona campground or the Wawona Hotel.
The three-day workshop coincides with the Yosemite Conservancy’s Fall Gathering, celebrating the season and area history. Live models in period costumes will serve as inspiration around the Pioneer History Center.
The class will spend time interpreting Mariposa Grove, with its towering sequoias, which Van Winkle describes as almost like “being in a cathedral – it’s a quiet time with just you and the scenery.”
Participants will also sketch water and reflections along the south fork of the Merced River. “They get to analyze what they’re looking at,” Van Winkle said of the experience. “They see nuances out there. They see color they just took for granted.”
So whether it’s picking up a brush, pursuing a robin, snapping a masterpiece or even just hiking around and enjoying the scenery, it’s the perfect time of year to experience the more relaxed side of Yosemite. After all, it’s only a three-hour drive from Sacramento – and you don’t have to leave the warm colors of fall behind.