Yosemite National Park with Ansel Adams as your tour guide
With Yosemite preparing to celebrate its 125th anniversary on Oct. 1, my wife and I spent four days there in midsummer seeking new perspectives on the park. And what better way to see the park in new ways than through the eyes of those who have photographed the splendors of this national treasure.
We began at the Ansel Adams Gallery, perused photos by Adams and others, and signed up for a Saturday morning photo walk.
“Let’s move back about 100 feet for another look at Yosemite Falls,” photographer Mike Reeves said. About 10 of us on the free photo tour in Yosemite Valley recompose our shots. This time, we see the waterfall framed by a pair of the valley’s towering pine trees.
“Sometimes just taking a few steps back can make all the difference,” said Reeves, a staff photographer at the Ansel Adams Gallery.
On the 90-minute tour, Reeves showed us how including just part of a mammoth sequoia tree in an image is a good way to suggest its size, and how it’s sometimes advantageous to shoot during an overcast day if you want high-contrast images.
Starting our visit with a photo tour sharpened our vision of Yosemite and led us to appreciate the park in novel ways.
And we tried another approach on this trip: Rather than camping or staying in a lodge, we rented a Jucy mini-RV. It’s a Dodge van with a gas stove, small fridge, interior dining table, little sink and pop-up sleeping tent on the roof.
The van is cleverly designed and was comfortable and convenient. Outside Yosemite, we could pull over and camp almost anywhere, but in the national park we needed to reserve a campsite.
We spent part of our time in Yosemite Valley, starting with a hike up to Vernal Fall, three miles round-trip, catching sight of rainbows in the mist created by the pounding waters.
Then we drove up to the high country of Tuolumne Meadows. Most visitors to Yosemite spend time primarily in Yosemite Valley and don’t see the sheer granite peaks and sculpted domes of the park’s higher-elevation regions, which is a shame. While nothing compares with the valley’s views of Half Dome and El Capitan, the high country has its own majesty. You can hike along trails with few people to nearly deserted lakes, even in summer, and scale peaks for commanding vistas of snowcapped mountains.
“I like the high country of Yosemite: the mountains, lakes and meadows,” said park ranger Yenyen Chan, who is stationed at Tuolumne Meadows. “I find the higher elevation inspires me … the openness, the vast space. That’s what drew me to this place, this part of the park.”
Chan said she enjoys the sense of wonder in first-time visitors to Yosemite. “There is this real joy to be in the mountains. I’m struck when people come on a star program, and they look up at the night sky on a clear night,” she said. “There are so many stars. It’s so different from the stars at night in the city.”
Getting caught in a blizzard near Tioga Pass is humbling, too. That’s what happened to us - in July! - so we sought shelter at the Tioga Pass Resort, warming ourselves by the fire and fueling up for our next hike with plates of eggs, bacon and potatoes.
The trail to the top of Lembert Dome meandered through forests that gave way to sheer, but not too steep, rock (about an hour to make the 1.4-mile hike up, 900 feet of elevation gain) with sweeping views of Yosemite’s jagged terrain.
The following day we walked along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, where we spotted a pair of muskrats and were soothed by the sounds of flowing water, a mostly flat hike that intersects with the John Muir and Pacific Crest trails.
On our way back to the valley, we detoured to the trailhead for May Lake. We couldn’t have made the two-mile jaunt from Highway 120 to the trailhead in a big RV; oversized vehicles aren’t allowed, but with our Jucy van we could drive in.
The hilly trail took us through stands of giant sequoias to a glassy lake with thick mist swirling just above it. “It’s like ghosts ice dancing,” my wife, Jackie, said. The mesmerizing scene held us for a while - how long, we’re not sure as we lost track of time.
On our final day at Yosemite, we returned to the Ansel Adams Gallery for a look at prints made by Adams himself.
“This is the oldest national park concession that’s still running,” gallery curator Evan Russel said. It opened as Best’s Studio, a gallery for painters in 1902, run by painter and political cartoonist Harry Best. Best’s daughter, Virginia, married Ansel Adams in Yosemite in 1928, and she turned the gallery into a showcase for his photographs.
Russel led us to a back room and told us that Adams’ goal was “clear vision with a sharp focus, not painterly or romantic.” He opened wide file drawers to show us photographs that Adams had printed, some from the 1930s or ’40s, others as recently as the 1970s.
Compared to his early work, the later prints typically were sharper and had more contrast, Russel noted, showing us a photo of Mount McKinley printed in the 1950s and another from the same negative made two decades later.
“Most of the time you don’t get to see pieces without something (like a sheet of glass) between you and the art,” Russel said as he brought out photographs worth $50,000 or more. “There’s nothing like getting up close and personal with a print.”
He’s right. Seeing photos that Adams created in his darkroom was thrilling and left me feeling like these works should be on display for all to see.
“People think we are a museum, but we’re not,” Russel said. “We’re an active gallery supporting Ansel and other contemporary artists.”
Similar to the gallery, Yosemite remains as alive as when it was designated as one of our first national parks in 1890. The 1,190-square-mile park is not a relic, but an ever-changing wonder open for all to explore.