Photographing the Yosemite, Part 2: Summer in the High Country

In Equipment & Technique, Landscapes, ND Filters, Polarizing Filters, Scenes & Scenarios, Wildlife by Steve Kossack

In the summer months at the Yosemite, it’s the high country for me. And you don’t need to get far into the wilderness to experience it.

David Brower’s ice cream cone scenario often comes to mind as we leave Tuolumne Meadows on route to the Yosemite high camps beyond. The camps were built in the 1920’s mostly and remain one of my favorite locations for many reasons. There are six of them and they are some six to ten miles apart at elevations ranging from 7,000 to 10,000 feet. There is nothing flat about the Sierra. It’s an ascent or descent even to the mess tent once you reach one! This is strenuous hiking, but the rewards are great. No mountaineering is involved and the trail system in The Yosemite is exciting, well maintained and for the most part clearly marked. The old metal trail junction signs are unique and a part of the heritage of the park.


Tuolumne River Smoke

Having most anything in the atmosphere is a gift! Fog, pollution, volcano eruptions or a forest fire can add drama to a composition. Tuolumne Meadows is one of the largest meadows in the Sierra. It is alongside the highway and a walk to the river is one of easiest and best opportunities for images I know of anywhere in the park. S-R warming polarizer. Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 4-stop, soft-edge graduated ND.

As with a lot of the trails I can close my eyes and see specific places at certain times from many different years. For me the trails in the high country are once again like coming home. At the same time very friendly, familiar and serene, but at once forbidding, taxing and violent. Coupled with heart-stopping moments of exhilaration come the doubts and weariness that question the whole expedition – usually in the form of the rhetorical question “who’s bright idea was this anyway?!” It’s a love-hate relationship!

The camps themselves provide a place to sleep, food and water, making it possible for us to carry only necessities such as clothing and water. Not burdened with the task of carrying sleeping bags, food, tents and all the related items for cooking, we can then carry instead SOME photo gear. SOME being the operative word. It is still backpacking and with this comes the realization that ounces make pounds and it happens very quickly. Water is by far the heaviest and most bulky of anything we have with us, but you never want to skimp. As I’ve personally learned, dehydration can be life-threatening at worst and most uncomfortable at best. A liter of water is approximately 2.2 lbs. A gallon of water is almost 4 liters. You can quickly see that the ounces will soon be pounds and multiply from there. With a camera body, a lens or two and a tripod the backpack soon becomes about 40 pounds, even without all the items normal backpacking would demand.


Mt. Conness

Named for the California senator instrumental in the establishment of Yosemite National Park, this peak and been seen from most places in the high country. Here from atop a ridge overlooking Glen Aulin high camp you can get vistas to the east and west. A favorite location over the years it affords images of both Mt. Conness and into the grand canyon of the Tuolumne. Tuolumne falls and the White Cascade are also visible. Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer and Galen Rowell 3-stop, soft-edge graduated ND.

The dilemma then becomes what do you take and what don’t you take. Over the years this becomes easier with experience but at first it isn’t. I’ve found that  multi-functional is the key word. An item that preforms many tasks is what I want and this applies to everything. I don’t want to carry several things that overlap in application, instead I want one thing that does many things. Sometimes compromising is best and most times leaving behind things is a much better choice. One clothing item that has warmth, breathability, wind and rain protection will save the volume and weight of four. A well broken in waterproof boot is your transportation and life support system. No compromising here! The right backpack, not the common photo pack, but a pack made specifically for destination hiking is a necessity also. Understanding its use is invaluable. Like anything else photographic or not, the field is not the place to experiment with unfamiliar gear. Especially not out here!

In general, the lighter I travel the better I feel and happier I am. I err on the side of too little rather than too much, but with the assurance that photographic gear is last in importance. I’d much sooner be without a lens than a dry layer or two of clothing. I’ve found that the lightest camera body I can beg, borrow, steal or even own is the one that I want. I would much sooner try and figure out a horrid built-in light meter than carry a body that weighs a pound more. Remember those ounces? The same is true for lenses. I never overlap focal lenses. Zooms cover a lot but are much heavier than fixed focal lengths. Again in generalities I see compositions that I have focal lengths for and usually don’t see ones that I don’t. The game for me is to take something different each year. The thinking goes, something short and something wider, or maybe this time a wide tilt/shift and a 50MM. One year I did my X-Pan and its three very lightweight lenses. My Canon 200 2.8 is a good choice with its reach and low weight, but taking lenses of different ring sizes means more filters. I’ll only take two lenses and a body. No exceptions!

Filters are another subject all together! You’d think this one would be easy but my photo vest weighs 15 pounds and I can’t wear it under my backpack. It’s cotton and cotton is the last fabric I would suggest or use in the outback. Cotton is heavy and once wet stays that way for a long time. Of course the weight of the vest is unreasonable also. So like my lenses I start with my most-used filters first and narrow it down to specialty filters last. A lens by itself with pouch is not much, but by the time I drop those that I want in a plastic freezer bag they have become another pound or worse! Last summer the choices were the Singh-Ray warming polarizer (ColorCombo the year before) Galen Rowell graduated NDs – 3-stop hard-edge and 4-stop soft-edge – and a Singh-Ray Soft-Ray (Vari-ND the year before). Since I took lenses of different ring size I needed to double up on the polarizer. I’ve never liked step-up rings, especially not here where a stuck filter and no tools could possibly ruin the entire shoot. Of course there were times when all five of my Grad ND’s would have been most useful, along with my Gold-N-Blue polarizer, ColorCombo polarizer, reverse ND’s, etc. There has seldom been a situation I can’t overcome with the proper composition and technique. My rule …… If I am too tired when I get there to use it, it’s of no use to begin with!

The High Country trails

After crossing the bridge over the Tuolumne River on the way down to Glen Aulin high camp and dropping rapidly, you came out of the forest and are greeted by the increasing roar of Tuolumne Falls. Alongside the trail you’ll find a spot where it is possible to rock scramble out to various vantage points for opportunities to photograph. For all the years I’ve been doing this waterfall, somehow the images are all different. The angle of the light changes during the summer months, as does the volume of water and it is always different from year to year. On the way out, this location is a welcome rest break three quarters of the way up from camp – and on the way in, it’s just such an emotional site that I find it impossible to pass up. Glen Aulin high Camp is situated at the bottom of the White Cascade thus making for constant image opportunities right from camp.


Tuolumne Falls

The Tuolumne River on its way from Tuolumne Meadows to the grand canyon of the Tuolumne and the Hetch Hetchy, where it is now dammed, falls some 50 feet before entering a series of cascades, the last called The White Cascade marks the gateway to Glen Aulin high camp. Usually a difficult exposure early or late in the day I’ve found mid-morning to be ideal even on a cloudless day. Singh-Ray Vari-ND-Trio at 1 second f/11.

The spectacular accent into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne is a times heart pounding while witnessing the three waterfalls on the river. Waterwheel is the highlight but it means getting there early in the spring to have the experience of the force driving it backward into the “waterwheel” formation. Both California and LeConte falls are best at peak water flow in the spring, but both are still thrilling all summer. Waterwheel is less so after early July and if you are destination hiking the descent past the first two may consume energy you might want to save for the exhausting hike out.

Two sets of switchbacks and an outcropping vista highlight the journey between Glen Aulin and May Lake. McGee and Raisin Lake are also along the trail and make for great photo breaks. In deep forest most of the way and out onto granite shelves, the temperature drops and rises with direct exposure. On clear days the normal high 50’s, low 60’s can seem like 100 degrees on exposed climbs. In reverse, on cloudy days the forest provides relief from wind and cold while the open spaces are cold and uncomfortable. Crossing brooks and steams can be challenging at times but those same places can be dry and almost non-existent at others. Some two hours out of Glen Aulin comes an out-cropping that makes for a perfect break area and an even better photo. There are few places that say “Yosemite” better than the vista here, unless it is from the top of either set of switchbacks!


Glen Aulin Sunset

One of the most productive locations over the years, this image from the ridge above the camp is one of two dozen I have in my portfolio. Looking west into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne gives both sunrise and sunset opportunities. Sunset is difficult in most months with the sun setting directly down the canyon. Singh-Ray ColorCombo polarizer and Galen Rowell 4-stop, soft-edge graduated ND.

In either direction you must climb to get to Sunrise high camp. A grand vista, a set of switchbacks par none and one of the biggest lakes in the park are all highlights between May Lake and Sunrise camps. In order to do this one you must drop from approximately 9200 or 9400 feet (May Lake or Sunrise) to the Tioga Road and then regain the altitude. The switchbacks beyond Tenaya Lake are unforgettable and unforgiving in either direction. The view from Pluto point into Yosemite Valley is the highlight of the day and the lakes before or after Sunrise Camp, depending on direction are side lit morning and afternoon. Maybe the toughest of any, this hike is also one of the most rewarding. Sunrise high camp is the newest, built in the 60’s, it affords a wonderful vista of the meadow with extensive views of the Clark Range. Both sunrise and sunset images can be had without leaving the camp.

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May Lake

At over 9,000 feet this setting depends on a windless dawn. I’ve been here more than a dozen times with only three mornings to show for it. The trick from there is not to over polarize and also not make the reflection brighter than what it reflects. This lesson is hard learned for me. It requires that you understand nature and look closely. A overly darkened sky in the Sierra is possible without any filter help as is an overly bright reflection. I’ve found that I always want my reflection at least a stop under exposed from what is reflected.

Ten miles, the longest stretch between camps, is the distance between Sunrise and Merced Lake camps. Echo Canyon provides shade, waterfalls and brooks. Most of the trail is gradual after the strenuous climb/decent from the trail junction a mile and a half outside Merced Lake. But make no mistake, it’s all uphill or downhill depending on direction, and this can be one of the longest days in hours spent on the trail. Again, the rewards are more than worth the effort. Merced Lake is in what I like to call “the banana belt.” At a mere 7,000 feet, it doesn’t even sport the pot belly stoves that all the others have. The granite here drops directly into the lake on the south side and the trail beyond the hikers camp out to it provides great opportunity for detailed forest images as well as the solitude of being a mile from camp. Situated deep in the canyon and less than three miles downstream from Washburn Lake, the headwaters of the Merced River, this location is vastly different from all the other camps. Being a former military barracks, it is by far also the biggest.



A wonderful secluded meadow with fantastic vistas of the Clark range is what awaits the end of a  long and strenuous hiking day. Sitting on a shelf above the meadow one can make compositions at sunrise and sunset almost from your tent! In all the many trips up here I’ve only been fortunate to see the meadow as lush as this twice. At this altitude the spring season is a week or two long in the summer! In drought years it stays dormant and is a muted brown in color making for a very different image.

Vogelsang high camp is sometimes referred to as the Alps of Yosemite. Arguably the most picturesque of all the camps at 10,200 feet, it is the highest. At 7+ mile hike from Tuolumne Meadows past beautiful streams and creeks leads to a last tiring climb with views of Booth Lake below. There are two routes from Merced Lake. Lewis Creek over Volelsang Pass with stunning views of the Clark Range and the other up Fletcher Creek with creeks and streams leading to usually lush meadows and grand vistas. Eight miles or so with a gain or loss of 3,000 feet in elevation will make this day a long one. I recommend Lewis Creek from Vogelsang and Fletcher Creek from Merced Lake. At Vogelsang there are numerous side hikes with Townsley, upper Fletcher and Basket lakes in short distance. Fletcher Lake sits just outside camp and makes an ideal setting for both sunrise and sunset images.


Fallen Tree

Here at Merced Lake, one of largest in the park, the granite walls extend into the water. In the afternoon the orientation gives a beautiful glow to both the lake and walls. In this composition on a very wind driven afternoon the lake had some white caps. A long exposure made possible by the use of the Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter held that glow.


Vogelsang Peak Light

With lakes, streams and creeks in short hiking distance from Vogelsang high camp the opportunities are limitless. I’ve spent a lot of time up here at over 10,200 feet. I can only describe the experience as “being on the top of the world.” At night, the feeling is of the stars at your feet and the blanket extents to the horizon in any direction you care to gaze!


Fletcher Peak And Lake

Up here spring can last the entire season. Of course the season is extremely short. The camps operate from mid-June if possible until the first week in September. In 2005 the snow pack was so deep and lasted so long that they did not open at all. This year, the fires cut the season by a week. Sometimes the season will be extended a short period and opening late in all the camps happens often. A loop of all the camps is the adventurous way to experience the camps but a two-day overnight outing to any of them (Merced Lake needs a connecting camp) can be just as rewarding.

All Yosemite high camps, with the exception of Tuolumne Meadows and White Wolf, are on a lottery system.

In the usual, most sought-after places or on the high country trails in the most unusual, less-traveled locations, The Yosemite is truly a place of wonder and inspiration.

Steve Kossack’s website and workshops, including those to The Yosemite

Steve’s gallery on this site