A lone coyote darts through a snowy meadow, disappearing into the mist enshrouding a grove of cedars. Icicles sparkle from the mossy trunks of massive pine trees. Snow drifts and waterfalls tumble down the faces of majestic granite monoliths.
No matter how many times you have been to the jewel of the National Park System that is Yosemite, you haven’t really seen it until you’ve glimpsed it over freshly fallen snow. Amid the solitude of winter, when snow blankets Half Dome, skaters zip around the ice rink at Curry Village and a hush of beauty and calm beckons, it’s the perfect time for the artsy among us to descend on Yosemite. It’s now, when the madding — and maddening — throngs of summer are a distant memory, that the majesty of the place, from the roar of Yosemite Falls to the elegant white peaks of Glacier Point, sparkles more brightly than ever before.
That’s true even when those dainty ivory snowflakes suddenly turn into a bone-chilling rain, as you’re tromping through Yosemite Village behind one of the guides from the Ansel Adams Gallery, which offers free camera walks several mornings a week. Shooting in snow can be magical, the radiant light revealing the glamour of the natural world and making it easy to see why Adams looked through his camera lens and saw art, where others only spied rivers, rocks and trees. These camera walks are the perfect start for an art lover’s whirl through Yosemite in winter.
Wielding your iPhone in a torrential downpour is another matter entirely (let’s just say a bag of rice comes in handy), but getting to see the valley floor through the eyes of the photographers who walk in Adams’ footsteps is priceless. The gallery’s photographers all know the history of the park as well as the science of photography. So the camera walk is a chance to look beyond the surface of things.
“When you first get here, it can be overwhelming,” says Evan Russel, curator of the gallery. “It’s hard to focus the shot, because everywhere you look, there is a photograph waiting to be taken. That’s Yosemite.”
Certainly my guide, Christine Loberg, moves fast, stashing her camera inside her parka and nimbly scampering over sheets of ice like a deer as we students scurry in her wake. She’s been capturing Yosemite on film for 30 years, but she still jumps with joy when she discovers a particularly fluorescent patch of lichen creeping up the side of the tree.
“The trees are like ballerinas today,” she says. “They’re dancing in the fog.”
Like Adams, she sees the sublime in the natural, the wonder in the way the mountains seem to vanish in the fog, the whimsy of pine cones winding through the icy waters near the site of John Muir’s cabin. She advises iPhone shooters to concentrate on contrasts, the play of light and texture in an image.
So entrancing is the craft that you might not notice the frost nipping at your fingers and the slush trickling into your hiking boots. Sometimes getting the perfect shot demands a sacrifice. It’s a small price to pay for a morning of feeling like you have a private audience with nature.
“No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” Muir once wrote. “Every rock in its wall seems to glow with life.”
For the record, the gallery’s shutterbugs are a hardy lot, eagerly leading tours in rain and wind and snow, willing to hold their ground in the face of a snarling winter storm. Come bundled up — and be prepared to take your time to find the perfect tableau.
“If you want to get that amazing storm shot, you have to be out in the storm waiting for it. That’s how Ansel got those shots,” Russel says. “You have to be there in the moment. If you are inside somewhere waiting, you will miss it.”
Of course, sometimes it can be quite reviving to dash inside to bask in the glow of a blazing fire. If the weather outside takes a turn for the frightful, it may be the perfect time to continue your arty visit to Yosemite with a tour of the world-famous Ahwahnee Hotel, perhaps one of the most beautiful mountain lodges ever.
“This is the real deal, the original,” says rooms division manager Bryan Hammill. “They don’t make them like this anymore.”
Built in 1927 as a retreat luxurious enough for the robber barons of the day, the stately Ahwahnee manages an impossible balance of opulence and simplicity. Gilbert Stanley Underwood’s design glories in the intricacy and richness of its appointments, from the Native American-inspired stencils on its walls and its gorgeous kilim rugs to its grand dining room, but it also fits perfectly within its landscape nestled at the foot of the imposing Glacier Point. It’s a photo op all by itself.
As if the views weren’t spectacular enough, the hotel is also bejeweled with exquisite details: Steinway pianos and stunning stained glass windows in the Great Lounge, the fanciful images of the Mural Room, the brightness and warmth of the Solarium and the charm of tea service in the afternoons. The palpable sense of grandeur in the famed dining room, an august temple to food that makes everyone feel straight out of “Downton Abbey,” is as decadent as the eggs Benedict.
There’s an air of graciousness here that makes you feel as if you have stepped back in time to the days when the hotel opened to much fanfare. Celebs and titans were, of course, invited to mark the launch, but alas, so many of the creme de la creme tried to make off with the hotel’s antiques that the managers decided to cut their losses and scale back on some of the extravagances for the public opening.
Hammill can regale you with many a story about Lucille Ball and Judy Garland kicking up a ruckus, or Queen Elizabeth II having a bidet installed — or how the front of the hotel is actually the original back. The architect had planned for carriages instead of cars, so the whole thing had to be flipped around.
You could happily listen all day — until you look out the window and remember the vast snowy terrain still beckoning for exploration. There’s still time to frame one last shot of Half Dome in the waning light.
Yosemite Camera Walks
The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite National Park offers free camera walks led by staff photographers several mornings a week. Find details at www.anseladams.com/camera-walk.