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The Four Seasons of Yosemite (1980) by Dana Morgenson


Autumn

high meadow in autumn
[click to enlarge]

Late August sees the first indication of approaching autumn in the High Country. It begins near tree-line and moves slowly through the next three months down the mountain slopes to the foothills—reversing the progress of spring which surged up from those foothills from March to July. The seeds of grasses and flowers have matured by now and the plant world is starting its return to winter’s dormancy. Auburn tones spread across the once-green meadows—a sort of distillation of the long hours of sunshine during the summer now fading. Tiny lakelets—or tarns—lie quietly in afternoon’s warmth, like open eyes gazing intently into the deep blue Sierran sky.

meadow in autumn
[click to enlarge]

As days drop from the calendar like autumn leaves, the season makes its way down toward the 7000 to 8000 foot levels. Meadows in this region respond beautifully in their own way. Occasional groups of aspen glow as though spot-lighted by beams of sunlight. Creek dogwood (Cornus stolonifera), common along stream courses and marshy areas, flames against the sombre landscape of tall sugar pines and red firs. The meadow in our photo is one of many idyllic places along the road to Glacier Point.

Yosemite valley in autumn
[click to enlarge]

Autumn appears first in Yosemite Valley in late September. A golden glow spreads slowly across many of the meadows and along portions of the river banks. A common plant of these areas, Indian hemp, is responsible; its leaves turn a bright yellow as its stalks become red. Seen in brilliant light against shadowed cliffs or sunlit granite domes, it is indeed a dramatic harbinger of the glory of approaching autumn. As we look across the Leidig Meadow in this photo, North Dome on the left and Half Dome on the right gleam in the misty light of a September afternoon.


black oaks in autumn
[click to enlarge]

(Left)
October brings the gradual deepening of color to the loveliest of Yosemite’s broad-leaved trees—the California black oaks. Slowly, the rich green of summer fades into warm bronze, with occasional over-tones of red. Looking up through the branch structure of such a tree, the leaves brightly outlined against the sky or the dark cliffs, one has the impression of looking through the splendor of a stained-glass window.


(Below)
The October moon rises through misty clouds above the mile-high brow of Half Dome, as sunset turns the granite’s gray to a glowing autumn red.

Half Dome in autumn
[click to enlarge]

Yosemite valley oaks in autumn
[click to enlarge]

(Top Left)
By the end of October, Yosemite Valley basks in the fullness of autumn color. Richly golden-bronze oaks stand in perfect complementary tones against azure skies. Often, the shadowed cliffs, when seen through the bright leaves, appear delicately lavender. The ground beneath these lovely trees is carpeted with crisp fallen leaves, adding to the pleasure of an afternoon’s stroll through their varied textures.


black oak leaves in autumn
[click to enlarge]

(Lower Left)
In close-up, the richly saturated tones of the black oak leaves provide magnificent framing for vignettes of Yosemite’s cliffs and domes. The quiet river repeats the brilliance of the scene in myriads of catch-lights across its surface as it moves dreamily through the beauty of a late-October afternoon. In the background rise the Cathedral Rocks and Spires.


dogwood in autumn
[click to enlarge]

(Above)
Dogwood has a second season of glory in autumn, as the large green leaves change gradually to varied tones of red—ranging from light pink to deep crimson. Their startling colors set the forest aglow, in contrast to its remaining green hues and the strong lines of sun-drenched tree trunks. Look for the peak of dogwood color about the end of October, although the first leaves to change begin their transformation in late summer.


black cottonwoods in autumn
[click to enlarge]

(Above)
Autumn has one more gift for its devotees, when November appears on the calendar. Even as the brilliance of oak color begins to recede, the vivid butter-yellow leaves of the black cottonwoods (Populus trichocarpa) glow in moist meadowy areas and along the river’s edge. It is as though autumn, knowing its time is running out, has determined to make one last brilliant effort to climax its grand performance. Leidig Meadow, seen in this photo, contains excellent examples of these impressive trees.


cliffs cottonwood in autumn
[click to enlarge]

(Top Right)
The last rays of sunshine on a November afternoon light up a grove of cottonwood in brilliant profile against the muted gray of Yosemite’s cliffs. This is a typical location for these lovely trees; they are most content where their roots have easy access to water, thus affording us too the enjoyment of their reflected luster in the slow-moving river.


upper Yosemite Fall in autumn
[click to enlarge]

(Center Right)
The first storms of approaching winter produce a gentle flow in Yosemite Falls which, in many years, have been almost totally dry since late summer. The Upper Fall accents the deep shadows of late afternoon, while young cottonwoods along the river glow in sun-lighted silhouette.


Half Dome snow in autumn
[click to enlarge]

(Lower Right)
Some time near the end of November is the expected date for the first snow of the oncoming winter to reach Yosemite Valley’s floor, though earlier storms may have left a white mantle across the rims and over the great crown of Half Dome. These first snows on the Valley Floor are seldom great in amount, and in fact seem to resemble heavy frosts. Some autumn-bronzed leaves still cling to the black oaks, but most are now on the ground—soon to be tucked in for winter’s long sleep under the deepening blanket of snow yet to come.


Half Dome in winter sunset
[click to enlarge]

Winter settles into Yosemite Valley with the coming of December, in most years. Nature seems to be striving for appropriate decorations in honor of the approaching Christmas Holidays, and the familiar scenery is given a fresh, clean surfacing of white. The deep accumulation of snow which will become the water run-off in spring is yet to come, but the storms of December provide the base. Half Dome looks serenely into a snowy Valley, as the last of the alpen-glow gilds its crown and suffuses the sweeping flank of Clouds’ Rest with the soft rose tones of early evening. The year draws to a close in quiet splendor.

And so it is that the seasons of Yosemite pass in review across the spectrum of the years—a pageant of beauty and inspiration which offers unique experiences through the entire calendar. Rather than the traditional four seasons to which we have become accustomed in other places, Yosemite’s ever-changing scene can be described as having twelve—for every month brings new facets of growth and subsidence.

Yet no two years are ever the same. Variations in climate produce differing patterns of wildflower development, waterfall volume, the incidence of bird and animal life, the memorable beauty of winter landscapes, the colors and intensity of autumn’s drama. One can never exhaust the thrilling potential of Yosemite’s incomparable scenery.

John Muir, who loved Yosemite with such singular devotion and wrote of it so feelingly, has summed up the emotion of many with these well-known words: “Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.”



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