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The Four Seasons of Yosemite (1980) by Dana Morgenson


Winter

Yosemite National Park, justly famed for its exquisite scenery and its dramatic example of the action of glacial ice on hard rock, is most generally thought of as a summer-time attraction. Then the American public is on the move, seeking through vacation travel a change of pace from regular routines. Yosemite, in common with most Western parks, hosts the largest portion of its annual visitor count during those summer months. It’s a time of long sunny days—seldom interrupted by storms, mild and invigorating climate, open roads and trails across the far reaches of the Park, and the beauty of fully-developed meadows, wildflowers and forests. Admittedly, Yosemite’s famous waterfalls are ebbing at that season, as the snow-melt recedes. But that is a fact of summer-time, and Yosemite’s visitors take it as such.

Strangely enough, many who come in summer give no thought to the other seasons of the Park. Many, in fact, seem surprised to learn that Yosemite is open after September, or before Memorial Day, that in fact it never closes. They are unaware of the rich colors of its meadows and forests in autumn, of the silver-etched beauty of its great cliffs in winter, or the excitement of majestic waterfalls pouring out of the sky just as spring seems to pour new life into the entire landscape.

Those who have discovered the splendor and unique quality of these other seasons are wont to return again and again to enjoy them, finding something of the deeper essence of Yosemite— something of the qualities which make this park very special to so many of its devotees. Let us, then, through the medium of pictures, try to present some of the drama of these seasons—for the information of some visitors and the nostalgic recollection of others.

Merced River in winter
[click to enlarge]

(Top Right)
On a bright winter morning following a snow storm, Yosemite Valley holds a special magic. Every tree and shrub and rock and stream bank seems to have been created anew, through the artistry of billions of tiny snowflakes. The world is hushed in the presence of such beauty, and the all-pervading quiet is broken only by the soft whisper of the river gliding gently past. Sharp, clear, sweet air quickens every sense of one fortunate enough to see this splendor. A warming sun drapes a few filmy scarves of mist across the Valley’s walls.


Merced River bank in winter
[click to enlarge]

(Lower right)
On such a morning, follow the river if you will, past the shrubbery freshly decorated by the previous night’s storm. You will catch glimpses of Yosemite’s famous scenery through the screens of leaf-less branches ornamented in tones of silver and alabaster against a clear blue sky. Save for the gentle touch of a bird’s foot, or a squirrel’s, yours may be the first prints in the unbroken snow at this early morning hour.


Ponderosa pine in winter
[click to enlarge]

When strolling in Yosemite Valley after a recent snow storm, you will surely stop to admire the way of winter with the long needles of the ponderosa pines. Snow flakes, like tiny feathers, cling to each needle, while the trees as a whole seem clothed in white robes. Photographers, especially, will enjoy the sharp contrast of these trees seen against the darker background of forest, river or cliff. But do not linger too long under such a tree, else the playful fingers of the warming sun will loosen some of that snow from higher in the branches, bringing it down upon you in a sudden rush like a minor avalanche.


Yosemite Fall in winter
[click to enlarge]

(Right)
Yosemite Falls with its ice cone presents one of the memorable sights of the winter landscape. How the cone develops can be seen in this photo: the freezing of the mist from the fall itself during cold winter nights, which adheres to the cliff in a form vaguely resembling a huge pine tree frosted with snow. As the sun begins to shine upon the icy wall, its warm fingers pluck away the ice and it falls with a resounding crash to the basin below. Result: a spectacular cone which reaches its peak in early March—sometimes becoming 250 feet in height and covering several acres. By mid-April, the ice cone usually is gone, having melted away under the impetus of heavier volume in the waterfall together with longer and warmer days.


(Below)
The region of heaviest snowfall in the Sierra normally occurs above the floor of Yosemite Valley. Thus, the rims of the Valley may be deeply snow-covered, following periods of storm, while the floor itself retains only moderate amounts. The eye is impelled by the gleam of fresh snow around Yosemite’s walls to scan these rims with deep satisfaction—revelling in the vivid contrast between silvery rocks and trees and the blue of the sky or the soft grays of clouds. Late afternoon light, accenting this contrast with long, level rays of sunshine, brings special emphasis to this facet of winter’s beauty.

Yosemite Wall in winter
[click to enlarge]

Half Dome in winter
[click to enlarge]

The great rocks of Yosemite become deceptively softened by the delicate lighting effects of storms. Half Dome’s tremendous upthrust above a snowy meadow appears almost dream-like on occasions when veils of winter clouds drift slowly through the Valley, as a new storm system begins to appear.

black oak in winter
[click to enlarge]

Winter storms sometimes fill the Valley with misty clouds and vapors which completely shroud the surrounding cliffs so that they all but disappear. On such a day, one gets the impression of a great forested plain stretching on without apparent limit. Instead of Yosemite’s familiar walls, dark trees rise like accent marks out of the mist.

El Capitan in winter
[click to enlarge]

El Capitan’s mighty brow—3000 feet above the Merced River—looks down through a delicate screen of clouds which softly veil the reality of this incomparable cliff. Often said to be higher than any other completely vertical wall on earth, it seems to float airily above the Valley Floor on such a winter day as this.



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