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There is something about hiking into the Yosemite Wilderness that makes one feel like the first person to ever explore it.
It's amazing to think that there are still trails that you can hike for miles without seeing another soul. It's a special feeling that a very small percentage of people get to know, let alone photograph.
Our Yosemite Extreme workshop was designed to facilitate this symbiotic feeling of peace and serenity within the park's wild spaces, and to experience those rare places that few will ever witness. There is nothing like experiencing a sunset from the top of a mountain and looking out over the vastness and extremes of the grand Sierra.
Mike Wardinski and I [Phil Nicholas] both had the luxury of living and photographing in the park boundaries for several years. This workshop is a culmination of both of our experiences within the National Park, and the special places that kept us coming back to visit time and time again.
We met up with our group at noon on Sunday for an early orientation before heading out to catch the evening light. After getting to know the group a little bit, we packed up the van with our hiking and camera gear and drove up to Glacier Point road.
Our first stop was the magnificent Sentinel Dome. This hike is quite the bang for your buck! The easy, short ascent gets you out to the south rim in less than twenty minutes, where you can find some of the best views of the valley that the park has to offer.
As we neared the top we noticed thick, black thunderheads resting over Half Dome and the surrounding peaks. I guided the group up along the dome to one of my favorite spots to shoot near the base of three dead and twisted old cedar trees. By positioning the camera in the middle, they were able to capture Half Dome lit up in the center of the trees. After a quick visit to the top of the dome, we hiked back down to the van and drove down to our second location.
This next spot has no known trail to the summit. After bushwhacking in this area several times, I have found that the easiest way up is by ascending two separate ridges and then walking along the second for another mile or so. The ridge offers unmatched views of Mount Starr King, Half Dome, and the High Sierra.
Once in position, the students took some time to feel out the area and find some interesting compositions. Mike and I offered some examples and ideas as they worked their way toward the end of the ridge for sunset. By the time the sun had set, the storm had dissipated significantly, opening up the sky for some nice pink hues. As the light began to dim, we turned on our headlamps and prepared for our long hike back in the dark. After guiding everyone safely back to the van, we headed back down to El Portal for the night.
The following morning we met the group for an early morning hike up the four mile trail to one of our favorite areas.
For the first few miles, the trail winds and switchbacks through the forest with limited views, while gaining elevation. As we rose above the tree line underneath the looming Sentinel Rock, we emerged to grand views of the west end of Yosemite Valley.
From there, the students were able to photograph El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and the winding Merced River below. Mike and I helped with some composition tips and different ideas on how to capture the contrast in the scene. After a quick group shot, we began our descent back to the valley below.
Upon our return, we drove down to the lodge for a quick bite and a coffee before heading back down to our hotel in El Portal for checkout.
After checking out of our hotels, we all made our way up over Tioga Pass to our new home for the next two nights, in Lee Vining. From the hotel, we drove back to the entrance of the east side to begin our second hike of the day.
Starting at just shy of 10,000 ft., the hike up to Upper Gaylor Lake is no simple walk in the park. Climbing almost 1,000 feet in around two miles at high elevation is quite the feat, even for a seasoned hiker, but then, the breathtaking views make it all worth while.
On our way up, we stopped in an alpine meadow where we found some nice backlit plants that glowed red with the Cathedral Range as a backdrop. We spent about an hour working this area and helping folks with some ideas for different shots, before hiking the rest of the way to the upper lake.
When we arrived at the lake, Mike and I set some of the group right at the lake to shoot reflections of Gaylor Peak and Mt. Dana, and the rest of the group went up to the top for a view down over both of the lakes. The conditions were perfect for some nice light, and as the sun set, the shots got better and better.
The sky began to turn an intense shade of orange, illuminating the clouds and bouncing color back down onto the peaks below. The light slowly faded into pink, and then a deep magenta. After a few more shots, we decided to call it for the night and head back down the winding trail back to the van. About an hour later we arrived back at the van with sore legs, dead batteries, and full memory cards. After arriving back at the hotel, everyone was ready to sleep in and rest their tired legs.
The next morning we met up with the group for a late morning trip into the park. On our way up to our destination, we noticed some dramatic light near Ellery Falls so we parked the van on the side of the road and hurried out to grab some quick captures.
The clouds were full of moisture and sitting low on the jagged granite faces overhead. As they moved across the sky, the light shone through, illuminating different parts of the luminous landscape, giving the group several chances to play with different compositions.
Once everybody had grabbed a few nice images, we continued our drive into the park boundaries. After entering through the gate, we pulled off beside Dana Meadows and hiked out to a small reflection pool in the middle of the field. Though small, the pool offers mirrored reflections of Mammoth Mountain with a dynamic sky full of big puffy, white clouds. The meadow was so cold that there was ice forming on the pond!
After an hour or so the sun poked up over the mountains and we decided to call it quits for the morning, because we had a big night ahead of us!
After the break, we prepped the group for our biggest hike yet. We all hopped into the van and motored up into Tuolumne Meadows to scope the scene and make sure the weather was going to hold.
When we arrived, there were a few dark clouds overhead, but the group was ready to chance it. We decided that if it chucked down rain, then we would abort the mission…but, we certainly didn't expect snow!
About three miles into our hike, we encountered little fluffy snowflakes falling from above. Since we were almost there, and it was not, in fact, raining, we pressed onward.
Upon arrival to Upper Cathedral Lake, the sky was looking flat and gray. Mike and I hoped for a break in the storm, and that is exactly what we got!
As everyone settled in to different spots, the clouds began to part as if someone was rewarding us from above for our efforts. Once compositions were dialed, we waited patiently for the coming sunset. When the sun finally sank beneath the clouds, the clouds blazed orange and pink. After everyone was satisfied, we headed back down the very, very dusty trail back down to the van.
The next morning we got to sleep in…well, not way in. We met back up with the group at eight a.m., and headed over to the mobil for some hot breakfast, lots of caffeine, and some post-processing for dessert.
Mike and I went over some of our workflow, and some different techniques for editing so everyone in the group would have some added skills for editing their photos taken over the last few days. When everyone felt good about where they were with their editing, and their captured photos, we all said our goodbyes, thanks, and parted ways. It was a great adventure, and one we'd all remember through our lenses!
Until next time,
Phil, Mike, and the entire Aperture Academy team!
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.