While Yosemite National Park is not on the radar for fall colors to the extent that, for example, New Hampshire and Vermont are, landscape photographers can still “reel in some keepers” if they know the best locations and the best times to catch the respective areas at peak color.
Of course with nature, there are seasonal variations for timing of fall color due to autumn average temperature ranges, etc. from one year to the next. The best conditions are warm, sunny days, and crisp nights without a hard freeze. A storm sweeping in with strong winds can strip the trees of autumn leafs overnight as well. Probably the best conditions for dramatic fall color landscape photography, is after a light snow, which flocks the brightly colored trees and bushes in a dramatic color contrast. The downside of this situation is that usually the light snowfall is followed with freezing temperatures that turn the gold leafs to muddy brown. Still, to be present during that short period of time is a photographer’s delight.
The color change in higher elevations of the park, such as mountain side foliage along the Tioga Pass Road(highway 120), comes the
earliest. Usually around the last third or fourth week of September, color comes to the small bushes surrounding small tarns (natural small ponds). The tarns are found near the Tenaya Lake and the Olmsted Point surrounds. Siesta Lake, right beside the Tioga Pass Road, also has many reeds and foliage that can produce a pleasing color palette.
Tuolumne Meadow has a few aspen in small groves that can turn yellow. Keep in mind that at the higher elevations of the park, snow storms can sweep in at anytime during the fall months and usually close the Tioga Road by late October. Watch the weather forecast and carry snow chains just in case. The big plus of making the trip over Tioga Pass is that the Eastern Sierras and their golden aspen are well known in the West for their fall color display from early October to perhaps as long as the third week of October.
When climbing out of Yosemite Valley on Big Oak Flat Road toward the Tioga Road junction, the highway passes through a stretch of dogwood groves about 2/3 of the way to the junction. The dogwoods are known to change to red and yellow colors. Usually the best perspective is gained by photographing from the downhill side of the road, which allows the composition to travel directly into the dogwood foliage at the midsection of the trees rather than trying to shoot upwards from the uphill side with the contrasting bright sky behind. Care should be exercised here, since cars usually travel along this stretch at fairly fast speeds and in places the road shoulder is narrow.
Glacier Point area can produce yellow foliage in the deer brush and small shrubs. Again due to its higher altitude, peak colors will
come early in mid to late September.
Yosemite Valley of all the places within the Park probably provides the best overall location for fall colors due to its lower altitude and variety of plants and trees. Be on the watch for the nice yellow leaves on the black cottonwood, the black oaks with their yellow and brown colors, and again the dogwood with their red and yellow mix.
Some good Valley locations include: the groves in the various meadows (particularly the dogwoods around the upper campground areas and the oaks in the meadow in front of El Capitan), the almost dry stream channels out from Yosemite Falls, the big leaf maple along the Merced River and other minor waterways, and of course the famous “color busting” Sugar Maple near the Yosemite Chapel. Color in the Valley usually is present from mid to late October until the first week of November.
Finally, if traveling on highway 41 through the Wawona area, be on the watch for color in the low water river channels and river banks in the South Fork of the Merced River. Usually, during the middle of October is best for this area. The placid water flows through boulders and reeds in the middle of the river with bushes along the edge providing a colorful backdrop. Actually, a nice location is along the river as it flows beside the campground area which is either closed or very sparsely inhabited by then.
To get the latest information on the fall colors to fine tune your photo adventure, try this website: www.californiafallcolor.com
So pack up the camera, don’t forget the polarizing filter to saturate the fall colors and reduce the glare off the reflective leafs and grass, and just “get out there before its gone”!
To Learn More or Download George Graves’ guidebook click here Photograph Hidden Yosemite & the Hoover Wilderness
George Graves specializes in landscape and travel photography with a focus internationally in Europe and Asia and domestically in the coastal and wilderness areas of central California. His work has been published in such magazines as Australia House & Garden-Travel and his high quality prints are on display at the Bronze, Silver, & Gold Gallery in Cambria on California’s Central Coast. His website http://georgegraves.photoshelter.com serves to provide photographer’s travel resources and photo tips for distinctive world travel destinations.