Yosemite on a Winter Day

Yosemite National Park, California

Driving home from our holiday trip to Anza Borrego State Park near San Diego, my niece commented, “California is so beautiful in the winter.” I have to agree. The sun is low, the shadows profound, and the light on hillsides and mountaintops glows with a special radiance.

On the winter solstice in 2017 we toured Yosemite Valley with Christine Loberg from the Ansel Adams Gallery. A photographer herself and an experienced guide, she knew exactly where we needed to be when to get photographs with the best light. It had snowed lightly the day before and the edges of the Merced River were frozen in fabulous patterns. Fallen leaves were dusted with frost. The iconic landmarks, El Capitan and Half Dome, stood strong against the blue sky, while the forests below were as dark and foreboding as the woods in a Grimm’s fairy tale.

Yosemite Valley with El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridal Veil Falls taken from Inspiration Point


Vulnerable Yosemite

Today, during the first week of the New Year, we’re in the midst of another type of grim fairy tale, a partial government shutdown that is leaving Yosemite vulnerable. Newspapers are reporting mountains of garbage and roads turned into toilets. With park rangers furloughed, there is no one to pick up the trash or clean the restrooms. Illegal off-roading is damaging fragile meadows. The venerable park is being overwhelmed.

Concerned for one of my favorite places that I first toured with my parents when I was six, I decided to go back to the source, John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist, writer and preservationist. He was instrumental in establishing Yosemite as the third national park in America in 1890.

Riverside in Yosemite with snow-covered banks and trees in the sun

The dramatic landscapes of the Sierra spoke deeply to Muir, and through his many writings, he was able to share his experiences of what was then a pristine wilderness.

I’ve never had the luxury of spending months in the mountains the way John Muir did. My short visits at different times of the year have only given me a taste of the feast that Muir encountered as he worked and lived in Yosemite. So now that the solstice has passed and the sun is gradually returning to what Muir called “The Range of Light,” it’s a lovely time to contemplate what he had to say about this beautiful place.

Cathedral rocks in Yosemite National Park


Yosemite: A winter gallery

Snow-covered pine branches with sun flare in Yosemite National Park

“When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.” 


Trees with frosty branches reflected in the river in Yosemite

“When one is alone at night in the depths of these woods, the stillness is at once awful and sublime. Every leaf seems to speak.”


Yosemite Valley with El Capitan in the sun on the left, Clouds Rest in the background and Half Dome on the right

“Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And after ten years of wandering and wondering in the heart of it, rejoicing in its glorious floods of light, the white beams of the morning streaming through the passes, the noonday radiance on the crystal rocks, the flush of the alpenglow, and the irised spray of countless waterfalls, it still seems above all others the Range of Light.”


Ice pattern in the sun flows across the photo in Yosemite

“Everything is flowing — going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks… While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood…in Nature’s warm heart.” 


Half Dome behind some trees and reflected in the Merced River in Yosemite National Park

“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”


Close-up pine bough with snow in Yosemite

“The snow is melting into music.


Fallen fall leaves in sun with frost in Yosemite

“Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.”


Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite

“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”


Half Dome glowing in the late afternoon sun and reflected in the river in Yosemite

“All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go, to highlands or lowlands, woods or plains, on the sea or land or down among the crystals of waves or high in a balloon in the sky; through all the climates, hot or cold, storms and calms, everywhere and always we are in God’s eternal beauty and love. So universally true is this, the spot where we chance to be always seems the best.” 

Thanks to John Muir for his inspiring words. May the places you go this year be the best places you can possibly be. Wishing you all adventures great and small.

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  1. Ellen, that was a beautiful post. Thank you. Deb

  2. What an incredible writer Muir is …. I’m running to get the full writings ! Your photos are perfect pairings ….. thank you soooo much for this elegant post, which I’ll forward to others

  3. What an amazing writer John Muir is ! I’m running to get a copy ! Your photos were the perfect pairings ….. thank you sooooo much for this elegant invitation to a new year of looking at our world.

  4. A magical day in a magical place. It was a delight to share it with you.

  5. Stunning photographs and inspiring words from John Muir. Awful to think of the “grim fairy tale” happening there with the govt. shutdown.

  6. Lovely, inspiring pics and Muirisms!

  7. Thanks everyone for your lovely comments. Wishing you all good travels in the New Year!

  8. Thank you for your beautiful thoughts and photos! I remember that stunning day as my husband and I happened to be there, too; we are so fortunate to have this special place nearby. Happy New Year!

    • Thanks Teresa! It would have been fun to run into you there.

  9. Jay & I found your post both inspiring and heartbreaking. We can only hope this isn’t any kind of “new normal.” Thx for this, Ellen- you are as astute & uplifting as a photographer as you are as a writer! Sent to you from Brooklyn , where we’re getting to know our new granddaughter, Hannah.

    • Thanks Elise. And congratulations on your new granddaughter.

  10. Thoroughly enjoyed the incredible images coupled with John Muir’s moving words.

    Yosemite is one of my favorite places. This is the first year in over thirty that I have not visited so it was especially nice to spend some time enjoying photos and reflecting on John Muir. In addition, my son’s father-in-law will be, hopefully, visiting in January and we are planning on visiting Yosemite


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