My First Visit to Yosemite Valley

Before 1855, America and the World knew very little about the mysterious mountains of California known as the Sierra Nevada. When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1849, the Gold Rush knew only that the journey over those rugged peaks was a difficult one. They were seen as obstacles, not treasures.

In 1863, the German-American landscape painter, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) changed everything when he braved the harsh conditions in the Sierras to make sketches for what was to become a series of monumental works focusing on Yosemite Valley. His first painting in 1865 was called “Looking Up the Yosemite Valley”, shown below.

Albert_Bierstadt_-_Looking_Up_the_Yosemite_Valley Bierstadt paints the valley from a vantage point just above the Merced River, looking due east with the river framed by El Capitan to the left, and Sentinel Rock and Bridal Veil Falls to the right; the spire of Middle Cathedral Rock is visible in the distance. In 1867, he painted “The Domes of the Yosemite”, shown below.

bierstadt 1867Although Bierstadt used “artistic license” when placing the spectacular features of Yosemite Valley, his images changed everything in regards to the American West. Overnight, the World was awestruck by the grandeur and sense of wonder that was on display in California. The breathtaking beauty rivaled anything in Europe or Asia. Yosemite was seen as Heaven on Earth, and people wanted to go there to experience it for themselves. As the Civil War was ending, President Lincoln signed a Congressional Act, declaring that “Yosemite Valley would be held for public use, resort, and recreation inalienable for all time.”  Yosemite became America’s first National Monument.

Looking_Down_Yosemite-ValleyBierstadt’s “Looking Down Yosemite Valley- California”, painted in 1868, looking west at sunset.

No longer would this magical place be sanctuary for only Native people. Tourists, artists, and eventually photographers flocked to the California High Sierra, discarding the Indian names, and replacing them with more American labels such as Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, the Merced River, and “Mirror Lake”.

After legendary American photographer Ansel Adams made Yosemite Valley a household name with his iconic black and white prints, the National Park quickly became one of the most popular of all the National Parks.

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams


One of Ansel Adams’ best known images. That’s Bridal Veil Falls to the right, and El Capitan “Dome” to the left. “Half Dome” is barely visible through the mist in the far center.

A modern photograph shows a similar view…


My small “Point-and-Shoot” Kodak would be no rival for the likes of Adams, but I wanted to capture my impressions of this wonderland as best I could with limited time and mobility. My first view of the valley was from a crowded parking area through a dirty windshield with a bright sun reflecting vinyl and plastic. Not the best creative opportunity, but I made an image through the glass all the same, and the low quality dictated that color was out of the question. All the same, this is my first impression of Yosemite, as Ansel Adams might have captured it.

Half Dome 6Half Dome at High Noon, April 17, 2016   Snow is still visible atop the dome.

Moving deeper into the valley in a crush of weekend visitors, I managed to drive past the places that I had only dreamed of before my visit. Never leaving the roadway presented a challenge, but I was curious how this superficial encounter would translate into memorable images.  You be the judge.

El CapitanEl Capitan   or “El Cap” with the Merced River below.

Bridal VeilBridal Veil Falls

Big Rock

Rock FaceThe southern face of El Cap

Half Dome ShadowHalf Dome in afternoon Shadows…

Valley RedwoodRedwoods in the Valley…

Yosemite FallsYosemite Falls…

Driving for an hour to the south entrance of the park, we spent two days at the Tenaya Lodge. To my great disappointment, the Sequoia Grove known as Mariposa was closed for trail and facility repairs. I’ll just have to come back soon to see the world’s tallest trees. 

Tenaya ForestTenaya Lodge at sunrise. It sits a mile above sea level.

Tenaya LodgeThe hotel lobby was impressive…

Vann Woods

I explored the forest around the lodge at sunrise….

Yosemite WoodsBecause of the historic drought, evergreens are dying all through the woods. Very sad. Rains have been good this year, and the snows in the mountains will replenish the reservoirs, but they came too late for millions of mature trees. We drove through miles of black trees that had perished in giant wild fires.  The fire smell in those areas was still strong.

I close with an image from the internet that I especially found compelling. 


This was most likely made from a Drone, and shows Yosemite Falls near the top, Bridal Veil Falls at the bottom, and El Capitan dome in the upper right. Ah, to be a hawk flying over this wonder. My Blue Ridge Mountains may once have had places like Yosemite, but they eroded away over hundreds of millions of years.


3 thoughts on “My First Visit to Yosemite Valley

  1. Magnificent pictures!! Thanks for the history lesson, also. Hope that you can soon return to this beautiful place!!

  2. Vann, You have no idea how very much I enjoyed your pics! Yosemite is one of my favorite places in the world. Perhaps you will be able to stop at Jamestown upon your departure. It is an old mining town that will remind you of Andy Of Mayberry! I love the entire are and hope one day that I will be able to return. I thought that the Bridal Veil was breath taking. Once again I thank you for sharing. . . Love You, Joi >

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