Reflection. A word that’s wonderfully ambiguous. Whether it’s taking a walk in the crisp, fresh air to count your blessings, or photographing Half Dome’s reflection floating like gold in the still waters of Mirror Lake, reflections abound in Yosemite National Park. With the ever-changing light, the billowing cloud towers and water, water everywhere, the stage is perfectly set. Each stroll is its own adventure, each photograph its own masterpiece. Ansel Adams once said “an open, aware heart is your camera. A oneness with your world is your film.” Indeed, Yosemite visitors can’t help but feel that elemental connection to the land and their lives. So, grab a camera and get ready to photograph reflections of Yosemite National Park.
The seasons in Yosemite are like the best sequels to a never-ending performance. In winter, when the Merced River slows to a trickle and the mist hangs in the leafless trees and ice clings to El Capitan, the mood becomes mysterious. In spring, as the waterfalls boom and the grass begins to green during bud break, there’s a certain optimism. When summer warms the granite and birdsongs fill the air, it’s all about clarity and deep blue skies. In fall, the changing colors signal a time to slow things down and take stock. Then the first snow and the curtain rises again.
The main consideration in making these mirror dreams come true is two-fold: access, and the body of water itself. Here are some worthy destinations to photograph reflections, season by season:
Not only is winter a quiet time to experience Yosemite, but this stillness of the Merced River can play into your photos perfectly. Photo by: Tony McDaniel
As the crowds diminish and the flow quiets, the Merced River becomes a series of reflecting pools perfect for photographing reflections of your favorite Yosemite Valley landmark. The compositions are endless — stormy skies at sunset, massive waterfalls slowly coming back to life, tree branches laden with snow — and all add to your uniquely framed photos whether they capture macro majesty or micro serenity. Including a blissed-out traveling companion in the shot might just be Insta-worthy so bundle up and post away.
Any number of Yosemite Valley trails offer year-round access, but the best path to follow is the Merced River itself. The river is easily accessed from various points in any number of locations by both road and trail. Let a map and inspiration be your guide.
As the Merced River rises, and sometimes overflows, following the winter thaw, it becomes a reflecting pool that snakes through the Valley. Photo by: Kristal Leonard
As the snow melts and the waterfalls boom, the Valley erupts with a sense of rejuvenation. The meadows turn an electric green. A vibrancy fills the air as the Merced River awakens and reconnects. The once still pools flow — and at times overflow — creating a dynamic mirror for photographing Yosemite’s reflection. The trails become more accessible, opening up a few more vantage points for this exciting time of year.
While the Merced River continues to be an excellent choice for spring, Mirror Lake is another gem. Perfectly circumnavigated by the Mirror Lake Trail, and nestled near the base of Half Dome, Mirror Lake speaks for itself. The hike offers a choice: an easy, paved, 2 mile (3.2 km) out-and-back hike with trailside exhibits and little elevation gain, or a slightly more challenging 5 mile (8 km) loop that begins at the end of the paved trail and follows Tenaya Creek before returning past the lake. Though fully accessible and a great choice in winter, Mirror Lake soars with the spring snowmelt and its opportunity to photograph the surrounding cliffs. By the end of summer, it becomes more of a meadow, beautifully promoting the seasonal evolution of Yosemite National Park.
Tenaya Lake’s crystal-clear water makes for gorgeous photos regardless of the conditions, but when they’re right, you can capture the surrounding mountains captured in the water. Or, get there at sunrise or sunset for dramatic photos like this one.
While the crowds at Yosemite might grow in summer, so does your room to roam. Highway 120 over Tioga Pass will be cleared of snow and access to the roughly 1,200 square miles opens up wide. There are dozens of high alpine lakes and countless pristine stretches of rivers and creeks. Some are right along the road, others deep in the backcountry.
A great place to start photographing reflections is the high-country hub, Tuolumne Meadows. A pre-historic wash of green surrounded by granite domes, Tuolumne Meadows sits at an elevation of over 8,600 feet and with the Tuolumne River meandering through offers epic seasonal opportunities for capturing reflections. It’s also a great launching point for day hikes to nearby lakes.
The clear, dark water of Dog Lake is the perfect mirror for the blues and grays of sky and rock. A 2.8 mile (4.5 km) round-trip hike, Dog Lake sits at 9,200 feet (2,804 meters) yet the trail only climbs a modest 600 feet (182 meters) making it doable with the whole family. It is surrounded by evergreen forest, a stark contrast to tree-free peaks rising nearby. If you feel the urge to scramble up granite for an aerial view, Lembert Dome is a great offshoot and can be accessed by the same trail.
For a roadside gem, Tenaya Lake is tough to beat. Located 9 miles (14.5 km) west of Tuolumne Meadows along Tioga Road, it was originally called “Lake of the Shining Rocks” by the Ahwahnechee people. Sitting at 8,150 feet (2,484 meters) and nestled in a granite basin surrounded by pine and meadow, Tenaya Lake provides the perfect balance between accessibility and beauty. There are two picnic areas, canoeing and kayaking and of course the option of a dip in crystal clear water. Mirror images at sunrise and sunset can be spectacular here, especially when they light up with the muscular cumulus clouds that flex, then billow by in the summer months.
Possibly the most well-known place to get a photo of a reflection is here, at Sentinel Bridge, where when conditions are right, you can catch a glimpse of Half Dome looking back up at itself from the river below. Photo by: Aaron Sauma
Peak color. Peepshows. Carotenoids and anthocyanins. All are familiar terms to Leaf Peepers or those in search of fall color. Most people think of the Northeast when it comes to this phenomenon, but California’s vibrant display (which depends on latitude and elevation) lasts longer (August through December) and has a wider variety of specimens due to its Mediterranean climate. With a range of elevations and expansive boundaries, Yosemite National Park is indeed a microcosm of the state.
Capturing yellows (quaking aspen, bigleaf maple, white Alder, ceanothus, cottonwoods) reds (dogwood, sugar maple) oranges (black oak) and even purples (poison oak) in your photo reflection can take it to the next level. The trick is finding the right body of water. In fall, the levels are often low, but the elusive mirror image is out there! If you’re in Yosemite following a rainstorm, the puddles it will leave behind will have the same effect as rivers or lakes, which means you’ll have a completely unique photo! And if you miss peak color in one spot, you can still find it by dropping in elevation assuming the same species are present. In Yosemite Valley try Fern Springs/Pohono Bridge or various spots along the Merced River in and out of Yosemite National Park.
While these guidelines are helpful in knowing what to expect, they’re not the final word. Yosemite’s many destinations transcend months on the calendar. Each turns evocatively with the season, coming alive in a different way with the angle of the sun and the type of clouds and the body of water that is your mirror. Even the immovable granite faces seem to morph and take on new personalities depending on whether it’s wet or dry, cool or hot. One thing remains constant, though. That undeniable inspiration which stems from where you journey, and what you choose to reflect. For such things, there’s no other place like Yosemite. Just as Ansel Adams said…let the camera be your heart.
When the sun goes down and the waterfalls are rushing in Yosemite, an amazing experience takes place when the Yosemite Moonbow comes out at night.
Whether it’s taking a walk in the crisp, fresh air to count your blessings, or photographing Half Dome floating like gold in the still waters of Mirror Lake, reflections abound in Yosemite National Park.
El Portal may seem to be a sleepy little town along Highway 140 just outside the Yosemite National Park gate, but there are loads of fun activities and surprises for all ages to be found on and off the beaten track.