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Best Way to Experience Yosemite?

by Eva Boynton on January 16, 2017

A view of Yosemite Valley, showing that to experience Yosemite fully all you need to do is open you eyes. (image © Sam Anaya)

Mountains of experience reach beyond the edge of the picture frame. 
© Sam Anaya

Open Your Eyes, Take Home the Full Picture

Whenever I set foot in Yosemite, I feel the need to capture the grandeur of nature, extend the experience, and take it home with me. But, on this trip, I put my camera down and heeded a quote from Henry David Thoreau:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

A deserted cabin in Yosemite Valley forest, illustrating that to open your eyes to experience Yosemite may be beyond the camera frame. (image © Sam Anaya)

Is it possible to capture the intangible essence of an experience in a photo?  
Or, do you just need to be there?
© Sam Anaya

How did I reach that decision? I found myself surrounded by other travelers engulfed in recording their experiences, one eye always shut as they looked through the lens of a camera. I came to realize that opening both eyes, without anything in-between, was my best way to experience Yosemite.


Yosemite is THE spot to capture iconic nature images. Early photos of the park were made by mountain men who experienced nature and weathered difficult conditions without modern conveniences to be there.

On tour of the vista points with my friend Dana Swarth, I observed that, nowadays, visitors experience a place through their cameras. They snap photos as frenetically as the White House Press Corps.

Two photographers crouching on the ground, showing how people try to experience Yosemite. (image © Eva Boynton)

Diving for photos
© Eva Boynton

A woman takes a selfie at Yosemite Falls, illustrating how you can forget to open your eyes and experience Yosemite. (image © Eva Boynton)

“I’m here!”
© Eva Boynton

On one stop at Yosemite Falls, I encountered—

  • A couple adeptly using a selfie stick to photograph themselves from every perspective.
  • A dad lying on the ground to find the perfect angle of his wife and kids in front of the scene.
  • An older man, smiling all the while, making a 180° scan of the “entire” view with his iPad.

Photography can be like a sport in Yosemite—a rugged solo expedition to get selfies or a race to the finish line by competitive clickers. The winner? The person with the most photos.

Yosemite Falls, a view to appreciate when you open your eyes and experience Yosemite. (Image © Sam Anaya)

Nothing can quite capture the towering Yosemite Falls.
© Sam Anaya

It was seeing the crowds hold onto their cameras for dear life that made me skeptical of my need to record my experience in pictures. People came and went without taking a moment to look with their own eyes.

What’s the Focus?

Whether it is a face, hand, or a single toe, too many photographers intentionally place some body part into the landscape to say, “Hey, I was here!” I watched a woman reposition her iPhone up and down, left to right, in an attempt to capture herself in the frame. She was the subject; Yosemite was the background.

A thumb's up in front of a mountain in Yosemite Valley, a selfie attempts to show how to experience Yosemite. (image © Eva Boynton)

Click. I “like” this mountain.
© Eva Boynton

Some articles reinforce this focus on self. “How to take a great selfie in Yosemite gives tips that include dividing your time between sites so as not to spend all your “selfie juice” in one location or hiking to Mariposa Grove where trees dapple your selfie face with light.

A selfie of three people in front of Yosemite Falls, people trying to experience Yosemite but taking the idea "Open Your Eyes" in the wrong direction. (image © Sam Anaya)

We were certainly there! But what was behind us is a little blurry.
© Sam Anaya

Amid the unparalleled grandeur of Yosemite, it seemed to me that the focus belonged on the experience. Sure, I could ensure a photo album of selfies and prove that I was there, but I decided to adjust the focus, make Yosemite the subject, turn around and see the real deal.

Dropping the urgent need to archive and record myself brought focus back on the raw experience. Thoreau had made the same discovery years ago. He processed his findings on time spent living in the woods by writing his experiences in his own hand. He focused on deliberate experience and awareness, lifting himself out of a snapped frame and into the woods.

Tall trees with the sun behind at Yosemite Valley, showing that if you open your eyes without a camera you might see a little more. (image © Sam Anaya)

Take a moment to feel small in comparison to the colossal trees of Yosemite Valley.
© Sam Anaya

Too Big to Frame

During our tour of Yosemite, Dana took us on a hike off the main tourist track. We sat perched on a rock, overlooking a valley with mountains as the horizon and a carpet of autumn-colored trees below.

We took in the scene with all our senses, feeling the cool spray from a waterfall behind us while the sun warmed our faces and shoulders. I began at the waterfall and slowly turned my head to the left, seeing every inch of the full picture.

A drawing of Yosemite Valley in front of the drawn landscape, showing how a frame cannot open your eyes to really experience Yosemite. (image © Sam Anaya)

Yosemite without cropping
© Sam Anaya

I had followed my own advice, “Open your eyes,” and experienced Yosemite in full. Even so, I couldn’t resist recording some part of the experience. I took out my ink and paper and tried to etch the view into my memory.

As I lifted my finished drawing to the real thing, I noticed that the lines went off the paper. Oh, I see. The Yosemite experience was too big to frame. Living is already naturally panoramic.

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.

Thank you, Sam, for your photos and, Dana, for the tour of Yosemite.

Check here for more information about Yosemite National Park.


7 thoughts on “Best Way to Experience Yosemite?

  1. Hi Eva,

    That’s a lovely article, an enjoyable read. We were recently in Yosemite with our young family, a truely beautiful place.

    I’ve been meaning to write since we followed on to Monteray where we met your delightful father in the Lighthouse Smokehouse! We were in the last throws of a 6month world trip with our 3yr old and 10month old. Your dad was wonderful company and a treasure to chat to!!

    He spoke very proudly of you and your wanderings. Clearly a chip off the old block.

    Please pass on our regards next time you chat to him. We were the English family throwing lemons….

  2. The temptation to take it all home with you is great! It takes great concentration to represent a place without a camera. Love your writing and your drawing.

    • Hi Kathy,

      Thanks for reading and for commenting. I agree with you. It’s funny how the easy thing to do is to record while focusing on experience becomes difficult.


  3. I understand and applaud your wise choice! But I think about Ansel Adams, whose photographs DID capture the essence of Yosemite. He lived there and loved it, but he also created images that shared his experience with many people who otherwise would never have seen Yosemite at all. No selfies, of course!

    • Hi Barbara,
      Thanks for reading the article.

      I agree with you. Ansel Adams is a different kind of photographer from the “fast photography” of visitors today. For me, photography has changed and thus, the approach to how we experience and view a place has changed.

      Thank you for your comment!

  4. Having never been to Yosemite, I appreciate “seeing” it through this wonderful article. The point of too much photographing and not enough appreciating the vitas is well taken. Thank you for sharing

    • Hi Elizabeth!
      Thanks for reading the article. I hope you get to visit Yosemite some day. It’s definitely worth the trip.

      I definitely enjoy taking photos on trips, but it is always good to question something that has evolved so fast in our lives.

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