Finding Winter (and Adventure!) in Yosemite

Yosemite is in my blood.  I’ve been there too many times to count, but I only go during my favorite time: winter. 

Yosemite in winter is the best time of year because it’s quiet. The crowds of summer are gone and just the hardy, adventurous types are there to experience nature at its finest.

On one particular trip — just two days before Christmas, December 1964 — it was raining like crazy.   We were spending the holidays in the Yosemite Valley, just like we did every year. The rain was coming down in buckets. We slept peacefully in our cozy housekeeping cabin at the Yosemite Lodge unaware that the Merced River was starting to flood.  When the river started to threaten the little cabins at the Lodge, we were evacuated to higher ground in the middle of the night, out of harm’s way.

Yosemite Photo WorkshopsYou never know what you’re going to find in this beautiful valley in the winter. 

But we were there looking for snow, and it finally arrived Christmas morning.

The rain had turned to snow and we woke up to the peaceful quiet beauty of ice crystals falling all around us.  We  were able to ski back to our old cabin to look at the flood levels on the side of the structure.  The high water line was half way up the building, but that didn’t seem to matter. We were experiencing beautiful winter in Yosemite.

Those housekeeping cabins are gone now. They’ve been replaced by rustic, yet comfortable two-story buildings located far enough away from the river to avoid any future floods.  What I love about these newer buildings is when I walk out of my second floor room in the morning, I’m greeted by the view of Yosemite falls in all its frozen glory.

Because we returned to Yosemite each Christmas, we made a lot of friends there. It still isn’t the same for me if I’m not there during the holidays.  That was our family tradition.


Christmas in Yosemite 1965

Christmas in Yosemite 1965

One special individual in particular had a lot to do with our infatuation of that wonderland.  My Father and sister took photography workshops with Ansel Adams in Yosemite the summer before the flood.  So Ansel knew my father, and would  come over and chat with us when we were hanging out in the lodge by the fire, or playing backgammon on winter evenings. My sisters and I always looked forward to seeing him and hoped he’d give us some suggestions to help beat our father in the game. We were awed by his presence, his stature and his white beard.

A lot has changed there since 1964, but civilization can’t change the immense beauty of Yosemite National Park.


I can’t say I’m happy with the changes and the commercialism that threatens the natural environment, but that discussion is for another time.  Yosemite is in my blood.  I go for the feeling I get when I’m there.  It’s a place that understands me and my history.  The valley welcomes me when I arrive, but only in the off season.  We come for the snow, the crisp mountain air, the incredible views, and that feeling of home.

Yosemite Photo Workshops

So that’s why it seemed natural for me to create a photography excursion to the Yosemite Valley in winter.  On one of our winter photography workshops, we had a diverse group of accomplished photographers ready to bear the elements for a special wilderness adventure.

Yosemite is at an elevation of 4,000 feet and the weather in winter can vary greatly.  In January and February, we’ve experienced a frozen winter snowstorm, a flood (as mentioned above), and 65 degree weather.  So, when we book one of these photography workshops, we never know what we’re going to get.  What we do know is that it’s always an amazingly beautiful experience in a place we know and love.

During this particular workshop, the weather was quite cold with no snow, but an abundance of ice on the roads and sidewalks.  Our plan for the morning, was to take the 3 1/2 mile walk roundtrip out to Mirror Lake and look for snow and ice compositions along the river and the woods on the way.

Normally, it’s an easy flat walk on pavement to the lake, so we were optimistic as we started.  Half way out to Mirror Lake, we started to encounter ice.  Not just a little bit of ice, but the kind of ice where the snow has fallen, melted and frozen again.  It covered the entire width of the road and made walking on it difficult.


Our group consisted of seven people, ranging in age from about 50 to 80.  All of them were in good shape, but we’re always concerned that our clients have a good time and stay safe during the workshops.  That day was no exception.

We had three pairs of ice cleats with us  (spikes that strap to the bottom of your boots so you don’t slip on the ice). The ice cleats were one of the items printed on the “Gear to Bring” list we’d given our clients, but only two of our participants had brought them.

I was concerned for our clients’ safety, so we split up the pairs.  We gave everyone who didn’t have them, one crampon and continued our way down the icy trail.

So who didn’t get a pair of crampons?  Me. But that’s o.k, I know how to shuffle my way safely down an icy trail.  It sounds much more difficult than it really was.

It was a privilege to be walking down this beautiful road in the middle of Yosemite Valley on a crisp winter’s day.

Yosemite Photo WorkshopsAnother reason we like this area so much better in winter is that no one else is on the trail.  Very few people would brave the cold to get to the ultimate prize at the end of the road.  It was well worth it for us.

When we arrived at the lake, it was frozen solid, and unusual ice crystals were everywhere.  As our clients started to feel more creative, they started to get low, kneel and lay on the ice to get just the right shots.  The cold wasn’t even a consideration because it was so peaceful and serene.  This is what our clients come for, a natural photographic experience that they wouldn’t find on their own, and the knowledge of the secret places only people that have spent a good part of their life in a location could give them.

Yosemite in Winter Photo Workshop

As we went to bed on the evening before the last day of our workshop, I don’t recall checking the weather report.  It seemed like the forecast was just more cold with a chance of more ice.

When we woke up the next morning, we looked out the windows and couldn’t see out because of the fog on the glass.  Once the fog cleared, we could see that it was, yes, it was snowing!  About six inches of the fluffy white stuff had already hit the ground, and more was coming.  We were in luck.  There’s nothing like shooting in the freshly falling snow in Yosemite!  It was going to be a great day.

Yosemite in Winter workshop


My favorite part of that snowy day was walking down the trail to the falls and seeing them in a beautiful icy frame. 

The snow crunched beneath our feet  as we walked and the beauty was unsurpassed in this winter wonderland.

Would you like to join us on our next photographic journey to this magical place in winter?  We’ve have group or private excursions available to my lifelong home away from home, the mountains of the Sierra Nevada.

We still have room in our next Yosemite workshop leaving at the end of January 2017.  Here’s the sign up information on our website.


If you’d like personal assistance in nurturing your photographic creativity, we’ve got several options. Learn to be more comfortable with your camera and your personal vision.  Single and multi-day photography workshops are our specialty, and if you’d like to take a longer trip, we are returning to Iceland in February of 2017 for our Aurora Borealis and Ice Caves Photography workshop.  Call or email us now to book your next photographic expedition,

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Holly Higbee-Jansen

Co-Owner and Workshop Leader at Jansen Photo Expeditions
I am a passionate photographer and workshop leader, and I have been exploring my fascination with light since I was a young child. As a co-owner and guide for, I love taking our small groups of clients to beautiful places to help them explore their photographic creativity. Join us on one of our photographic workshops in the American West, Iceland and Central America: or take one of our online photography classes.  Live life creatively!  Reach me by email at:
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  • This looks great I have always wanted to go to Yosemite.

    • Holly Higbee-Jansen

      I highly recommend it, just don’t go in the summer. Seriously. It’s a different place in the off season.

  • Robin Strohmaier

    Holly, your photos are breathtaking! I have never been to Yosemite and hope to one day soon. I had not thought about visiting during the winter until I read this. Yes! I will be visiting sooon!

  • Florence Callender

    What breath-taking photographs! Yosemite is on my list of places to visit…just not in the winter. Sorry, I’m a tropical girl. I guess I won’t be bumping into you during my visit. Thanks for painting pictures not just with your lens but also your words.

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  • These amazing photos and your stories made me fall in love with Yosemite. I see why you have chosen it as one of your premier destinations.