This past weekend, I journeyed to Yosemite National Park with long-time friend, colleague, and fellow photographer, Jeremy Long. We were looking to make an image showing Upper Cathedral Lake at sunset, with reflection from beautiful Cathedral Peak.
On paper, the hike did not look imposing. My map indicated it was about 3.5 miles each way. Despite not having ideal weather (the forecast called for clear skies), we were excited to make the journey and add a new image to our respective portfolios. This looked like a simple, single-day hike.
As we learn, time and again, it rarely works that way. The hike up the John Muir Trail (the reverse of how most people travel from Happy Isles to Tuolomne Meadows) was tougher than we thought. This was especially true for me, carrying much more equipment in my backpack than I needed.
I also found that the hike was quite a bit longer than written on paper. My GPS noted the distance to the correct side of Upper Cathedral Lake at 5.3 miles. The paper mileage was 50% wrong! In addition, we quickly realized that the proper image was taken way up on the dome outcropping to the south. Only, after Jeremy and I scoured separate sections of rock, we did not find the best spot. The reflection of Cathedral Peak was either obscured by the shoreline, or we were lined up correctly but there were trees in the way.
Eventually, we both found a large outcropping that appeared to be in the right spot. The bouldering appeared to be tough, and the light was growing dim. However, with sunset growing close, and an additional 5+ miles back to Tuolomne Meadows, it wasn’t ideal to take more chances.
Learning Through Scouting Locations
We hiked back that evening tired, beat up, and sore. As always, one must remember to never trust the map. Besides the mileage, the hike was tougher than appeared on paper, and failed to take into account the extra work we needed to make the best image possible. We didn’t have the high clouds we dreamed of either, so in this case, we counted it as strictly a scouting trip.
The next time we go, we will be more prepared from this experience. And that is the whole point of scouting out locations. We know what to expect and will plan for an entire weekend and camp at the lake. We will be there earlier, with more time to scale the rock outcroppings to reach our best location. And we will give ourselves that much more chance to make the image we are dreaming of.
The lesson is to never discount the work it takes to make an image, long before the perfect scene reveals itself to you. If your trip doesn’t go perfect, remember the value in the experience and the knowledge you have gained. It will give you an edge the next time you are ready to make that photography.
T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.