On a cold, rainy afternoon last October, I stood under the canopy of a red-leafed sugar maple in Yosemite Valley and watched tiny drops of rain fall from a cluster of leaves. My camera, equipped with a macro lens, was mounted on a tripod, and I held a cable release at the ready.
I missed more drops than I captured, but I didn't mind. For that hour, time stopped, and I was alone in a world of color and light.
I added the photos from that day to a growing collection of pictures of the four seasons of Yosemite National Park. You can see a slide show of those photographs at latimes.com/yosemite.
Before you begin, let me warn you about something: I am not objective about Yosemite. I can't be. My view of this natural marvel has been shaped by more than 50 years of visits, starting when I was a kid growing up in Southern California. We'd lash the luggage to the roof and tie a canvas water bag to the front grille, an old-time way to keep an emergency supply of water in case the radiator overheated. We'd roll down the windows -- the car wasn't air-conditioned -- and soon Whittier was a smoggy smudge behind us.
A few hours into the trip -- about the same time the increasing heat melted the crayons into colorful puddles on the back seat -- my older sister, Susan, and my younger sister, Nancy, would start getting carsick, and nerves would begin to fray.
But just past Fresno, as we started the trek north into the foothills of the Sierra and pine trees began to dominate the landscape, our anticipation shifted our mood again. On Highway 41, just past the ranger station, we would make the long, winding drive toward Yosemite Valley and arrive at the entrance to the Wawona Tunnel. Framed by the jagged edges of the tunnel walls, the grand vista of Yosemite Valley unfolded like a giant painting. My stern-faced mechanical engineer father turned into a happy-go-lucky kid, honking the horn and ... smiling.
Even as a child I knew this was a special place. The giant granite spires, monoliths and waterfalls. The clean air. The icy Merced River. The tourist-friendly deer by day, the trash-can-lid-clanking bears by night.
We usually stayed in the smelly old canvas tent cabins in Curry Village. It wasn't luxury, but it was pure heaven. We played countless games of cards and laughed when my dad changed the rules when he started to lose.
I've never broken the Yosemite habit. My wife and I practically raised our sons in Yosemite, sampling every season. We have come here for countless birthdays, special events and an amazing snow-bound Christmas. We have celebrated weddings, hiked many of the trails and have a circle of friends who hold the same love for this place.
But I'd never had a chance to study it until now.
This photographic journey started with a vacation in spring 2009. I made some pictures of the waterfalls, streams and dogwood blooms and pitched a springtime story to the photo editors. They liked it and asked whether I would like to create a photo essay of the four seasons. Thus began the project of my dreams.
During the year, I witnessed the cycle of life in Yosemite. For the first time in all my trips to the park I was able to walk down a familiar path, stand very still and study the nature around me. I felt the breezes, analyzed the light, listened to the sounds of the rivers and falls and tried to capture the images that moved me.
The seasons unfurled during a dozen car trips north. I saw the leaves bud, then burst forth, smearing the sky with a vivid green. As the year progressed, they turned gold, then withered and dropped. A bracken fern stirred and sprouted in the spring, and I was lucky enough to return and watch its transformation to gold, then silver when winter encrusted with it with ice.
In fall, though, Yosemite doesn't generate the kind of buzz that other leaf-peeping spots enjoy. The fall colors in New England and the quaking aspen in Colorado are breathtaking, to be sure. Yosemite, though, has a more subtle but no less enthralling way of showing its change of seasons.
It's a gradual transition. There is no single week in which all the colors change.
The showiest spots are scattered throughout the valley, a tree here, a field of ferns there. By mid-October, the giant maple tree across from the chapel on Southside Drive turns from orange to bright red. The leaves of the dogwood and other broadleaf trees around the Pohono Bridge become a sea of red and yellow. A few hundred yards down the road at Fern Spring, yellow maple leaves blanket the cascades of the gentle waterway.
In the middle of Cook's Meadow, the giant elm, arguably the best known tree in the park, will turn yellow and orange. As autumn marches on, a slight mist forms on the ground, and the air takes on a chill. The number of visitors begins to dwindle, and the leaves start to blanket the ground.
The California black oak tree, like a giant, arcing wave above and behind the chapel, will brighten to yellow and form a perfect backdrop for the old wooden structure. By November the colors begin to fade. Storms swing into the area, a few snowfalls occur and the transition into winter is under way.
I will be back.