Van Life Meets Yosemite National Park

By J.R. Switchgrass

Just like a million photographers before me, I woke up in the middle of the night and drove to Yosemite National Park to photograph Tunnel View at sunrise. It was a bit cloudy and I was nervous I might not capture the right moment, but with a place as grand and special as Yosemite, how could I miss?

As the sun peeked over the valley rim, the clouds parted, and the giant rock face of El Capitan lit up with gold. My partner Kit did a happy dance in celebration of the sun and I ran back to the edge of the parking lot to get the whole scene in the frame.

View of El Capitan in the distance, reflecting in water.

I’ve been living in my van taking #vanlife photos since before the hashtag even existed. In fact, I took this very same photo of my van at Tunnel View in 2010 (before Instagram even existed).

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On this particular morning, as I raised my camera to snap the shot, a woman in a brand new van leaned out of her window and sneered, “Wow, how original. Coming to Yosemite to take a #vanlife shot for Instagram. Your account is going to blow up.”

Her comment crushed me. I was sad about what van life had become. I thought, is this what it’s all about now?

Van life is a movement of people prioritizing living experiences over material possessions. Rather than flying around-the-world, people are choosing simple road trips across the country. Incredible beauty, culture, and natural splendor live right here in our backyard. You don’t have to go far to experience jaw-dropping views with gems like Yosemite National Park and the Grand Canyon, as well as a vast network of state parks and national forests. I personally have found a life-changing experience in every state of the lower 48 states.

View of Yosemite National Park through the windshield of a Volkswagen Bus

Yes, this particular morning I was indeed taking this photo to post on Instagram. I am proud to be part of a movement of creators who see a photo of a girl and a van as a vote for a simpler way of life. This is to say that for me, van life has always been about appreciating the wonders of the world around you.

With the proliferation of glossy photos of seemingly perfect couples enjoying sunsets atop their decked out luxury vans, it’s easy to see what this woman was bothered by. The idea of van life has certainly changed. It’s no longer about simple moments and exploring the country. It’s become more and more about luxury status. For me, a photo of my van is a symbol of shedding the status quo. Instead of flying to Bali for a week’s vacation we choose to drive our van somewhere new and enjoy a simpler trip. Even with this shift happening, I still think there is space for celebration of a #vanlife shot.

A Volkswagen bus driving up a windy road in Yosemite

If you haven’t visited Yosemite National Park, put it on your bucket list. The imposing rock faces were carved out by glaciers way back in the ice ages. The sheer scale will boggle your mind as the sun glints off the thousand foot waterfalls. Tunnel View itself is the first thing you’ll see when entering the park. I guarantee you, too, will not be able to resist capturing a few photos of this breathtaking view.

My partner Kit and I create our #vanlife photos to illustrate how we feel as we barrel down the backroads. We find joy in expressing our freedom and happiness through beautiful photographs. It is my sincere hope that if anyone sees one of our photographs, they will think to themselves, “I can do that. I could have that experience.” And the truth is … you can.

Kit posing on top of the Volkswagen.

I don’t care how many times Tunnel View has been photographed and posted on Instagram, I will always like every single picture because I support those venturing out into the country with their vans.

I implore you to get out and celebrate the fact that wonders of the world like Yosemite National Park are right there in your backyard. Get in your van, get on your bicycle, or just drive down the road to somewhere beautiful near you. There is no need for an expensive plane ticket or a brand-new van. Just walk out the door and go.

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