To enjoy the full sweep of Yosemite’s lush and lovely Tuolumne Meadows, as shown above, you need to head for the high country on the national park’s north side and hike a 3-mile trail that climbs 900 feet to the top of the granitic Lembert Dome. There, at elevation 9,500 feet, you can take in the majesty of this broad, glacially sculpted valley and the wildly serpentine Tuolumne River.
Of course, not everyone has the time and means to go climb this rock and hike about the alpine meadow. Digital technology, however, makes it possible to see and hear the place almost as though you were there.
A team of researchers and students at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences recently produced such a virtual hike of Tuolumne Meadows in the interest of time and education. The meadows are an ideal laboratory for students of our spring fieldwork course in river science. But the university’s 10-week quarter system does not allow the travel and field time needed to fully explore the watershed.
The virtual hike provides a more immersive experience than the traditional slide-show lecture. It is self-directed and students can view it at their convenience. Using navigation tools similar to those for traveling Google Earth, they can point and zoom from any angle on features of interest to them. While Google Earth limits ground-level views to well-populated streets, the meadows tour has remarkably crisp resolution throughout.
To capture the panorama from Lembert Dome, we used GigaPan photography equipment — a high quality digital camera on a robotically swiveling tripod mount — that combines thousands of photos into a single gigapixel image, which is more than 100 times the information captured by the latest iPhone camera.
In the meadows, we mounted the camera with a fisheye lens on a panoramic tripod head, or panohead, for accurate alignment of images in producing panoramic views — 360 degrees horizontally and 180 degrees vertically. We used the panoramic software PTGui to stitch together the images and Panotour to create the navigation and embed instructor’s mini-lectures on river channel formation, watershed processes and such.
The public version shown at the top dispenses with the technical lectures and instead features vignettes on the meadows and park history — the same information posted along the Tuolumne Meadows interpretive trail. We simply assembled video-recorded images and clips relevant to the National Park Service signs and narrated the text.
This virtual hike begins atop Lembert Dome for the overview. From there you can jump down for a stroll through the meadow. The virtual 3.4-mile hike is longer and closer to the river than the 0.8 mile interpretive trail. The stretch featuring videos of the interpretive trail signs are between stops 10 and 24. The hike may take several minutes to load depending on your internet connection.
Of course, nothing virtual can surpass the enjoyment of actually being there. We’re hoping the on-screen hike will entice viewers to visit Tuolumne Meadows and venture beyond the interpretive trail for a more intimate Tuolumne River experience.
Sarah Yarnell teaches the rivers science course, Ecogeomorphology, at UC Davis. She is a senior researcher with the university’s Center for Watershed Sciences.
Case, Elizabeth. Virtual hike transports students to Tuolumne Meadows, The Davis Enterprise, Aug. 14, 2014
High resolution panoramas of Tuolumne and Clavey rivers, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences
Ecogeomorphology course, 2014, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences
Student videos of Tuolumne River, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, 2013
Yarnell, Sarah. Students rise to the storytelling challenge, California WaterBlog, Sept. 30, 2013