Chasing the Sun

A month ago, on February 6, I left home along with my wife Joann to drive over the mountains to Big Pine. Along with taking grandma (Joann) over to spend a few weeks providing child care, I had the added mission of taking time in the Eastern Sierra to pursue some landscape photography. For me this means chasing the sun . On previous trips I have explored the ghost town of Bodie, the Alabama Hills, and the Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains, all locations that are quite accessible from Big Pine and offer stunning photo opportunities.

For this trip I decided to explore locations close to Big Pine. Why spend time driving when you have the majestic Sierra in your back yard? And with a trip home in the middle of the month I had ample opportunities to chase the sun further abroad.

My first sunrise venture took me to a location just off California State Route 168 with a view of the town of Big Pine and the snow capped Sierra to the west. The town of Big Pine was lost in the shadows but when I switched to a longer focal length I captured the image of Birch Mountain you see above. Just a few minutes later from a location along the Owens River I captured a image of Mount Sill, the image on the right.

A week later I pointed the camper home and spent the night near Mono Lake. Here’s a photo of me on the morning of February 17 captured with my drone. It was 11 degrees when I stepped out of the camper. My dog Carson was not going to leave the camper at that temperature.

The evening before, while I was exploring the environment near Mono Lake, I was struck by an otherworldly landscape with the black branches of burned shrubs against a blanket of white snow. A few days later on the morning of February 22, I was again camped at Mono Lake on my return back to Big Pine. This time I found a better vantage point to capture some color in the sky over Mono Lake as illustrated in the photo above. Also shown is an image captured along the Owen’s River featuring a bare cotton wood tree in the morning light.

Once back in Big Pine I continued my search for photo vantage points close to town. Here’s a photo of Birch Mountain and the surrounding peaks from the shoreline of Klondike Lake.

One of the things that fascinated me on this trip were the limbs and branches of the bare trees against the blue sky. Whereas the morning and sunset photos are captured with a Nikon D850 on a tripod, often blending multiple exposures, during the day I’m more likely to use my point and shoot Sony RX-100, which captures amazing photos. The back and white image of the trees was captured on a morning dog walk. I applied some post-production wizardry to make the trees and the snowy mountains stand out.

For my last sunrise venture I put the drone in the air to capture a photo with part of the town of Big Pine in the foreground and Sierra Nevada mountains just starting to capture the morning light. Here’s a link to a larger collection of photos from this trip. Some of these images will be available shortly in my art store. Feel free to contact me or comment.

A Night on Mount Diablo

Having recently returned from a two week road trip, we were getting anxious to hit the road again. The continuing pandemic and the effort to social distance makes camping inviting. So off we went for a short overnight to Mount Diablo. From our house to Juniper Camp in Mount Diablo State Park is 36 miles and a little over an hour drive. The peak at 3,849 feet rises above the surrounding Bay Area and creates a viewshed that takes in more visible area than just about any other view point in the western United States. We didn’t find much of a view, though, since smoke was still lingering from the season’s wildfires.

It was October 28 when we pointed our camper towards the mountain—a Wednesday. We figured there would be few people and it might be easy to get a campsite. This can be a popular camping spot year-round.

In the morning we laced up our hiking boots and went for a walk, heading up Deer Flat Road. Our morning start created some long shadows. From Deer Flat we joined the Meridian Ridge Trail, which winds in and out of the canyons on the northwest side of the mountain. At 2.5 miles we left the road and headed up the Bald Ridge Trail, a single track trail through Manzanita and chaparral. It’s a bit of a climb getting to the top, but not too daunting. Both GaiaGPS and All Trails label this hike as difficult or hard. On a hot day this could be a strenuous hike, but today we’d label it as moderate.

While we were well-equipped for electronic navigation with iPhones and a Garmin InReach+, we also had a trusty map. Nothing beats a map for navigation. I like being able to see a large swath of land on a map as opposed to the tiny screen on the phone or a GPS receiver. It’s nice to be able to see more terrain and to interpret trail options. With an electronic device the temptation is to stick to the established route. With a map it’s easier to evaluate alternate routes. I find this true on road trips as well. Sometimes the side trips are more interesting than the main route.

Along the aptly named Bald Ridge trail, we found some poison oak in fall color.

We eventually found our way to the top, having gained 1,800 feet in elevation. Then it was down the mountain on the Juniper Trail. We found a couple of sections of the trail were quite steep.

Over the course of our 6.6-mile hike, we passed through pines and live oaks, with bay trees and ferns in some of the shady canyons. The trail guides say 6.1 miles, so along the way we apparently took a couple of detours. We left our dog Carson at home since State Parks are not places where you can have a dog on the trail. We also found that water was not available in the park, so check ahead if you plan on visiting; you may need to carry water. We also avoided campfires given the extreme dry conditions and fire danger. We were home early enough in the afternoon to follow up with clients, lest they think I was off playing hooky.

The Mojave Road

The Mojave Desert is a huge swath of land in the Southwest corner of the United States, much of it located in California. It occupies close to 48,000 square miles and is noted for the Joshua Trees that grow only in this desert. The Mojave Road runs across part of the Mojave Desert and through the Mojave National Preserve, a unit of the National Park System. The road was originally a trail for Native Americans stringing together a series of watering holes and providing a route for trade between desert and coastal dwellers. Later it became a route for Spanish missionaries, explorers, and settlers from the 18th to 19th centuries. Today it’s an iconic four-wheel drive road. We spent four days driving the road with a caravan of Four Wheel Pop-Up Campers.

For part of the tour, I had a GoPro camera on the dashboard of our truck. Here’s four days of touring condensed into 10 minutes. Make sure to watch the water crossing at 8:52.

Our tour started at 7:30 a.m. on October 8 in the parking lot of the Avi Resort in Bullhead City. There we met our tour guide, Bob Wohler of the Off-Road Safety Academy. Bob gave us a briefing and provided a radio for each truck to use for communication while touring.

Once we were off the pavement, we stopped to air down our tires. I’ve driven off-road periodically for over 20 years and this was the biggest eye-opener on the trip for me. Less air in the tires gives a much smoother ride. As Bob would say, sympathy for the passengers, sympathy for the equipment, and sympathy for the environment. Our tour passed a number of interest points, the first being Fort Piute. Then it was on to our campsite for the night at School Bus Camp, noted for an abandoned school bus that marked the location until a few years ago when it was removed.

There are numerous points of interest along the road, including a tin can into which you can drop a penny for good luck, the Mojave Mailbox where you can sign your name and leave a comment, and a collection of gnomes and frogs. You just have to see it to believe it. The terrain ranges from sandy flats to rocky road to a dry soda lakebed, traveling through some magnificent Joshua Tree forests along the way. The road has worn down at several points so that you are driving in a canyon so narrow that the vegetation is brushing against the sides of your vehicle.

Once across the soda lake you arrive at a pile of rocks. Bob had instructed us to pick up a rock earlier in the trip, and this is where the rocks are deposited—at Travelers Monument. There is actually a monument buried under this pile of rocks. If you scramble to the top of the pile you can read the plaque. We were sworn to secrecy regarding the words so you’ll just have to plan a visit to read it yourself.

A highlight of the trip was the lava tube, and also the water crossing at the end. We ended up driving the last section of the road from east to west because we helped some travelers who got their vehicle stuck in the sand. Time was an issue, so we took a detour to Afton Canyon Campground for our last night. The next morning two rigs decided to cross the Mojave River with Bob’s coaching.

More photos are available here, and I’ve made a few select images available as fine art prints in my art store.

We logged 180 miles on the tour, some of it on side trips off the Mojave Road. Elevation ranged from 500 feet at the start of the tour to 5,700 feet at the high point.

Albion River

The Mendocino Coast provides a wide range of opportunities for outdoor activities including hiking , camping and kayaking. And with a kayak, depending on your skill level and the weather conditions, you can surf, poke around in the rocks or paddle on the flat water of a number of rivers. We spent two days padding in Mendocino, September 20 and 21. On our second day, we opted for a flat water paddle on the Albion River. From our camp at Van Damme State Park we drove to the Albion River, where we paid the $10 fee and launched our boats.

We launched on low water and had the current with us paddling upriver. We planned to paddle for an hour and a half and find a takeout for lunch and an early return, thinking we might have a longer paddle back down the river with the current still flooding, pushing water up the river, and the potential for wind. As we approached our turnaround time, the river became narrow and winding. The game became “let’s paddle to the next bend,” and then “the next bend.” This went on until we reached a log across the river, blocking further progress. There we found a gravel bar and a pleasant meadow which looked like an inviting place to stop.

We pulled our boats up, ate lunch and put our boats back in the water just as the rising tide was threatening to take our boats. The gravel bar had disappeared in the 30 minutes we had been eating. We were amazed at how much tidal activity there was this far up the river.

We were happy to discover that our progress back down the river was good despite the current, and the wind did not materialize. We paddled through some old pilings, practicing boat control, and past the houseboats, some of them looking more dilapidated than they had the year before. We were back at our launch site at 2 p.m., four hours after our launch. Our paddle logged 8.5 miles, most of it in total peace and quiet save for a few birds and a river otter. You can view more photos here. Here’s the track of our paddle.

South America 1978-1979

With the coronavirus pandemic giving us an excuse to stay at home, my wife Joann and I decided it was a good time to start rummaging through photos and journals from some of our past adventures. Most notable was a trip to South America some 42 years ago. Going through files of film and journals was a daunting task. I’ll have more to say about that in future posts, since I’ve discovered much long-forgotten content that is destined to find an audience. And our first product from this effort is a book about the month we spent in South America at the end of 1978 and the beginning of 1979.

Our adventure started on December 22, 1978. I had been on an oceanographic research ship in the South Atlantic and I joined Joann at the airport in Santiago, Chile. From there, our travels took us to Torres del Paine National Park where we spent a week backpacking.

In 1978, Torres del Paine was a remote location. There was no public transportation to the park. We teamed up with a couple of Germans and hired a taxi to drive us to the park. After a long, bumpy ride on dirt roads the taxi dropped us off, returning to Puerto Natales with the Germans. We really had a sense that we were at the end of the world.

How we got back to Puerto Natales is another story, but once we were back to civilization we flew to Puerto Montt where we spent time in the Lake District before traveling to Peru to visit Machu Picchu.

You can thumb through the book on the Blurb website, or buy a hardcover copy or PDF. I posted photos from the book in a gallery.

Parker Lake

With the Labor Day weekend approaching, it was time to make our way over the mountains towards home. We decided a three-day camping outing was in order. The trick was to find a spot off the beaten track that would be away from the throngs of campers. Here’s where a little local knowledge came in handy. Our son Aaron had a tip that Parker Lake might be the spot. So on Saturday, September 5, we pointed our rig towards Parker Lake. Along the way we observed that campgrounds near Grant Lake and Silver Lake seemed to be packed to capacity, and the trail head parking was full to overflowing.

We found Parker Lake road and left the pavement, switching into four wheel drive. This is not a road I would recommend for anybody with low clearance, although we did see a Subaru Forester. We stopped on a rise where I took a photo of our rig with Mono Lake in the background.

A few miles further on we found a nice camping spot in a grove of aspen and pine trees. As is my habit, I’m always looking for that Truck Camper Magazine calendar photo, without a camp fire in this case, since campfires are not allowed in the current conditions. I substituted a camp lantern for our campfire glow. In the morning we woke up to an orange dystopian sun peering through smoke from a wildfire, the Creek Fire, on the other side of the mountains. As you can see in the photo above, the sun is peeking through the smoke. Despite the smoke we decided to do the short hike to the lake before breaking camp.

From our camp we hiked up the road to the trail head, and then up through sage brush and desert vegetation and down into a lovely wooded valley with pines and aspen.

Once in the valley it’s a short distance to the lake which is situated in a bowl with mountains rising above. The mountains were shrouded in smoke, but nonetheless we stopped to let Carson get his feet wet and to watch ducks that seemed to be looking at us for a handout. Don’t look at me for a handout. I make it a point not to share my food with the local wildlife. After a brief stay, we hiked back to our campsite, popped the top town on the camper and headed over the mountains for clean air.

Back to Bodie

It seems like I can never get enough of Bodie, the Ghost Town in a far east corner of California. I spent a few hours here at the end of June, and on my recent trip over the mountains I decided another trip was in order.

As on my previous trip, I decided to camp in the Bodie Hills so that I could arrive at the Bodie State Historic Park when they opened at 9 a.m. This time I found the Paramount Campsite available, so I parked the Four Wheel Camper rig, set up camp and let my dog Carson run free. One thing I like about boondocking is the freedom to let my dog off leash.

The campsite had a well established fire ring, so I built a small campfire, more for effect than for warmth. I’m always looking to create photos that have a sense of drama to them and a campfire helps. That said, I was very conscious about the fires burning in California and of the drought conditions. If you are planning on camping, get a campfire permit, check with the appropriate land management office, be mindful of the risks, douse the fire with water and make sure the coals are cool to the touch before leaving.

In the evening I put my drone in the air to capture an image of the camp. As you can see I was in a grove of Aspen trees surrounded by the desert landscape of the Bodie Hills.

Sunset and sunrise did not provide much drama in the sky, although the motivation to watch the sun come up got me up and out of the camper in time to admire the morning light striking the trunks of the Aspen trees.

At 9 a.m. I was at the entrance station, and I joined the handful of people that were touring the site. As I made my way into the town, I noticed a couple with film cameras, Victor and Sarah. Sarah had an antique Graflex camera, something you don’t expect to see in this day with everybody using their phones to take pictures. I was struck by a mental image of Dorothea Lang holding a similar camera. I struck up a conversation with Sarah and Victor; it seemed we were crossing each other’s tracks all morning.

Bound for Home

As we turned the calendar to July, it was time to leave our temporary post in Big Pine and head for home. We decided to make the trip a two-day drive with an overnight near Ebbetts Pass on State Route 4. This is one of the lesser-used passes crossing the Sierra. It’s a steep, winding, narrow road with one lane for a good portion of the time. Suitable for our rig, we figured that with throngs of people heading to the mountains for the Fourth of July weekend, it was a likely route on which to still find camping. And since we were driving midweek on a Thursday, we figured we’d have the jump on the campers coming up for the weekend.

Our route crossed two passes: Monitor Pass at 8,314 feet on State Route 89, and Ebbetts Pass at 8,736 feet on State Route 4. Just before cresting Monitor Pass, we stopped to admire the view. I was intrigued with the clouds and grasses on the high plateau.

Once over the passes we had plans to check out Hermit Valley for camping, but when we got there we decided to move on. Not far down the road we saw a sign for Pacific Valley Campground that looked promising. We found plenty of camping available along a lovely mountain stream.

In the morning we decided to explore the trail leading up Pacific Creek. Our dog Carson was happy to be off-leash once we were out of camp, and happy to cavort in the creek’s cool water. We manged to hike about six miles up the creek and back, and returned to camp lamenting the fact that we couldn’t stay longer. We had a commitment for a family Fourth of July get-together.

We broke camp and headed down the mountain passing Mosquito Lakes and Alpine Lake, which were quite busy. There was absolutely no parking available along the road. Every conceivable spot had a car parked with many more cruising looking for parking.

Despite the weekend crush of visitors, we were inspired by our overnight at Pacific Valley. We’ll be returning to explore more of the Stanislaus National Forest.

Boondocking in the Bodie Hills

On Saturday, June 27, I hopped in the truck to drive over the mountains for another family visit. I decided to break the drive up into two segments, with an overnight in the Bodie Hills and a visit to the Bodie State Historic Park.

It was 11:30 a.m. when I got on the road, a bit later than I had anticipated, but with plenty of time to reach my intended destination by sunset. The drive took me over Sonora Pass on highway 108. I was quite impressed with how many campers were out. It seemed like just about every patch of bare dirt had a tent or RV on it. Summer has arrived and it seems people are anxious to get out and enjoy nature after three months of sheltering in place with the COVID-19 pandemic; or at least that’s my interpretation.

When I reached Bridgeport, I turned north on highway 182 and then I headed up Aurora Canyon Road, a dirt road. I had directions to a dispersed camp site called Paramount, named after a mining claim, about 11 miles from Bridgeport. This is a nice flat location in a grove of Aspen. When I got there, it was occupied, with a large tent, tiki torches, and a pile of firewood that indicated these folks were going to be here awhile. I headed up the road about a half mile to another grove of aspen. Not quite as nice a location for camping, but suitable for a quick overnight camp. I drove down a clearing to what looked like a good spot to park the camper, but on inspection I determined that I would fall out of bed given the slope. I moved the truck up closer to the road, and with much maneuvering in the confines of the aspen, I manged to position the rig and level it for a good night’s sleep.

This location was closer to the ridge with sweeping views, which suited me for potential photos of sunset and sunrise. With a few clouds overhead, I was hoping for some color in the sky. I didn’t get the color I was hoping for, but what did catch my attention was the lichen covered rocks and the patterns of clouds.

I’m calling this image Rock and Sky. I love the color of lichens on the rock, and how the design in the clouds seems to draw attention to the rock. I’ve just added this image to my art store, available in a variety of sizes on fine art paper, canvas or metal. Check it out.

It was a very windy night on the ridge, and I was concerned about camera vibration in the wind. I was camping at an elevation of 9000 feet and, while the temperature was a mild 55 degrees, the wind made it feel 10 degrees cooler. The camper is a fairly secure place even with the 50 mile per hour gusts, but even so, it took me a while to drift off to sleep.

Sunday morning I was up at 5 a.m. for the sunrise. Sunrise is always a wondrous event, with the early morning light changing from blue to gold as the sun rises. The wind was continuing to blast it’s way over the ridge and threatening to topple my camera and tripod. I grabbed a few exposures, made coffee, and had a bowl of raisin bran; not my preferred breakfast, but good for a quick getaway.

I arrived at the Bodie State Historic Park at 8:30, half an hour before it opens to the public; I was the first visitor to arrive. I had a brief chat with a ranger who directed me to the entry kiosk. I had come in the back road and it wasn’t obvious where the main entry was. The day use entry fee is $8.00, with park hours 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. My dog Carson was happy to know he could join me on leash, rather than hole up in the camper while I did my tour.

Bodie was established as a mining camp following the discovery of gold in 1859. In it’s heyday, it was home for some 8,000 people. The last mine closed in 1942.

I had been researching photos of the town and wondering how photographers manage to take nighttime photos. It seems there are several photo tours operated through the Bodie Foundation that provide access with extended hours; something I’ll check out for future visits.

To Big Pine and Back

On June 7 we hopped in the truck for the drive from our house in Albany, California, to Big Pine. Our route crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains at Sonora Pass, Highway 108, a windy two-lane road. As we approached the pass, we found ourselves in clouds with light snow flurries, an uncommon occurrence for June. Once we arrived in Big Pine, we set up “camp” in the driveway using our Four Wheel Pop-Up Camper as our bedroom for our visit.

I spent the better part of 10 days in Big Pine. During our stay we made a few outings – a picnic lunch in the Inyo Mountains, and a picnic dinner on Big Pine Creek at an elevation of 8000 feet to escape the heat of the Owens Valley.

Other adventures included morning walks in the desert and paddle boarding on nearby Klondike Lake. On June 16, it was time for me to head home to tend to business; I left Joann to continue playing grandma, providing childcare while our son and daughter-in-law worked. On the trip home I made a quick overnight stop at a favorite dispersed camping spot near Mono Lake, which afforded the opportunity to practice social distancing in a quiet spot off the beaten track. On June 27 I’ll be heading back to Big Pine for the next installment of grandparenting. Stay tuned.