In Search of Joshua Trees

For the last night of my Eastern Sierra trip, the evening of December 30, I thought it would be fun to camp in the Joshua Trees. This leg of my journey took me South from Lone Pine on US Highway 395 and then west on 178 over Walker Pass. There is a campsite at Walker Pass, but having camped there before I knew that there were no Joshua Trees at the campground. My plan was to camp at Walker Pass if I didn’t find something suitable on the way up to the pass. Just a few miles east of the pass I saw a dirt road going off into the desert. There were no gates, no fences or nor any signs indicating that it was private property so I assumed it was BLM land, part of the California Desert Conservation area. I put the truck in four wheel drive and drove a short distance where I found a spot where I could camp in a grove of Joshua trees with a minimum of impact on the environment.

As the sun was setting I grabbed my camera and captured a few images. Then after dark I thought it would be fun to try some night photography, playing with lights on the trees and trying my hand at capturing the Milky Way.

In the morning I got up early to capture the sunrise, and to watch the play of early morning light on the desert.

Mount Whitney

On December 28 it was time to hit the road for the journey home. I was at the end of my Eastern Sierra holiday trip, exploring photo locations and visiting with family. My destination for the day was the Alabama Hills with the intent of finding a camping site with a view of Mount Whitney as the sun was rising.

Sunrise on Mount Whitney

I spent some time looking for a camp site, knocking about on dirt roads and putting my four wheel drive to use. While there were plenty of camping sites, I did not find one that had the vantage point I wanted. Those sites were claimed. I decided to go to “Plan B.” To camp in the rocks just off of Movieland Road and get up in the morning for a 15 minute walk to a vantage point that would give me the view I was after. This was just as well since there was a fierce wind blowing and the rocks provided some shelter.

Camping in the rocks in the Alabama Hills

I set my alarm for 6:00 and at 6:30 I had my camera and tripod in position. It was a glorious event to watch the sun come up and strike the mountains.

While the Alabama Hills are an exceptional destination, there are also a few other interesting places to explore on the drive from Big Pine to Lone Pine include the Manzanar National Historic Site. A former concentration camp where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II.

Here are a couple of more images from the morning dawn photo shoot; Lone Pine Peak and a detail of Mount Whitney.

Surfs up on Convict Lake

I’m backtracking to December 21. The third day of my Eastern Sierra adventure. I spent a very windy night in the camper. Cozy and warm with the heater going. Outside violent gusts of wind would buffet the camper, making it rock back and forth. Reminded me of my seagoing days and recalling being seasick on a ship. Despite the wind, I manged to get a good nights sleep with my alarm going off at 6 AM. Temperature outside was 38 degrees F. My intention was to get up early to capture the early morning light on Mono Lake. Hard rain was pelting the roof of the camper, so I climbed back into my sleeping bag. At 7:30 though the light was starting to do some interesting things so I grabbed my camera headed outside. It’s common to wait for good weather to take photos. If you are looking for dramatic photos though, some interesting things can happen in a storm.

Early morning light on Mono Lake.
Clearing Storm over the Sierras. From Mono Lake

At 9:30 the sun was shining on the desert with storm clouds still clinging to the mountains. I took a short walk with Carson who was happy to roam the desert off-leash. After the walk I put the top down on the camper and headed south on Highway 395 heading for Big Pine.

Along the way I decided to stop at Convict Lake. I had been admiring photos that other photographers have been posting. A perfectly calm lake reflecting majestic mountains. Calm was not what I found. The wind was howling across the lake and through the trees, with strong gusts grabbing the tripod. I was afraid the tripod might blow over. Often times I’ll hang a weight from the tripod for stability; a bag of rocks, my day pack or some other weight. This time I opted for hand-held photos using my little Sony RX100. The articulating screen let me get the camera close to the ground to give the waves on the lake more of a sense of drama.

Windy Day at Convict Lake.

Needless to say, I think I captured an image that shows the drama of the scene.

Bodie Aborted

Returning to last weeks adventures, after leaving Emerald Bay on the morning of December December 21, I passed through South Lake Tahoe where I stopped to fill my coffee mug. Then I took Highway 207 through Kingsbury heading east to pick up Highway 395, famous for it’s scenic beauty running roughly north-south on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. When I got to Bridgeport I was intent on making a trip to the ghost town of Bodie, a former gold mining town. Several attempts to call the park for road information only resulted in a busy signal. I knew that Highway 270, the main road was closed due to snow. The park, Bodie State Historic Park, is open year round, so I thought I’d try one of the alternate routes into the park. Heading east on Aurora Canyon Road I decided to try my luck with the 17 mile drive through the Bodie Hills. A few miles into the hills the Aurora Canyon Road turns into the Bodie Masonic Road. One lane, gravel and dirt. After an hour’s driving I had logged 10 miles. The road had snow in many places but tire tracks indicated that the road had been driven recently.

It was now afternoon and as I gained elevation the snow was getting a bit deeper. I stopped for a picnic lunch and let Carson out for some well deserved off-lease time. After lunch we climbed back in the truck intent on continuing our adventure. Not far up the road though the tire tracks I was following disappeared and the grade increased a bit. The wheels were starting to slip and slide in four wheel drive as I proceeded up hill. I figured at the rate I was going it would take me another three hours to get to Bodie, if the road was even manageable. I turned around and headed back down the road. Temperatures were in the 50s, which meant the snow and ice I had been driving on was turning into slippery mud. Slipping and sliding a bit I made my way back to Bridgeport and headed south towards Mono Lake. I wanted to catch the afternoon light on the lake, weather permitting.

It was windy and chilly when I reached Mono Lake and the lighting was not as dramatic as I’ve seen on previous visits, so I left my tripod and big camera in the truck and took my trusty Sony RX100 for a few hand-held shots. I put Carson on a leash. After the walk I found a spot to camp for the night, not too far off of Highway 120, near Mono Lake.

Rust in the Desert

Today’s adventures didn’t take me far. I walked out the front door of my son’s place in Big Pine, walked the short distance to the end of the road and out into the desert. My goal was to walk the dog. There are plenty of trails and open space where Carson can run off leash here. Instead of walking the dog though, I got fascinated by some junk in the desert. Carson was on his own while I explored the junk. I like to think I can find interesting photos just about anywhere. I think photography is about seeing what’s in front of you. Hitting the road for a grand landscape destination is one thing. Creating interesting photos in the local junk yard, or your own back yard is a different sort of challenge.

I’ll be back on the road looking for more photo opportunities in the Eastern Sierra and the Highway 395 corridor shortly. Today is’s about junk. Let me know what you think.

Merry Christmas from the Alabama Hills

Merry Christmas from the Alabama Hills.

Wishing you a Merry Christmas. We are camped in the Alabama Hills in the Eastern Sierra with what appears to be an annual ritual. We were here last year. This year we represent three generations of Johnsons, the the newest addition, Annabelle, being five months old. We arrived the afternoon of Christmas Eve, set up camp, got the camp fire going along with the coals for the Dutch Oven. Dinner was Chicken Cordon Bleu, with wine to wash it down.

We were surprised by a rain storm passing through in the middle of the night, but we were snug in our beds when the sound of rain on the roof woke us. We woke to find that water that had collected in the camp chairs had frozen solid. Even so we took our time getting the campfire and Dutch Oven coals going, being torn between the photo opportunities of the early morning light and the anticipation of breakfast. Breakfast was quiche cooked in the Dutch Oven. After breakfast we poked around the hills and rocks, A cold wind was starting to find it’s way through our jackets, so we broke camp and headed back to Big Pine.

The Alabama Hills are located in the Eastern Sierra, just west of the town of Lone Pine. The Alabama Hills is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as the BLM Alabama Hills Recreation Area. There is no fee for camping and there are also not much available for services. No picnic tables, no outhouses, no water. It is also dog friendly; our two dogs were happy to wander around camp off leash. I’m always surprised to see how many people camp here over the Christmas holiday, but that said there is no shortage of spaces to camp. Last year we picked a spot that was exposed and had had a view of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain peak in the lower 48 states. This year, with the prediction of wind we found a more protected spot with an outcrop of rocks to block the north wind.

This is a popular spot for photographers who wish to photograph the classic morning light on Mount Whitney, Lone Pine Peak and the adjacent Sierra Nevada Mountains. The granite outcroppings also provide endless opportunities for photography. This is also a popular filming location, especially Westerns. Since the 1920s, 150 movies and a dozen or so television shows have been filmed here. There are also dozens of natural arches, with one of the more popular arches being Mobius Arch. The location is also noted it’s dark skies which makes it poplular for astronomy and astro-photography. Not far the North on Highway 395 is the Manzanar National Historic Site, another location worth a visit.

Holiday Getaway: Emerald Bay

Emerald Bay. Lake Tahoe.

With family already gathering is Big Pine in the Eastern Sierra for Christmas my plan was to join them and to take a few days to make my way over the mountains. My plan was to get away mid-morning on December 19 but buy the time I tied up all the loose ends, it was close to 2 PM.

My goal for the night was Grover Hot Springs State Park, 195 miles and a 3 1/2 hour drive from my house in Albany. Grover Hot Springs is one of the few places along the route that is open for winter camping. The Hot Springs are a popular spot year round. As I was approaching Lake Tahoe dusk was closing in and I was thinking it would be more fun to drive the mountains in the daylight. Seeing a sign for the Echo Lake Sno Park I decided this would be my stop for the night. Sno Parks provide a convenient place for overnight camping for RVs and such. I had anticipated the possibility of staying in a Sno Park and had purchased a Sno Park permit on-line.

In the evening while contemplating the next days drive I had the thought that it might be interesting to get up early and look for a photo vantage point to catch the early morning light on Lake Tahoe. I had in mind a view that would overlook Emerald Bay.

Treve and Carson at the Emerald Bay Overlook.

Not being all that familiar with Highway 89 along the western edge of Lake Tahoe, I wasn’t sure what I would find, but as luck would have it the vantage point that I was imagining materialized just south of the Eagle Falls trail head. I found a turn-out with a short walk to an overlook. I was too late for sunrise, but I did find some lovely light on the lake, and my dog Carson was happy to romp in the snow while I set up my camera and tripod to capture the scene. After the photo stop it was time to find coffee. It seems the fresh coffee I bought for the trip never made it on board the truck. So it was back to South Lake Tahoe to fill my coffee mug before heading down the east side of the mountain.