Ancient Trees

Some of the oldest trees in the world grow in the White Mountains above Big Pine. Since we were staying in Big Pine for a few days, we decided make a visit to the Patriarch Grove. The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is open in the summer but closed in the winter for snow. Some hearty souls will venture into the forest on skis or snowshoes.

Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva). At the Patriarch Grove of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

Many of these trees exceed 4000 years in age, displaying fantastic forms. The Patriarch Grove is situated at 11000 feet of elevation. It’s quite a climb from the 4000 feet at Big Pine. Leaving Big Pine shortly after 11 a.m. on Monday, November 11, we drove about 15 miles into the Inyo National Forest and pulled off onto a dirt forest service road to find a spot for our picnic lunch. We also wanted a spot where our dog Carson could run off leash.

After lunch we continued our drive up to the Patriarch Grove. The main visitor center is at the Schulman Grove, 24 miles and a 45 minute drive from Big Pine. We were intent on visiting the Patriarch Grove, another 12 miles on a dirt road which took us about another 45 minutes. It’s a windy, bumpy road. Our bouncing around caused a jar of jam to upend in the refrigerator in the camper.

As we left the pavement and ventured onto the dirt road we were surprised to see a sign declaring the road a National Forest Scenic Byway. A sign at the entry station indicated that four-wheel drive was advised for the drive and, while we were equipped with four-wheel drive, the road looked manageable for a two-wheel drive. We reached the grove at 2:15 p.m., and we were the only people there. The grove looks like a moonscape with gnarled, weathered trees scattered about. We spent about an hour exploring the grove before heading back to Big Pine.

For landscape photography I usually prefer morning or evening, although with the sun low in the sky this time of year I found some nice shadows and textures. By experimenting with multiple exposures and using some Lightroom wizardry I managed to capture some interesting images.

There is camping at the Grandview Campground and dispersed camping nearby. In the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, dogs are permitted on leash and visitors are encouraged to stay on trails or boardwalks.

Back in Big Pine we again “set up camp” in our son’s driveway.

Our “camp” in Big Pine.

Remnants of Fall Color

Willows and tree in Big Pine

We’re taking an extended weekend to play grandpa and grandma in Big Pine, a town of about 1800 people in the Eastern Sierra, elevation 4000 feet. Home to our son, his wife, and our granddaughter Annabelle. It’s a 310-mile drive and the shortest route takes us through Yosemite National Park on Highway 120. The highway closes in winter for snow but, this being a very dry year, the snow has yet to come. We arrived at 5 p.m. on Saturday, November 16, just as darkness was setting in. After the seven-hour drive we were happy to pull the truck into the driveway and pop up the top on our Four Wheel Camper. Then it was dinner time. We had a very pleasant meal and, following some family time, we turned in for a quiet and peaceful night’s sleep.

Sunday morning we awoke to a bright, sunny day and after breakfast we ventured out for a walk on the desert in shirt-sleeve weather. Five of us and two dogs. Our walk took us out the front door, down the street to open land managed by Los Angeles Water and Power; a great place to walk dogs off leash and to enjoy the view of the mountains to the east and west.

Talking about walking, our granddaughter Annabelle was a trooper at testing out her new skill of walking. She did manage to take a spill, planting her face on the trail, and getting her lip a bit bloody. It wasn’t long though before she was back in good spirits. After the walk it was time to check the chicken coop, and sure enough, we found four eggs.

I did not expect to see much fall color on this trip. We did see some color in the black oaks driving over the mountains, and in the willows and rabbit bush on the desert.

Fall Color: Eastern Sierra

We’re on a short road trip to look for fall color in the Eastern Sierra. We’re also visiting family in Big Pine. Our trip took us through Yosemite National Park and over Tioga Pass to Mono Lake where we spent the night of October 2. The word was that the best fall color might be in Bishop Creek, so we started our tour at Mono Lake, driving South, avoiding some of the popular spots north of Lee Vining including Lundy Canyon and Virginia Lakes.

At Sagehen Summit we found some pockets of color with large swatches of Aspen still green. Having four wheel drive, we were able to negotiate some of the sandy terrain, although we did encounter some fellow leaf peepers that managed to get stuck. We were able to help them by using our leveling blocks and a shovel. They were quite happy for the assistance. From Sagehen we headed south to Bishop Creek were we set up camp at the Sabrina Campground and then drove the windy, narrow, one-lane road to North Lake. We were disappointed that there was very little fall color at North Lake. In years past, the mountain side above the lake is ablaze with orange and yellow.

Some fellow leaf peepers we consulted with said this was the worst year they can remember for fall color. Nevertheless, I can always find something to photograph, and I was particularly struck by a small grove of Aspen along Bishop Creek, adjacent to the campground. I returned to this site several times for late afternoon, dusk and dawn photos. My favorite from those efforts was the morning image. I was reminded how much I enjoy the soft light of dawn and dusk for photography. I find the harsh contrast of mid-day sun and dappled shade hard to work with. Back in camp after the morning photo venture we had breakfast and then took a short hike along the north side of Lake Sabrina. We found some nice color in the Aspen groves along the north side of the lake.

Overall we found the fall color conditions quite mixed with occasional pockets of color and many Aspen groves still showing green. There is some speculation that unseasonably warm weather followed by a sudden cold snap a week ago has delayed the display of color for the most part, with the sudden cold creating pockets of color. There could be good opportunities to see fall color over the next few weeks.

We’re now in Big Pine playing grandparents. More news to come. Stay tuned.

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.

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.

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.