Cruising Along The Eastern Sierras

The highest peak in the contiguous 48 states, at 14,496 feet, serrated Mt. Whitney rises among the mountains of the Eastern Sierra.

The highest peak in the contiguous 48 states, at 14,496 feet, serrated Mt. Whitney rises among the mountains of the Eastern Sierra.

Story and photos by Jerry Ginsberg

Overview

When most of us think of the spectacular Sierra Nevada range that forms the spine of east-central California, we tend to visualize the towering gray granite peaks and domes of Yosemite National Park. For a long time, my association was no different. It took several years, but eventually, I discovered the many facets of the Sierras beyond Yosemite.

Running on a north-south axis through the Golden State, the eastern escarpment of the Sierras provides a stunning backdrop to some of the finest photography in the West.

To enjoy the best of this wonderful geologic panorama, you’ll want to use Rt. 395 as your prime thoroughfare. This easy-to-drive road acts as the Main Street of the whole eastern Sierra region. Rt. 395 runs all the way from Pendleton in northern Oregon to just above Los Angeles County, along the way passing through the corner of Nevada and close to Lassen Volcanic National Park which, as the southern end of the Cascade Range, is beyond the scope of this column.

For now, let’s focus on the segment of this road running between Bridgeport and Lone Pine, CA. Even though that is a span of only about 150 miles, don’t be lulled into thinking that it can be adequately explored in a very short time. There is enough natural beauty here to keep most any photographer busy for perhaps two weeks!

GPS is great technology, but to gain an overall sense of the relative arrangement of the many photo-worthy places along the eastern Sierra, there’s nothing like a good old printed roadmap. (Or maybe I’m just a confirmed creature of the 20th century.)

Let’s take the best photo stops along the eastern Sierra in order from north to south, with a short detour to Bodie.

If you’re like many of us, you might be coming from nearby Yosemite. Assuming that you are, head east through Yosemite’s high country on Rt. 120, exit the park via Tioga Pass* and head down the hill just a few miles to the intersection with Rt. 395 in the town of Lee Vining. Cross the highway still going east and drive down to the edges of Mono Lake.

Tufa (calcium carbonate) formations stand in Mono Lake with the rugged Sierra Nevada behind.

Tufa (calcium carbonate) formations stand in Mono Lake with the rugged Sierra Nevada behind.

Mono Lake

This lakeshore is a great sunrise location. Uniquely sculpted tufa (calcium carbonate) formations rise from the lake and reflect in its waters. Sadly, Mono Lake has receded significantly over the years. As the water volume has diminished, the lake’s level has lowered markedly so the reflections of the past may not be there today.

Once the sun is well up, it’s time to pack your gear and move on to our next location. Head north on Rt. 395 a few miles toward Bridgeport. Follow the signs and turn right (east) to Bodie State Historic Park.

The fascinating ghost town of Bodie, CA is well preserved in the dry climate.

The fascinating ghost town of Bodie, CA is well preserved in the dry climate.

Bodie

Bodie is a wonderfully preserved ghost town that withered and died when the mining boom petered out in the early 1900’s. The weathered wooden buildings are in what we used to call a state of “static deterioration” and are aging gracefully. Their period architecture and the silver patina of their exteriors make for a great day of photography. Once the color images of Bodie are on your screen, you may decide that many of them will really sparkle once converted to Black & White or even infrared.

Columns of basaltic rock tower over you at aptly named Devil’s Postpile.

Columns of basaltic rock tower over you at aptly named Devil’s Postpile.

Mammoth Lakes

Continuing south from Lee Vining on 395 our next stop is Devil’s Postpile National Monument. Take the westbound exit to Mammoth Lakes and drive through this eclectic winter resort and skiing town to the monument’s entrance. If you arrive early enough, you should be able to drive straight in without the need to park and take a shuttle bus. Check locally or on www.nps.gov for the latest on the changing regulations.  Better yet, if you arrive before sunrise, consider shooting the serrated skyline of the distant peaks called the Minarets.

Unfortunately, the light doesn’t strike the columnar basaltic formations of the actual Devil’s Postpile until well into the afternoon so you might have to make some choices in that regard. In any event, it’s a good idea to pack a lunch.

Spilling into the canyon below, Rainbow Falls displays its brilliant spectrum when the sunlight hits its plume of spray.

Spilling into the canyon below, Rainbow Falls displays its brilliant spectrum when the sunlight hits its plume of spray.

Now for the good news. In the morning, park at Red’s Meadow, jumping off point for a pack trip into the High Sierras, and take the easy hike to Rainbow Falls. The namesake rainbow over the cascade should begin to arrive around 11:30 AM or soon after. By then, the scene will have become extremely high contrast with both highlights and shadows obviously clipped. If you have brought your tripod (a short one will do nicely—you can rest it on the masonry safety partition.), now is the time to think HDR. A 9-frame sequence with 1 – 1 1/2 stop increments should be just about right. Most HDR software should be helpful in blending the flowing water into pleasant streaking, but extreme over exposure can still result in blown-out highlights: be careful.

Once you have adequately taken in Rainbow Falls, take your time and stroll slowly back to the geometric forms of the Devil’s Postpile for afternoon light. Make sure to study the views from both the bottom and the top of this ancient formation.

The town of Mammoth Lakes boasts some really neat little restaurants and bakeries. Take some time and enjoy.

Convict Lake

Widely seen in TV commercials, sparkling Convict Lake is a short distance south of Mammoth Lakes and just west of Rt. 395. The lake is nestled in a semi-circular cradle of the Sherwin Range within the greater Sierra Nevada. Of these, Mount Morrison and Laurel Mountain are the most dramatic. If you can find an opportunity when one of those peaks is-receiving direct light while the lake’s surface is still in shade, it can make a great reflection shot. As with all such scenes, if you equalize the exposure between the mountain and the reflection, it will look un-natural.  Better to let the reflection be about one stop darker.

Bishop

Further south in the heart of the Owens Valley is the town of Bishop. While the town itself doesn’t offer any real photo opportunities, it has many goods and services not always available in smaller towns

Ancient bristlecone pines cling to life on the rocky slopes of the White Mountains.

Ancient bristlecone pines cling to life on the rocky slopes of the White Mountains.

The Bristlecone Forest

Continuing southbound, the next important photo stop is reached by turning east onto Rt. 168 at Big Pine. Just after making that turn, you will be faced with another choice. Taking the right fork leads to the northern end of Death Valley National Park. That option will definitely require a vehicle with four-wheel drive and high clearance. The road passes several abandoned mine shafts that you’ll want to avoid. This is not an easy drive and not the best option to enter Death Valley.

Turning left again, however, will take you to up into the White Mountains and two terrific groves of ancient bristlecone pines. The first grove offers a visitor center and facilities. It contains the unmarked Methuselah tree, long thought to be the oldest one on Earth until the recent discovery of a tree even older at over 5,000 years.

Continuing further on up the mountain, the road narrows and twists a bit to the summit at just over 11,000 feet of elevation. Here is where you will find the harshest environment and perhaps the best bristlecone photography. The top of this mountain will show best in late afternoon light. You might prefer to be off the mountain before full dark. (Note: The little pyramidal cement markers outlining the small parking area can puncture a tire; trust me, I know.)

Mobius Arch frames Mt. Whitney at sunrise under a full moon.

Mobius Arch frames Mt. Whitney at sunrise under a full moon.

Alabama Hills

The next, and by some standards the best, highlight on your tour of the eastern Sierra is the Alabama Hills. Not to be confused with the state of Alabama itself, this area was named after the Civil War by Confederate veterans for the warship CSS Alabama. Located right next to Lone Pine, the Alabama Hills are chock full of very ancient rocks that have been rounded** by eons of erosion. The entrance into the Hills is prominently signed as Movie Road because countless feature films and westerns have been shot here over the last hundred years. Once you have visited the Alabama Hills, you may notice the location as a backdrop while watching movies, especially some old classics. The maze of unpaved roads within the Hills can be a bit confusing, but a .pdf map is available at www.blm.gov, and there’s a decent map in the Bureau of Land Management’s Alabama Hills Map and Guide.

The Alabama Hills make a stunning foreground for sunrise compositions of the east-facing Sierras. Standing out among them is the sharply pointed summit of Mt. Whitney, at 14,512 feet (the number changes every few years), the highest peak in the contiguous 48 United States. Whitney is within the boundary of Sequoia National Park, but is really accessible only from the Alabama Hills. The 11 mile trail up this peak can be climbed in less than a day.

Since the White Mountains are directly to the east, it does take a while for the sun to climb above them and strike the foreground after the dawn light illuminates the high peaks behind. Conversely, by the time the rocks in front of you light up, the Sierra peaks behind will likely be far too bright. You might want to try shooting at both times, bracketing exposures and using a split Neutral Filter to tame the light on the distant peaks. Everything’s a compromise.

There is a famous Ansel Adams image titled “Sierra Nevada Winter Sunrise” in which the light and a horse were in his favor. It’s always helpful to study the masters.

Aside from the visually obvious scenes of the Sierras before you, perhaps the most striking composition here is the view of towering Mt. Whitney framed by the unlikely and very asymmetrical form of Möbius Arch, a wonderful composition originally published by the late photographer and mountaineer Galen Rowell. Directly below this remarkable rock form is the smaller, but very interesting Lathe Arch which gets the light quite a bit later. This makes for an easy and leisurely move from one spot to the next.

The arch can just as easily frame Mt. Williamson; only a few feet shorter than Mt. Whitney and just as remarkable.

Roaming through these fascinating hills will yield an unending variety of images. Enjoy!

Mt. Williamson seen through the sculpted rock window named Lathe Arch.

Mt. Williamson seen through the sculpted rock window named Lathe Arch.

Finishing up

Your southbound pilgrimage down Rt. 395 can end in two very different ways. Either continue south from Lone Pine toward Ridgecrest and Los Angeles or, if you have the time, turn east on the smoothly paved Rt. 136 into the heart of Death Valley National Park (see my earlier article on photographing Death Valley).

Logistics

All of these roads, with the notable exception of the northern entry into Death Valley as mentioned above, are either well paved or well graded and passable with a standard two-wheel drive vehicle with good tires. During the summer months, the unpaved shoulders of the road through Devil’s Postpile National Monument are lined with photogenic wildflowers and are often quite soft. It’s easy to get stuck in that slippery mud. Yes, I’ve done that, too.

The towns of Mammoth Lakes, Bishop, Big Pine and Lone Pine all offer wide selections of lodgings with varying levels of amenities and relative rates. These include both national chains and some very nice local establishments. Other than Mammoth Lakes and one exception in Bishop, dining choices are largely mediocre at best.

Notes:
*  At a whopping 10,000 feet of elevation, Tioga Pass is closed by snow during the winter and does not open until very late May or perhaps even early June. With its low elevation, I have never known Rt. 395 to be impeded by snow.
** Even though the rocks of the Alabama Hills have been rounded off by the elements, their actual textures are extraordinarily rough. Be careful!

Jerry Ginsberg is a widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras, with a visit to the new Indiana Dunes National Park coming soon.

His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America, as well as fascinating places in Europe and the Middle East. More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com, or email him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com.