The vast area folded between the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the White Inyo mountain range is dramatic, infinitely varied, and ultimately majestic. The south-western end has the highest point in North America, Mount Whitney. The Owens River Valley splits the area in two, and the 14,000 foot White Mountain Peak anchors the north-eastern end. In contains the volcanic peak, Mammoth Mountain ski resort, as well as, Mono Lake, one of the oldest bodies of water on earth. The two-laned CA Highway 395 is well-known, loved and hated, as the artery for ski bums to get their fix, and the only way to experience the entire valley (the “Eastside”) from end-to-end.
The best time to go is in the fall when it is not so hot and there is some fall color, especially the Aspens. I suggest you drive all the way to Lee Vining and start at Mono Lake and work your way south over 2-4 days.
Photograph a lake that is a million years old
OK, I exaggerated. Mono Lake is only 700,000 years old. It is salty and smelly. It also has large tufas, which are limestone formations made out of calcium carbonate. It is a great subject for sunrise and sunset. There are several parking areas and it is well signed. For sunrise and sunset you can shoot into the sun and away from the sun to get several different compositions and kinds of light.
Photograph an old ghost town
One of the favorite locations for photographers on the Eastside is the Bodie Ghost Town California Historic State Park. Bodie is in a state of “arrested development” (which means the Park Service buys a bunch of old junk and throws it around the old buildings with dust piling up everywhere). There are interesting subjects around every corner and many iconic California shots, as well as, opportunities to create your own vision. Plan to spend at least half a day driving there and exploring.
Photograph an iconic lake
North Lake is one of the prettiest spots I have ever seen and is also very popular. Galen Rowell made this lake famous with this iconic shot. As you gaze at the “peaceful” photo below, imagine 50+ photographers crushed together in “combat photography”, tripod-to-tripod trying to get this shot. There was a lot of high emotions and yelling and arguing as each person positioned their camera. This is a sunrise shot, so grab your flashlight and get there early and be ready to defend your spot.
Photograph ancient Bristlecone pine trees
We spent an afternoon in the Patriarch Grove of the White Mountains Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. These well-worn trees are 1,500 years old and seem barely alive. They have very short annual growing seasons of only weeks a year and they thrive where no other trees can survive at 10,000 feet. Each seemed like a unique character fighting the wind and weather just to survive.
Photograph a hot springs
Hot Creek is located near Mammoth Lakes. You do have to drive down a well maintained dirt road. We photographed this area in the middle of the day. It was nothing too dramatic, but pretty nonetheless.
Photograph Mount Whitney and the Alabama Hills
The Alabama Hills are a famous location for western movies of the 50s, and 60s. This is the spot to shoot the granite Lone Pine Peak, and Mount Whitney, with the Alabama Hills in the foreground.
The Alabama Hills also contains numerous named and un-named arches. The most famous ones are the Lathe Arch and Mobius Arch. They are a photography must. It would be nice to get snow covered mountains in the background and a good sky, but I think any photograph of them is worth getting. These arches are smaller than you would imagine and you will be in a very “tight” spot to get the right angle. A tripod is always preferred, but I shot these hand-held with a higher ISO.
Photograph the Manzanar War Relocation Center
Manzanar was the home to 10,000 Japanese Americans during WWII after FDR’s Executive Order 9066. Though much of the camp is gone now, there are several buildings that have been recreated, a very nice museum, and the famous monument in the cemetery. It was strangely beautiful and a sobering and humbling experience.
Visit Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light Photography Gallery
When you are in Bishop, you must go to Mountain Light. It is a commercial gallery, but also a museum and homage to a great adventurer and photographer. It was moving to see a print of the famous “rainbow over Potala Palace” with Galen’s signature and the Dali Lama’s. Many of his best and most famous photos are displayed and are for sale in various forms. You may want to buy the Galen Rowell A Retrospective book which contains 170 of his photographs in paperback or the hardcover limited first edition. In this month’s Book Review, I recommend this book.
Mile-for-mile, the “Eastside” is one of the best photography trips in California. Though it does not have a major national park along the way, the beauty and variation presents many photographic opportunities and experiences. This is one trip you have to do more than once. We used this book as a guide. We also highly recommend you take the photography workshop by Jack Graham. To see more of the Eastern Sierra Nevada and our other photographs, please go to www.pamphotography.com.