Autumn In The Eastern Sierras

esierras16-59-1Last week, I took off on the first free weekend that I’ve had in a month.  I had spent the previous few weeks up to my eyeballs in work between beginning a new school year and various home improvement projects.  Somewhere in there I also found time to build a makeshift platform for a bed of sorts in my Prius and I was eager to try it out on a quick two night trip up to the Eastern Sierras in an attempt to grab some Autumn color before it was gone for the year.  I knew I had missed the peak season and that I would be dealing with some significant wind issues on this trip, but if I put it off another week, I knew I might be out of luck.

By 8 PM, I was heading out on the 210 (I decided on the 210 to the 14 to the 395 as I am convinced that google is either on crack or completely ignores the fact that there are six billion stoplights between Hysperia and Adelanto) and eventually made it to the Rest Area between Independence and Big Pine by 1 AM.  I decided to grab a couple of hours of shut eye and was very pleased to learn that the new “bed” actually worked pretty well.  I have a Big Agnes sleeping pad that I use for backpacking which is 78 inches long.  I honestly never would have believed that I could stretch all 6 feet and 3 inches  of myself out in a Prius V, but I actually made it with a couple of inches to spare.  MUCH more comfortable than trying to cram into the back seat as I’ve been trying to do on some of my overnights in Yosemite.

By 4 AM, I was on my way again, and by 6 AM, I was pulling into the South Mono Lake parking area.  I was grinding my teeth as I got out of the car as it looked like I was already a bit later than I would have preferred.  A faint glow was already show on the clouds in the East.  It was WAY windier than I had planned on, but I moved as fast as I could down the dark path toward the tufa.  I paused to grab a couple of shots, and then hurried down to the water’s edge where I was met by at least 10 photographers.

It seemed that all of us had picked a great morning to shoot the lake as the clouds began to blaze as soon as my tripod hit the beach.



I was originally planning to spend only 30 minutes there before jetting off to grab some early morning color in the nearby canyons, but every time I began to pack up, the light would change again.  I ended up shooting for at least an hour and a half before racing back to the car to head off to Twin Lakes.



As I pulled onto the Northbound 395, I was beginning to feel that things probably couldn’t get much better than that.  Then I saw the rainbow.  Stretched out completely across the road was one of the most brilliant rainbows I had ever seen.  Even though I knew it was impossible, I would SWEAR that I could have driven right under it.  Hoping to catch it with some dark clouds and some changing leaves, I charged up highway 120 and parked, but I just couldn’t get the right angle.  Giving up, I headed back down to the 395, expecting that the rainbow would dissipate at any moment.  But when I returned to the 395, it was brighter than ever.  And as I headed North…it just kept moving in front of me.  That same rainbow stayed right in front of my car on the entire trip up to Twin Lakes.  By the time I drove over the ridge just outside of Bridgeport, the rainbow stretched clear across the valley, hovering above the changing leaves below:


I continued to follow the rainbow all the way up the canyon to Twin Lakes where it finally dissolved into the howling gale that greeted me as I got out of the car.  I knew the wind was going to be pretty gusty  in the canyon, but this was insane!  As I fought my way to the lakeshore, I kept imagining the CNN reporters during hurricane Matthew and suddenly felt a kinship. I came very close to simply driving away as I was afraid that trees and branches could come crashing down at any moment.  In spite of the gale, I managed to fire off a few frames before finally giving up and heading further South where I hoped I would have better luck.


As I rounded the bend coming back down from Bridgeport, I was surprised to see great clouds of sand and spray from Mono Lake billowing across the valley. It was definitely a very windy day:


After Twin Lakes, I headed South to Lundy Lake. The wind was still howling as I arrived, so I didn’t stay very long.  I grabbed a couple of shots and then headed back down, but I stopped to grab some shots of the colorful aspens which lined both sides of the road.

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After Lundy,  I headed to the ever popular Mobil Station for a burger at the base of Tioga pass, off of the 120.  After a quick lunch (it’s $12 for the combo…not a cheap establishment!) and a nap (not much sleep as the car was still bouncing around in the wind) I was off to Convict Lake. The wind was blowing even harder at Convict Lake, so I bailed and continued heading South.

One of my main goals on this trip was to explore the Little Lakes Valley after just discovering it for the first time over the Summer.  I had seen some intriguing photos of it online, but I was unsure of the distance from the trailhead to the nearest lake.  After parking and grabbing my camera gear, I set off.  I was shocked to find that I was passing Mack Lake within 15 minutes and within a half an hour, I was already at Marsh Lake…which was absolutely stunning.  As I came over the crest of the trail and headed down toward the lake, I just stopped dead in my tracks.  I have no idea why it’s taken me this long to become aware of this beautiful valley, but I will definitely be making many more trips there in the not so distant future.


Directly above Marsh Lake was Heart Lake, with even more stunning vistas.   I quickly lost all sense of time and pressed on to Box Lake before making a U turn and heading quickly back to my car.  The afternoon was already disappearing and I still had to grab some dinner and decide what to do about the sunset.  It began to snow lightly as I hurried back down the trail and big black clouds were now billowing behind me.  I figured this meant that there would be no sunset from Olmsted Point, so I gave up on the idea of using 120 to cross over, even though it was still open.  Instead, I headed South to Bishop to grab some Taco Bell and sort through my options.

After munching on a couple of shredded chicken burritos, I decided that my best option would be to head to the White Mountains with hopes of grabbing some sunset color behind the ancient Bristlecone Pines.  I headed South but was now beginning to panic a little as sunset was closing in and the Bristlecones were still an hour away, off of the 168.  Even though I was running a bit behind, I couldn’t resist pulling over and grabbing a couple of shots on my way in as the light was just fantastic.


As I rounded one of the final bends, I spotted an overlook that I hadn’t seen on my last trip up there.  The clouds were amazing at this point, but I pressed on.  When I arrived at the Bristlecone Schulman Grove parking area, I realized that the amazing clouds were now blocked.  If I stayed up there, I might get a nice shot of a tree with the clouds behind, but I was dying to shoot the valley with those crazy lenticular clouds.  So I bit the bullet and made a U turn, heading back towards the overlook below.  I noticed a trail running out on a ridge as I pulled up and knew that was where I wanted to shoot the sunset. As soon as I opened the door, the wind ripped it out of my hands and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to use a tripod.  I fought against the wind all the way out, and then started shooting like mad.   The wind was shredding the clouds in all directions and the light continued to be incredible.



After shooting for an hour or so, I finally headed back down the 168 to Big Pine and then North back up to the rest area just above Mammoth.  I had decided at that point that I would head back up to the Little Lakes Valley to see if I could catch some sunrise color in the sky above Marsh Lake.  It was raining steadily when I crawled into my sleeping bag in the car and had a few hours of sleep before heading back down the 395 to Tom’s Place and then up Rock Creek Road to the Little Lakes parking area.  The wind was still howling when I arrived with about 2 hours to spare before I headed up the trail.  I rolled back the moon roof and watched the clouds racing past the moon.  I dozed off while I was waiting, hoping that the clouds wouldn’t bury the sunrise, but that there would still be enough around at 6:30 to light up above the lake.

At 5:30 AM, I headed off on the howling wind with the temperature now in the low 40’s.  I made it to the overlook above Marsh Lake, but was disappointed to find that all of the clouds had disappeared in the past hour or so.  But I was glad I had stuck around for sunrise as the peaks surrounding the lake briefly lit up on a rosy glow before the sun hit them.  As I said before, I feel that this particular spot has incredible potential for some amazing landscape photographs and I will definitely be making more trips in the future.


After shooting Marsh Lake, I hurried back down the trail and headed up Bishop Creek.  I had missed North Lake last year and I was anxious to see what all of the fuss was about.  I knew I had missed the leaves at North Lake this year, but I drove up just to scout for shots in the future.  Several visitors were already at the lake and most were busy fishing down at the Eastern end.  This is another spot with incredible potential and I have already scheduled a trip for next Fall in late September.  I stopped for a few shots just South of Aspendale on the way back down.


And then I was off for home.  As it was now midday, I decided to trust Google and after loading up on gas and snacks in Lone Pine, I headed back down the 395 to the 15.  After arriving back home, I did have my first SD card failure after several years of shooting.  One of my cards had become damaged and I was afraid I was going to lose the entire morning shoot from Marsh Lake, but I ended up saving all of the shots except for 10 or so. It made me feel better about my decision to stick with 32 gig cards rather than purchasing 64 or larger.  I would hate to make that kind of an effort just to get home and find that hundreds of my shots were gone due to a Sandisk glitch.

If you are interested in making a trip up to the Eastern Sierras, you might be out of time this year,  I think the season started a bit early, but typically the leaves start turning in the higher elevations in mid September, and you can still find areas that are hitting peak color as late as October 31.  One of the best resources for checking Fall color has been .  I would start checking in early September, just to be safe.

In the mean time, I am already looking forward to my next trip to the Eastern Sierras!

If you have any questions on shooting the Eastern Sierras or photography in general, please don’t hesitate to email me at the link above or in the comments section below.  Thanks for reading!








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