As hard as it might be to believe, there was a time when I wasn’t very excited about shooting the Eastern Sierras. I think I took my first trip up the 395 about 15 years ago as I was trying to find a way to get to the Reno Jazz festival without having to take my students through the snow over Donner Summit, and as I was the one who was driving for 8 hours, all I remembered after I got back home was seemingly hundreds of miles of unbroken, desolate desert. “Bah”, I thought to myself. Next time I’ll stick with the 99 as there are more restaurants and gas stations. Not a cloud in the sky on that trip, and it was hot. Very hot. Pfft. And who are those sad people who live in Bishop or Lone Pine…on PURPOSE?
But as I got into photography a few years later, I began seeing other photographers’ shots of the Eastern Sierra, including photos by Galen Rowell, Michael Frye, Marc Adamus, and more. I hadn’t seen anything like what was shown in these photos on that trip and it began to occur to me that I was missing out on something spectacular and that this spectacular something was only 5 hours from my house.
Fast forward a dozen or so years later, and I’m still discovering new places to shoot in the Eastern Sierras. Just a few weeks ago, I took my group to the Reno Jazz festival up the 395 again (this would be the 17th year we’ve made the trip) but this time we were in a chartered bus, and I spent virtually all of my time taking notes as we drove through snow drifting down on miles of dramatic, jagged peaks punctuated by rustic farms, green meadows with cows grazing, forests, and creeks that were bursting from the wet winter we just had in the Sierras. I took notes on both sides of the trip, and as soon as I had a day off from work, I was in the car headed for some of the spots I wanted to explore.
I had already shot around Lone Pine, Big Pine and the area around the Owens River for multiple sunrises (above photo), and quite a few Lakes South of Mono Lake, so on this trip, I wanted to focus on the area North of Lee Vining. I knew I couldn’t make it up there for sunrise and that I only had one day to shoot, so I set off at 4 AM hoping to beat the Friday morning traffic out on Highway 14, hit the 395, and headed North with as few stops as possible. By the time I approached Mammoth, storm clouds were already beginning to billow up from the East.I decided to make Coleville my furthest point North before heading back after catching a glimpse of green meadows, cattle and snow covered mountains in the background. When I arrived, the peaks that I was really after were behind the incoming clouds, so I was pretty much out of luck. I spent a few minutes grabbing some shots of the cattle in the rain-saoked meadows before giving up and heading back South toward Bridgeport.
As I drove, I couldn’t help but look forward to a time when I don’t have to rush back home to meet deadlines. The Eastern Sierras are dotted with old barns, abandoned mines, and other remnants of a forgotten time long ago. Most of them are off of the beaten path, but some of these are hidden in plain sight. I must have passed this one at least a dozen times over the years before I noticed it off the side of the road before arriving back in Bridgeport.
As I came around the last bend overlooking Bridgeport, I slammed on my breaks. I had been through Bridgeport several times either on my way up to Reno or down from Tahoe, but I could never come up with a composition that I thought was worth stopping for, but this was my first time driving through after a very wet winter in mid Spring. The sky was a brilliant blue with huge white clouds moving in, the fields were bright green, broken by dozens of streams and ponds, and the peaks of the Sierras off to the South were covered in fresh snow.
Having scouted this area a bit for a few days prior to my trip up, I knew I wanted to make a trip over to Twin Lakes to scout for some potential shots. I hung a right at the Shell station and headed off across the meadow. This was quickly turning into one of my favorite photography trips of the year for me. A huge thunderstorm was rolling in from the East, and everywhere I looked there were horses and cattle grazing, green meadows, and those incredible snow covered mountains getting closer as I drove.
I finally pulled over and began shooting in all directions.
As the approaching thunderstorm was drawing closer, it was time to move on to Twin Lakes:
Twin Lakes was absolutely stunning, and I can’t wait to get back here for a sunrise or sunset shot at some point in the future. When I arrived, it was not very crowded. Just a small cluster of fishermen around the tackle shop and maybe one boat out on the water. The towering, snow covered peaks are what sold this whole area for me. The same type of epic scenery you would expect to find down on the June Lakes loop further South. I literally had no idea these lakes existed until about two weeks ago:
After shooting Twin Lakes for about an hour or so, it was time to head down to my favorite dining locations in the Eastern Sierras. Yes, ladies and gentlemen….I am talking about the incomparable Mobil Station at the junction of 120 and the 395. (Expensive, but worth it!) Even though I was starving as I headed South again, I knew I had to make a quick trip out to Mono Lake before dinner as another line of thunderstorms was making it’s way in from the East:
I pulled into the South Lake parking area and headed down as the wind and rain began to pick up. I managed to get a few shots before it became too dark.
Then it was off to the Mobil station for gas and food (not necessarily in that order 🙂 ) followed by the 6 hour drive back to Orange County.
In hindsight, I can’t believe there was ever a time when I wondered what Galen Rowell was thinking when he picked up and moved to Bishop. My Prius has already racked up 51,000 miles in less than two years. After this last trip, I predict that the majority of the next 50,000 will be spent in the Eastern Sierras.