We just got back from the Eastern Sierras and the Fall Colors are out in full. You probably only have a few days left to enjoy one of California’s most popular photography events.
We began our journey by loading up Charley, our Roadtrek camper van, and heading over Yosemite’s Tioga Pass. The pass tops out at 11,000 ft., but it’s a good road, and they’ve kept the really steep parts to a minimum. The only problem with traveling through the Yosemite high county is how much will power you’ll need to avoid stopping at every turnout. There are vistas that will simply stun your eyeballs with their size and grandeur, and then there are those lush Tuolumne meadows that might just beckon you to spend an afternoon lazily wondering about, or enjoying a secluded picnic. But fall happens but once a year, so try to keep your eyes on the road and your mission in mind. I know it’s tough, but nobody ever said photography was easy!
Besides the scenery, our drive over the Sierras was also enhanced by listening to Mike Wendland’s excellent new podcast “Roadtreking, the RV Podcast.” It doesn’t matter what you drive, if you’re an RVer, you’ll really enjoy this insightful podcast.
Another roadblock to reaching our destination in a timely manner was my wife, Rochelle, who has a hard time differentiating between fall colors and the delicious displays in a candy shop. I’m not sure how many times she yelled “Stop!” because I lost count after the first hour or two, but the barrage of “Pull Over Nows!” and “Look Over Theres!” didn’t really stop the whole time we were there. But honestly, I trust my wife’s eye for beauty more than my own, and I’d guess she was right about 99% of the time.
When people talk about the fall colors in the Eastern Sierras, they’re really talking about the Aspens, which turn from light green to yellow to orange during the month of October. The color starts in the high county, and works its way down the mountains by the second or third week of the month. Timing exactly when the color will hit your favorite destinations is difficult. There are some web sources that can help with various “trip reports”, but it’s always hard to plan a vacation at the last minute. I paid a lot of attention to the “California Eastern Sierra” website, but seeing we had already booked the time and the campsites, it was more luck than careful planning that put us in the June Lake Loop off of Hwy 395 at exactly the right time.
There are numerous campgrounds along the June Lake Loop and I’m not sure I would recommend one over another. Silver Lake, Oh! Ridge, Gull Lake and June Lake campgrounds are all on, or near, the water and are popular with fishermen and photographers alike. These are all dry campgrounds, and they’re even dryer than normal this year with California’s draught going on its third year. Also good to know, most of these campgrounds close towards the end of October. There are a couple of private RV campgrounds as well. For me, the tradeoff of hookups for side-by-side congestion has never been an option and I’ll choose having some room at my back over running water any day of the week.
The weather this time of year can be unpredictable, but it’s more likely to be sunny and warm then it is to be stormy and cold. I checked the weather reports before we went and decided I didn’t have to “winterize” the van, as it wasn’t “supposed” to drop down below freezing. Ha! We woke up to a chilly 28 degree morning. Fortunately, we were running our heater at night and the sun quickly warmed the van in the morning, so no harm was done. But, I sure felt apprehensive when I turned on the water faucet to wash my face. It sure was cold, but fortunately it wasn’t frozen!
I should mention that this trip wasn’t just a photo excursion for the two of us. This time, we met up with some very good friends, who made the trip even more enjoyable. It helped they were photographers as well, because photography was pretty much the order for the day, and the night, and the next day, and, well, you get the picture.
And speaking of photography, my favorite early morning shot is the sunrise at Silver Lake. And it appears it’s a favorite for lots of other photographers as well because the shore was lined with tripods. But photographers are friendly folks for the most part, so we enjoyed some nice conversations along with our breathtaking sunrise. We spent the rest of the day exploring groves and having a great little lunch break at the Silver Lake Resort’s café. We tried not to overdo it because we had another photography shoot in mind for after dark.
Mono Lake sits just on the other side of Hwy 395 from the June Lake Loop, and it’s an easy and very scenic jaunt to get there. The big attraction for most of the photographers is the “tufa towers”, calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by the interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water. The “Tufas” give Mono Lake an alien feel, especially in the morning when the sunrise gives them a pinkish glow. Unfortunately, the appeal of the Tufas has grown to the point where the small South Tufa Beach area felt a bit like Disneyland, with crowded parking lots and tons of photographers. So we decided it would be more fun shooting the Milky Way from the parking lot than fighting the crowds down at the beach. And what better model could we have for a Milky Way shoot than our handsome Charley. In fact, Charley is the perfect model. He’s attractive. He knows how to pose. He never complains. And he works for a couple of gallons of diesel.
The next day, we headed north for a meet up with some more photographer friends at Bodie State Park. Bodie is a genuine gold-mining ghost town. At its peak, Bodie was home to nearly 10,000 gold miners and their families. Today, only part of the old town survives, preserved in a state of “arrested decay” for visitors and, of course, photographers. Where else can you shoot the kind of scenes that look like they would belong in an old western movie?
We’ve shot in Bodie before, but this time I was breaking in our new 11-16mm super-wide-angle lens. What a hoot! The ultra-wide lens lets me capture huge views without panning, but it is kind of tricky to use. You really have to include a foreground element, and you have to get yourself right on top of it. Otherwise, all you’ll see are little tiny elements lost in the distance. It’s a learning experience, but a fun one.
Bodie was a fun diversion, but we soon returned to the main attraction – those intense yellow aspen trees. As I said earlier, it’s tough to predict where the best color will be before you go, but once you get there all you have to do is drive around and open your eyes. Just follow the yellow and you’ll be rewarded with more color than you’ll know what do with. So much color, I soon found myself looking for scenes I could convert to black and white. It might seem odd to look for black and white scenes in a world full of color, but those white aspen trunks just seemed to be calling out for it.
But when we were shooting color, Rochelle and I found that putting circular polarizing filters on our cameras really helped bring out the color and reduce the glare that reflects off the Aspen leaves. The circular polarizer helps out in a lot of cases, so if you don’t already own one, you owe it to yourself to put one on your Christmas list.
Rochelle, who never met a new photo technique she didn’t like, was trying out her new obsession – “Intentional Camera Movement”. Every time I looked at her, she was moving her camera up and down, capturing a blurred “representation” of the aspen groves. I see the attraction. It’s difficult to find a composition in the aspen groves that doesn’t include a lot of unwanted branches, shrubs and other assorted “clutter”. The slow-exposure movement of the camera gives you all of the beauty of those majestic white aspen trucks and gorgeous yellow leaves without the distractions.
We also tried another technique in which you zoom your lens out as you take a slow-exposure photo. If the results remind you of 2001, A Space Odyssey, you’re not alone. (And you’re as old as me too if you remember that movie.)
The final part of our trip was spent doing what we almost always find ourselves doing towards the end of a great photography adventure – scouting out new places to shoot the next time we visit, and, of course, eating. We were successful on both counts. On our drive down 395, we discovered several canyons and lakes filled with aspens, and in the little town of Bishop, we stopped in the famous Schatt’s Bakery, for fresh baked bread, wonderful homemade sandwiches and some pretty terrific pastries. Yum.
There are lots of places to explore in the Eastern Sierras and I’ve only covered a fraction of what’s there to see and photograph. So, if you have a favorite spot of your own, please share!