Land of Contrast: Photographing the Eastern Sierras
Part 1 - Highway 395 to the Lone Pine Area
Carol Shelden of SHELDEN GRAPHICS
|The Eastern Sierra is a land of contrast with it's unique variety of
scenery, translating to abundant opportunities for photographers. Since our
first visit to this area more than ten years ago, we have returned over and
over, drawn by endless new discoveries. This is a land of steep canyons,
majestic peaks, clear water and vast open spaces.
The main travel artery is U.S. Highway 395, it's blacktop ribbon runs through the open spaces and small towns of the Owens Valley; between the eastern slope of the Sierras on the West and the White Mountains to the East. Blissfully absent are the throngs of visitors that flock each year to it's celebrity neighbor, Yosemite, residing on the western side of the range. The Eastern Sierra, "the other side of the mountain", is a land less populated and less tamed than it's western counterpart.
Driving North on U.S. 395, leaving Los Angeles and suburbia behind, our first stop is generally Fossil Falls. Located 3 miles north of Little Lake, it is an ancient volcanic river gorge with massive lava rock formations carved by water, thus the name. In the spring, annual wildflowers make their appearance among the black lava rocks, which provide a good backdrop for photographing these delicate flowers. On one stop we were fortunate to have a "search and resucue" group practicing their maneuvers. This made some interesting photo opportunities.
Leaving Fossil Falls and continuing north you pass Olanche and the junction of Highway 190. Soon after this, the Owens Lakebed spreads out to the east. It has been a dry lake since the 1920s with only pockets of moisture today in the form of ponds and marshes. But there is a haunting beauty here; the lakebed is an immense area of pastels and bleached salt flats. If the photographer is lucky enough to stop on a day free of the dust that is so often stirred by frequent winds, it is a place to capture serene yet dramatic photos. We are curious to see the changes that will take place on this landscape as Los Angeles begins to return some of the water they have diverted from the Owens Valley over the past years.
Arriving in Lone Pine, the area abounds with photo adventures and the town offers lodging in several modest, but nice, motels. Especially recommended is the Alabama Hills Inn. It is a good value, clean and comfortable. Another nice establishment is the Best Western Frontier. Eating is more of a challenge but there are several adequate establishments. About a mile south of town, at the junction of Hiway 136 is the Eastern Sierra Inter Agency Visitor's Center. This stop is a must for information hungry photographers, with it's helpful staff and generous selection of books and maps for the entire Eastern Sierras area.
The first suggested side trip from Lone Pine is to Horsheshoe Meadow. From Lone Pine take Whitney Portal Road, turn South on Horseshow Meadow Road and drive about 20 miles as the road climbs 6,000 feet and ends at the meadow. The route is usually open from May thru October. The views are incredible as you climb and you finally reach your destination at about 10,000 feet. Gentle Cottonwood Creek wanders through the meadow which is surrounded by forest. Among the trees are the stately foxtail pines with bark that cracks to reveal golden tones, begging to be photographed. In early summer there is a good display of wildflowers for some pleasant macro work. Be prepared for mosquitos. In the mornings you can also check out the hang gliders that launch from Walt's Point, next to the road, about four miles south of the meadow.
Another exellent outing is to travel to the end of Whitney Portal Road, the trailhead area for Mount Whitney. Don't worry, we are not suggesting you hike to the top of the mountain. The area surrounding the parking lot offers many photo opportunities. Lone Pine Creek rushes and tumbles down the slopes among giant boulders that define it's boundaries. There is a trail that runs adjacent to the creek offering possibilities for capturing it's beauty and power on film. There is a small, but peaceful picnic area here and a store if you're short of munchies.
A favorite destination is the Alabama Hills area, just outside of Lone Pine. The rugged rock formations here were the setting of many Hollywood westerns. It is an area of impressive shapes with the dramatic backdrop of the snow capped Sierras towering above the hills. The photo opportunities are endless, especially with early morning "magic" light accenting the Sierra peaks. You will also find a variety of tall grasses that come alive when backlit. We recommend photographing in the early morning for scenics, including great opportunities for working with light and shadow among the interesting rock formations. Then you can return late in the day to capture the grasses and do some macro work.
Bishop Creek runs through the valley just east of Lone Pine. Any of the side roads from town will take you there. In the autumn the cottonwood trees that thrive along the creek put on their "show of gold." It's hard to miss capturing some good images. Additionally, some of these little side roads offer different compositions of scenics, featuring the ever present Sierras, or the White Mountains to the East, in the background.
When planning a stop in Lone Pine we recommend a two-night stay to provide adequate time for photographing. And remember, the winter is beautiful here, but access to features on the canyon roads is generally cut-off. There are still lots of photo possibilities, from scenics of the snow covered Sierra Nevada Peaks to delicate nature studies. A fallen leaf frozen in the ice of a stream bed is a nature photographer's delight.
Thanks for reading and we hope you'll tune in again for Chapter Two of our photo travel advice for the Eastern Sierras, the "other side" of the mountain.