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Weekend in the White Mountains

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

September 4 – 6, 2020

Living in Southern California puts me in an odd position as a landscape photographer. Sure, we have beautiful coasts here, but they are mostly crowded with tourists and difficult to find a secluded section to photograph. In the winter, the deserts to the east are home to some interesting geological and biological features. For most of the year, though, I prefer heading north to the Sierra Nevada. Driving up the 395 through Owen’s Valley has become ritualistic for me. Seeing the High Sierra towering over the valley floor to the west puts me at ease. It’s a time for me to let go of the work week and look forward to a few days of peace. However, this weekend I chose to change things up a bit. Rather than looking to the west on the northbound 395, I was focused on the ranges to the east. Specifically the White Mountains. Home to a section of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

I have travelled to this high desert forest a few times in the past, though I never spent much time there, often returning to the Sierra across the valley after only a few hours’ visit each time. This time I was dedicating my entire weekend to the area. In the past, I didn’t have a vehicle that allowed me to comfortably travel far enough into the White Mountain wilderness. This time I was well equipped and ready for a weekend in a new place.

I left work Thursday night and hit the road, driving throughout the night. As with most of my trips to the Sierra, I made my usual pit stop for a couple hours' rest near Lone Pine, though sleep didn’t come easy as dawn came quickly after I had settled in and the temperature was rising fast. Still, it was enough to regain some energy, and after a quick breakfast I was back on the road.

I began making my way into the White Mountain range about mid-morning. Once the pavement ended just past the ranger station I made a quick air-down of the tires for a smoother ride and continued up the scenic high mountain road. The views from this road were stunning. I constantly asked myself why I had waited this long to visit this area. The White Mountains themselves were quite a sight, and there were clearings along the path where it was possible to get wide vistas of the Sierra Nevada across Owen’s Valley.

I eventually made it to the Patriarch grove of ancient bristlecones, had a quick lunch, and hiked around the area to check out the grove and scout some potential photography subjects. Afterward, I continued my drive higher up the road to explore more of the White Mountain wilderness. I was tired after a long night of driving so I wasn’t entirely motivated to do much photography, but I did head back into the Patriarch grove to take a few photos. I was mostly just familiarizing myself with the location.

The next morning, I was up by 4 a.m. Everything was illuminated by bright moon light. I felt it was a good chance to put my new Fujifilm X-T3 and Samyang 12mm f/2 lens to the test. This was my first trip with the new camera system and the first chance to use it in low-light conditions. I photographed the Orion constellation above a nearby dolomite hill. I was pleasantly surprised at how well this little camera handled low-light conditions and was happy with the simplistic composition of this subject.

Moonlit White Mountains California with the Orion Constellation.
"Luna" - Pre-dawn view of Orion from my camp spot.

For sunrise, I had two subjects in mind but waited to see how the light developed before deciding which of those to photograph. Once the twilight began to illuminate the landscape and

the lighting conditions became clear I chose to photograph a section of the road near me. This was my second choice in composition, but it worked out great because looking back, I prefer it over my first scouted subject. It worked really well once the sun emerged from the horizon and cast the scene in low, warm light.

Sunrise at the White Mountains of California.
"Where to Next?" - Morning light illuminating a winding road on the dolomite slopes of the White Mountains.

As a bonus, I was also able to photograph the sun barely peaking over the horizon as I waited for the best light on the road.

California White Mountains sunrise.
"White Mountain Dawn" - An impromptu photo of the sunrise as I waited for the right lighting conditions.

I spent the rest of the day driving around the area, exploring some of the other small service roads that dropped into the nearby valleys and canyons, made a quick trip into town for some supplies, and did more hiking around the Patriarch grove area. I was determined to expose some film with the Intrepid 4x5 at sunset. There wasn’t much going on in the sky as far as clouds, so I needed to find a more intimate subject to photograph. I found two interesting scenes. One was a tree framed in the arching branch of another. The other subject was a half-burned bristlecone with a very unique shape. I waited until the sun dropped behind the horizon and photographed the framed tree first, then moved on to the half-burned one. The lighting conditions were not great. It’s a weird area to photograph as it is surrounded by higher ground so most of the evening light is missed. As it turns out, I should have photographed the framed tree last because once the sun had set there was a nice glow to the bare trunks and branches that separated them from the rest of the scene. Either way, I have to say I wasn’t too thrilled about my photographs but I always enjoy using the 4x5 camera so I can’t say it was a waste of time. (A few days later I got my film back from the lab and the results were exactly as I predicted, still not completely satisfied, but they turned out as I imagined.)

That night I had a couple of hours of darkness before the moonlight flooded the night sky. The stargazing from that area was incredible. I took a second opportunity to use the X-T3 for some low-light photography. I photographed the Milkyway galaxy over two conjoining slopes that formed a very simple, geometric composition. Again, I was very pleased with the high-ISO results from this camera system.

The Milkyway Galaxy over the White Mountains of California.
"Geometric" - The Milkyway Galaxy over the White Mountains.

The next morning I had a plan to hike out to a ridgeline that I had scouted the day before to catch the sunrise. However, I woke up to thick smoke from the large Creek Fire that ignited in the Sierra the day before. Visibility was very low and the air quality was terrible. Still, I loaded up my camera gear and hiked out to the planned location. Although my original subject did not fair well in the subdued light, I was able to get some hand-held photographs while hiking around the ridge. The smokey atmosphere made for a few interesting compositions of the surrounding ridges and bristlecone trees.

Wildfire smoke smothers ancient bristlecone pine forest.
"If They Had a Voice" - Smoke from a nearby wildfire smothers the Ancient Bristlecone Pines.

Overall, I really enjoyed the time I spent in the White Mountains. I think this is an area that I would like to dedicate more time to exploring and photographing. The surrounding landscape is somewhat complex in that it is sometimes hard to predict lighting conditions on certain subjects without spending some real time in the area and seeing how the light changes throughout the day. I managed to learn a few things about the area, got a little bit of hiking in, and came home with a few photographs that I like. I'll be looking forward to my next White Mountain outing.

Creek Fire Haze in the White Mountains of California
"Creek Fire Haze" - One last photograph as I started back home.

A few cell phone snapshots:


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