Whenever someone from my hometown in Colorado asks me if I miss the mountains, I love to point out that the highest peak in the lower 48 is actually in California. I give an extra little jab when I tell them that the mountains here make the Colorado Rockies look like rolling hills. The highest, Mt. Whitney, tops out with a granite spire at 14,505 feet. Only 90 miles away is Death Valley at 282 feet below sea level. It’s no wonder Galen Rowell called this place home. It’s one of the few places in the United States that could keep him occupied.
It’s a perfect destination for the adventure or outdoor photographer. There are the famous spots like Yosemite, Mono Lake and the sequoia forests, but for each of those there are dozens of hidden, or just hard to get to, places where few tripods have ventured.
Here are my top recommendations and locations for a photography road trip through the Sierra Nevada.
The best views of Mount Whitney are often from the Valley floor unless of course, you’re willing to get a permit and hike to the very base of the vertical summit block. The climber’s approach is only four miles, but it takes you straight uphill and I’d recommend spending a few days acclimatizing before you try it.
During the daylight hours, Mono Lake doesn’t really inspire much in the way of great photography. The tufas look like pillars of mud. At night though, it’s an otherworldly place. Expect to see other tripods while you’re out there—it’s no secret.
The Bristlecone Pines
On the eastern side of Highway 395 are the White Mountains. Twenty-five miles in are the oldest trees in the world. They have been surviving here for 5,000 years. The high altitude, lack of rainfall and poor soil where they are found are where they thrive, but thriving means growing incredibly slowly. Their gnarled wood offers a unique subject, which I prefer to photograph at night. The first grove you come to is the Schulman Grove, but I always end up driving the extra 10 miles of dirt roads to the Patriarch Grove. It’s higher up and on a mountain ridge that allows you to capture the Palisades in the background or the milky way on a clear night.
On one side, you have the oldest trees in the world, and on the other, the largest. They aren’t far as the crow flies, but driving between them takes about five to six hours. It’s difficult to photograph these giants because of their enormous size, but I’ll leave the creativity up to you. I find including a person shows the scale of the tree and gives some perspective.
Climbing The High Peaks
You can’t ignore the possibility of finding true adventure in the Sierras. There is so much available to those willing to hike deep into the mountains to climb the alpine granite. Planning ahead to be in a good location when the light is right is what makes an adventure photographer stand out. Balancing the technical climbing, weather, long hikes and heavy packs can be difficult, and often times whatever plans are made must change. Temple Crag is an incredible overnight adventure without the permitting issues that Whitney has, and has some easier alpine routes with amazing views of the surrounding peaks.
If Joshua Tree National Park was at the foot of the highest peak in the lower 48, you’d have Alabama Hills. The roads are dirt, and the rock isn’t quite as good for climbing, but other than that they’re strikingly similar. It’s easy to frame up interesting images with the stone monoliths below and the high peaks behind.
Need I say more? Yosemite…
It feels like a different place, but Tuolumne is actually part of Yosemite National Park. It’s quite different, however, with a more expansive feel than Yosemite itself. There are quite a few day hikes that will take you into incredible views like Matthes Crest or Cathedral Peak. In the summer, it’s also easier to access than Yosemite if you’re on the eastern side of the Sierras.
Find your own hidden spots
Some places should remain secret. There’s a lot out there, and a little research or some old fashion exploring off of the beaten path will open up new possibilities. These hot springs aren’t really secret, but the locals like to think so, and I’m not going to ruffle any feathers by offering directions.
My Recommended Gear List
4WD Truck – My Choice is a Tacoma TRD Pro
Highway 395 follows the valley along the Eastern side of the Sierras. Along the way, you can look up into the mountains and see treacherous 4WD trails leading up into the high country. This is what has kept me from joining in on the “#vanlife” trend. No van would be able to explore these trails. Especially not one with a built in shower and kitchen. Believe me, I see their appeal. I spent a week setting up a tent every night, huffing and puffing on a leaky air mattress. But, I had no trouble finding solitude. I had upgraded my old Tacoma to a new TRD Pro, and I have to admit I might have chosen these trails on purpose, but I’m certainly glad I did considering the places that I ended up.
Canon 5D S/R
I like shooting with the 5D S/R because it takes incredible night photos. Its sensor’s low-pass filter lets me take crisp photos of the stars and makes the Milky Way really stand out. It’s also a whopping 50 megapixels.
BlackRapid Camera Strap
I have a number of straps from BlackRapid, and all of them have their place on my adventures. The Sport Breathe is what I like to use while I’m climbing since it locks the strap to my shoulder, and for the long hikes, I use the Backpack Breathe strap which clips onto my existing bag’s shoulder straps and keeps it off of my neck. On this trip I found myself using the Wrist Strap most often, and clipping it to my harness or my backpack with a carabiner when I wasn’t shooting.
Life on dirt roads, camping, and the occasional thunderstorm mean that everything got pretty dirty, dusty and wet at some point on my adventure. So a hard case was a must. But hiking with a hard case is no fun. With SKB’s new partnership with Think Tank, I had cases that I could convert to shoulder bags, or backpacks when I was ready to start hiking.