Skirting California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, U.S. Route 395 enchants travelers with ever-changing views of California’s granite backbone. Unlike anything on the Sierra’s gently sloped west side, U.S. 395 parallels the range’s precipitous east flank in the shadow of jagged peaks that soar up to two miles above the blacktop. More than just beautiful, these massive mountains form a natural barrier against incursion from the Golden State’s major metropolitan areas, keeping the eastern Sierra region cleaner and quieter than its scenery might suggest.
It would be difficult to find any place in the world with a more diverse selection of natural beauty than the 120-mile stretch of U.S. 395 between Lone Pine and Lee Vining: Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, the ancient bristlecones of the White Mountains, the granite columns of Devil’s Postpile, Mono Lake and its tufa towers, and too many lake-dotted, aspen-lined canyons to count. Long a favored escape for hikers, hunters and fishermen, Sierra’s sunrise side has in recent years come to be appreciated by photographers for its rugged, solitary beauty.
I prefer photographing most eastern Sierra locations at sunrise, when the day’s first rays paint the mountains with warm light and the highest peaks are colored rose by alpenglow. Without clouds, eastern Sierra sunset light can be tricky, as you’ll be photographing the shady side of the mountains against the brightest part of the sky. The eastern Sierra is also home to some of California’s finest night photography.
Regardless of the time of day, the key to photographing California’s Eastern Sierra is flexibility—if you don’t like the light in one direction, you usually don’t need to travel far to find a nice scene in another direction.
Lone Pine Area
The southern stretch of U.S. 395 bisects the Owens Valley, a flat, arid plane separating the Sierra Nevada to the west from the Inyo ranges to the east. Just west of Lone Pine lies the Alabama Hills. Named for a Confederate Civil War warship, the Alabama Hills’ jumble of weathered granite boulders and proliferation of natural arches would be photogenic in any setting. Putting Mt. Whitney (the highest point in the 48 contiguous states) and the serrated Sierra crest in the background takes the beauty to another level.
The Alabama Hills are traversed by a network of unpaved but generally quite navigable roads. To reach the Alabama Hills, drive west on Whitney Portal Road (the only signal in Lone Pine). After 3 miles, turn right onto Movie Road and start exploring. If you’re struck by a vague sense of familiarity here, it’s probably because for nearly a century the Alabama Hills has attracted thousands of movie, television and commercial film crews.
Mobius Arch (also called Whitney Arch and Alabama Hills Arch) is the most popular photo spot in the Alabama Hills. It’s a good place to start, but settling for this frequently photographed subject risks missing numerous opportunities for truly unique images here. To get to Mobius Arch, drive 1.6 miles on Movie Road to the dirt parking area at the trailhead. Following the marked trail down the ravine, the arch is an easy quarter-mile walk.
Sunrise is primetime for Alabama Hills photography, but good stuff can be found here long before the sun arrives. I try to be set up 45 minutes before the sun (earlier if I want to ensure the best position for Whitney Arch) to avoid missing a second of the Sierra’s striking transition from night to day.
The grand finale from anywhere in the Alabama Hills is the rose alpenglow that colors the Sierra crest just before sunrise. Soon after, the light will turn amber and slowly slide down the peaks until it reaches your location, warming the nearby boulders and casting dramatic long shadows. But unless there are clouds to soften the light, you’ll find that the harsh morning light will end your shoot pretty quickly after the sunlight arrives on the Alabama Hills.
Whitney Portal Road (closed in winter) ends about 11 miles beyond Movie Road, at Whitney Portal, the trailhead for the hike to Mt. Whitney and the John Muir Trail. On this paved but steep road, anyone not afraid of heights will enjoy great views looking east over the Alabama Hills and Owens Valley far below, and up-close views of Mt. Whitney looming in the west. At the back of the Whitney Portal parking lot is a nice waterfall that tumbles several hundred feet in multiple steps.
The Alabama Hills are one of my favorite moonlight locations. Because the full moon rises in the east right around sunset, on full-moon nights the entire area is bathed in moonlight as soon as darkness falls. Lit by the moon, the rounded boulders mingle with long, eerie shadows and the snow-capped granite of the Sierra crest radiates as if lit from within.
If you find yourself with extra time, drive about 30 miles east of Lone Pine on California State Route 136 until you ascend to a plain dotted with photogenic Joshua trees. After you’ve finished photographing the Joshua trees, turn around and retrace the drive back to Lone Pine on CA 136 to enjoy spectacular panoramic views of the Sierra crest. And just north of Lone Pine on U.S. 395 is Manzanar National Historic Site, a restored World War II Japanese relocation camp. Camera or not, this historic location is definitely worth taking an hour or two to explore.
Bristlecone Pine Forest
Continuing north from Lone Pine on U.S. 395, on your left the Sierra stretch north as far as the eye can see, while the Inyo mountains on the right transition seamlessly to the White Mountains. Though geologically different from the Sierra, the White Mountains’ proximity and Sierra views make it an essential part of the eastern Sierra experience.
Clinging to rocky slopes in the thin air above 10,000 feet, the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains are among the oldest living things on earth—many show no signs of giving up after 4,000 years. At least one bristlecone is estimated to be 5,000 years old.
Abused by centuries of frigid temperatures, relentless wind, oxygen deprivation, and persistent drought, the bristlecones show every year of their age. Their stunted, twisted, gnarled, polished wood makes the bristlecones suited for intimate macros, mid-range portraits or as a striking foreground for a distant panorama.
The two primary destinations in the bristlecone pine forest are the Schulman and Patriarch Groves. Get to the bristlecone pine forest by driving east from Big Pine on California State Route 168 and climbing about 13 car-sickness inducing miles. Turn left on White Mountain Road and continue climbing another 10 twisting miles to reach the Schulman Grove. Despite the incline and curves, the road is paved all the way to this point. Stop at the Sierra panorama after about 8 miles for a spectacular view that also makes a great excuse to pause and collect yourself.
At the small visitor center in the Schulman Grove, pay the modest use fee, then choose between the 1-mile Discovery Trail and the 4.5-mile Methuselah Trail. Both of these loop trails are in good shape, but the extreme up and down in very thin air will test your fitness. Most of the trees on the Methuselah Trail get more morning light, while the majority of the Discovery Trail trees get their light in the afternoon.
If you’re unsure of your fitness or have limited time, the Discovery Trail is definitely the choice for you. Because the photogenic trees start with the very first steps, on this trail you can turn around at any point without feeling cheated of opportunities to photograph nice bristlecones. Along the way you’ll appreciate the handful of benches for enjoying the view and catching your breath. Hikers who can make it to the top of the switchbacks are rewarded with great views of the snow-capped Sierra across the Owens Valley.
The Discovery Trail climbs for a couple hundred more yards beyond the switchbacks, but just as you’re beginning to wonder whether all the effort is worth it, the trail levels, turns, and drops. Soon you’ll round a 90-degree bend and be rewarded for your hard work with two of the most spectacular bristlecones in the entire forest. Spend as much time here as you have, because the rest of the loop back to the parking lot has nothing to compete with these two trees.
The pavement ends at the Schulman Grove, but the unpaved 12-mile drive to the Patriarch Grove is navigable by all vehicles in dry conditions. Home to the Patriarch Tree, the world’s largest bristlecone pine, the Patriarch Grove is more primitive and much less visited than the Schulman Grove. Unlike the Schulman Grove, where I rarely stray far from the trail, I often find the most photogenic bristlecones here by venturing cross-country, over several small ridges east of the Patriarch Tree. Even without a trail, the sparse vegetation and hilly terrain provides enough vantage points that make getting lost difficult.
Clean air, few clouds and very little light pollution make the bristlecone groves a premier night photography location. On moonless summer and early autumn nights, the bright center of the Milky Way is clearly visible from the slopes of the bristlecone forest. For the best Milky Way images, look for trees that can be photographed against the southern sky. And no matter how warm it is on U.S. 395 below, pack a jacket.
The bristlecone forest closes in winter.
An hour north of Lone Pine on U.S. 395 is Bishop. Its central location, combined with ample lodging, restaurant and shopping options, make Bishop the ideal hub for an eastern Sierra trip. If you want to anchor in one spot and venture out to the other eastern Sierra locations, Bishop is probably your best bet.
West of Bishop are many small but scenic lakes nestled in steep, creek-carved canyons that are lined with aspen (and some cottonwood) that turn brilliant yellow each fall. Many of these canyons can be accessed on paved roads, others via unpaved roads of varying navigability and a few solely by foot.
Of these canyons, Bishop Creek Canyon is the best combination of accessible and scenic. To get there, drive west on CA 168 (Line Street in Bishop). After about 15 miles, you can decide whether to turn left on the road to South Lake or continue straight to reach North Lake and Lake Sabrina (pronounced with a long “i”).
One of the area’s most popular sunrise spots, North Lake is a 1-mile signed detour on a narrow, steep, unpaved road—easily navigated in good conditions by all vehicles, but the un-railed, near-vertical drop is not for the faint of heart. A mile or so beyond the turn to North Lake, the road ends at Lake Sabrina, a fairly large reservoir in the shadow of rugged peaks and surrounded by beautiful aspen (but its bathtub ring in low-water months is not for me).
South Lake is another aspen-lined reservoir that shrinks in late summer and autumn. Highlights on South Lake Road are a manmade but photogenic waterfall leaping from the mountainside, clearly visible on the left as you ascend, and Weir Lake just before South Lake.
Both Bishop Canyon roads are worth exploring, especially in autumn, when the fall color can be spectacular. Each features scenic tarns and dense aspen stands accented by views of nearby Sierra peaks.
About a half hour north of Bishop, detour west off U.S. 395 to postcard-perfect Convict Lake. And just beyond the road to Convict Lake is the upscale resort town of Mammoth Lakes, a few miles west of U.S. 395. The drive on California State Route 203 through Mammoth Lakes takes you past the Mammoth Mountain ski slopes to Minaret Vista. This panoramic view of the sawtooth Minaret Range, Mt. Ritter and Mt. Banner captures the essence of high Sierra beauty. From here, follow the road down the other side to see the basalt columns of Devil’s Postpile and to take the short hike to Rainbow Fall.
While you’re in Bishop, don’t miss Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light gallery at 106 South Main Street. Not only does this beautiful gallery display a fantastic assortment of Rowell’s beautiful images of the area and beyond, it also includes the work of guest photographers, an assortment of Rowell’s books and a limited selection of filters.
Lee Vining Area
Leaving Bishop, U.S. 395 climbs steeply, crests near Crowley Lake, skirts the communities of Mammoth Lakes and June Lake, finally dropping down into the Mono Basin and Lee Vining. Though this is an easy, one-hour drive, you’ll feel like you’ve landed on a different planet.
By far the most popular Mono Lake location is South Tufa, a garden of limestone tufa towers that line the shore and rise from the lake. In addition to the striking tufa towers, South Tufa is on a point that protrudes into the lake, allowing photographers to compose with tufa and lake in the frame facing west, north or east, depending on the light.
To visit South Tufa, turn east on California State Route 120 about five miles south of Lee Vining. Follow this road for another five miles and turn left at the sign for South Tufa. Drive about a mile on an unpaved, dusty but easily navigated road to the large dirt parking lot. From here, it’s an easy quarter-mile walk to the lake, but wear your mud shoes if you want to get close to the water. Don’t climb on the tufa!
While South Tufa can be really nice at sunset, mirror reflections on the frequently calm lake surface and warm light skimming over the low eastern horizon make this one of California’s premier sunrise locations. To get the most out of a sunrise shoot here, it’s a good idea to photograph South Tufa at sunset first to familiarize yourself with the many possibilities.
In the morning, arrive at least 45 minutes before sunrise to ensure a good spot at this popular location. As the dawn brightens, keep your head on a swivel and be prepared to shift positions with the changing light. In the relative darkness just after arrival, I usually concentrate on scenes to the east, capturing tufa silhouettes against indigo sky and water.
As the eastern horizon brightens and the dynamic range increases in that direction, I usually turn to face west. Soon the highest Sierra peaks are colored with the day’s first sunlight. With the sun approaching the horizon behind me, the light on the peaks slowly descends. When it finally reaches lake level, for a few minutes the tufa towers are awash with warm sidelight, creating wonderful opportunities facing north. As with the Alabama Hills, without clouds to soften the sunlight and make the sky more interesting, the sunrise show ends quickly in the contrasty light.
Other options in and near Lee Vining are the excellent Mono Lake visitor center on the north side of town, lunch or dinner at the Whoa Nellie Deli in the Mobil Station (trust me on this), and Bodie, an extremely photogenic ghost town maintained in a state of arrested decay, about an hour’s drive north. A sinuous 20-minute drive west, up CA 120 (closed in winter) lands you at Tioga Pass, Yosemite’s east entrance and the gateway to Tuolumne Meadows.