Piute Pass – Loads Of Snow, Swollen Creeks, And Busted Boot

Mt Goethe and surrounding peaks provide a panoramic view just over Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA.

In August my friend Steve and I attempted a quick four day loop through parts of Inyo National Forest. Our plan was to ascend Piute Pass, head down the other side to Evolution Valley, and loop back up Darwin Canyon through Lamarck Col to complete the loop at North Lake. Sounded pretty simple, and going through some beautiful country. What we hadn’t planned on when creating the trip was how much snow was still in the mountains from the heavy winter. Even though it was August, snow still covered much of our trail.

As our trip date approached, we saw that not only would we have lots of snow to contend with, but also some very wet weather. Monsoonal moisture was pushing up from the east side of the Sierra, looking to drench our trip. After some deliberation, we decided to push forward, hoping for at least one clear evening or morning in Evolution Valley. I’d certainly put up with four days of rain for one beautiful landscape shot to add to my portfolio.

Snowmelt feeds waterfalls on the climb up to Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA.
Snowmelt feeds waterfalls on the climb up to Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA.

The climb up to Piute Pass was uneventful, passing a series of lakes on the way to the day’s high point. Glaciers clung to the northern slopes of the mountains, feeding small waterfalls. We did encounter several groups of happy campers who had spent the previous night at some of these lakes. I spoke briefly to a man named John and his son Clay who looked like they braved the nighttime rains in good spirits.

As we got closer to the top, I started seeing small fields of wildflowers. It was the right time of year for this elevation, but given how much snow was still in the mountains, I hadn’t been thinking of wildflowers at all.

Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA
Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA

As soon as we were over the pass, we were treated to panoramic views of the mountains to the south. We had a short respite of flat ground, before the trail steepened and we descended into forest. As the rain started to fall, I donned my lightweight rain jacket and began to wonder if I was really prepared for potentially four days of rain. Soon we came across our first water crossing. The typical rock hop had swollen to a deep, fast flow, requiring the removal of my boots and a careful crossing. While the water was only up to my mid thigh, I began to worry about the crossings to come, knowing that some were much deeper.

Some days on the trail, the terrain wins the day. This was certainly one of those days. By the time we got to our campsite area, I was absolutely beat, and soaking wet from the five hours of downpour. Steve and I slogged around the area looking for a fire ring. Every spot that looked like it could work was under water. Between the rainfall and melting snow, there was so much water in the area that large pools formed in just about every flat space available. After about 45 minutes of searching, we finally found a place. I set up on a very wet slab of granite, hoping most of the water would run around my tent rather than under it. We heroically got a smoldering fire going, and tucked in for an early night.

The next morning, we woke to clear skies. However, everything I owned seemed to be soaked. Even my down sleeping back was wet on the outside, worrying me about warmth for the next cold night if it soaked through. We sat for a few minutes debating whether to push on, or just abandon and head back to the car. I was tired, wet, and worried about the difficult water crossings ahead. What finally swayed me was the discovery that my right boot was completely separating from the sole. This did not bode well for three more days of rough travel, much of it cross country. Time to head back to the car.

Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA
Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA

Thus, with heavy hearts we repeated the terrain of day one. I tied some twine around my boot to hold it together and we climbed back up to Piute Pass from the west. Given that we had extra time to get back to the car, we stopped and took in a few beautiful wildflower displays on the western side of the pass.

Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA
Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA

While we didn’t get to see the glory of Evolution Valley, it was beautiful country nonetheless. Even though it is always difficult when you don’t reach your goals, we still enjoyed a night out in the wilderness, 22 miles of challenging hiking, and some high elevation August wildflowers. Failed trip? Maybe. But it is hard to bemoan getting some solitude out in the natural world. It does much to replenish my soul, even when the going is tough.

Gear I used to create the photos in this post:

Gem Lake, Emigrant Wilderness

Last weekend I took a quick two night backpacking trip with some friends, in hopes of hitting the high country of the Sierra Nevada in peak wildflower season. I set my sights on Gem Lake in Emigrant Wilderness – just about the right elevation for flowers this time of year. Having been there before, I knew that even if the place wasn’t in bloom, we’d have a great time and see some amazing scenery.

I like Emigrant Wilderness because there are no trail quotas and it is very easy to get a wilderness permit with short planning. We set out from the Bay Area early Friday morning, stopping at the Mi Wuk Ranger Station on the way up Highway 108. Even though we were taking our time, we still hit the trail by 10AM, plenty of time to reach our 10 mile destination of Gem Lake.

A backpacker hikes along the trail from Crabtree Camp trailhead to Gem Lake, Emigrant Wilderness, CA.

The trail meanders between thick forest and open granite-filled vistas. Most of Emigrant Wilderness is easily accessible cross country due to many gently-sloping wide open granite bowls and domes. This time we stuck to the trail, and made easy progress. Every so often we were rewarded with a scenic vista. If you are not already a lover of granite, after a few hikes in this part of the Sierra you soon will be!

Cliffs to the north of Gem Lake reflect in the still water at sunset, Emigrant Wilderness, CA.

The elevation changes were just enough to tire our bodies by the time we reached Gem Lake. This lake certainly lives up to its name. However, it is very popular and can get quite crowded on the weekend. As it was Friday night, we were able to relax lakeside in relative peace. As the sun set, the wind settled and we got some nice reflections on the water.

Cliffs to the north of Gem Lake reflect in the still water at sunset, Emigrant Wilderness, CA.

The next day we went further up trail and explored Jewelry Lake and Deer Lake. Deer Lake is much larger and Gem or Jewelry, and it was hot enough to warrant a midday dip in its cool waters. This is a great area to take your time and not hurry along the trail. One more night, and it was time to head back.

A winding stream flows into Jewelry Lake, Emigrant Wilderness, CA.

Luckily there were plenty of wildflowers along the trail to keep us entertained. We had perfect weather for our 26 mile journey and everyone enjoyed the change in scenery.

A backpacker hikes along the trail from Crabtree Camp trailhead to Gem Lake, Emigrant Wilderness, CA.

With its easy access and lack of quotas, this is the perfect place for an impromptu night or two in the wilderness.

Gear I used to create the photos in this post:

Burney Falls

Burney Falls drops across a wide cliff into a pool below, creating a tree-lined grotto.
Burney Falls drops across a wide cliff into a pool below, creating a tree-lined grotto.
Burney Falls drops across a wide cliff into a pool below, creating a tree-lined grotto.

Burney Falls is located in Northern California in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. It is a beautifully wide waterfall, dropping 129 feet into a tree-lined grotto below. Even in the summer months, when most other creeks in the area have withered or dried up to nothing, this falls keeps up its steady flow rate. This is because the water originates from an underground spring not far upstream from the falls itself.

Burney Falls drops across a wide cliff into a pool below, creating a tree-lined grotto.
Burney Falls drops across a wide cliff into a pool below, creating a tree-lined grotto.

There are many ways to photograph the falls, from the grand view taken above the falls, to more intimate closeups of rivulets running over bright green moss. It is important to shoot waterfalls with a tripod – that way you can use longer exposures and blur the water into a glossy silk texture. Down in the grotto, it was dark enough to let the exposure run over a second, giving me the desired look.

Burney Falls drops across a wide cliff into a pool below, creating a tree-lined grotto.
Burney Falls drops across a wide cliff into a pool below, creating a tree-lined grotto.

One challenge was to balance bright hot spots of light reflecting off the water with the dark shadows within the rocks. Luckily a quick check of the histogram on the back of my camera told me that I was able to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene in a single shot, and so I exposed to the right, getting as bright an exposure as possible without blowing out the highlights. This was corrected in post processing, giving me an amazing amount of detail in the shadows.

I’d love to go back and shoot this scene in early, pre-dawn light, which would give me soft even lighting across the entire scene. The quick visit left me thinking of many other compositions I could use to better cover the variety seen in this beautiful falls.

American White Pelican

An american white pelican stands alone atop a small island in a pond.
An american white pelican stands alone atop a small island in a pond.

I’ve featured the American White Pelican in my blog before, and given their beauty and grace, I’ll likely feature them again. Of the two pelican species in the Bay Area (the other is the California Brown Pelican), this is by far my favorite. Both regal and elegant, these pelicans create an air of significance with every sighting.

An american white pelican stretches its neck forward, elongating its beak and pouch.
An american white pelican stretches its neck forward, elongating its beak and pouch.

I found one recently on a small island in shallow water, close to my location. These were perfect conditions for portrait shots – the full body standing on ground, the background very distant (so as to create a smooth out of focus area) and devoid of other birds. This allowed for a clean, simple portrait – something I’m often striving for with my bird photography.

A white pelican perches on an underwater stump in the middle of a slough, Byxbee Park, Palo Alto, CA
A white pelican perches on an underwater stump in the middle of a slough, Byxbee Park, Palo Alto, CA

Portraits can be captured on water as well, but when the pelicans are on land, I am usually rewarded with more interesting grooming shots. However, after a pelican dives, you are sometimes lucky enough to see a wild head throw, usually to whip water off of its head feathers.

Perched on an underwater stump, an american white pelican throws its head into the air, twisting it back and forth
Perched on an underwater stump, an american white pelican throws its head into the air, twisting it back and forth

When I think one of these throws in imminent, I make sure I re-frame to include plenty of sky. This way I can capture the entire action at its peak – I’ve been burned too often with a great head throw, but half the top of the head getting clipped out of frame.

Whenever I’m out doing bird photography, I look for clean portrait opportunities. But when I get one with an American White Pelican, I feel extra lucky.