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:

Finding Originality In Arches National Park

An old log twists around a fall bloom, Arches National Park
An old log twists around a fall bloom, Arches National Park

Like many of the most visited national parks, Arches in Moab, Utah offers the visitor many spectacular natural wonders. But for the photographer, these more popular parks can be a real challenge – how do you find originality in a place that has been covered with a camera so thoroughly? I found this especially true when I visited Arches this past September. It was true that everywhere I turned I saw famous arches, but that was just the problem – they were all famous. Sure, I still set about capturing them for myself, but looking back, are any of these photos of which I’m really proud? How does this differentiate my portfolio from any of the thousands of talented photographers that visit every year?

Another challenge of this park is that in many areas, visitors are restricted to established trails. While I can certainly appreciate the reasons (the main one being the fragile biological soil crust supporting life throughout the desert), it is not my idea of freedom of exploration with a camera!

I thought about these challenges as I explored the park in 90+ degree heat. The last time I was here there was a fresh blanket of snow on the ground, so the dry desert look was bumming me out a little. I had already taken a midday hike out to Delicate Arch (purposefully leaving all my heavy camera gear back at the car), and I was getting impatient for sunset, even though I had not yet scouted an acceptable location. Finally, I saw something of interest just off trail, and it wasn’t surrounded by twenty photographers! An old twisted log created some interested shapes, and had the bonus of wildflowers growing at its base. And you know what? Not a single arch in sight! Oh well, just because I’m in a place famous for arches doesn’t mean all my shot HAVE to include arches.

I set about creating a composition that I liked. This process is usually a mixture of pre-visualization and experimentation. I knew I wanted to get in relatively close to the flowers and the log, and I wanted something fairly wide to include the cliff beyond. Probably no wider than 24mm, so I attached my 24-70 and got my tripod legs low and splayed out. Slowly I worked the camera and tripod in and out of the scene, watching the edges of my composition, and adjusting the tripod legs as necessary. When working in this way in a busy location, don’t worry about others stopping behind you to watch what you’re doing, and sometimes wondering what it is you are taking a picture of (rest assured, this WILL happen).

After about 10 minutes, I had my shot in the bag and was ready to move on. While certainly not a portfolio quality shot, I was happy to have found something that allowed me to express my creativity, and come away with something that wasn’t also on hundreds of other photographers’ memory cards that day.

California’s Coastal Redwoods

Rhododendrons grow amongst the redwoods along the California coast. Fog regularly permeates the forest, giving these giants the perfect conditions in which to grow.

A couple of weeks ago I made a trip north to shoot old growth redwoods during the spring rhododendron bloom. It was my first time to the area and was quite an experience. First of all, I found the landscape quite challenging. Once I entered a redwood forest, it was a sensory overload, with subjects to shoot everywhere. The forest was so busy with life that it became difficult to distill each shot down to an individual subject. I could shoot everything from a super wide angle with trees converging into the fog, to macro detail shots of leaves, moss and flowers.

Ferns grow at the base of a large redwood tree, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Ferns grow at the base of a large redwood tree, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

I visited several old growth forests in the vicinity of Redwoods National Park. However, I never visited the park itself, as the oldest forest is preserved in several state parks in the area. These California state parks contain the first trees to be saved from the lumber mills, with the national park encompassing whatever land was left unprotected decades later.

Rhododendron grows throughout a redwood forest shrouded in fog, Del Norte Redwoods State Park
Rhododendron grows throughout a redwood forest shrouded in fog, Del Norte Redwoods State Park

This time of year is very popular for photographers because of the massive rhododendron bloom throughout these forests. The best way to capture the flowering bushes against the giant redwood trunks is to wait for thick fog to permeate the forest, which luckily happens quite often this time of year.

Fog does two things – first, it evens out the lighting in the forest by diffusing sunlight. This prevents the harsh contrast sometimes seen in thick forests when thousands of small light beams spotlight the vegetation. Cameras can’t capture this kind of contrast, and the fog cuts it out completely. Secondly, fog fills in behind the closest trees and greatly simplifies the scene. Instead of seeing a dense forest and all its detail behind the closest redwoods and rhododendrons, you instead see a misty fog. The viewer’s eye can stay focused on the main subject matter.

Intertwining leaves of false lily-of-the-valley form an abstract pattern, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Intertwining leaves of false lily-of-the-valley form an abstract pattern, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

In addition to capturing my main target, the forest provided opportunities for macro shots as well. Walking along the trails, I always kept an eye out for interesting patterns formed naturally. I found the large green leaves of false lily-of-the-valley intertwined and zoomed in to pick out a pattern among the leaves.

Naturally, there were also other interesting subjects, such as this fungus growing on a decaying tree branch.

A fungus grows from the branch of a decaying redwood, Del Norte Redwoods State Park
A fungus grows from the branch of a decaying redwood, Del Norte Redwoods State Park

The last morning I was in town, I was greeted by a light steady rain. Normally this kind of weather would see me rising, checking the window, and then jumping back into bed. However the rain also came with more fog, which actually created ideal conditions for more forest photography. Not necessarily the best conditions for me, but with my camera well protected with its own rain gear, the resulting photos came out just fine.

Rhododendrons grow amongst the redwoods along the California coast.  Fog regularly permeates the forest, giving these giants the perfect conditions in which to grow.
Rhododendrons grow amongst the redwoods along the California coast. Fog regularly permeates the forest, giving these giants the perfect conditions in which to grow.

The forest offered more than just lush green vegetation and enormous trees. Some of the older trees had large gashes and burns which lent to more graphical than subjective photographs. Here the negative space formed by the dark burn marks frames and offsets the light window to a distant tree.

Dark burns cut a graphic pattern through the base of giant redwood trees, Del Norte Redwoods State Park
Dark burns cut a graphic pattern through the base of giant redwood trees, Del Norte Redwoods State Park

Once the fog cleared, there were moments of magical, ethereal sunlight filtering through the canopy. I loved finding backlit ferns juxtaposed against a much darker wall of redwood. The photo below contains a bonus element of a double swoop of sorrel framing the bottom of the photo.

Sorrel, fern and redwood trees all contribute to the many shades of green of a redwood forest, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Sorrel, fern and redwood trees all contribute to the many shades of green of a redwood forest, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

It was a brief, challenging weekend. I’m not sure if I quite hit my stride in the redwood forest, which is usually an indicator that another visit is in order in the near future. There were difficult shooting conditions with the rain, and the sheer complexity of the forest had me scratching my head more than once. It is times like those that I have to take my hands away from the camera and just sit with the surroundings, listening. More often than not, it will tell me where to point my lens next.

Rhododendrons grow amongst the redwoods along the California coast.  Fog regularly permeates the forest, giving these giants the perfect conditions in which to grow.
Rhododendrons grow amongst the redwoods along the California coast. Fog regularly permeates the forest, giving these giants the perfect conditions in which to grow.