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.

Lake Vernon Loop

The spray from Wapama Falls creates a rainbow as it rushes into the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Yosemite National Park
The spray from Wapama Falls creates a rainbow as it rushes into the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Yosemite National Park

Recently a friend and I headed up to Yosemite for an early season 4-day backpacking trip. It was a good excuse to loosen up the joints for the summer and get out in the Sierra backcountry. We chose the area around Lake Vernon as sort of a staging point from which to launch an off-trail loop into some of the less explored drainages. Supposedly, this area was relatively snow-free compared to other areas at similar elevation (7,000 – 9,000 ft).

We decided to hike up out of Hetch Hetchy due to the easy access. Because permits are issued at the entrance gate, you can get a wilderness permit the night before as late as 9pm. That is a huge help for those driving up after work from the Bay Area. We got there Friday night, got our permit, and settled in at the backpacker’s campground overlooking O’Shaughnessy Dam. We were up at 5:30 the next morning, and hit the trail by 7am. We had a very long day of hiking and lots of climbing, so we needed the early start.

The uneventful hike along the edge of Hetch Hetchy reservoir was punctuated only by the raging waters of Wapama Falls (see photo above). A couple of weeks earlier, the flow from the fast snow melt was so great that park rangers closed the bridges across the falls and shuttled people by boat around the dangerous spots. I was happy that we timed it such that it was a easy walk through the water spray.

We reached Rancheria Falls by 9:30 and began our long climb up out of the lower elevations of Hetch Hetchy. After a long day of absolutely nowhere to camp (not that we were ready to stop anyway), we reached our destination of Lake Vernon. It ended up being a 16 mile day with 4800 ft of elevation gain. Not surprisingly, we were pretty worn out for a first day of the season! With little time to scout before it was fully dark, I set my alarm to wake up before sunrise and do some quick scouting for shots along the shoreline.

Twisted trunks of trees are reflecting in Lake Vernon are silhouetted against the pre-dawn light, Yosemite National Park
Twisted trunks of trees are reflecting in Lake Vernon are silhouetted against the pre-dawn light, Yosemite National Park

One of the features of the lake that struck me was that all along the shoreline, trees were growing directly out of the water. I’m guessing that the Lake was at peak capacity and was flooding the base of the trees, but it definitely made for an interesting silhouette abstract. The sun soon rose into a cloudless sky, and we were quickly packed up and ready to hit the trail once again.

Above Lake Vernon, we hit quite a few places where the trail was under one to two feet of water. Large patches of snow began appearing amongst the trees. As we climbed higher, we began to worry about our original plan of climbing off trail to 9,000 feet and from there, exploring some of the ridge lines. As we got closer to our destination, we could see the ridges were still full of snow. With no choice but to change our plans, we camped up above Lake Wilma on some flat granite slabs next to a quiet cascade.

Water cascades down flat, open granite above Wilma Lake, Yosemite National Park
Water cascades down flat, open granite above Wilma Lake, Yosemite National Park

The next morning we decided that the best course of action was to more or less retrace our steps back to Lake Vernon, as we were pretty worn out from trudging through flooded meadows and snow drifts. At least this day would be mostly downhill (only 1500 ft of elevation gain), as the previous two days combined were close to 8,000 ft of gain. Walking downhill most of the day allowed us to enjoy the beauty of Falls Creek, which the trail followed most of the day.

We set up camp in the same spot along Lake Vernon that we had used two nights earlier. A bonus was getting to use the rest of the firewood we had already gathered! The next morning was quiet and beautiful. The surface of the lake had settled into a mirror, reflecting everything along the shore with perfection.

A large pine grows out of a pile of granite boulders along the shore of Lake Vernon, Yosemite National Park
A large pine grows out of a pile of granite boulders along the shore of Lake Vernon, Yosemite National Park

After enjoying a leisurely morning at the lake, we didn’t hit the trail until 9:30, our latest start yet. That was okay, because we had only an 11 mile hike out to the car, downhill almost the entire way. We left the lake opposite our entry point, creating a loop from Hetch Hetchy to Lake Vernon. We made quick time, blasting out of there in 4 1/2 hours. The most scenic part of the last day was descending the old construction road from Beehive Meadows. This was a road built to service the building of the dam, which has been converted into a hiking trail. A few chunks of asphalt were still seen here and there, but for the most part, mother nature had wiped out this road long ago with severe freeze/thaw cycles and many rock slides. Although the exposed decent was hot and hard on the joints, it did offer some stunning views of the reservoir.

Lupine blooms adorn the hillsides surrounding the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Yosemite National Park
Lupine blooms adorn the hillsides surrounding the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Yosemite National Park

As I was reaching the waterline, I couldn’t help but try to visualize what this valley would look like in its original condition, before the dam was built. I couldn’t help but feel a touch of remorse as I imagined John Muir shaking his head in disgust.

We reached the car by 2pm and began the drive home. It was a great first trip of the season, clocking in at 3 1/2 days of hiking, just over 50 miles covered, and over 10,000 ft of elevation gained. If this was a warmup trip, what’s the next trip going to be like?