Every fall for the last several years, I have endeavored to shoot some fall colors amongst the quaking aspens of the west. I’ve been fascinated by these incredible trees ever since seeing them in person during a family trip to Aspen, Colorado where I was able to experience them near the Maroon Bells. The bark of these trees, which are often massive clonal colonies of a single interconnected root system, has a fascinating quality that makes them appear to almost bend light around the trunks. It’s as if they glow at the edges.
The day job keeps me very busy and is not very conducive doing photography trips even on weekends, and this year has proven to be no exception. Last year I was able to squeeze in marathon 860 mile road trip starting at 1PM on a Saturday and ending the following Sunday evening. You can see those photos in my fall color Flickr set.
This year on another road trip I was able to capture just the very beginnings of fall in the Sierras. By and large the aspen groves were still green, with just a few tiny bits of green and even smaller bits of orange. I visited the Bishop Creek area, heading to South Lake, North Lake and Lake Sabrina. Here are a few of the tiny bits of color I found.
Backlit Green and Gold
This was a group of aspens showing early color at North Lake. I liked the way the still green aspen branches framed the more yellow ones behind.
Aspens in the spotlight
Along the road to South Lake was a patch of yellow along the side of the road in front of a bunch of talus. The contrast was striking. There were thousands of insects flying around.
180 degrees of green and gold
During this week I had rented the Canon 8-15mm f4L fisheye lens. This lens on the 8mm side provides a 180 degree field of view. A nicely curved aspen trunk seemed to invite the the curved fisheye image here.
Unfortunately for 2011, this is likely the extent of my fall color shooting. Next year, I hope to take a month and head into Utah and Colorado to find some of the epic aspen groves. With a little luck perhaps I will even see Pando, the “Trembling Giant”, a clonal aspen colony that is possibly 80,000 to 1,000,000 years old and currently is estimated to be the largest organism on Earth.
When wondering the desert in Joshua Tree National Park, one might catch a glimpse of a jackrabbit. I say a glimpse, because in my experience a jackrabbit will be zooming across the desert away from you as fast as 36mph. You will catch a glimpse of it’s ears bouncing amongst the desert shrubs fading off into the distance. This most recent visit to Joshua Tree led me to this fine specimen amongst the Cholla Garden.
This very unfriendly landscape would make a full sprint exit difficult for the little guy, and perhaps that factored in his decision to allow me to get close and photograph. I was goign to shoot star trail shots here, an idea I later abandoned. As I was wondering the garden around sunset I caught sight of this little hare and quietly switched to my 100-400mm zoom. Slowly but surely I approached, snapping pictures along the way. He (or she) was definitely aware of my presence, but seemed unconcerned. Here he stood at attention, evaluating my threat level.
Ever with one eye giving me a piercing gaze, he foraged for food.
Always a treat to see wildlife up close. Almost certainly the next time I see a desert hare it will be a pair of ears darting away from my approach.
After my first visit to a flooded Badwater, I knew I had to get back as soon as possible. The impact of the water there compelled me to make every effort to come back. I was still riding a wave of excitement at the images that I was able to capture using my experience and pure luck to be at the right place at the right time. This time I brought two close friends with me to share in the experience. Although I do enjoy the solitude of my photographic passion, it is also great to share the experience. Not having the Friday off from our day jobs, we made the long drive in the dark of Friday evening to prepare for a sunrise at the flooded Badwater. I had shot sunset there twice the previous trip but not sunrise (with some regret). With an evaporation rate of 128 inches a year (about 77x the precipitation rate), I knew I needed to get back fast if the water was going to still be there. The mild temperatures of the Death Valley winter had kept the water there longer than I thought already and there was no telling how long it would last. Fortunately, as you can see, the water was very much still there.
Before sunrise, you can see the very shadow of the Earth as it is chased away by the light. Here I’m looking at a pair of other photographers over by the park’s pull off for Badwater. You can see their little specs on the right of the image. Earth’s gorgeous blue shadow can be seen to the left. Sunrise was imminent.
We watched the quiet light on this windless morning until the sun reached all the way down the Panamint Range. The reflections were a perfect mirror. After the light became more harsh, we decided to have some fun doing some self portraits with the reflected water. Our triple self portrait is at the start of this post. Setting the camera to repeatedly take photos, we walked out and held still so that all the ripples would vanish (about 5 minutes). Then we had some fun.
We had a blast, and at the end we were all covered with salty deposits from the splashing water. These photos are challenging because of the light. The entire world around us and the reflections in the water are powered by direct sunlight. Where we were standing was in complete shadow from the Black Mountains behind the camera. Producing anything other than a silhouette stretched the limits of my 5D2’s dynamic range. That’s me on the left!
Eventually, we headed in for breakfast to decide where to head next. I usually like to stop at the 49’er cafe in Furnace Creek for a nice big breakfast after running around in the valley all morning. After breakfast, a trip to Dante’s View was in order. This would allow us to get a complete overview of just how much water there was at Badwater and allow us to scout where to head next. And as luck would have it, clouds were building. From a mile up, the extent of the water was made clear. Click for a much bigger version of this panorama.
The clouds were moving by quickly, casting shadows on the valley floor. I made a time lapse video of the action:
It was beautiful. Looking down below we spotted something weird.
We were certainly disturbing the mud was we walked through the water in the morning. What we didn’t realize was just how visible that would be from above! Here you can clearly see the tracks we made through the water. It looks like an alien hand reaching out from the shore. Fortunately are marks were not permanent as they would disappear once the silt settled, later to be covered with white salt when the water was gone.
The views below were crazy. The water increased contrast throughout the valley, emphasizing twists and turns of the water as it snaked its way to the lowest place in North America.
Looking down into a brownish reflection of the clouds above, you an make out the main path that park visitors take in the lower right of this image, and our alien hand on the left.
With the cloud cover, we resolved to head back down to Badwater for what could turn into another amazing reflected sunset. On the way back down, a section of the mountains caught my eye.
Here you can see the tortured history of the valley laid bare. It’s hard to imagine the forces that would take layers of solid rock and bend them 90 degrees.
Again the skies of Death Valley blessed us with a wonderful reflected sunset (click for bigger)
It’s a bit hard to describe what it felt like to be there, standing in a motionless mirror of water while this incredible show happens before your eyes. The reflection really makes it almost like you’re floating in space around planet sunset. It’s really awesome and I hope my photos can convey that on at least some small level. After the sun had set, it became self portrait time again. This is actually one of my favorite pictures from the trip. There are four of me here.
Here is a comparison to show the extent of the flood and what it looks like without any water. In March I returned for a third trip to Death Valley, and once again looked down on Badwater. The view then was completely different. A vast white field of fresh salt deposits replaced the reflecting lake.
Poof! The water was gone in just two months. With 6 inches of water (maybe a little more) in January, that’s over 1/2 inch a week sucked up into the dry air.
Here are a few more pictures from this wonderful trip
There’s much more to talk about with Death Valley this year, particularly in the realm of star trails. Check back for some more updates from this amazing place.
Badwater. The name itself communicates the quality of any water found at this location in Death Valley National Park: bad. The water is incredibly salty. Too salty for any life to live. Perhaps this is the source of the name Death Valley. This place is the deepest spot in the dried up lake bed of ancient Lake Manly. As the water dried up, the salts and minerals of that formerly massive lake gradually accumulated into the salty mess that is spread out throughout the playa for miles around Badwater. Badwater is also the lowest place in North America, lying 282 feet below sea level.
I first visited Death Valley in 2008. I was really starting to break back into my photography after several years of neglect. A friend of mine invited me along on a photo trip and then it was love at first sight. Growing up in the flat lands of northeast Indiana, I had never seen such a harsh, desolate and beautiful landscape. It was really akin to going to another planet. In places there is no plant or animal life to be seen in any direction. The imagination can run wild. One of the photographers in the group had visited Death Valley in 2005 after the “100 year rains” that year. As you can see in this satellite imagery, a small fraction of Lake Manly reformed. The water was so deep that you could actually kayak across the valley becoming the first humans likely to have done this in the history of the Earth. After hearing the stories and seeing images of this flooded landscape, I made a resolution in my mind to revisit Death Valley often, and especially if the flood returned.
Fast forward to December 2010. Southern California experienced a huge drenching rain storm that lasted several days and stretched way up the state. I anxiously looked at the spotty weather radar of Death Valley’s surrounding areas. The rain was very much like I remember in 2005 in southern California, so I was hoping that the valley would be experiencing a similar repeat. At the time, however, I was working like crazy, had family visiting from out of town and then was myself traveling out of town for the holidays. I was determined to go to Death Valley at the earliest possible moment. I flew back to California on January 6, and in the early hours of January 7 I was on the road.
I was not disappointed.
Driving into the park, from the south, I soon started seeing signs of water. The Amargosa River was flowing.
Continuing on, I found puddles along the road, and even this bizarre river lined with salt which wound off into the distance where I could make out several square miles of water ahead.
Usually when I visit Death Valley, I will head out into the salty playa around Badwater and north of Furnace Creek in search of puddles of water for reflections. This was water unlike anything I’ve ever seen there. This was not quite 2005 levels, certainly, but the water stretched for miles. Near the actual Badwater turnout in the park, the water was a near perfect mirror. There was no wind at all.
Taking a friend’s advice to heart, I had picked up some rubber waders to walk out into the cold water. One might think that Death Valley would be warm, but in the wintertime it gets quite cold at night, and the water does not retain lots of heat. I had planned to set up camp and come back to shoot sunset, but I never made it to camp before dark. I waded out into the water to catch my first mirror reflected sunset:
Amazed at what I saw, I made a plan for the following morning. I thought wrongly that if Badwater had that much water, perhaps the area where Salt Creek impacts the West Side Road would have far more extensive flooding than usual. Unfortunately, it did not.
It was a nice and quiet sunrise, but I was not satisfied as most winter visits to Death Valley can yield similar images at this location. I headed back to Badwater and shoot the picture at the very top of this post. I then visited an area of the Mesquite Dunes that I have not previously visited, and then headed back to Badwater to wade once again out into the water. Having camera gear over a lake of salty water (much saltier than the Ocean) is a very precarious place to be. Salt water kills electronics and cameras and lenses. It’s highly corrosive, and thus lens changes out there are quite a challenge. Nevertheless I made a few lens changes out there and managed not to drop any gear into the water.
For my second sunset at Badwater, I didn’t know what I was in for. The one the night before I thought was ok, but sometimes it’s just really hard to predict what the clouds are going to do. This was definitely one of those times. I was out early with the late afternoon light. The water again was like glass. No wind! Symmetrical compositions were everywhere.
So, I waited. I practiced the art of standing perfectly still in the water so as to not cause ripples. If I moved my feet, ripples would emanate from my feet and it would take 5 minutes before they would clear to the point where they would not show up in a shot. To shoot sunset, I knew I would have to keep my feet planted and twist at the waist at most. I planted the tripod into the salty mud in a place that I could shoot panoramas. I waited. Finally the sun dipped below the Panamint Range, and still I had no idea about the visual treat that was about to unfold. And then finally, it happened.
WOW! The sky exploded with color! A dark, symmetrical explosion of color that stretched 180 degrees burst into the sky. I frantically clicked away the shutter. I shot panorama after panorama as the light changed, carefully twisting my body only at the waist (as ripples would have ruined the reflection) and shooting in many cases blindly to the sides. I would pause ever few seconds and just stare wide-mouthed at the scene before me. It was the single most dramatic sunset I’ve ever experienced. Truly amazing. And, I feel as though I captured it. Click below to view the panorama on black (and there is a larger size than that on flickr as well).
I was blown away. I stayed until it got dark, and just was mesmerized by the experience. I said “Thank you!” aloud to the landscape, and I was nothing but smiles. I headed back to camp. This night would not be a usual one, however. I had plans for the darkness. I had shot some star trails the night before at the Devil’s Golf Course. I headed out again to do the same at Badwater. I went to sleep at around 7 pm. I woke up at midnight. I headed straight for Badwater in the darkness. The moon was not up at all. I went to the same peninsula from where I had shot the sunset a few hours before. Alone in the dark I carried my camera gear out to see what would happen. I set up a couple of film cameras for some multi-hour exposures, and set up my 5D2 for some quicker star trails. I set the timer to wait a couple minutes and then take a 45 minute exposure. I waited then in my car, in the dark. With the long exposure noise reduction feature on modern DSLRs, I knew I was in for another 45 minutes of wait time once the exposure was made. As soon as the shutter closed I waded out into the water and retrieved my camera. I left the film gear out there and drove to Zabriskie Point thinking I would do another digital star trail shot while the film cameras continued to soak up the light. When I got to Zabriskie, I waited for the camera to produce the image. When it did I nearly flipped. There in the dark on my tiny little 3″ screen was this:
Instantly any thoughts of shooting more star trails anywhere else evaporated like a cup of water in a Death Valley July. I raced back to Badwater and plopped the camera back in a nearly identical spot, and this time aimed to include the North Star.
For the second time in less than 12 hours, a flooded Badwater in Death Valley had utterly blown me away. Amazingly, both of these shots were taken with virtually no wind. In the second one, at the very end of the exposure there is some wind causing ripples which broaden the reflected star trail lines, but overall it’s a near perfect reflection. This is a side of Death Valley that I had never seen. I had never seen star trail pictures with perfect water reflections before. The second star trail image is my most viewed image on flickr. It has the highest “interestingness” rating there in my work as well, and was (along with the “WOW” panorama) in the “Explore” section for the days they were posted.
After shooting the star trails, I should have stayed and shot sunrise there. I had other ideas though and headed for the dunes for my morning. While there were no reflections to be found amongst the piles of sand, there was one additional thing that I had never seen before here. There was frost in the sand.
The frost added some interesting highlights to the sand in the morning light.
After one final 3-mile hike into the center of the valley near Salt Creek, I headed back to home. I was nothing but smiles even through the hours that I was behind the wheel. Waking up at midnight did make for a seriously long day, but the rewards will last me a lifetime.
My next post will detail my return trip just two weeks later, and then after that I have some exciting trips to Joshua Tree, and Channel Islands to share. Stay tuned.
More than four years ago as I was driving through the wonderful Owens Valley. Mount Whitney caught my attention. More specifically, I had read about it somewhere and for some reason it stuck in my mind. I wasn’t sure which mountain was Whitney. I knew approximately where it was, but it didn’t stick out like I had imagined it would. Well, the reason it doesn’t stick out is because it’s further back behind other peaks. It does stick out but from the floor of Owens Valley it’s not obvious that it is the tallest peak in the Sierras, and indeed in the lower 48 states. For whatever reason this mountain stuck in my mind and I began researching it and discovered you can climb it by trail – no hanging off ropes, just hiking. I decided I would do that one day, although I had never been backpacking and had never climbed a mountain of any height.
Fast forward to 2009. I had chatted with a friend about my desire to climb Whitney. He had climbed it and a thought emerged of going up together along with some other friends. I sent in permit requests based on dates that he might be available. We got permits for late May, but realized there was probably considerable snow still up there at that point and due to changed work status for the both of us, the plan fell apart.
In 2010 a couple things changed. More resolute than ever, I elected to make sure that I knew what I was doing so I wouldn’t have to rely on a guide. I signed up to take the Wilderness Travel Course, (WTC) offered by volunteers from the Sierra Club. This was a 10-week course about what is needed to safely travel in the wilderness. I learned about backpacking in any kind of weather, carrying the correct food and items and navigating with map and compass. It was a fantastic class. I met a lot of great people and really enjoyed the outings, whether it was rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park or snow shoeing on Mount Pinos. I can’t recommend enough learning about how to be out there safely. Things are a lot different when you are out there away from civilization.
From May to November, the number of people allowed on the Mount Whitney Trail is capped. This is done to keep the trail from becoming both the 405 of the Sierras and a landfill. To obtain a permit, you must participate in a permit lottery. You must mail in a form in February to Inyo National Forest. In 2010, four of us put in applications for Mt. Whitney permits, and two of us got them. I was offered a spot on one of the trips, and the date was set! We requested three day permits. This would allow us to hike up to camp, summit, and then hike out on the third day. This seemed the best way to go about it. Throughout 2010 I trained. I climbed local 100-foot staircases as many as 15 times in a session. I participated in extreme boot camp. I went on other trips to Rock Creek Lake and Big Pine Lakes. I did training hikes on Mount Baldy. And finally, the permit time arrived. August 30 – September 1.
Being the photographer that I am, carrying my DSLR on any of these trips has been a minimum requirement. During WTC I tried a couple of different cases, but finally settled on a Clik Elite chest pack. Using this pack kept the camera in easy reach when climbing, and helped counterbalance a little the weight of the my main backpack on my back. I wish it could attach directly to the backpack instead of using it’s own harness, but it’s been a good compromise so far. Given the magnitude of the hike – 22 miles round trip and over 6,100 feet of elevation gain – I opted to leave my tripod behind. I regretted this, but wanted to make sure I actually made it to the top. So, the entire kit was my Canon 5D Mark II, 24-105 f4L IS, and some extra cards and batteries. The next time I return to the mountain, I will be bringing my tripod, and probably my 16-35mm lens as well, or who knows what else. Whatever my legs can carry!
Here is a Google Earth map of the route to the summit. This is based on my GPS data. Click for a bigger view. From the portal at 8600 feet to the summit at 14,508 feet is approximately 11 miles with a total of about 6,100 feet of elevation gain along the trail.
GPS track view from above the portal
GPS data view from above the summit
Elevation profile from my GPS data for the whole Whitney Trail
The start of the trail at Whitney Portal is a beautiful area. It’s covered in a beautiful forest and the granite peaks of the Sierras surrounding this deep valley.
The view looking forward a little ways past the start
This first picture is the view looking up from just above the start of the trail. The trail actually starts with you walking away from Whitney as you switchback up on your way to that upper valley in the center.
Even from here, the valley floor is almost a mile below. Soon this green section will disappear from view.
This is the view from almost the top of this section of the trail. The last big green view looking down into Owens Valley below.
Trees near Lone Pine Lake (the blue in the image) - just below 10,000 feet
From just under 10,000 feet there is a diversion you can go on over to Lone Pine Lake. You can see a tiny bit of the blue through the trees.
A deer not concerned by hikers just before the entrance to the Whitney Zone
This deer was hanging out munching on some grass.
Entering the Whitney Zone. Permits are required from here on
The mirror reflection of crazy blue Lone Pine Lake. It looks like a giant sapphire jewel against the surrounding terrain.
Bighorn Park - site of Outpost Camp, the lower camp on the Whitney Trail.
There are two camps along the Mount Whitney Trail. Outpost Camp is a little over 10,000 feet and is adjacent to Bighorn Park. The camp is actually in the forested area to the left.
The waterfall into Bighorn Park at Outpost Camp
Mirror Lake panorama. Fish in the lake kept the surface from being absolutely still
Heading up from Outpost Camp we come upon Mirror Lake. This was a lunch stop for us as we relaxed in the shade.
At the tree line: The Needles are just peeking from behind the foreground ridges
The last few trees before we enter the moonscape of the high Sierras
Definitely above the tree line now. The Whitney crest is coming into view
Trailside Meadow shows us some snow at around 11,000 feet. Still another 1000 feet to get to Trail Camp
Another rest stop. Climbing was getting harder as the air got thinner.
Passing Consultation Lake in elevation to get the last few hundred feet to Trail Camp
Consultation Lake comes into view as we narrow in on Trail Camp. Really looking forward to making it to camp at this point. Trail Camp is the upper camp on the Whitney trail and was our destination for the night. Our immediate neighbors included the guys from Modern Hiker.
The last bit of the sun shines over Trail Camp on the Mount Whitney Trail
I was happy to catch the sunburst as the last light disappeared from above Trail Camp. I was delighted when I was able to catch the sunburst as the first light reached us at Trail Camp the next morning.
First light at Trail Camp. The Sun's rays just crest to hit me with direct rays
First light shines on Wotan's Throne at my campsite in Trail Camp
My tent. Steaks are useless here in this barren landscape. My tent is tied to a bunch of rocks and is placed behind this ledge for some hopeful wind protection. This is a 2.5 person tent, but really that means 1 person and gear.
Mount Muir is the tall peak in the immediate area of Trail Camp. The view from Trail Camp at dawn
Heading into the infamous 99 switchbacks
From Trail Camp begins a section of the trail referred to as the 99 switchbacks. This section zig zags back and forth to reach the notch a little left of center. From here to the summit is around 5 miles. I shot a time lapse video of people heading into the switchbacks. Check it out in HD as the people get really tiny in frame.
Trail Camp lake and Consultation Lake
Here is a view looking down at Trail Camp. Consultation Lake is coming into view as is the Owens Valley floor.
The infamous railings on the switchbacks. It's a long slope down on the right.
“The ropes” or railings. This section of the trail has often been referred to as being somewhat treacherous. No problems on our trip.
Looking back at the railings. Note the ice
Zig zag zig zag. Trail Camp lake gets smaller and smaller as we wind up.
There are a lot of switchbacks! I lost caount in the 20’s and gave up. I was too focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
When does it end!
The tiny black dot is a person just left of center standing out into the blue.
At last, Trail Crest is in sight
A significant milestone on the trail. Trail Crest
Trail Crest! 13,600 feet.
The other side! At last a view to the other side of the Whitney Crest, and the beginning of a venture into Sequoia National Park from the east side. No park entry booth here!
A 360 degree panorama from Trail Crest. Click and drag to pan. Right click for full screen option.
The other side panorama
From Trail Crest we head down, the first time on the trail we lose elevation on our way to the summit.
The end is in sight. The broad top of Whitney is in view and contrasts with the rocky terrain on the back side of Mount Muir.
Aptly named Guitar Lake more than 2000 feet below us.
At last! The summit hut!
The Smithsonian Hut on the summit of Mount Whitney is in site. We’ve made it!
Whitney summit plaque. Note that the trail was built 1928-1930, but the hut was built in 1906.
Imagine building this trail at the end of the 1920’s!
Victory is mine!
Here I am at the top. A bit weary, but feeling awesome with a sense of accomplishment!
The start of the trail is at the end of the road in the dense forest dead center. The end is where I'm standing.
360 degree panorama from the summit of Whitney. Click and drag to pan. Right click for full screen option.
It was really amazing to stand there. After a four year desire to make it I had accomplished my goal. It was a great feeling. We hung out on the summit for something like an hour before heading down. I had the worst headache in the world due to the altitude, but was otherwise fine.
Looking back at Trail Camp from the summit
The broad back of Whitney and the Needles
Whitney and the Needles make me imagine a giant cookie cutter has carved out the face of these immense peaks.
Treeline Lake naturally is right about at the treeline
The larger of Hitchcock Lakes
One last view into Sequoia National Park
The jagged shadow of the Needles over Trail Camp, and one photographer's shadow
I didn’t sleep well the first night, but I did sleep better the second night after summiting Whitney. And, I did so with a smile on my face.
Dawn at Trail Camp
First light illuminates the face of Whitney
Sunrise at Trail Camp is spectacular. Whitney is the flat top on the right, which due to perspective appears shorter than the needles that are closer.
Consultation Lake panorama
Another view of Consultation Lake
The view going back is a bit different. Still well above the treeline
Back at Trailside Meadow
Below the treeline again
Mount Whitney from the portal road. Hard to believe I was standing up there the day before.
Mount Whitney in my rear view. Until the next time
For 2011, my application is in. I want to come back with a lot more camera gear to capture some amazing pics. I hope you’ve enjoyed my recounting of this epic hike. Special thanks to my friends Ron and Sarah Rebensdorf for letting me come along on their permit last year!
Kristen Murphy - Awesome colors!
Thanks for the link to Pando; that was really interesting. I hadn’t known aspens grew that way.