A few miles south of Owens Lake, the BLM site of Fossil Falls is worth the short hike.
The historic but now-dry riverbed of the Owens River, Fossil Falls is where the river cut through a lava bed in a series of cascades. All that remains now is a shot slot canyon featuring a series of intricate shapes cut in the lava.
The charcoal kilns up near Mahogany Flat are interesting at night... another great candidate for star trails and/or light painting, but COLD at nearly 8000 feet, probably snowed in by January. It's a looonnng drive from the valley on small, tight roads. On the way there, the road to the ghost town of Skidoo has some interesting mine ruins, haven't explored them yet or been all the way out to the town site yet though. By early December in this late Winter the gravel road to the cmpground at Mahogany Flat at 8200' had snow and ice and was dicey in an AWD minivan, particularly on the descent.
Camping nearby at the Furnace Creek campground in Death Valley National Park, dawn on this day would be at the Badwater salt flats. These polygons of salt are found in this usually dry lakebed at an elevation of 280 feet below sea level.
The Racetrack is one of the most amazing places in Death Valley. Both dawn and dusk can be good, and I still want to return to get star trails. It gets very cold quickly at nightfall this time of year, no doubt even colder at dawn. It's high enough to easily get below freezing (that's apparently how the rocks move, embedded in thick floating ice). The drive out can be completed at a fast pace in about an hour on heavy washboard gravel from Ubehebe Crater (where the paved road ends), about 90 minutes from Scotty's Castle, but it may be wise to take up to 2 hours for that last 29 miles. The paved road from Scotty's Castle to Stovepipe Wells is another hour.
You can't camp near The Racetrack, but you may be able to find a turnout up near Teakettle Junction. With the sun setting behind nearby mountains by 4pm or so, arrive by 2 so you can walk a mile or so to the moving rocks (far Southwest corner of the playa) and find the rocks and shooting angles you'll want to catch as the light gets good.
If you have a GPS unit and may be out until sunset, mark your car position so you can find your way back after dark. There may be some water to get around near the parking lot as well. The playa is closed if it's wet and muddy; the visitor center (or a site like DesertUSA) may have details on recent conditions to spare you a long, fruitless drive.
I've punctured a tire on 50% of my visits to The Racetrack (and I've had off-road SUV tires disintegrate on other washboard roads), and the Park Service recommends 4WD, high clearance, two spares and plenty of survival supplies. I've lost 5 or 6 tires to gravel roads over the past 3 years. I've simply been lucky not to get two at once. I carry two cans of Fix-a-Flat in case a puncture is small enough, but it the failure is rarely that small or simple on those roads, and sometimes those cans have gone bad and don't work (carry 2 different brands), perhaps due to the occasional heat of desert travel conditions (particularly in your locked car at a trailhead, even when the outside conditions aren't that hot).
The road to the Racetrack was in relatively good shape when I visited at the beginning of December... still crappy with very deep washboad that rattles your vehicle at any speed, but the additional baseball-sized rocks that pummelled my SUV last year had been graded to the side. The road from Ubehebe Crater to Eureka Dunes was also in better shape than on past trips, though still an hour or more of punishing rattling, and still rated by the Park Service as poorly as the road out to the Racetrack. Road conditions can change dramatically with one storm, so who knows what they're like now.
Our dawn shot on this day would be on the Eureka Dunes, onbe of my favorite places to shoot in Death Valley National Park. The shots are far more compelling if you hike up in the dunes, preferably to the top. Even better if you hike with someone and have a subject to shoot, and they can shoot you as well. The surface is actually quite hard, not like beach dunes at all, so wear solid hiking boots that you can occasionally use to kick a foothold into a steep, firm surface. We took 4-5 hours to do the hike including plenty of time for photography. We started hiking with headlamps before the theoretical (level horizon) sunrise time of 6:45 or so, and got to the top of the dunes just after the sun cleared the mountains (about 9?). Ideally I'd want to have 2 mornings here. This time of year the occasional rains and wind can keep the dunes pretty well clean of hiker tracks, enhancing the photographic opportunities.
Less than 30 seconds after I took this picture a jet from China Lake Naval Air Station came screaming around the dunes, on his side in a hard turn, at only a slightly higher elevation than I was standing (about 200-300 feet off the valley floor). I had turned off the camera, so I only caught him departing without much of the dunes in the shot. It would have been great to catch him, close and large, in this image!
From a brisk Mono Lake dawn shoot we went for coffee and lunch in Mammoth Lakes. From there the in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest seemed like the next best sunset spot. When we arrived the going was a bit iffy in unplowed snow with fewer and fewer prior tire tracks in it the further we went, but we reached some of the better trees just as the light from the sun setting over the Sierra Nevada was getting really good.
After a too-late start from the Sacramento area Mono Lake was a convenient place to camp that would place us very well for sunrise shots. I decided to revisit a grove of limestone tufa formations that gets very few visitors. It's such a pain to access that it's not even marked on most maps!
A complete loop of the Sierra Nevada Range is most practical only from late June through mid October when there's a reasonable certainty that many of the high apsse will be open. That timeframe also increases the odds that you may visit scenic sites such as the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, much of which lies at 10,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation.
I departed from the Sierra Foothills town of Auburn (near Sacramento) in early afternoon, determined to get as far towards the Mono Lake area as I could by sunset. I made it over Luther Pass, then Monitor Pass, then the light started getting really nice as I descended near Slinkard Valley. The light was complemented by a solid dusting of snow on the surrounding peaks and hillsides. I stopped for a few photos.
A few notes on fishing in the Eastern Sierra region this week:
I dropped by the Carson River below Hope Valley (in the high gradient section below Sorenson's Resort) last Friday. I found good numbers of small rainbows and browns.
My next stop was Heenan Lake. I had given up on it a couple of years ago after my son Thomas and I walked completely around it and only found one small hole in the weeds to cast form shore. This year the weeds died off and the lake level has dropped, so the weeds are mostly gone, and the few remants that remain are dead and rotten and pull right up (don't catch or break your line).
I fished from shore and hooked one 21-22" Lahontan, but if I recall the recent result charts correctly, most anglers catch several, and the fishing picked up in early October as the weather cooled.
That evening I continued on to the Mammoth Lakes Area. I've fished the Upper Owens River in the short open section immediately above the lake, and although I'm finding good numbers of rainbows and browns (mostly 8-11" with an occasional one to 14"), for the most part the 5-10 pound spawning browns don't seem to have entered the river yet. People say that they move in when the weather turns bad.
I scouted out Convict Creek below Hwy 395 from the green church towards Owens Lake and found that it's very small and has a lot of small (mostly 8") browns, but it has diversion dams that prevent larger fish from moving upstream. I must have walked nearly 2 miles and didn't quite reach its confluence with McGee Creek. I'll probably try walking down McGee Creek instead next time.
I drove by Hot Creek a couple of times, and even on weekdays it's overrun with fishermen. There was a nice hatch going between the hatchery and the Hot Creek Ranch property, and the dozen people fishing in that 1/4 mile stretch of creek seemed to be doing well.
I'm going to try the San Juaquin in Devil's Postpile National Monument next, perhaps hiking a couple of miles to try below Rainbow Falls. Then I'll probably hit the East Walker River on my way back to Heenan Lake this weekend, possibly hitting Lake Davis on my way towards the Pit, Upper Sacramento, McCloud and Trinity rivers later this month.
Given my passion for producing stunning images I've lately been moving towards motion pictures. I have years of experience producing amateur ski movies on point-and-shoot DV cameras, but I'd love to apply advanced photographic tools and techniques using higher end cameras that allow for more creative control.
I signed on with Potamoi Media Group to help them produce a flyfishing video this Winter, but unfortunately one of the producers has an injury that requires a postponement. I returned from their first shooting location in Missouri to drown my sorrows in 20"+ broodstock Lahontan Cutthroat Trout at Heenan Lake in California.
Now to appease my need to make a film in the meantime... a ski film perhaps? Time will tell...
Over 50 other photographers had lined up along the shoreline, and they were dealing with the windy surface of the lake. I found this calm area and got down in the water and mud to take the wind out of the shot and get a reflection.