Starry skies, a fiery sunrise, and a visit to some of the oldest trees in the world? The second part of our photography road trip on California's Highway 395 did not disappoint.
This is the second of four blog posts about our road trip on California's scenic Highway 395. Check out this blog post to read about the first part of our trip, the three days we spent in Death Valley. If you have read that one, then I'm sure you'll be pleased to learn that this post won't be quite as long, but there will be some equally dramatic photos! Enjoy!
Day 5 // Alabama Hills
After leaving Death Valley National Park, we stopped at the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center outside of Lone Pine to talk to the rangers about weather conditions for the next few days. We had four more nights to camp and I was slightly concerned about freezing temperatures overnight – up to this point, we'd never camped below 4 ºC (39 ºF).
When we told the ranger we were planning on driving north towards Mammoth over the next few days, she warned us that we may get trapped by two feet of snow. Wait, what!? She explained that a winter storm was coming and the roads in and out of Mammoth would likely be closed as a result. I felt completely gutted that our trip might be cut short by poor weather (but also fairly confused at how snow could close the only roads into a ski resort...??).
We drove to a small park in Lone Pine to eat lunch and discuss our next steps – I quickly learnt that eating spicy food when your lips are sunburnt is not fun! With my lips burning painfully, we pulled out our (many) maps of the area and debated our options. We had two major factors to consider. One, we needed to make it to the Bay Area by the end of the week so I could see my extended family. And, two, we had a night booked at a hotel in Mammoth for our anniversary that we didn't want to miss!
After an extended discussion, we came up with three different options. We could continue north and risk getting stuck in the mountains when the snow came. We could turn around and drive south around the Sierra Nevada mountain range to get to the Bay Area, which would mean forfeiting our anniversary celebrations. Or we could go back into Death Valley, where there definitely wouldn't be any snow, and reassess the situation in a few days.
Checking the weather forecast online, Brett couldn't find any evidence that there would be two feet of snow falling in Mammoth later that week. The previous week there had been predictions of an atmospheric river bringing heavy precipitation to the area, but we couldn't find anything suggesting it was still on its way. Rangers are generally fairly cautious, so it wasn't surprising that she had recommended we proceed with caution.
We eventually agreed to camp in Alabama Hills that night as planned and check the weather forecast again the following morning before making a final decision. As much as I didn't want to miss our anniversary celebrations in Mammoth, I equally didn't want to get stuck there as I knew there was no way we could afford it. We'd already spent an unplanned night in a hotel after getting a flat tire and I was hoping we could avoid having to pay for another night (or more).
Our minds made up, we began the drive out to Alabama Hills. We had camped here on our trip in summer 2021 and I was excited for the incredible photo opportunities. Whitney Portal Road, the main road up to Alabama Hills, was closed for maintenance, so we had to take a longer route, following Tuttle Creek Road. Neither of us had driven this way before and we were surprised at how beautiful it was. The road wound through imposing canyons of rock formations, interspersed with dramatic fall foliage. In the background, the Eastern Sierras stood tall. At one point, we parked the car on the side of the road and went for a walk through the rocks, winding our way around the almost-alien landscape.
By 15:00, we had picked a campsite – one of the designated spots off Movie Road. Leaving the car behind to claim our spot, we continued our exploration of the rock formations while there was still light in the valley. Every time I approached a rock formation to pose for a shoot, I was in awe of its size! From afar, the rocks look human-height, but when you approach them, their true scale becomes clear. Within an hour, the sun had set behind the mountains, leaving the valley in shade.
Back at the campsite, a cold wind had picked up, so we opted to set up the tarp to provide some extra warmth overnight. With the tent pitched, we did something unusual – we sat down and read! I had assumed we'd have plenty of 'down' time on the trip to read our books, draw, or write. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that we found a way to use up all of our time on photography or travelling to wherever we were going to be shooting next! Wrapped up against the chill of the evening, we read our books as it began to grow dark.
Astro-photography at Mobius Arch
With the light fading, we ate an early dinner, sheltered behind one of the large rock formations. By 18:00 we had finished eating and were wondering what to do – we were tempted to get into the tent and go to bed, but agreed that it seemed a bit too early. To keep ourselves occupied until a reasonable hour, I suggested that we drive over to Mobius Arch, one of the most iconic spots in Alabama Hills.
We had visited the same spot on our 2021 California road trip and had been surprised to find we had the whole place to ourselves. This time, I was sure we wouldn't be alone. We couldn't get that lucky twice, could we? Apparently you can, because once again, we were the only ones! I had seen photos of the Milky Way rising up behind the arch, and with a bit of trial and error was able to recreate something similar, using my head torch to "paint" the face of the arch with light. I'm glad we went on this little expedition because this Milky Way photo ended up being one of my favourite shots from our trip!
Not wanting to spend too much longer out in the cold, we drove back to our campsite, got into our tent, and were asleep by 19:30.
Day 6 // Alabama Hills to Big Pine
Sunrise in Alabama Hills
Since we didn't have to travel anywhere to shoot sunrise, we were able to have a lie in for the first time in a few days! When the alarm went off at 6:00, there was already colour in the sky, so we quickly got out of the tent to start shooting. Within a few minutes, the tops of the mountains were painted a vibrant pink. Brett informed me that this incredible alpenglow is only possible in the winter months, when the sun rises at such an angle that it isn't blocked by the White Mountains on the other side of the valley.
We climbed up onto a huge rock to get a better view of the surrounding mountains. The lighting conditions changed quickly – when the sun's first rays hit the mountains, the soft pink turned to a harsh orange.
Brett and I were frantically shooting with all the cameras we had, attempting to capture the magic of the moment before the fleeting lighting conditions changed again. Within minutes, the clouds had cast a shadow over the mountains, leaving just the foreground bathed in a golden light.
And just as quickly, the lighting changed again as the sun went behind the clouds entirely. The most impressive sunrise of our trip was over within 30 minutes. Brett has spent a number of mornings in Alabama Hills, but confirmed that this was by far the most dramatic sunrise he's ever seen there. After the colours had faded from the sky, we wandered around the rocky landscape, seeking interesting portrait locations. I would gladly come back and spend more time exploring this unique landscape!
From Alabama Hills, we drove up to Whitney Portal. At 8,372 feet (2,552 metres), this is the most popular spot for people to start the hike up Mount Whitney, the tallest point in the contiguous United States. As the road climbed, we passed trees bright with autumn colours and others devoid of any colour at all, trunks blackened from a wildfire in 2021. As we continued climbing in elevation, we were met with impressive views out over Owens Valley and towards the White Mountains.
By the time we had arrived at Whitney Portal, the temperature had dropped to just below freezing. We spent the next half an hour wandering around taking photos of the semi-frozen waterfalls. We only spotted a handful of people while we were there, so it's strange to think of the parking lot and picnic tables bustling with activity in the summer months.
Back in Lone Pine, we stopped at the Alabama Hills Cafe & Bakery for a hot drink and a cinnamon roll. It was time to reassess the weather situation and decide whether we were continuing north or turning around. While there was some snow forecast for Mammoth, it looked like it was more likely to be two inches than two feet. Many of the mountain passes over the Sierra Nevada mountains were already closed for the winter, but we found routes across the mountains that were likely to stay open even if there was some snow.
Satisfied that we (probably) wouldn't get trapped in Mammoth, the next step was to plan the rest of our trip! We had exited Death Valley a day earlier than planned, so we had an extra day to explore. We pulled out the Highway 395 Fall Colours Map and our new road atlas and discussed our priorities for the next few days.
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
Having made a plan for the rest of the day, it was time for the adventure to continue – but not before a final stop at the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center! After getting some additional information about campsites, we continued north on Highway 395 to Big Pine. We had assumed Big Pine might be a similar size town to Lone Pine. We were mistaken. Big Pine, despite having the word "big" in its name, is tiny. Happy that there was space at the campsite, we continued the drive onwards towards the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
Winding through pine forests, the road climbed thousands of feet from the valley floor into the White Mountains. We stopped briefly at the Sierra View Overlook to get a view of the Sierra Nevada mountains – we had spent the morning exploring Whitney Portal in the Sierras, now we were on the mountain range on the opposite side of the valley looking back across!
We arrived at the National Forest and prepared lunch in the sun. As we ate, a curious Mountain Chickadee hopped on our picnic table – it was obviously accustomed to humans as it kept coming back even after we shooed it away!
As we walked around the visitor centre, we noticed lots of small coloured flags on the ground, each indicating the age of an accompanying bristlecone pine tree. A sign explained that construction work for the new visitor centre had disturbed the soil in the area, which had been followed by heavy rain, leading to a surprising number of new bristlecone pines appearing! Brett and I were instantly enamoured by the baby bristlecones! Although most were several years old, many were no taller than my thumb, clearly visualising just how long these trees take to grow!
With only a few hours left before sunset, we agreed to do the "Discovery" trail, the medium difficulty trail through the forest. As we walked, information signs along the trail taught us about the scientific discoveries that led to the bristlecone pine trees being revealed to be some of the oldest living individual organisms on the planet.
One tree in this particular forest, named Methusalah, has long been considered Earth’s oldest living thing, at an estimated 4,853 years old. As a result of the slow-growing nature of the species, the trees develop incredibly dense wood which is resistant to numerous threats, including insects, fungi, and rot. As the trees age, they become warped and twisted, giving rise to interesting shapes and forms.
As we approached the edge of the forest, I suggested we turn around and walk back the same way we had come up. Brett thought we should finish the loop, and I'm glad he did – if we had turned around we would have missed seeing the most iconic tree in the whole forest! Brett likened the trees' branches to a dancer, twisting gracefully towards the clear blue sky.
(We later learned that, although this is the tree that comes up if you Google "Methuselah," it is not, in fact, the oldest tree. Apparently, Methuselah is instead located somewhere off the Methuselah trail, but its location is kept secret so people don't harm it.)
We debated staying around to shoot star trails with the iconic tree, but it was already cold and I was nervous about driving back down the windy mountain roads in the dark. Instead, we watched sunset from the Sierra View Overlook before driving back down to the valley floor.
That night, we camped at the Glacier View Campground, located right off the side of the highway. While the location seemed convenient, the sound of the highway was definitely not conducive to sleeping in a tent, especially when a series of cop cars flew down the highway with their sirens blazing at one in the morning! But luckily it wasn't too long a night, as we were up again at 4:30 to start on the next day's adventures...
Make sure you follow along for our next blog post about our 10-mile hike in the Sierra Nevada mountains!