Tahoe Light Photography » Corporate, outdoor and adventure photography by Reno and Lake Tahoe freelance photographer Scott Sady.

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By Scott

My wife, in a stroke of genius, found a house to rent on airbnb inside the restricted Kalapana Gardens area. That gave us much closer access to the lava fields from that side.

My wife, in a stroke of genius, found a house to rent on airbnb inside the restricted Kalapana Gardens area. That gave us much closer access to the lava fields from that side.

How to best photograph the Lava flowing in Volcano National Park on the big island of Hawaii? I’m not going to talk about pixels or f-stops or composition or any of what makes a good photograph, I am going to tell you all the things that I tried to find out before I left but could not and which would have made my life way easier if I had. If you are looking for more ideas of cool things to do and see in Hawaii that aren’t lava related, then check out my blog post from 2013 with caves, sea turtles, breweries, beaches etc.

First, the logistics. You can approach the lava flow from two sides. From the Volcano National Park side, you drive to the end of Chain of Craters Road, there is a ranger station there that will tell you anything you may need to know, and you can buy water and use the head before heading out 4.2 miles one way on a gravel road. There are no bike concessions on this side, at least when we were there, though private individuals did bring their own bikes to this side. It is way less crowded on the National Park entry side! From the Kalapana Gardens side, they have a parking lot set up just before the entrance to the Kalapana Gardens residences. This parking lot is officially open from 3pm to 9pm, but the bike vendors are usually renting bikes by noon, and the guards don’t show up until around 1pm. Bikes are the BEST way to get to the flow. If you can find a place in Kona to rent a bike for several days, do it because we saw the price of bike rentals go from $10/day to $10/hour in the 4 days we were there. A good rider on a bike can go the 4.5 miles in under 1/2 hour, where it would take at least two hours to walk. Sunset is a circus out there. The walk out is on a gravel road, but it is very hot and humid, and therefore most people head out after 3pm and stay late into the night. The amount of lights on the lava fields after sunset reminded me of Burning Man. They tell you to bring a gallon of water per person, and if you are walking, that is about right. The most I went through was 3 liters, but that was when I stayed overnight. Wear boots! You don’t need firefighter’s boots or Nomax pants, but wear hiking boots with vibram soles, and if you plan to get close to the lava for pictures, wear long pants and long sleeves. The radiant heat out there, especially close to a large breakout, is insane. Just having a covering of material, like sleeves and long pants, makes it so much more comfortable to remain in place for the time it takes to get a photo. If you’re just looking, go in shorts, but still wear the boots. I saw a lot of tourists hopping across rock that was so hot they couldn’t stand still in tennis shoes.  The main area of the flow at the road is currently about 500 feet wide or so. Sometimes you can find a way to walk across from one side to the other, sometimes you can’t. The lava changes in flow, intensity and path every day.

Where to stay. The Kalapana and Pahoa side of the island is super crunchy hippy and local, nude beaches and yoga retreats. You can find decent lodging in one of these kind of retreat places along the Red Road, but my wife, in a stroke of genius, found a house for rent inside the restricted area of Kalapana Gardens, a historic fishing village that was wiped out by lava flow. Anything you are going to find on the lava flows will be rustic, off the grid residences, most likely with pit toilets and solar showers. But they are unique and you can use the resident’s privilege to drive about 2.5 miles closer during sunrise as long as you are out before they post guards around noon or one. If you are coming from Volcano National Park, the town of Volcano has some hotels and room rentals, but they are about twice as expensive as they would be on the Kalapana side.

Photographically, lava presented its own unique set of challenges. First, weather. It is often windy and rainy on the coast of Hawaii. The biggest tripod you can carry is the one you should use. All my best water entry shots are slightly blurry because my 300mm lens and 30 mph wind did not agree with each other. Bring several lights!!! If you are photographing at night, it is very dark on the black lava. Often you will find a shot you like, but the ground is too hot to put your camera bag down nearby, so you have to walk away a bit. Leave a light on your bag. Trust me on this. If you don’t, you will spend half your time looking for your camera bag. Take a handheld GPS. If you just want to leave your bag and carry your camera and tripod around for a while to make things easier, make a way-point for your bag (in addition to the light.) Also make a way-point where you left your bike, make a way-point where you leave the gravel road. It is extremely hard to navigate out there.

Digital noise! This was a surprise to me. I am used to shooting star shots in the coolness of the High Sierra where I usually only have to use dark frame subtraction to reduce noise on exposures over 25 seconds. And even then, if I don’t it might be a matter of 15 minutes cloning out the occasional bright red or blue pixel. When your camera is hot, as it will be here, digital noise is magnified 100-fold. I found hundreds of specs on just 5 second exposures and I am going to have to really be in love with one of my long exposure night shots to go through the hours it will take me to clean that up. Shoot dark frames on any exposure over 2 seconds and any ISO over 800! Lava is really bright. It doesn’t seem like it, and the highlight indicator on the back of my screen didn’t flash that often, but the combination of brightness, and the intense yellow and red color of the magma makes these pictures blow out, or go out of gamut really fast. Bracket. Shoot a lot of faster shutter speeds. I know the flowing lava looks really cool, but almost every long shot I did at any aperture/ISO combination blew out from the intense yellows. Look for darker, glowing lava in the twilight hours, and go hunting for the big flows after the sun comes up.

Hopefully this helps make your trip a little easier than mine. If you found some useful information here, feel free to share it anywhere and everywhere!

Walking the 4.5 miles into the lava flow on the closed, gravel section of Chain of Craters road from the Kalapana side in Hawaii.Walking the 4.5 miles into the lava flow on the closed, gravel section of Chain of Craters road from the Kalapana side in Hawaii.

Lava flows into the ocean from the Hawaii Volcano National Park side of the lava flow from the Kilauea volcano on the Big Island.

Lava flows into the ocean from the Hawaii Volcano National Park side of the lava flow from the Kilauea volcano on the Big Island.

Sunset on the lava flows reminds me of Burning man. It is way too crowded and there are a lot of people doing a lot of silly things just because they see other people doing it, like walking across glowing lava rock in tennis shoes.

Sunset on the lava flows reminds me of Burning Man. It is way too crowded and there are a lot of people doing a lot of silly things just because they see other people doing it, like walking across glowing lava rock in tennis shoes.

Lava entering the sea from the Volcano National Park side in Hawaii. Give yourself several days if you want good photographs, in this day, the only day there was a clear view of the sea entry from land like this, there were sustained 30 mph winds blowing fumes and making any telephoto work on a tripod impossible.

Lava entering the sea from the Volcano National Park side in Hawaii. Give yourself several days if you want good photographs, on this day, the only day there was a clear view of the sea entry from land like this, there were sustained 30 mph winds blowing fumes and making any telephoto work on a tripod impossible.

A view of the lava ocean entry from the Kalapana side. This wasn

A view of the lava ocean entry from the Kalapana side. This wasn’t as photogenic as the other side, and the sea entry had gone completely into a lava tube the day we left, but two days later as we were at the airport headed home, a large breakout apparently started cascading over the cliff face nearly 400 ft wide. It changes every hour.

Our first night we flew in 6 hours, drove 3 hours then hiked for 4.5 miles. We decided to just sleep out on the lava field as the easiest thing to do in order to have an opportunity to shoot sunrise and sunset. The winds howled all night long, and around 2am turned noticeably warmer. I got up and found that the lava had come to within 100 feet of where we were sleeping.

Our first night we flew in 6 hours, drove 3 hours then hiked for 4.2 miles. We decided to just sleep out on the lava field as the easiest thing to do in order to have an opportunity to shoot sunrise and sunset. The winds howled all night long, and around 2am turned noticeably warmer. I got up and found that the lava had come to within 200 feet of where we were sleeping.

Photographically the lava presents many problems. During the day, even the big flowing breakouts appear a dull orange. During the blue of dusk and dawn things look the best to me, but if you have any breakout, or moving lava, it is so intensely yellow and bright that it was impossible to photograph with a digital camera without going out of gamut. So I started looking for formations that were starting to cool and no longer moving and found those balanced out the best.

Photographically the lava presents many problems. During the day, even the big flowing breakouts appear a dull orange. During the blue of dusk and dawn things look the best to me, but if you have any breakout, or moving lava, it is so intensely yellow and bright that it was impossible to photograph with a digital camera without going out of gamut. So I started looking for formations that were starting to cool and no longer moving and found those balanced out the best.

Photographically the lava presents many problems. During the day, even the big flowing breakouts appear a dull orange. During the blue of dusk and dawn things look the best to me, but if you have any breakout, or moving lava, it is so intensely yellow and bright that it was impossible to photograph with a digital camera without going out of gamut. So I started looking for formations that were starting to cool and no longer moving and found those balanced out the best.

Photographically the lava presents many problems. During the day, even the big flowing breakouts appear a dull orange. During the blue of dusk and dawn things look the best to me, but if you have any breakout, or moving lava, it is so intensely yellow and bright that it was impossible to photograph with a digital camera without going out of gamut. So I started looking for formations that were starting to cool and no longer moving and found those balanced out the best.

One morning when I hiked in around 2 am, there was a large flowing river of magma running straight into the ocean. It was so hot and bright that we could feel it from the cliff. It was also so bright, that at 2am, I got a choice of a strip of well exposed lava and nothing else, or some surrounding texture and blown-out lava. I bracketed and did some blending in post, but found that some only worked as black and white. Oh, and when I came back to this spot around 4:30 am to shoot the sunrise, the entire flow of lava had stopped. Only a small glow from the tube at the end. Did I mention it changes every hour?

One morning when I hiked in around 2 am, there was a large flowing river of magma running straight into the ocean. It was so hot and bright that we could feel it from the cliff. It was also so bright, that at 2am, I got a choice of a strip of well exposed lava and nothing else, or some surrounding texture and blown-out lava. I bracketed and did some blending in post, but found that some only worked as black and white. Oh, and when I came back to this spot around 4:30 am to shoot the sunrise, the entire flow of lava had stopped. Only a small glow from the tube at the end. Did I mention it changes every hour?

We booked a sunrise lava boat for one day just to see what that angle looked like. It was worth it, the boats all got really close and spent plenty of time. The lava wasn

We booked a sunrise lava boat for one day just to see what that angle looked like. It was worth it, the boats all got really close and spent plenty of time. The lava wasn’t too active on this particular day, but you never know. Although I rarely saw a large group of people at sunrise (compared to the insanity of the sunset crowds) there was a local party and about 20 people decided to take the after-party out onto the lava fields. I’m surprised they all survived.

A subtle sunrise at the lava ocean entry seen from the boat.

A subtle sunrise at the lava ocean entry seen from the boat.

The end of the lava tube emptying into the ocean. The ocean entry points change the fastest with the water cooling the lava surface and allowing quicker formation of tubes.

The end of the lava tube emptying into the ocean. The ocean entry points change the fastest with the water cooling the lava surface and allowing quicker formation of tubes.

There were three boats operating tours, two small ones like these, and a large 50 footer. Most days I saw the small boats arrive about 2 minutes before the large boat and was disappointed to find we could only get space on the large boat, but it turned out ok as the all get so close that I really wouldn

There were three boats operating tours, two small ones like these, and a large 50 footer. Most days I saw the small boats arrive about 2 minutes before the large boat and was disappointed to find we could only get space on the large boat, but it turned out fine as they all get so close that I really wouldn’t want to get closer. At slow speed, the larger boat was actually more stable, making the photography easier, just get in quick and get a seat in front or on the edge, because fully 2/3 of the seats you would be in a center isle and have to shoot over people, not good!

Hawaii volcano national park lava ocean entry 2016.

Hawaii volcano national park lava ocean entry 2016.

This was part of the party group. This woman sat on this spot the entire time our boat was out there, over an hour, taking selfies. Just so you know, that hump she was sitting on was not there when I hiked back in at sunset.

This was part of the party group. This woman sat on this spot the entire time our boat was out there, over an hour, taking selfies. Just so you know, that hump she was sitting on was not there when I hiked back in at sunset.

One of the more crowded sunrises on the lava field.

One of the more crowded sunrises on the lava field.

Another thing to consider besides wind and weather if you are looking for that epic ocean entry shot is tide. High tide was mostly in the morning while we were there, meaning bigger waves and more explosive impacts with the lava. It also meant the ocean entry spent more time either under water or steaming that being clearly visible. If you are doing some planning, which we did not, aim for a time when you have lower tides in the morning.

Another thing to consider besides wind and weather if you are looking for that epic ocean entry shot is tide. High tide was mostly in the morning while we were there, meaning bigger waves and more explosive impacts with the lava. It also meant the ocean entry spent more time either under water or steaming than being clearly visible. If you are doing some travel planning, which we did not, aim for a time when you have lower tides in the morning.

I took this photo on the second day, after I realized that going to the breakout flows like a moth to light didn

I took this photo on the second day, after I realized that going to the breakout flows like a moth to light didn’t actually make for better pictures. I slowed down and started looking for compositions with subtly glowing rock instead.

This picture was actually well after the sun came up on a stormy morning. We also had the good fortune to have the remnants of two tropical cyclones pass by during the 4 days I had to shoot. So you can get a better idea of the brightness of the lava by how dark the sky is for a proper exposure.

This picture was actually well after the sun came up on a stormy morning. We also had the good fortune to have the remnants of two tropical cyclones pass by during the 4 days I had to shoot. So you can get a better idea of the brightness of the lava by how dark the sky is for a proper exposure.

hawaii lava volcano park

More subtle glowing compositions to go with the sunrise sky.

More subtle glowing compositions to go with the sunrise sky.

This is one of my favorite pictures from the shoot, not only for how it turned out, but for the experience in shooting it. I rented a bike the last evening we were there and rode in about 5pm. Riding the 4.5 miles took me about 25 minutes. It was raining off and on as I was riding, and once I got there, the crowds were gathered along the road and near the sea entry, so I simply walked the other direction. During the time I was there, the more active flows were actually about .5 miles up the coastal plain towards the mountains, but nobody ever went there. So I am out shooting by myself and another squall comes over. It was a windless evening and the only sound was the hiss of the falling raindrops building to a roar as the drops exploded into steam on the super heated rock. This squall built into a real rainstorm and I put my camera away, then looked about realizing I was completely isolated in the steam. I couldn

This is one of my favorite pictures from the shoot, not only for how it turned out, but for the experience in shooting it. I rented a bike the last evening we were there and rode in about 5pm. Riding the 4.5 miles took me about 25 minutes. It was raining off and on as I was riding, and once I got there, the crowds were gathered along the road and near the sea entry, so I simply walked the other direction. During the time I was there, the more active flows were actually about .5 miles up the coastal plain towards the mountains, but nobody ever went there. So I am out shooting by myself and another squall comes over. It was a windless evening and the only sound was the hiss of the falling raindrops building to a roar as the drops exploded into steam on the super heated rock. This squall built into a real rainstorm and I put my camera away, then looked about realizing I was completely isolated in the steam. I couldn’t see 100 ft. in any direction and the temperature was hotter that the steam room in my gym, so I stripped and enjoyed natures open air sauna for about 10 minutes until the squall passed, then I unpacked my camera and took this picture.

Speed Flying Sky Tavern

The first night we were there, the lava wasn

The first night we were there, the lava wasn’t very active so I decided to spend the night trying to do some night photography. I had a lot of fun, and learned to find the subtle leading lines of red that you could barely see, but would seem to explode from the core of the earth on a 20 second exposure. What I did NOT count on, nor even notice until I got home, was that in the extremely hot state my camera was in, digital noise was increased about 100 fold. Where I would normally not have to think about dark frame subtraction on a 2-10 second exposure in the mountains, I found that these time frames yielded thousands of red and blue and green specs that will take hours to remove. So either keep your camera cool, or dark frame every different exposure you use.

The first night we were there, the lava wasn

The first night we were there, the lava wasn’t very active so I decided to spend the night trying to do some night photography. I had a lot of fun, and learned to find the subtle leading lines of red that you could barely see, but would seem to explode from the core of the earth on a 20 second exposure. What I did NOT count on, nor even notice until I got home, was that in the extremely hot state my camera was in, digital noise was increased about 100 fold. Where I would normally not have to think about dark frame subtraction on a 2-10 second exposure in the mountains, I found that these time frames yielded thousands of red and blue and green specs that will take hours to remove. So either keep your camera cool, or dark frame every different exposure you use.

This was the sign that read “Do not go beyond this point,” and which almost everyone ignored. Sadly, you would have to ignore it to get a decent photo, but as I mentioned before, the lava field changes every hour. One morning it may be perfectly fine to get close in a certain direction, the next morning it may be an orange lake of fire. This sign was up when I arrived at 3am. After the sun came up, the flows had changed and started moving along the road and spreading out and this and one other sign got burnt in that few hour span.

This is the feeling my wife got when she realized she had just accompanied my on our last long hike in or out from the lava fields.

This is the feeling my wife got when she realized she had just accompanied me on our last long hike in or out from the lava fields.

After 4 days on the lava field, we headed to Kona to do the one other thing I really wanted to do last time I visited the island, the night time manta ray dive. We actually did a real dive before this one, because on this dive, you basically just sit in a field of lights and let the manta rays swim all around you. Don’t get me wrong, it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen underwater. It’s a very easy dive, and probably one of the better night dives you could do. We went with Big Island Divers and were glad we did. They were super professional and had some of the best “campfires,” what they call the big lights that attract the plankton that in turn attract the manta rays, and we got the best seats in the house while a lot of the smaller operators had to sit farther back. Either way it looked awesome and I would highly recommend it if you are SCUBA certified.

These photos have nothing to do with lava, but I thought this was a really cool experience. The last time we went to Hawaii in 2013 there were two things I really wanted to do that I could not. One was see lava, because it wasn

These photos have nothing to do with lava, but I thought this was a really cool experience. The last time we went to Hawaii in 2013 there were two things I really wanted to do that I could not. One was see lava, because it wasn’t flowing, and two was dive with the manta rays, because my wife wasn’t certified and I didn’t feel like ditching her for a night. Well, in the years between that trip and this, Monique got certified and we booked a night manta ray dive with Big Island Divers. It was kind of like Cirque du Solei under water with all the lights, but it was an amazing experience and looked really cool and there are tons of manta rays which like to eat the plankton which is attracted to the light. So they would just fly all around us for an hour, I even had to duck once, they can’t see the best apparently. But it was one of the best night dives ever. Highly recommended.

Speed Flying Sky Tavern

Speed Flying Sky Tavern

Speed Flying Sky Tavern

Speed Flying Sky Tavern

Speed Flying Sky Tavern

Speed Flying Sky Tavern

Hi, Monique here, sharing a few more images. We thought we

Hi, Monique here, sharing a few more images. We thought we’d end this post with a few of our “lifestyle” images from the trip… things we do on our down time when not photographing the lava. Top image: I found this cute little “tiny house” on Airbnb inside the Kalapana Gardens housing area. It was a perfect home base and had all the modest amenities we needed. Below left: A mural of Madame Pele, the fire Goddess, in the super crunchy hippy town of Pahoa, she was good to us this year, but since we left, she has doubled her efforts to get the lava flowing in to the sea! At Right: As soon as we landed in Kona, we were starving for lunch, so we just happened upon Da Poke Shack, not knowing that it is rated as the best Poke in Kona! It is a take out place with only a few spots to sit at the restaurant, but there are several beautiful beaches nearby on Alii Drive that you can have a picnic with a view. Below left: Rambuton, papaya, mango and those little sweet bananas were a staple for breakfast. Middle: A lonely jungle road in the Puna district to the east of the lava flow, where we spent our down time at Kehena Beach, a black sand beach, swimming and napping, and visiting warm springs pools. At right: On our last day we spent time at Waialea Beach north of Kona where we found our own private cove for skinny dipping and skinny snorkeling. Bottom left: the other black sand beach in the Kalapana area that is slowly replacing a world famous coconut tree lined beach that was wiped out from a lava flow in 1986-92 Pu’u O’o flow. This area has a long way to go, probably centuries, until the lush jungle returns. Bottom right: On our last evening, we revisited one of our favorite eateries from our first trip, The Big Island Brewhaus in Waimea.

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  • August 15, 2016 - 12:36 pm

    Susan Wilmes - Scott, Thank you SOOO much for this post. I just spent the last hour pouring over your photos and carefully reading your posts. You are so thorough – I appreciate your comments and descriptions, but even moire so your insight into the process of just getting to the lava flow. I’ll be in Kona volunteering for the Ironman in October and always leave time for the volcano. I was there in the 80’s when you could walk on the lava tubes then as well, but never had an opportunity to get back to them under those type of conditions. Your photos are mesmerizing and bring me back to the 80’s when I felt how insignificant we are in the scheme of things. While I attempt to take a few good photographs, they don’t even come close to yours. I’m sure Madame Pele would approve of your work in documenting her fiery nature! Thanks again!

  • August 15, 2016 - 3:48 pm

    ssady - Thanks Susan. When the lava started flowing again, I got online and couldn’t find out anything either. That’s why I did this. Also, I mention try to rent a bike in Kona if possible, that is because all the bikes in Kalapana, Pahoa, Hilo area were already dedicated to the rental fleets. So if you plan to go out multiple times, that is the way to go.

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Pine Creek Pass backpacking trip 2016

by Scott

It’s that time again, time for our annual 4th of July backpacking trip report (but we know you all mostly just check in for the pictures,) so here it goes…. This year’s trip was up Pine Creek Pass just north of Bishop, California, in the High Sierra. Pine Creek Pass trailhead is at a horse packing station at the end of Pine Creek Rd., across from an old tungsten mine. The trail switchbacks straight up for a few thousand feet and after about 5 miles it reaches its first lake, Pine Lake. After Upper Pine Lake, the trail splits with the right fork heading to Italy Pass and the left to Pine Creek Pass. We headed to Pine Creek Pass and camped at Upper Pine Lake for the first night about 6 miles in. (This trip was a really mellow one that would be suitable for any abilities, as long as you can read a map.) The mosquitoes at the Pine Lakes were the worst I have ever seen in my couple of decades of doing this. Fortunately we had read a few trip reports to this effect prior to setting out and we all bought dorky hat nets that fit over your hat and cover your face and neck. By the end of the trip those nets were my best friend. Once you had those on, and a long-sleeve nylon shirt and pants, you were pretty much mosquito proof without needing much DEET. But beware when you go to the bathroom, they try to make up for things there…. After Upper Pine Lake we did a water crossing that was nearly too high to pass in the evening when we got there, but had dropped by 4 inches the following morning. Pine Creek Pass itself is a very mellow pass with a long, flat saddle at the top and a gradual decent on the other side either along the trail into French Canyon, or cross country to any of a dozen high alpine lakes in close proximity. We cut off the trail at the pass and headed SW to French Lake. That was a good lake, fun for swimming and it had one large campsite in some flat grass at the south east end. From there we explored several close, higher and smaller lakes, but decided French Lake was by far the best to overnight. We saw no people there. From French Lake we cut cross-country again to L Lake, only 2 miles away. We got there early, dropped our gear and again hiked for a few hours to several nearby alpine lakes but decided a flat dirt bench above L Lake was our best camping option. This was our favorite spot with several snowmelt creeks running near us, a waterfall to swim under right beside us, L Lake below us and Steelhead Lake about 1/2 mile above us. The sides of the streams were lined with immature shooting star plants, and I imagine about two weeks after our trip, the area was a riot of color. But the best part was that we are pretty sure we saw a wolf. I only caught a glimpse, but two of our crew saw it, starting about 10 feet away, and watched it run with lightning speed and dexterity up a broken cliff face and into a small cave. We also saw lots of canine scat and paw prints nearby. From L Lake, with time running short and some of our group not feeling comfortable making the 10 mile hike back to the car, we headed back over the pass to Honeymoon Lake, where we would only have about 6 miles downhill to go in the morning. After two days of not seeing a single person, nor sign of them, Honeymoon lake was a bit of a shock. Situated right along the Italy Pass trail, there were at least 4 other small groups camped around the lake, but we decided to head the opposite direction and cross a stream at the outflow of the lake. That required taking our boots off and wading through about 30 feet of water, but we were rewarded with the best sites on the lake all to ourselves. Once we got over the initial shock of seeing people again, Honeymoon lake was a lot of fun. Cliffs to jump off of, waterfalls to play under and decent swimming and views.

Now for the technical info and shameless self promotion, so feel free to skip down to the pictures. All images are shot on a Nikon D810. This trip I only took the 24-70 f2.8. I usually take either this lens or my 14-24 f2.8, but that is a heavy lens. I know most people now look at these pictures on their phones or tablets, but I have several 5-7 foot prints hanging in local Reno businesses, so feel free to contact me or search through my archive if you need some wall art. For purchase or license of any of these images, which would make amazing decorations for home or office, head on over to my landscape photography galleries, and click search, then enter any keywords describing what you are looking for. Given the normal snowfall, I was too early for the wildflowers this year, but if you like wildflowers, check out last years trip to the Trinity Alps! And finally, I am in the process of updating the look of this blog, and this is my first entry with the images sized larger for Retina displays, so please let me know if you encounter unusually slow load times or other weirdness. Thanks.

Heading up the steep switchbacks from the Tungsten mine at the Pine Creek Pass trailhead. This is also the trailhead for Italy Pass

Heading up the steep switchbacks from the Tungsten mine at the Pine Creek Pass trailhead. This is also the trailhead for Italy Pass

The normal snow year meant a lot of water at high elevations, but most of it had a fairly easy way through.

The normal snow year meant a lot of water at high elevations, but most of it had a fairly easy way through.

At Upper Pine Lake a few shooting stars were out along the many creeks flowing into the lake, but at higher elevations it was still probably going to be mid-late july before the wildflowers really popped.

At Upper Pine Lake a few shooting stars were out along the many creeks flowing into the lake, but at higher elevations it was still probably going to be mid-late july before the wildflowers really popped.

Sunset at Upper Pine Lake, about 5 miles in from the trailhead. The mosquitoes were the worst I had ever seen this year.

Sunset at Upper Pine Lake, about 5 miles in from the trailhead. The mosquitoes were the worst I had ever seen this year.

Panoramic image of Upper Pine Lake at sunset in the High Sierra.

Panoramic image of Upper Pine Lake at sunset in the High Sierra.

There was a lengthy water crossing leaving Upper Pine Lake, it was impassible in the afternoon, but in the morning the water level had dropped by about 4 inches.

There was a lengthy water crossing leaving Upper Pine Lake, it was impassible in the afternoon, but in the morning the water level had dropped by about 4 inches.

Looking back from Pine Creek Pass at the trail and drainage up from the trailhead.

Looking back from Pine Creek Pass at the trail and drainage up from the trailhead.

There are two small lakes on Pine Creek Pass itself. The pass is one of the widest I have encountered, with at least a 1/4 mile flat section at the top before a gradual decent on the other side.

There are two small lakes on Pine Creek Pass itself. The pass is one of the widest I have encountered, with at least a 1/4 mile flat section at the top before a gradual decent on the other side.

Clockwise from left: After crossing Pine Creek Pass, we cut cross country to French Lake. 2: Cresting the basin ridge holding french lake and starting down. 3-4: We had a fairly low-mileage crew this year, and after two days of up, there was a lot of relaxing along the flat shores of 11250 foot French Lake

Clockwise from left: After crossing Pine Creek Pass, we cut cross country to French Lake. 2: Cresting the basin ridge holding french lake and starting down. 3-4: We had a fairly low-mileage crew this year, and after two days of up, there was a lot of relaxing along the flat shores of 11250 foot French Lake

I climbed up about 250 vertical feet from the far end of French Lake to check out the sunset on the 4 Gables above Little French Lake. Little French Lake would not make much of an overnight spot, but the views were nice.

I climbed up about 250 vertical feet from the far end of French Lake to check out the sunset on the 4 Gables above Little French Lake. Little French Lake would not make much of an overnight spot, but the views were nice.

As I started down from little French Lake, the sunset really kicked up only over the 4 Gables, so I spent some time working the rock formations and stream for a decent composition.

As I started down from little French Lake, the sunset really kicked up only over the 4 Gables, so I spent some time working the rock formations and stream for a decent composition.

Pine Creek Pass backpacking trip 2016

Pine Creek Pass backpacking trip 2016

French Lake really only had one possible campsite, a large flat grassy area on the SW side, but the lake and surrounding area were nice, great for swimming and was the first of two consecutive days that we did not see another person.

French Lake really only had one possible campsite, a large flat grassy area on the SE side, but the lake and surrounding area were nice, great for swimming and was the first of two consecutive days that we did not see another person.

I got up before sunrise to shoot some pictures. No wildflowers were out at this elevation yet, but I used one of the numerous snowmelt streams to help with compositions. This is pre-sunrise on Merriam, Royce and Feather peaks, a popular destination for climbers.

I got up before sunrise to shoot some pictures. No wildflowers were out at this elevation yet, but I used one of the numerous snowmelt streams to help with compositions. This is pre-sunrise on Merriam, Royce and Feather peaks, a popular destination for climbers.

Sunrise reflections on Merriam and Royce peaks in the High Sierra.

Sunrise reflections on Merriam and Royce peaks in the High Sierra.

The fish were not biting so much at French Lake, but that was soon to change as the other lakes we visited had swarms of fish it seemed you could catch with your hands in the small streams.

The fish were not biting so much at French Lake, but that was soon to change as the other lakes we visited had swarms of fish it seemed you could catch with your hands in the small streams.

We did a short day for day 3, exploring some of the small, high lakes nearby, then heading cross-country less than 2 miles to L Lake.

We did a short day for day 3, exploring some of the small, high lakes nearby, then heading cross-country less than 2 miles to L Lake.

Coming into L Lake. This lake was our favorite spot. Once again we saw no people but we are quite sure we saw a wolf, as well as large canine prints and scat. We convinced ourselves that was impossible, even though 2 of our crew got a real close-up look, but when we got back and did a little research, turns out there are numerous, but sporadic sightings of a wolf in this area.

Coming into L Lake. This lake was our favorite spot. Once again we saw no people but we are quite sure we saw a wolf, as well as large canine prints and scat. We convinced ourselves that was impossible, even though 2 of our crew got a real close-up look, but when we got back and did a little research, turns out there are numerous, but sporadic sightings of a wolf in this area.

The many snow-melt streams between Steelhead Lake and L lake were great for photography, waterfalls, swimming and fishing. And we could tell that in another two weeks, there would be a riot of wildflowers along these streams making them even better

The many snow-melt streams between Steelhead Lake and L lake were great for photography, waterfalls, swimming and fishing. And we could tell that in another two weeks, there would be a riot of wildflowers along these streams making them even better

We explored the many lakes around L Lake during the day, and after seeing hundreds of decent sized fish in and around the outflow of Steelhead lake, some of the crew decided to fish there at sunset, they caught 6 fish each, I believe, but released most of them back.

We explored the many lakes around L Lake during the day, and after seeing hundreds of decent sized fish in and around the outflow of Steelhead lake, some of the crew decided to fish there at sunset, they caught 6 fish I believe, but released most of them back.

A black and white shot just after the sun passed behind Royce Peak.

A black and white shot just after the sun passed behind Royce Peak.

A black and white shot just after the sun passed behind Royce Peak.

A black and white shot just after the sun passed behind Royce Peak.

The stream flowing out of Steelhead lake with the last light on the other side of the Four Gables peak.

The stream flowing out of Steelhead lake with the last light on the other side of the Four Gables peak.

Without the wildflowers blooming, I really liked the leading lines of these small mountain streams at sunset.

Without the wildflowers blooming, I really liked the leading lines of these small mountain streams at sunset.

After the sun went down the wide granite benches above L Lake made for great card playing and star watching.

After the sun went down the wide granite benches above L Lake made for great card playing and star watching.

The wind shut off overnight and around 2am I was able to get some nice Milky Way shots with no moon and still pull a little reflection off L Lake.

The wind shut off overnight and around 2am I was able to get some nice Milky Way shots with no moon and still pull a little reflection off L Lake.

The wind shut off overnight and around 2am I was able to get some nice Milky Way shots with no moon and still pull a little reflection off L Lake.

The wind shut off overnight and around 2am I was able to get some nice Milky Way shots with no moon and still pull a little reflection off L Lake.

Lacking wildflowers and with Royce and Merriam being the only peaks getting first light from our vantage point, I went back up to my little streams at sunrise.

Lacking wildflowers and with Royce and Merriam being the only peaks getting first light from our vantage point, I went back up to my little streams at sunrise.

Pine Creek Pass backpacking trip 2016

Pine Creek Pass backpacking trip 2016

Back to the granite to soak up the first sun rays and drink some coffee after a particularly cold night

Back to the granite to soak up the first sun rays and drink some coffee after a particularly cold night

Heading back toward Pine Creek Pass from L Lake, we did encounter some nice pink flowers in the low, wet areas.

Heading back toward Pine Creek Pass from L Lake, we did encounter some nice Western Swamp Laurel in the low, wet areas.

Once over the pass we decided to stay at Honeymoon Lake. This was a fun lake, with some good swimming and jumping rocks and 3 waterfalls pouring into it. It was also the most crowded of the lakes we visited, but we decided to head away from the Italy Pass trail, which runs along the S. side of the lake and where most people were camped, and take off our shoes to make this large water crossing, and were rewarded for our efforts by the best campsites on the lake, 4 large flat areas with a flat granite bench looking back down into Pine Lake below, or across at the largest waterfall.

Once over the pass we decided to stay at Honeymoon Lake. This was a fun lake, with some good swimming and jumping rocks and 3 waterfalls pouring into it. It was also the most crowded of the lakes we visited, but we decided to head away from the Italy Pass trail, which runs along the S. side of the lake and where most people were camped, and take off our shoes to make this large water crossing, and were rewarded for our efforts by the best campsites on the lake, 4 large flat areas with a flat granite bench looking back down into Pine Lake below, or across at the largest waterfall.

Given that this trip happened during a period of basically no moon, I had my sights set on trying a Milky Way panorama, but did get any decent compositions until this final night, when the Milky Way arced perfectly over the peaklet behind Upper Pine Lake.

Given that this trip happened during a period of basically no moon, I had my sights set on trying a Milky Way panorama, but did get any decent compositions until this final night, when the Milky Way arced perfectly over the peaklet behind Upper Pine Lake.

First light from Honeymoon Lake hitting in the direction of Italy Pass. The saddle visible is not Italy pass, but a perfectly doable cross-country route if you wanted to come straight across from Royce Lake on the other side.

First light from Honeymoon Lake hitting in the direction of Italy Pass. The saddle visible is not Italy pass, but a perfectly doable cross-country route if you wanted to come straight across from Royce Lake on the other side.

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  • July 11, 2016 - 5:36 pm

    Richard Whitney - Nice photography!
    What camera were you using for the celestial shots?
    Time exposure w/ clock dive?

  • July 11, 2016 - 5:37 pm

    Richard Whitney - Make that ‘clock drive’!

  • July 25, 2016 - 3:00 pm

    Steve - Hey Scott — great photos and trip report. Headed up to Honeymoon this weekend and hoping the skeeters in the area have diminished. And thinking about bringing the big ol’ Nikon now! cheers

  • July 27, 2016 - 2:58 pm

    ssady - nikon d810, though the d750 produces a bit cleaner file up to iso 6400…

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Amazing sunset over Diamond Lake in the Trinity Alps wilderness Four Lakes loop backpacking trail in California.

Amazing sunset over Diamond Lake in the Trinity Alps wilderness Four Lakes loop backpacking trail in California.

by Scott,

A group of us have been backpacking together for the last 5 years or so. We always go someplace in the High Sierra range, but this year decided to hit the Trinity Alps for a change of pace. Not knowing what to expect, I did some research online and found very few details, and even fewer of the kind of details I want. So what follows is the most detailed trip report you will find about backpacking the 4 lakes loop in the Trinity Alps wilderness. This trip report is from a photographer’s point of view, and from the point of view of a group of folks who like to swim in secluded lakes and are not particularly fond of seeing people from where they camp. If you get anything useful from this trip report, feel free to share. Also check out some of our high sierra trip reports such as Dusy Basin, Humphreys Basin, the Sawtooth Range, and Thousand Island Lake. The relevant quads for this hike are Siligo Peak and Covington Mill. A wilderness permit and campfire permit are required, but are free and can be done at any hour via a self-registration box at the Weaverville ranger station. There are no trail quotas.

Also an amazing variety of high quality landscape photography can be purchased or licensed through my website.

final planning session

final planning session

iphone panoramic picture from the top of Siligo peak. You can see the start of the loop in the background to the right of the person (me) standing on the summit. It goes down into Deer lake, then up and over to Summit, far right. Not pictured, but similar, are the ups and downs to Diamond and Luella lakes. Finally the trail picks up on the far left of the image leaving Luella lake down into the meadow by Round lake, then back up nearly 1700 vertical feet over the pass to Granite Lake.

iphone panoramic picture from the top of Siligo peak. You can see the start of the loop in the background to the right of the person (me) standing on the summit. It goes down into Deer lake, then up and over to Summit, middle right. The trail to Diamond Lake is at the far right and Luella lake is behind us. Finally the trail picks up on the far left of the image leaving Luella lake down into the meadow by Round lake, then back up nearly 1700 vertical feet over the little-used pass to Granite Lake.

Day one: Echo Lake

Our original plan was to hike across the trinity alps from Long Canyon to Caribou lake and out. But after a little research showed that this region, unlike the high sierra, is full of many small, steep valleys which didn’t sound good to some of us who have not got out yet this year, we decided to tone it down a bunch and do a leisurely loop around the four lakes. We started at one of the southern most drainages to enter the area, Stoney Ridge. We then proceeded up and over Stonewall Pass and made a slight detour off trail to Echo Lake. This is south of the four lakes loop proper, but was a good 6 miles and nearly 4000 ft of elevation gain to start the day. Stoney Ridge trail is up above the stream, but the map showed water at Red Meadows. Ooops! The springs at Red Meadows were dry, so we ended up having to go up and over the pass until we crossed Deep Creek, the drainage from Echo Lake, before we could get water. Folks were a little dehydrated, given the near 90 degree heat during the climb, but soon recovered. Echo lake was a beautiful camp spot, with good swimming and lots of wildflowers around the lake. There is only one campsite here, able to hold about 3 tents, on the south side of the lake. We saw no people.

Our first nights camp spot at Echo lake, never saw a soul.

Our first nights camp spot at Echo lake, never saw a soul.

Sunset and wildflowers at Echo Lake in the Trinity Alps wilderness Four Lakes loop backpacking trail in California.

Sunset and wildflowers at Echo Lake in the Trinity Alps wilderness Four Lakes loop backpacking trail in California.

Our first nights camp spot at Echo lake, never saw a soul.

Our first nights camp spot at Echo lake, never saw a soul.

Day two: Echo Lake to Summit Lake:

Leaving Echo lake we passed above lower Siligo Meadows, where we saw beautiful meadow pools and our first hint of the wildflower diversity that was to come. Soon after we passed upper Siligo Meadows. There was one tent in this very large, flat meadow with a running stream. I would consider this a great camp site. Especially from a photographer’s point of view, we would have had setting sun light on a rugged mountain range in the background and wildflowers and a stream in the foreground. But not knowing the area, we decided to push a little farther to Summit Lake, the largest lake in the group, and according to the topo, containing the most flat ground nearby. The hike from Echo Lake to Summit Lake was only a few miles with plenty of water and views along the way. Between Siligo Meadows and Summit Lake we passed Deer Lake. There was one decent, but smallish campsite in the north-west end and if you are doing this hike and that campsite is free, take it. Deer lake had massive fields of yellow lupine and was deep and blue with few people around.

 

Lower Siligo Meadows, scenic but hard to reach.

Lower Siligo Meadows, scenic but hard to reach.

Upper Siligo Meadows would have been an awesome campsite. We should have stopped here instead of Summit Lake.

Upper Siligo Meadows would have been an awesome campsite. We should have stopped here instead of Summit Lake.

Climbing up out of Siligo Meadows toward Deer Lake.

Climbing up out of Siligo Meadows toward Deer Lake.

Deer lake as seen from Siligo peak, looking back at our approach from Deer Creek Pass.

Deer lake as seen from Siligo peak, looking back at our approach from Deer Creek Pass.

Deer lake as seen from Deer Creek Pass with the trail to Summit Lake visible high at left.

Deer lake as seen from Deer Creek Pass with the trail to Summit Lake visible high at left.

Deer Lake was covered with Yellow Lupine.

Deer Lake was covered with Yellow Lupine.

Our campsite at Summit Lake. It was the biggest, and clear, but too crowded

Our campsite at Summit Lake. It was the biggest lake with clear water, but too crowded. Though talking to people who had been there a few days, there was next to nobody there before the 4th weekend.

Summit lake was the only lake or even area on our entire hike not covered in wildflowers. These purple bushes were the only ones there.

Summit lake was the only lake on our hike not covered in wildflowers. These purple bushes were the only ones there.

Nathan trying his hand fly-fishing with the alpen-glow of the setting sun.

Nathan trying his hand fly-fishing with the alpen-glow of the setting sun.

Overview of Summit Lake. There are several campsites here, but even so was way too crowded.

Overview of Summit Lake. There are several campsites here, but even so was way too crowded.

Day Three: Summit Lake to Diamond Lake with a detour to the top of Siligo Peak:

Summit Lake was just over the pass from Deer Lake. It had several campsites, the best and most secluded of which were around the right side of the lake as you come down the trail. The largest, and the only one still free when we arrived, was right next to the trail. I think there must have been a Backpacker’s Magazine article recently on “How to hike the 4 lakes loop,” which probably stated, “Hike in to Summit Lake and set up camp, then do the loop as a day hike from there.” Granted it was fourth of July weekend, but there were people streaming into this remote backcountry lake at 10:30 pm. And since our campsite happened to be right near the trail, they just proceeded to set up their tents a few feet from us, essentially within our site. Poor form! Visually, Summit Lake had nothing going for it. It was the only Lake without wildflowers. I summited the high ridge on the far end of the lake and apart from a decent view into lower Siligo Meadows, it was unremarkable. Climbing up out of Summit Lake the trail “T’s” into the trails from Deer Lake and Diamond Lake. If you want to bag Siligo Peak, one of the highest in this area, you are now at your closest point. We scrambled up and were rewarded with amazing views of our trail. Diamond Lake is the next lake over from Summit. We hadn’t planned to stay there, as it only took an hour or so to hike to, but after descending through amazing fields of red paintbrush, purple pennyroyal and yellow lupine to get there, I begged for a stop.  There is one decent campsite at this lake and the possibility to pitch one tent on a flat spot atop a ridge at the far end of the lake. Since nobody was there, we set up camp and proceeded to explore the amazing wildflower-filled meadow down below the lake. The meadows below the lake, and the flower fields above the lake were a veritable humming bird forest. While I was crouched in the flowers waiting for the sunset, dozens of humming birds buzzed in the flowers all around me. Sunset came and we were rewarded with a rare, spectacular slow burn sunset floating through the color spectrum from hot yellow, to cool red-blue over a couple of hours. Literally. I stopped shooting and stars were visible and the sky still had a deep low red. Fortunately this sunset happened at the most scenic lake with an amazing granite mountain background and a massive field of multi-colored wildflowers, only a hair past their prime on July 4. We figured nature gave us the best fireworks anyone could ask for!

 

Hiking up out of Summit Lake. The trail juncture at the top of Summit Lake is the best spot to cut off if you want to bag Siligo Peak, so we did.

Hiking up out of Summit Lake. The trail juncture at the top of Summit Lake is the best spot to cut off if you want to bag Siligo Peak, so we did.

Round lake and the exit out over to the Granite Creek Trail. No camping at Round Lake itself, but you could find a nice spot with water in the meadows below it.

Round lake and the exit out over to the Granite Creek Trail. No camping at Round Lake itself, but you could find a nice spot with water in the meadows below it.

The top of Siligo Peak.

The top of Siligo Peak.

Looking down at Diamond Lake from Siligo Peak. Small campsite there, but amazing wildflowers.

Looking down at Diamond Lake from Siligo Peak. Small campsite there, but amazing wildflowers.

The trail down to Diamond Lake winds through fields of red paintbrush.

The trail down to Diamond Lake winds through fields of red indian paintbrush.

The meadows below Diamond Lake held some of the largest fields of tiger lilies we had ever seen, and a bear.

The meadows below Diamond Lake held some of the largest fields of Leopard lilies we had ever seen, and a bear.

The meadows below Diamond Lake held some of the largest fields of tiger lilies we had ever seen, and a bear.

The meadows below Diamond Lake held some of the largest fields of Leopard lilies we had ever seen, and a bear.

Amazing sunset over Diamond Lake in the Trinity Alps wilderness Four Lakes loop backpacking trail in California.

Amazing sunset over Diamond Lake in the Trinity Alps wilderness Four Lakes loop backpacking trail in California.

Amazing sunset over Diamond Lake in the Trinity Alps wilderness Four Lakes loop backpacking trail in California.

Amazing sunset over Diamond Lake in the Trinity Alps wilderness Four Lakes loop backpacking trail in California.

Day four, Diamond Lake to Granite Lake:

We woke to grey skies and drizzle at Diamond Lake the next morning and took our time packing up. Shortly before departing, Nathan noticed a bear in the meadow just below us. We climbed up on some rocks and watched him root around for a while before heading off. The hike over to Luella lake was short and easy, with a small up and a long, switch-backing downhill to the lake. Parts of this downhill were only 6 inches wide on an extremely steep hillside, possibly not good for those with a fear of heights. This lake also was littered with wildflowers. We stopped for a swim and never saw a soul. I don’t think there is much camping at this lake. If you are solo, or in a small two-man tent, you can probably find a flat spot in the trees just south and east of the lake, but that is it. The trail drops another 400 feet or so into an amazing meadow near Round Lake. Round Lake is totally overgrown, but there are plenty of flat spots near water in the grassy, wildflower-filled meadow below the lake. That valley had flowers taller than my wife. From there our trail climbed straight up, steeply for about 1700 vertical feet to the pass over to Granite Creek. The Granite Creek trail is lightly used and poorly maintained. It was a little tough to follow for the first 400 vertical feet or so above the meadow because it was so overgrown. As it climbed out of the thick brush, it became obvious once again. This trail climbed through the largest field of Leopard Lilies any of us had ever seen. There were also other flowers of every color and height.  After that the trail climbed steeply for a while, then passed through the thickest indian paintbrush field I had ever seen about 2/3’s of the way up. We rested briefly at the summit, having so far come 5.4 miles and over 1800 vertical feet since leaving Diamond Lake. We then descended steeply 1.5 miles to Granite Lake. The trail on this side of the hill was overgrown as well. We saw giant dandelion flowers gone to seed (think make a wish and blow) in the middle of the trail in pristine condition. When we walked by and brushed them, half of the little parachute seeds brushed off, telling us nobody had passed this way since these flowers started going to seed. There were large wildflower fields on the way down particularly lupine. The valley that Granite Creek descended was interesting. It marked the intersection of the “Red” Trinities and the “White” Trinities, with half of the valley red rock and the other white granite, with an occasional falling boulder the only color overlap at the base of the valley. Also, the trail builders on this side of the hill do not believe in switchbacks. This trail went strait down, steeply and poorly until Granite Lake. Granite lake is hard to get to. There are many large and amazing campsites around 1/3 of it. Obvious horse pack use, but you have to bushwack to get to the water in all but the farthest campsites winding around to the east. The lake was visually un-remarkable being hard to access and with no wildflowers or other foreground. Just a steep drop to the water. Swimming was great however!

 

The approach to Luella Lake from Diamond lake is a long, steep down with many switchbacks.

The approach to Luella Lake from Diamond lake is a long, steep down with many switchbacks.

Luella lake was another great swimming lake with loads of wildflowers. No real camping here though. You could fit one small tent in a flat spot in some trees nearby, but that

Luella lake was another great swimming lake with loads of wildflowers. No real camping here though. You could fit one small tent in a flat spot in some trees nearby, but that’s it.

Leaving the flower-strewn shore of Luella Lake

Leaving the flower-strewn shore of Luella Lake

Hiking down toward round lake.

Hiking down toward round lake.

The meadows and stream around round lake at the base of the valley sported another insane display of wildflowers

The meadows and stream around round lake at the base of the valley sported another insane display of wildflowers

Monique in corn lillies taller than her near Round Lake

Monique in corn lilies taller than her near Round Lake

The trail juncture in the valley. The trail to Granite Creek is little used and hard to follow for about 400 vertical feet off the valley floor where it is overgrown, then switches steeply up on a more obvious path.

The trail juncture in the valley. The trail to Granite Creek is little used and hard to follow for about 400 vertical feet off the valley floor where it is overgrown, then switches steeply up on a more obvious path.

Halfway up the pass to Granite Lake yet another astounding field of wildflowers

Halfway up the pass to Granite Lake yet another astounding field of wildflowers

Halfway up the pass to Granite Lake yet another astounding field of wildflowers

Halfway up the pass to Granite Lake yet another astounding field of wildflowers looking back toward Siligo Peak

Halfway up the pass to Granite Lake yet another astounding field of wildflowers

Halfway up the pass to Granite Lake yet another astounding field of wildflowers looking back toward Siligo Peak

Two thirds of the way to the top of the pass to Granite Lake the trail passes through the largest field of paintbrush yet.

Two thirds of the way to the top of the pass to Granite Lake the trail passes through the largest field of paintbrush yet.

Two thirds of the way to the top of the pass to Granite Lake the trail passes through the largest field of paintbrush yet.

Two thirds of the way to the top of the pass to Granite Lake the trail passes through the largest field of paintbrush yet.

After a steep and poorly maintained hike down from the pass we crash at Granite Lake

After a steep and poorly maintained hike down from the pass we crash at Granite Lake

Nathan catches his first fish, a 3 incher. After much debate we let it go.

Nathan catches his first fish, a 3 incher. After much debate we let it go.

the one main campsite at Diamond Lake was spacious, with plenty of rocks to sit on.

Our campsite at Granite Lake was spacious, with plenty of rocks to sit on.

Day five, wake up at Granite Lake and go home:

We got up, fixed a quick breakfast and were ready to get back to our cars. I made a quick picture in the morning sunrise by balancing out into the middle of a log-jam and finding a cool burl in a log for my foreground. The trail from Granite Lake to the Granite Creek trail-head, which unlike the Stoney Ridge trail-head, had a bathroom and ample parking, was a super highway compared to everything else. It was nearly 5 miles from the lake to car, and it is obvious that this is a popular destination, stopping at the lake and going no further. We crossed swift creek about 1.25 miles from the trail head and this was a beautiful, clear creek with great swim holes and a scenic gorge and waterfall if you had time to downclimb into it. Feel free to share this post and it’s images. We really enjoyed this area and plan to go back. The High Sierra is more in-your-face dramatic in it’s scenery and lakes and nothing beats laying out watching the stars on a slab of smooth granite, but being below treeline for a change we found much more diversity in both plants and wildlife.

 

Granite lake has some really nice and large campsites, and there were few people in site when we got there, but you can tell people horse pack in there from the trail head 5 miles further down. Little of interest photographically at the lake itself, but I found this funky log during the morning sunrise.

Granite lake has some really nice and large campsites, and there were few people in site when we got there, but you can tell people horse pack in there from the trail head 5 miles further down. Little of interest photographically at the lake itself, but I found this funky log during the morning sunrise.

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  • July 9, 2015 - 11:10 am

    Dotty Molt - These are absolutely beautiful ! And what an amazing story ! When can I come along on one of your backpacking trips !!! ?

  • July 13, 2015 - 4:16 pm

    Yvette - Always a highlight of our year. Thanks for capturing the experience. Beautiful photos and excellent descriptions.

  • July 19, 2015 - 4:31 pm

    jake - Hey I’m planning on doing this trip in a couple of weeks and I was curious how much water was on the trails? Should we pack extra or can we reach water without to much of a problem? Thanks!

  • July 19, 2015 - 4:47 pm

    ssady - Depends on which way you go in. If you go in like us via stoney ridge, then you won’t get water until you get up over the pass and near the outflow of Echo Lake. Everywhere else we seemed to find plenty of streams and lakes. I never carried more than 1L of water at a time, and only wished I had more that first day up stoney ridge.

  • June 20, 2016 - 6:02 pm

    Meg - Hey Scott – Really appreciate this write up (and other posts too) and love your pictures! Trying to figure out how many days we need to do this trip. Thinking of trying to do it in 3-4 and was wondering how many miles it was? Appreciate your thoughts.

  • June 21, 2016 - 5:52 am

    ssady - You could easily do this in 3-4 days. The way we did it, the hike in and the hike out were about 7 miles each, but the distance between the lakes in the loop is very short, like a mile or two.

  • August 16, 2016 - 4:27 am

    John Sharp - Hello.

    We are going in the Stoney Ridge trail head as you did. We plan on making it a loop all the way around Bear Basin.

    I have some questions:

    What is the parking situation at the trail head?

    Our plan is to stay night #2 at Diamond lake as you did and we want to hike Siligo peak. Is their a trail to the peak near Diamond or do we have to go back around towards Deer lake to access a trail? We are considering just going up to the peak with our packs then going back to Diamond to set up camp. Or would you recommend setting up camp at Diamond and “free” hiking to the peak?

    Lastly, as I have never been to this area I am somewhat concerned about your report saying there are a dearth of campsites at various lakes. Does this mean at the lake side proper? Are there nearby sites? We have a party of 4 using 3 tents.

    I hope you get this message and can respond. Thank you for your report, it was the inspiration for us choosing this route.

  • August 16, 2016 - 7:29 am

    ssady - Parking at the the trailhead was fine if I recall. It is not the most popular entry point. The easiest access to Siligo peak is from where the trail “t’s” to go down to Summit Lake. But Diamond Lake is only 1.5 miles from there, so not hard to do from there either. The lakes, except for summit, usually have one spot. Diamond Lake in particular has one nice large spot where you could all fit. If it is taken, I don’t remember much else there, even away from the lake, but there are a lot of beautiful meadows between lakes with running streams that are good for camping. The Stoney Ridge trail is long and hot and the water sources on the map did not exist for us. Bring extra water for the first days in, and Echo lake had a large flat area for camping.

  • August 25, 2016 - 12:44 pm

    heather - hi there – great post! can you recall the driving conditions to the trailhead? I can’t find much. we have a Mini and it drove fine (albeit slowly) to the Lost Coast trailhead a few years ago but thought I’d check…

  • August 25, 2016 - 7:27 pm

    ssady - We drove there in a prius

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by Scott

I have been ski racing for about 4 years now and made the decision early on to camp out when I was at Mammoth Mountain. It can be cold as hell in winter, I’ve had nights down to -19 F, but in winter, you have all the hot springs to yourself and it is easy to warm up and get to the hill. As the years passed and I figured out how to stay comfortable during the worst nights and where to find uncrowded hot springs and swimming holes, I have had plenty of opportunities to explore the area nearby. The more I explore, the more time I want to spend down there exploring. I have been a photojournalist for over 20 years working for the likes of AP and USA TODAY and for the last 8 years I have specialized in commercial photography, but my true love is the wild places and beauty of nature. I find landscape photography to be one of the most difficult things to do well. It is 45% hard work getting to unusual locations, 45% luck in hoping that the weather gives you something spectacular to work with and about 10% getting away from photographing what is in front of you and trying more to pre-visualize the end result and shoot interpretively. For me this has involved a lot of work with neutral density filters during the day and sunset hours and blending of exposures and focus points. And an whole lot of trial and error. So here is a quick look at some of my favorite places that you can reach in winter on the eastern side of the High Sierra, and high desert. The list is by no means complete. Any of these images and many more can be licensed from my online photography archive via keyword searches.

Working from north to south, Mono Lake is the obvious starting point. I don’t photograph here a lot, mainly because everybody else does. Expect this place to be busy. When I pulled up there was an photo tour van full of about 20 older men with giant tripods. Inexplicably they all left an hour before sunset. Mono lake is really a crap shoot. If you don’t get a spectacular sunset or sunrise, you don’t really get a picture. If you do, you get an amazing picture assuming you compose and expose right. I see a lot of folks shooting into the sunset, which is fine if you are one of those uber HDR folks or going for a silhouette. I think the HDR function should cause your computer or camera to explode when enabled, but that’s just me. As I was saying, you really need to look for a situation where the sky lights up away from the setting sun if you want anything other than HDR crap or a silhouette. Thunderstorms and sunrises during approaching storms are your best bet, but it is still a lot of luck. On my visit only a tiny portion of the sky lit up, but since it is only 20 miles from Mammoth, I will try again next year. Shoot in winter or during sunrise to avoid the crowds. Working with a 3-5 stop Neutral Density filter allows you to smooth out the water and give the scene a more dream-like feel. With longer exposures, you will need to set your self-time or use a cable release in order not to shake your camera when taking pictures. The water has receded so much recently that only a few spires are left in the lake. Remember not to walk or climb on these, they are very fragile.

Unique rock formations

Foreground-background relationships are one way to add interest.

Unique rock formations

Despite all these otherworldly spires, finding interesting compositions is actually a challenge

Unique rock formations

This one is in need of a proper sunset

Unique rock formations

Again only a few of the clouds lit up, otherwise this would have been a keeper

Unique rock formations

The only portion of the sky that lit up was where the sun set. So I carefully composed to exclude the actual uber-bright area right where the sun set and still get some color in the sky

Unique rock formations

In this one I put the setting sun behind the largest of the rock formations, but I still feel the clouds in that area are a bit too bright

Unique rock formations

Unique rock formations

The day I shot also happened to coincide with the full moon, so while the pack of photographers left, I waited for the moon to rise above the clouds. There was still enough ambient light to pick up detail in the tufas, and I got a cool full-moon flare spot.

Unique rock formations

Your eye often can’t see the afterglow, but this picture is well after sunset, shot by the light of the full moon and the long exposure brings out the residual colors in the clouds.

While skiing at Mammoth, I camp out in the Owen’s Valley across 395. From my campsite I can get to areas of warm to hot water for sunrise or a soak, and have a clear view of mammoth mountain, which in these photos during this pathetic snow year, looks pretty sad. A word on camping etiquette: The Owen’s Valley from north of Mammoth Lakes to Bishop is mostly BLM land. That means you can camp most anywhere and the camping is free. Besides rock climbing and fishing, the many hotsprings out here are the main attraction. The most common mistake people make that really pisses off the locals and may get you into some trouble is pitching camp right next to a hot tub. This is the biggest no-no ever. People will go out of their way to mess with you if you do this. Camping in the parking areas of the hot tubs is considered extremely lame since the tubs are for everyone to enjoy and parking areas nearby are small, but is still preferable to camping right next to the tubs. Instead, do what the locals and regular visitors do. Find a nice secluded spot with a great view away from the hot tubs, and drive or bike down for a soak. It used to be that only a couple of the tubs were well known enough to be crowded, but it seems that in the last year they have made their way onto Google maps, and now I see as many first timers as grizzled ski bums.

California desert landscapes

Sunrise over Hot Creek

California desert landscapes

Full moon eclipse over Mammoth Mountain ski area

California desert landscapes

Sunrise over Mammoth Mountain

The Bishop area has a wealth of stuff to explore. It is a rock climbers paradise with the Happy and Sad boulder fields, as well as a fisherman’s dream come true. A little more exploring brings you to some interesting petroglyph sites, of which this is just one. I’m still trying for the perfect picture here, maybe one day I’ll get better light at sunrise, but for now, this will have to do.

Sky Rock Petroglyphs in Owens Valley, CA.

Sky Rock Petroglyphs in Owens Valley, CA.

I’ve known of Crowley lake for a long time, and been underwhelmed by it for the most part. Just south of Mammoth on 395, it is popular with fisherman, and smells like it. But this year I found what lies at the end of a difficult dirt road on the far end. Scattered all along the eastern shore are wind and water scoured caves and delicate columns carved out of the soft volcanic rock walls. I have never seen anyone here, I think it is only recently truly accessible due to lowering water levels and that the water level may have been about where the columns now stand just a few years ago.

Unique rock formations

Crowley Lake’s unique shoreline.

Unique rock formations

Unique rock formations

One of the many wind and water carved caves along the eastern shore of Crowley Lake

Unique rock formations

Unique rock formations

Unique rock formations

Unique rock formations

Unique rock formations

Unique rock formations

Crowley Lake sunset

During my last set of races, I had more than a few days to spare and decided to check out Death Valley for the first time. I had driven through there, but never photographed it or explored. It is a very unique area, but plan carefully. This place is big. It seemed to me that everything I wanted to photograph was a 100+ mile round trip to get to, often on very slow and remote dirt roads. Given that and my limited time, I set myself only 3 things to check out. The Badlands, the Mesquite Dunes and the Racetrack. When you make the 26-mile, one-way drive on aggressive dirt washboard road to the racetrack to marvel at the mysterious moving stones, you soon find the answer to the mystery. This place is windy! Windy enough to blow 100lb rocks across wet playa clay. Windy enough to knock you down and blow your tripod over. Windy enough to cause sand-storms and white-outs. That was what it was like 2 out of my 4 days here. Zero visibility and eating dust. The only real upside of that was getting out onto the sand dunes one calm morning after a windstorm to find all the footprints erased and a pristine canvass awaiting. The Racetrack I had planned on photographing at night with the milky way rising over the stones, but the 50+ mph winds ruined that plan. I settled for a dusty sunset, but my impression is that sunrise would be better light out there. The badlands were just too dry. In years where there is a fair amount of water, the white, salt-crusted pentagons are more pronounced. When water is scarce, the edges tend to really curl up, ruining the symmetry. If you go to the racetrack, understand that you are on your own. The road is rugged and if your car breaks down there is no-one to help, no cell service, and a tow might cost as much as a new car. However, if you are careful, it is totally worth it. Not just for the racetrack, but for the desert wildflowers and the rugged volcanic landscape. Go in spring well after the last rains here. If you drive out here and the playa is still wet, consider that you just wasted an entire day. Because if you walk out onto a wet playa, your footprints will remain for up to 10 years. Most of the rocks I encountered had hardened footprints around them, ruining all photo potential. I had to walk miles to the far end of the playa to find even just a few pristine stones. So please, don’t be an idiot. Check with a ranger if you don’t want to risk wasting your time, but don’t ever go out onto a wet playa!

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park in pristine condition the morning after a frequent wind storm.

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park in pristine condition the morning after a frequent wind storm.

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park in pristine condition the morning after a frequent wind storm.

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park in pristine condition the morning after a frequent wind storm.

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park in pristine condition the morning after a frequent wind storm.

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park in pristine condition the morning after a frequent wind storm.

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park in pristine condition the morning after a frequent wind storm.

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park in pristine condition the morning after a frequent wind storm.

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park in pristine condition the morning after a frequent wind storm.

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park in pristine condition the morning after a frequent wind storm.

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park in pristine condition the morning after a frequent wind storm.

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park in pristine condition the morning after a frequent wind storm.

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park in pristine condition the morning after a frequent wind storm.

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park in pristine condition the morning after a frequent wind storm.

California desert landscapes

Roadrunner, if he catches you your through…

California desert landscapes

The Badlands

California desert landscapes

And headed lower

California desert landscapes

The salt crusted-floor of the badlands

California desert landscapes

Teakettle Junction on the way to the racetrack

The mysterious moving stones of the Death Valley Racetrack.

The mysterious moving stones of the Death Valley Racetrack.

Multiple mysterious moving stones of the Death Valley Racetrack.

Multiple mysterious moving stones of the Death Valley Racetrack.

The mysterious moving stones of the Death Valley Racetrack.

The mysterious moving stones of the Death Valley Racetrack.

 

 

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  • May 6, 2015 - 8:21 pm

    Linda Crowell - What amazing,photographs Scott.i would like to get a couple of the ones from Mono Lake.

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by Scott

I probably would not turn such a small subject area into a blog post at all if we didn’t come across one of the top wildflower hikes I have ever been on. Actually both of the 8 mile round trip hikes we took in the Point Reyes National Seashore were exceptional and worthy of sharing. But first let me back up to how we found ourselves there. I’m a big Lord of the Rings fan, so for my birthday, my wife got me tickets to see the San Jose Symphony orchestra perform the live soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings movies. It was pretty cool, they had a big screen and a special edition of the film with the music and singing parts removed, but the rest of the sound intact. The symphony was so spot on that I often forgot they were playing live, except that somehow the emotional intensity of the movie was amped up a notch. Anyhow, since we were going to be in the Bay Area in spring, I remembered photographing fields of iceplant in bloom near Pigeon Point lighthouse and decided I would check it out. From there we would work our way up the coast for a couple of days, ending up near Mt. Shasta so I could kayak a section of the Pit river that had a nice 30 foot waterfall on it, which normally doesn’t run except that they were doing maintenance on the powerhouse turbine, so water was actually flowing down the river for a change.

Well, long story short, it was foggy every day we were on the coast, and the day we were packing up to head to the Pit, they finished repairs on the turbine ahead of schedule and de-watered the river once again. So I spent a lot of time playing with my B+W 10 stop neutral density filter, trying to make interesting shots of water in motion, since the flat grey skies rendered everything mostly uninteresting. I also chose to wait until after sunset at the lighthouse to use a higher ISO and the mist off the ocean to render the lighthouse beam. The iceplant did not disappoint and if we had scored a nice warm pacific sunset, it would have been a worthy picture. But as a consolation prize, we did get to see a seal pup being born right off the lighthouse deck. The mother seal spent about an hour coaxing the newborn, placenta still attached at this point, up onto the rocks to warm up.

Back to Point Reyes! We camped in the Samuel P Taylor state park nearby and drove in. One day we went to Bolinas to check out the hotsprings that are only accessible at extremely low tide, but as advertised, they were crowded with hippies and, novelty of being right on the ocean aside, don’t hold a candle to the ones near Mammoth Mountain. Since we were in Bolinas, we took Mesa drive up to the bird observatory and beyond and hiked the 4.2 miles in to Alamere Falls. This was a spectacular hike, with great ocean views and a wide, easily graded trail. We even saw a guy pushing a stroller about 3 miles out. However, once it branches off the main trail and heads the nearly 1 mile to the falls, the trail is overgrown, has a lot of poison oak and a fairly technical scramble to get to the upper falls. The upper falls come from a small creek into a wide bench, and from the bench, tumbles over a cliff about 50 feet or more onto a secluded beach. To reach the beach is a legitimate class III, hands mandatory scramble down loose rock with severe consequences if you fall. That said, I made it carrying a giant camera backpack and a tripod, so it can’t be that bad. To see high-quality versions of these images and many more, or for image licensing please search through my online photo archive.

Alamere falls in Point Reyes national seashore 50 miles north of San Francisco, California is a wonderful 4 mile hike that ends in a waterfall that spills onto a secluded beach.

Alamere falls in Point Reyes national seashore 50 miles north of San Francisco, California is a wonderful 4 mile hike that ends in a waterfall that spills onto a secluded beach.

Alamere falls in Point Reyes national seashore 50 miles north of San Francisco, California is a wonderful 4 mile hike that ends in a waterfall that spills onto a secluded beach.

Alamere falls in Point Reyes national seashore 50 miles north of San Francisco, California is a wonderful 4 mile hike that ends in a waterfall that spills onto a secluded beach.

Alamere falls in Point Reyes national seashore 50 miles north of San Francisco, California is a wonderful 4 mile hike that ends in a waterfall that spills onto a secluded beach.

Alamere falls in Point Reyes national seashore 50 miles north of San Francisco, California is a wonderful 4 mile hike that ends in a waterfall that spills onto a secluded beach.

California desert landscapes

A 10 stop ND filter helped smooth out the sea and bring a little interest into an otherwise grey picture. Pigeon Point lighthouse is also a Hostel and you can stay the night. It has a cool old hot tub out back for guests to use.

Pigeon Point Light house and Hostel south of San Francisco, California along the pacific coast.

Pigeon Point Light house and Hostel south of San Francisco, California along the pacific coast.

Newborn harbor seal pup with placenta on the California Coast near Pescadero

Newborn harbor seal pup with placenta on the California Coast near Pescadero

The old Davenport Pier on the california coast near Davenport, just north of Santa Cruz, ca.

The old Davenport Pier on the California coast near Davenport, just north of Santa Cruz, ca.

The old Davenport Pier on the california coast near Davenport, just north of Santa Cruz, ca.

The old Davenport Pier on the California coast near Davenport, just north of Santa Cruz, ca.

The rugged california coast near Davenport, just north of Santa Cruz, ca.

The rugged California coast near Davenport, just north of Santa Cruz, ca.

The rugged california coast near Davenport, just north of Santa Cruz, ca.

The rugged California coast near Davenport, just north of Santa Cruz, ca.

Our next hike, which is probably one of the top 5 wildflower hikes in California, was the Tomales Point Hike. This absolutely spectacular hike starts from the historic Pierce Ranch on the complete opposite side of the park from above hike. From the Pierce Ranch, follow the easily marked trail 4.7 miles out to Tomales Point where Tomales Bay meets Drakes Bay in a stew of tumultuous waters. Along the way there were non-stop fields of purple irises, some form of yellow lupine, waist-high fields of white and blue wild radish flowers, and near the end, golden California poppies. And when there weren’t enough flowers to hold your interest, the area is a Tule Elk reserve, and the critters were all over the place rutting and grazing and just staring at us. The final show stopper is that, instead of ending in a cliff at the point as I expected, a small trail winds down to sea level at the end, though if you get swept off by the unpredictable waves in this area, there’s no saving you. Ocean views are nearly constant and we only saw a few other people once we got more than a few miles out, and that on a Friday.

California poppies, wild irises,wild radishes and many other flowers make the 4.5 mile Tomales Point trail in Point Reyes national seashore one of the top 5 wildflower hikes in California.

California poppies, wild irises,wild radishes and many other flowers make the 4.5 mile Tomales Point trail in Point Reyes national seashore one of the top 5 wildflower hikes in California.

California poppies, wild irises,wild radishes and many other flowers make the 4.5 mile Tomales Point trail in Point Reyes national seashore one of the top 5 wildflower hikes in California.

California poppies, wild irises,wild radishes and many other flowers make the 4.5 mile Tomales Point trail in Point Reyes national seashore one of the top 5 wildflower hikes in California.

California poppies, wild irises,wild radishes and many other flowers make the 4.5 mile Tomales Point trail in Point Reyes national seashore one of the top 5 wildflower hikes in California.

California poppies, wild irises,wild radishes and many other flowers make the 4.5 mile Tomales Point trail in Point Reyes national seashore one of the top 5 wildflower hikes in California.

California poppies, wild irises,wild radishes and many other flowers make the 4.5 mile Tomales Point trail in Point Reyes national seashore one of the top 5 wildflower hikes in California.

California poppies, wild irises,wild radishes and many other flowers make the 4.5 mile Tomales Point trail in Point Reyes national seashore one of the top 5 wildflower hikes in California.

Tule Elk and many wildflowers make the 4.5 mile Tomales Point trail in Point Reyes national seashore one of the top 5 wildflower hikes in California.

Tule Elk and many wildflowers make the 4.5 mile Tomales Point trail in Point Reyes national seashore one of the top 5 wildflower hikes in California.

Spring time is when the female elephant seals spend a few months on shore molting and birthing. It is called a catastrophic molt, and if you look closely at the skin of many of the seals in the picture, they look like burn victims, with the skin peeling off. But once they scratch their old hides off and the last of the young are birthed, it is out to sea till next season. The elephant seals can be easily seen from a short hike out to Chimney Rock, or the Point Reyes Lighthouse. The lighthouse also has the best views of the spectacular 11-mile long Point Reyes Beach. We hiked out there our last day, in 50 mph winds which made the blowing sand feel like shotgun pellets, but the wind parted the fog for a bit giving us our closest thing to a sunset all trip.

Elephant Seal females molting on a beach at the Point Reyes national seashore.

Elephant Seal females molting on a beach at the Point Reyes national seashore.

The historical Point Reyes lighthouse in the Point Reyes National Seashore 50 miles north of San Francisco, California.

The historical Point Reyes lighthouse in the Point Reyes National Seashore 50 miles north of San Francisco, California. It’s pretty much only open Friday – Sunday, so we didn’t get to go down and see it up close.

Sunset on the 11 mile long point Reyes Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore 50 miles north of San Francisco, California.

Sunset on the 11 mile long point Reyes Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore 50 miles north of San Francisco, California.

Sunset on the 11 mile long point Reyes Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore 50 miles north of San Francisco, California.

Sunset on the 11 mile long point Reyes Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore 50 miles north of San Francisco, California.

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  • April 30, 2015 - 3:08 am

    Linda Crowell - Yoor photos are absolutely amazing. They blow me away every time!