Road-tripping in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains

In Hope Valley, California, the fall colors were in full effect.


Last week Laura and I took a road trip along the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. We packed up our pickup truck with warm blankets, clothes, food and camera gear; we also tossed in our dog, Pepper, for good measure. This was our first chance to try out “RV-ing” with our little camper shell.

My camera gear was pretty minimal. I brought one camera body, an Olympus OMD E-M1 with three lenses: Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8, Olympus 60mm f/2.8 macro, and Olympus 75-300mm II f/4.8-6.7 zoom lens. I packed a small carbon fiber tripod but never used it. The in-body image stabilization of the OMD cameras is very good, and I never encountered a time when I felt I needed the tripod. I even took some shots hand-held at 1/4 second that came out very sharp!

Laura used a Canon T4i with a Sigma 18-200mm stabilized zoom lens.

The first day was our travel day from Lincoln to the Highway 395 corridor. Our route took us up Highway 50 toward South Lake Tahoe and we headed southeast over a couple of high elevation passes to get to HWY395. We reached 8,300 feet on Monitor Pass and the breathtaking views opened up as we crested the top.

The expansive view of the Eastern Sierra after crossing over Monitor Pass.

We spent our first night at the Topaz Lodge & Casino at Topaz Lake just across the Nevada border. The next morning we began our southbound journey down Highway 395.

The fall colors were in various stages of progress. Some trees were bare, presumably stripped by the high winds frequenting the area. Some were still green, with the rest showing yellow, orange and red colors. The contrast of the vibrant colors against the stark rocky terrain provided some compelling visuals.

Along HWY 395 south of Bridgeport, the trees were in various stages of change.

Our first stop was the ghost town, Bodie. Bodie is a California State Park that consists of dozens of buildings from the gold rush era. If you look through the windows of some buildings, you can see old furniture, appliances, toys, bottles, and sundry items on the shelves.

The historic town of Bodie sits at 8,375′ elevation.
The former Post Office (left) and the I.O.O.F. hall (right).
This rusty car is probably one of the most photographed relics at Bodie.
One of the many residences at Bodie, this one has a partial vehicle in front.
Looking through the windows of the Boone Store, many of the furnishings and products are still in place.
Laura and Pepper take a break in the shade.
The cemetery above the town tells many of the stories of hardship during the heyday of Bodie.


After visiting Bodie, we set up camp for our first night of RV life. We stayed at an RV park outside of Bridgeport, along the Bridgeport Lake. With the severe drought, we could see where the lake was supposed to be. We had a great view of the area and we managed to sleep through a very cold night. The rear window of the camper was frosted over by morning, and Pepper had a nice chunk of ice in her water bowl.

The accommodations were minimal, but for $23, the view was unbeatable. The lake levels would normally reach the area just beyond our campsite.

On our third day, we visited Mono Lake. Mono Lake is considered an oasis in the desert, although the high salinity content of the water makes it undrinkable. No fish live in the lake, either. It is home to nearly two million migratory birds who feed on the brine shrimp in the waters. Large tufa towers, a form of limestone, rise above the waterline and provide an eery and dramatic texture to the view of the lake.

Tufa towers rise out of the waters at Mono Lake.
The South Tufa are the most accessible in the area.
More views at the South Tufa location.
A circular polarizing filter increases the contrast in the tufa and the clouds.

This is also the part of the trip where we began to see the most fall colors. The June Lake Loop (Highway 158) is located off HWY 395 between Mono Lake and Mammoth Lakes. We followed the 16-mile loop and saw lots of colors. I made a mental note to return to this area before we left for home.

The fall colors along the June Lake Loop were at their peak. I knew I wanted to return to this area when we had more time.

We spent the third night at a hotel in Mammoth Lakes. After the freezing encounter the previous night, we wanted a place that included a hot shower. It also provided a place to watch the third game of the World Series. (Torture)

On our fourth day, we headed toward the city of Bishop. We knew we would be in a warmer part of the region so we searched for an RV park in Bishop. We wanted to balance out the other “RV-night” with something more pleasant and comfortable. The forecast for the overnight low was around 44°, so we were pretty happy with that.

Brown’s Town is a very nice campground-like RV park on the south end of town. They have several historic dioramas at the front of the park that have artifacts on display inside small buildings. Bathrooms and showers were available in the park. The general store sells basic items along with snacks, scooped ice cream and homemade pies. Now we were really roughing it!

Before setting up camp for the night, we drove south about 60 miles to Lone Pine. We were hoping to get a good look at Mt. Whitney, but the area had some smoky haze so the mountains were difficult to see. We had a great lunch at a Lone Pine main street cafe and returned to Bishop.

I took this photo from our truck, moving at 65 MPH along the highway near Bishop. (Laura was driving.)
Another photo taken from a moving vehicle. This was just north of Bishop.
Our view of the sunset from our truck at the RV park in Bishop.

On Friday, we began our journey home. We planned to drive north up HWY 395 and spend the night near Minden, NV. Along the way we returned to the June Lake Loop and captured some amazing fall colors.

A meadow next to Silver Lake on the June Lake Loop.
Looking across Silver Lake.
The wind was blowing strong that day, but the view along Rush Creek (near Silver Lake) was spectacular.
Rush Creek colors, above and below (circular polarizing filter set at 3/4 strength).


The weather was changing on Friday, with very strong winds and a forecast of rain on Saturday. We stayed the night at a motel in Carson City, NV and drove home in gusty winds and rain on Saturday.

Overall, the trip was a great success. We lucked our way into the best time to see fall colors in the Eastern Sierra and had great weather along the way. We worked out the bugs in our first RV experience in our camper and look forward to more trips like this one.

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Dam drought

Normally underwater, this area of Folsom Lake is dry due to the drought conditions in California


California is facing serious drought issues; rainfall is significantly below annual averages. With such little rain and snow over the last 12 months, the water levels at Folsom Lake have been dropping to historic low levels. The levels are low enough to generate new nicknames for this water recreation area: “Folsom Creek” and “Folsom Pond” are a couple of examples.

Laura and I, along with our two dogs, spent the afternoon checking out the new shorelines at Folsom Lake. We entered the lake area at the Browns Ravine gate. I was a bit surprised at the line of cars waiting to pay the $12 State Parks Day Use Fee. Apparently the media coverage of the low lake levels has inspired lots of like-minded visitors.

The big attraction at the Browns Ravine area is the exposure of the remnants of Mormon Island, a small town that had its heyday during the Gold Rush. Mormon Island (which is not an island) was covered up with water when the Folsom Dam was completed in 1955. The low water levels have given unusual access to amateur archeologists to poke around some of the ruins.

The hike from the parking lot to Mormon Island is about one and half miles.
Hundreds of tree stumps are seeing sunlight after 50 years.

Mormon Island is about a 1.5 mile walk from the parking area. The area was pretty crowded with families, dogs, strollers and mountain bikes. The pilgrimage out to the ruins was a bit surreal; it reminded me of a spiritual migration. Some building foundations were still visible, along with the remnants of an old access road. Apparently, the main part of the town is still under water, farther out from the dry sections.

An old boat motor lays on dry ground.
Visitors check out the foundations of some structures of Mormon Island.
Lake water levels are below the levels of drought year 1976-77.
Looking back toward El Dorado Hills, Mormon Island is getting well-inspected.

After spending some time near the ruins, we drove around to the other side of Folsom Dam to the Beals Point area. (The Day Use Fee allows access to all areas of Folsom Lake on the same day.) Beals Point features a campground and beach area. Well, a beach area when there’s water around. Not this year, though.

The Beals Point area was very quiet with very few people. The terrain was different from Browns Ravine, almost lunar-like in places. Most interesting to me was the view of the Folsom Dam. It was eerie to see how low the water level was on the wet side of the dam, exposing parts of the structure not normally visible. It felt rather dystopic, like we were wandering around after a massive catastrophe. Laura commented that she felt that at any time a wall of water would appear and submerge everything again.

The view of Folsom Lake from Beals Point.
The terrain appears moon-like.
Two people walk along the new shoreline at Folsom Lake. El Dorado Hills is in the background.
Looking back up toward the parking area of Beals Point – this is normally underwater.
The water cannot reach the eight spillways on the dam. The three vertical tubes are intakes for the hydroelectric operations of the dam.
Lots of fishing lures are probably hiding in those rocks.
Some remnants of structure are exposed for the first time in decades.

I remembered a visit to Folsom Dam in the mid-1970’s when several of us photographers were given an inside tour of Folsom Dam. Since this was pre-9/11, access was much more generous. I’m sure now it would be considered a national security risk to allow people to wander around the bowels of a dam and take photographs.

We visited the control room, walked around the inside and outside of the generating building and had access to the inside of the dam structure. One of the generating turbines was shut down for maintenance and we were allowed to walk around the inside of the water tube. One of the dam workers thought it would be funny to drop a large piece of lumber inside the tube. The explosive sound and persistent echo was startling. Even though the tube was dry, I think some of us left some moisture behind. He was the only guy laughing, if I recall correctly. Dam worker.

During the mid-1970’s, I was able to tour the inside of Folsom Dam. This is the turbine room with the three hydroelectric turbines.
The control room inside Folsom Dam (c. 1975).
These water tubes supply water to the turbines for generating power.
Looking down the outlet side of the dam.
Inside the bowels of the dam…

If the water levels continue to drop, I plan to revisit the area and take more photos. As more parts of the dam are exposed, we will have the opportunity to see things that were never expected to be visible again.

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Polarizing filters for dramatic fall colors

Left photo - no polarizing filter / Right photo taken with a polarizing filter

12-15-2011 (click on any photo to see it larger)

My last post of fall colors in my neighborhood reminded me to share some test shots I took –  I wanted to illustrate how much difference a polarizing filter can make on the colors in a landscape photograph.

The photos above were taken with the same camera, the photo on the left was taken without the polarizing filter and the one on the right was taken with the polarizing filter. The right-hand photo has more vibrant color in the leaves and the sky is a darker blue.

Why the difference? A polarizing filter removes polarized light – the degree of removal is based on the angle of the camera and the rotation of the filter. The filter is actually two filters that rotate independently. By rotating the outer filter (the inner one is firmly attached to the front of your lens) you can vary the effect. Any reflections on non-metallic objects are polarized light and the filter can reduce the reflections.

The images below show a close-up example of the differences in color saturation. The photo on the left (no polarizer) gives you an idea of the amount of reflection on the leaves. When the polarizing filter is rotated (photo on the right) the reflections are reduced and you get the true colors of the leaves.

The reflections on the leaves (left photo) diminish the colors. The polarizing filter (right photo) removes the reflections and allows the full color to show.

Sunlight is also polarized light, so when you use a polarizing filter, it can make the blue sky seem darker and more dramatic. The effect is most pronounced when you are pointing the camera about 90 degrees from the direction of the sunlight.

Another example of a darker blue sky and more vibrant colors on the leaves in the photo on the right.

Be sure to get a circular polarizing filter (most of them these days are circular). A linear polarizer won’t work well with auto-focus systems and digital sensors. A good polarizing filter can be pretty expensive ($40-$50) and if you have several lenses with different filter sizes, the best approach is to buy a filter for the largest size, and get inexpensive step-up rings to adapt the large filter to smaller lens diameters. In this way, you can use one filter on all lenses.

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A Day at the City by the Bay


San Francisco’s skyline


I got a last-minute chance to go the Bay Area last week. Laura was teaching a day-long class in Richmond and I decided to tag along, drop her off at her class and then take a ferry ride over to San Francisco for a few hours. This also gave me a chance to try out a recent used camera purchase. Combined with sunny weather, it was a great day.

The ferry leaves Larkspur and crosses San Francisco Bay to the San Francisco Ferry Building along the Embarcadero. I was lucky enough to catch the high-speed ferry (30 minute ride vs. 45 minutes on the slower one). It really flew along the water. I’m guessing we were moving about 50 mph land speed, based on how hard the wind hit me in the face.


These guys were playing “I’m King of the World” with the wind on the ferry.

This was my first time on a ferry on the Bay and it really gives a nice vantage point along the way. We passed San Quentin Prison, Angel Island, got a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, and the approach to the SF city from bayside was terrific.


San Quentin Prison – Home Sweet Home for some…
Somebody didn't plan for a rise in sea level.
Approaching the San Francisco Ferry Building

Once I landed in the City, I walked around the Embarcadero area. I ventured into the Hyatt Regency Hotel with its famous atrium interior. I took a photo from this vantage point around 1980, it may be on my website.


The atrium inside the Hyatt Regency Hotel.



Looking up through a sculpture.


Looking down at a lunchtime gathering.
Looking out at the bay.

I had lunch with my son, Ken, who works about a block away. It’s always fun to see my grown kids out in their own world – I realize Ken has lived more than 1/3 of his life in San Francisco. We had a great visit and it was, as always, way too short. I bopped around a little more, bought a baseball cap from the SF Giants Dugout Store (naturally), and headed back to the ferry landing for the return ride back across the bay.


This little guy (or gull) was drafting the ferry boat. (That's pretty quick and sharp manual focus.)
"And when the wind is right you can sail away, and find serenity" (name that tune)

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Locke, Calif

Main Street - Locke, CA


I took a quiet drive along the Sacramento River toward the delta region last week. It’s mostly farmland in this area…pear orchards, new vineyards, grain fields.

Locke is a small historic riverfront town about 20 miles south of Sacramento. In fact, it is very small. The main street (above) runs about one block, and it looks like there are a couple of streets with small houses on them. Locke has an interesting history. It was formed in the early 1900’s by a group of Chinese residents who wanted to form their own community in the farming region.  It has the unique status as the only town in the United States built exclusively by the Chinese for the Chinese. A few small businesses still operate along the main street: a bar called Al the Wop’s, some gift shops and a small market. There is also a small Chinese memorial park monument.

Talk about committed...

I think this is called "knob and tube" wiring. Whatever, it looks like original installation.

Looking between buildings along the main street.
Window detail
A few patrons of the local bar, Al the Wop's.

Making good use of an old auto rim.

Reflecting on a memorial...

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Traveling with a camera – what to take?

"Sunset at Puerto Escondido" taken with Canon G11 camera
"Surfer and Sunset" taken with Canon G11 camera


It’s always a dilemma when I think about selecting a camera (or two) when leaving for a vacation. How much gear do I want to pack? How much gear will I want to carry with me while I’m at my vacation destination? (If you’re not going to take the camera out with you, then it doesn’t matter what you bring.)

As Laura and I prepared to pack for our recent trip to Puerto Escondido, Mexico, I decided to travel as minimally as possible. The purpose of this trip was to relax, take in the sights and experience Mexico to the fullest. Since we were planning to not check any luggage and just do carry-on, I knew I was going with no more than one camera and one lens. My usual “go-to vacation setup” is a Canon Rebel XTi with a Sigma 18-200 zoom lens. This is a pretty compact, lightweight, yet good all-around rig. The zoom range of 18-200mm is the 35mm equivalent of 28-320mm on the crop sensor, so that works out well as a vacation camera. Wide enough for most vistas and interiors, yet the strong zoom would really pull in detail shots and candids. But I had recently purchased a Canon G11 point and shoot camera and I really wanted to give it a whirl. So I left the DSLR home and put my faith in the G11. That was it, just the camera. And fortunately, as I’ll explain later, lens cleaning materials.


Continue reading “Traveling with a camera – what to take?”

Dos Caballeros




Recently we took a drive to the Napa Valley area to photograph fall colors in the vineyards. These two gentlemen were relaxing in Calistoga, sitting along the main street. They were quite willing to be photographed, although they may look a little apprehensive here. This image was taken late in the evening, it was much darker than it appears. Gotta love the new 5D Mk II and its low light resolution.

A few red leaves frame a bunch of grapes in a vineyard.
A vineyard sits among the rolling hills of Napa Valley.

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