Archive for January, 2010

lone pine   17 comments

Posted at 9:31 pm in california,geology

snowstorm over Glass Mountain Ridge near Mammoth Lakes (click on all images for larger views)

After spending the better part of a week camped at Mono Lake it was time to move on. Once again, the late autumn weather pushed us further south. Snow was forecast for the next couple of days, so we struck camp in the morning just as the first flakes began to fall. Soon we were headed south on 395, the wind slamming us about, making for some very rough driving. Somewhere around Independence, towering dust clouds blasted down the Owens Valley parallel to the highway. This did not bode well for our plan of camping somewhere within Death Valley.

Stopping at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center just south of the town of Lone Pine, I made some inquiries about the weather. That was barely necessary as, outside the building, tumbleweeds and broken branches were swirling about, while parked vehicles rocked crazily from side to side. The rangers were advising everyone not to venture into Death Valley that afternoon as the winds were so fierce and the temperature dropping quickly. My friend, who was doing this leg of the journey with us, asked about campgrounds in the area. We were given directions to a few sites around Lone Pine, so we turned back up the road to check them out, but not before stopping to have a couple of vegetarian pizzas and a salad made up for us at the Pizza Factory. With the wind blasting as it was, setting up the camp stove would be out of the question that evening. Perusing the collection of framed news stories and autographed photos of movie stars who had worked on shoots around Lone Pine, kept us amused while waiting for our pizzas to bake. They turned out to be quite good and were well appreciated later that evening as the temperature began to dive below freezing.

sunrise at Lone Pine campground – Mount Whitney is at the center of this photo

After checking out the Tuttle Creek and municipal campgrounds closer to town, we decided that they weren’t our style. Instead, we headed up the road toward the Lone Pine campground at the foot of Mount Whitney. At 14,505 feet, the summit is the highest point in the contiguous U.S. states – the peak is visible in the center of the above photo. The Lone Pine campground is at about 6,000 feet, so about 2,000 feet higher than the campgrounds closer to town. Needless to say, we were the only campers at Lone Pine that night. Even the camp host was gone. There was just a handmade sign saying that the host was “away for awhile” and to deposit fees at the self-pay station and obey the campground rules.

my van at Lone Pine campground, sometime after the sun began to melt frost off the windshield

Lone Pine is one of those old style “classic” campgrounds, designed for tenting or smaller trailers rather than RVs, and laid out in such a way as to preserve many features of the landscape. Most of the sites are nestled between massive Sierra white granite boulders bigger than my van. Far above, long banners of snow curled off Whitney and the surrounding peaks, providing an ethereal backdrop.

After wandering around shooting photos and investigating the campground, we dined on almost-cold pizza, salad, and some of the baklava cooked over the camp stove a couple of nights before. Without the dogs, it might have been a cold night in the van, but once zipped into good sleeping bags, with two collies curled up to fill the gaps, and a blanket tossed over all, we were warm enough. I awoke at dawn and rose to shoot photos of the sunlight spreading across the Sierras. The air was frigid, and even with good gloves, my hands were soon beginning to freeze. Gallon jugs of water, tossed up on the van roof for the night, were frozen rock solid by morning. We would have liked to stay another night at Lone Pine, but the wind had dropped off and we we were anxious to get to lower (and warmer) elevation, so we set off for Death Valley once more.

road through granite boulder formations near the town of Lone Pine

On our way back to town, we stopped to explore the incredible rock formations of the Alabama Hills, a low range at the foot of Mount Whitney and the other high peaks to the west. Jumbled heaps of oddly shaped, weathered granite boulders break through the sloping sagebrush covered earth. The landscape immediately put me in mind of the Dragoon Mountains of southeast Arizona. They feel similarly ancient and mysterious.

granite boulder formation near the town of Lone Pine

During the heyday of movie and tv westerns, The Alabama Hills were a popular “on location” site. At Movie Flats Road, there is a plaque that states:

Since 1920, hundreds of movies and TV episodes, including Gunga Din, How The West Was Won, Khyber Rifles, Bengal Lancers and High Sierra, along with The Lone Ranger and Bonanza, with such stars as Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Gene Autry, Glenn Ford, Humphrey Bogart, and John Wayne, have been filmed in these rugged Alabama Hills with their majestic Sierra Nevada background. Plaque dedicated by Roy Rogers, whose first starring feature was filmed here in 1938.

“Gunga Din” monument near Lone Pine

Elsewhere, a plaque affixed to a slab of white Sierra granite identifies an area used in the shooting of the movie, Gunga Din.


In 1938, this hill area, among many others in these Alabama Hills, served as a stand-in for the hill country of northern India when RKO made the classic adventure film, “Gunga Din,” on location in Lone Pine. Hundreds of horsemen raced across the hills and elaborate sets were built here and nearby while the cast and crew lived for weeks in a tent city off Movie Road. Directed by George Stevens, the epic starred Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Victor McLaglen and Joan Fontaine with Sam Jaffe as Gunga Din, the waterboy who wanted so much to be a soldier.

This looks a bit like the cone of a Coulter Pine (Pinus coulteri), but maybe a little different. Please leave a comment if you know.

At the information kiosk for the Alabama Hills, we noticed several pineapple-sized pine cones scattered on the ground (see above). Upon closer inspection, we found that these cones were both very weighty and heavily armed, having long, curving, claw-like scales. They somewhat resemble the cones of a Coulter Pine (Pinus coulteri), but the scales seem a little different and with longer “claws”. Whatever, they are really quite wicked looking and it isn’t difficult to imagine how much damage one of these could inflict if it happened to fall from a tree and hit an unwary passerby. I looked up information on the Coulter Pine and found that the cones are referred to as “widowmakers” due to their hazardous nature. These cones are certainly right up there in the same league.

Passing through Lone Pine, we decided to stop and buy a couple of more pizzas and a salad to take with us into Death Valley. It seemed like a good way to provision ourselves, and besides, by this point in my travels, I was definitely feeling the need for a break from camp cooking. At the East Sierra visitor center, we were told that the weather was somewhat better – colder than normal, but at least the winds had subsided. More about that part of our trip coming up sometime soon.

Written by bev on January 21st, 2010

mono lake   13 comments

Posted at 11:03 pm in Uncategorized

Mono Lake at dawn

As mentioned in previous posts, during this trip, I rarely spent more than a couple of nights at one campsite. Although I kept the distance of hops between sites down to a minimum, my restlessness kept me on the move most of the time. However, once in awhile, I’d land in a place that was so tranquil that I’d feel able to kick back and stay awhile. It should come as no surprise that most of these were places where I could find solitude.

When traveling in the western U.S., I often stop at Forest Services ranger stations or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) offices, to ask for info on road conditions, hiking trails, campgrounds and dispersed campsites. Rangers are almost always a good source when looking for a dispersed site. I just tell them that I don’t mind roughing it or a bit of back-roading, and most can point me in the right direction. The dispersed site at Mono Lake was a ranger recommendation — a ranger met up at Bodie. He got a map out of his truck and pointed out a site overlooking Mono Lake while commenting, “Have I got a place for YOU!!” He was so right. It was a wonderful campsite from which to view the lake and the sky in perfect peace.

Sage taking it easy, using a boulder for a pillow

A photographer friend whom I’ve traveled with several times over the years, joined our little caravan for a couple of weeks. Days were spent studying maps, snoozing, or wandering about shooting photos. We explored the Mono Lake area, stocked up on supplies (mainly fresh fruit, vegetables and tofu) at the great little store in Lee Vining, and even made a precarious trip up and back into Yosemite (the brakes on my van overheated on the way back down, so it was something of a tense excursion).

From our campsite, Mono Lake lay before us. Moment to moment, its waters were transformed by the skies above – now pink, now blue, now silver, now gold. Each morning, I would lie in my bed in the back of the van, waiting for the first glow of sunrise to ignite the surface of the lake, creating one vast pool of molten bronze (top photo – click on all photos for larger versions).

shadows that tracked us on our morning walks

Leaving Sabrina stretched out deep in slumber, I would take Sage for a long walk, surveying the landscape as the sunlight slowly spread across the sagebrush to illuminate the snowy peaks of the Sierras to the west. This was our time – really, the first quality time that we had spent together since her arrival in my life. It was good to get out wandering about with her, seeing how she behaved when on her own away from Sabrina. As she matures, I believe she’s going to be a great companion.

the Sierras as seen from Mono Lake shortly after dawn

Most afternoons, we took both dogs and tripped around the area. Of course, we visited the tufa towers, a striking geological feature peculiar to Mono Lake. The chemistry of the lake is highly alkaline, creating conditions which allow the towers to form where calcium-rich underwater springs come in contact with the lake water.

Seen from a distance, the tufa towers rise from the water like the spires of some magical city. Drawing closer to the lake, we found that there were clusters of the towers along and even above the shoreline. On this day, sunlight breaking through the cloud cover, dramatically lit the formations.

Some of the shapes were fantastic, like great hulking creatures – particularly those lurking among the sagebrush.

In the evening, I would cook dinner for all of us using the propane gas stove. I’ve always enjoyed camp cooking, and on this trip, evenings spent cooking for the dogs and myself turned out to be one of the best times of my day. I do all of the sous-chef work while it’s light, then fire up the stove and start cooking as the sun goes down.

The dogs usually lie somewhere around my work space. A few weeks into my trip, Sage took to curling up on a camp chair if there happened to be one around. I think she enjoyed having a vantage point from which to watch me work. One thing I sometimes like to do when camp cooking is to try to make something that seems a little impossible given the equipment. On this trip, it was making a batch of baklava over the propane stove. Earlier in the day, I ground up walnuts and almonds in a large bowl, employing a tall can of iced tea as a pestle. Using sheets of phyllo I’d had in the cooler for a couple of days, I put the baklava together on foil trays on my improvised counter top (the hood of my friend’s Toyota). Then I baked the pastry over the grille end of the propane stove by covering the trays with a doubled layer of foil and “baking” them by flipping them every few minutes. Apart from the odd burnt spot where the butter overheated, it actually worked out quite well. I drenched the trays of pastry with blackberry honey that I’d bought while in Oregon a couple of weeks before. We dined on baklava for days – it makes great way-food for hungry travelers and their dogs.

One of the nicest things about camp cooking is the sound. My friend commented on how the very distinctive sound of the propane camp stove burners brought back vivid memories of his mom cooking dinners when his family spent summers at campgrounds all over the state of California. For me, the memories are different — of the many nights spent with my dogs cooking dinner at campsites scattered over a continent.

If the sunrises at Mono Lake could be described as amazing, many of the sunsets were spectacular. Strange swirling clouds often formed above the lake, while to the west, the sinking sun would set the sky ablaze over the Sierras. Nights were dark and beautiful – true, not without the odd man-made light here or there on the horizon – but if you chose just the right direction to face, you could imagine a world without people – one with just the night sounds of the high desert.

Written by bev on January 14th, 2010