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

17 Responses to 'lone pine'

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  1. all those rocks look very unglaciated.


    21 Jan 10 at 10:14 pm

  2. You are a sturdier person than I! The frozen gallon jugs would have made me turn tail and run looking fora motel. The bolders really are huge…and fortunately stable so they didn’t roll over your van.


    22 Jan 10 at 9:09 am

  3. fred – The west and southwest always seem so different from our region in the east. Also, there is evidence of so much “recent” volcanic activity. I find the geology of all of these places, pretty much everywhere in my travels, endlessly fascinating.

    John – Oh, it was pretty cold even with the sleeping bags and fluffy dogs. By morning, all of the windows of the van were coated with a thick crust of frost — not just a thin one, but very thick. That happened on several nights during this year’s travels. Late season travel is not for everyone. Being from eastern Ontario, I don’t mind it at all, but the lack of other campers everywhere I go is probably a good indication that people from further south consider the conditions to be too cold.


    22 Jan 10 at 9:39 am

  4. I had forgotten how grand and remote the eastern sierras are. It’s been many years since I visted there. Roger and I once hiked a bit of the Whitney Portal trail just to get a feel for that ascent. It’s quite demanding, but spectacular too. There is something about the way the mountain rise out of the valley there that is just stunning. The slope on the west is so much less intense, and so dramatically green.

    That pine cone is beautiful.

    robin andrea

    22 Jan 10 at 11:21 am

  5. Beautiful pictures Bev…the one of your van almost looks like a painting. The picture you took of your shadows is great!
    Be Safe.

    Judy Pollock

    22 Jan 10 at 8:15 pm

  6. I love the photos of rocks–they remind me very much of rocks I grew up climbing. I lived in what was then S. Rhodesia in the Matopo Hills. The granite rock formations there look exactly like those in your photo. Sweet reminder of gaunt beauty.


    22 Jan 10 at 10:25 pm

  7. These photos are gorgeous, Bev, and there can never be too many rock photos for me.

    Going by the wickedly hooked talons, I think your cone is a female Coulter Pine cone.


    23 Jan 10 at 7:08 pm

  8. Beautiful photos, Bev, and there can never be too many old rocks and photos of them for me.
    The combination of faded orangey volcanic rock and ancient weathered granite is lovely.

    Going by the formidable talons on your cone, it is a female Coulter pine cone. If not, then it is probably the cone from a close relative, the Digger Pine. Was the tree trunk straight or was it crooked and forked?


    24 Jan 10 at 7:52 am

  9. robin – I was amazed at how much altitude gain there is in such a small area at the point in the Sierras. Kind of crazy to contemplate.

    Judy – Hi! So happy to know that you’ve been checking out my blog. I hope it will help you with your own trip planning.

    KgMom – Isn’t it interesting how rock formations in one place, can be so similar to those in another, in spite of being very unique and separated by thousands of miles.

    Cate – Thanks for the kind comments about the photos. I love rocks and photograph large and small ones wherever I go. You’re right – one can never have to many rock photos! I looked at Digger Pine cones, but I’m leaning toward the Coulter Pine. I photographed some cones that I’m quite sure are Digger, but they look a bit different and are nowhere near so sharp. Just this morning, I found another photo of Coulter cones — the one on the right looks pretty much identical to the cone I photographed. Here’s the link:


    24 Jan 10 at 12:07 pm

  10. Bev, I used to collect pine cones, but here we don’t see the variety that you are able to observe on your travels. The Coulter pine cones certainly are dangerous looking and might inspire a person to wear a helmet during the times when the trees toss them aside! Did you gather any to bring back?


    25 Jan 10 at 9:01 am

  11. Bev , as usual beautiful, inspiring photos. I really admire you. I wish you would write a book about your very interesting life because I for one would love to read it. You are a unusual woman (in a great way). I think you are brave and adventurous to live as you do. A real pioneer spirit.


    26 Jan 10 at 7:41 am

  12. Now I’m wondering if that landscape still seems so magical to me because I saw it first on television when I was a very young child. Of course, the images would have been in black and white back then, but the black and white did capture the sparkling clear light there, the spirit of that magnificent land.


    26 Jan 10 at 9:20 pm

  13. I haven’t been able to catch up on you lately, so I missed your previous post on Mono Lake. I visited there about 1977.

    I love the picture of sunrise at the campground. It’s just remarkable.


    27 Jan 10 at 10:28 am

  14. […] leaving Lone Pine, a photographer friend and I followed 136 south past Owens Lake – a vast dry lake bed lying […]

  15. Marni – They really are quite nasty cones. They’re actually so sharp that you can cut your fingers on the “claws” – so, no, I decided not to bring any along. Probably couldn’t bring them over the border into Canada anyhow. The other thing is that most of the really large cones that I saw in California had spiders in webs inside. Most are probably innocuous, but there are a couple of species that might be of some concern if they hitchhiked a ride in a cone! (-:

    Cherie – Thanks so much for the kind words. I am beginning to think about how this blog might form the basis of a book on traveling alone. Until now, I’ve been struggling just to keep my head above water, but maybe soon I’ll be able to handle a serious writing project. Stay tuned!

    am – You’re so right about how even black-and-white images were able to capture the light of the Sierras. When we arrived at the Alabama Hills, it felt as though I “knew” them already. I wasn’t sure if it was their similarity to the Dragoons, or whether it was from seeing them in movies and on television.

    Mark – The sunrises and sunsets at Mono Lake are truly remarkable. I don’t quite know what it is, but it’s a very unique place as far as light and colour is concerned.


    27 Jan 10 at 5:04 pm

  16. Just catching up on my blogs today. Years ago, as a young man in my twenties, I was sent to a microbiology conference in Las Vegas. I went out a few days early, rented a car and drove through Death Valley into Lone Pine. I spent the night in a motel there. In the middle of the night I got up to use the washroom. I saw something fuzzy on the bathroom floor. I nearly dismissed it, but something caused me to flip the light on, and I had my first encounter with a scorpion. Rather startling, it will forever be the thing that I most remember about Lone Pine.


    1 Feb 10 at 1:42 pm

  17. Doug – Ha! What a thing to associate with Lone Pine! My only encounters with scorpions have been here in Arizona. You’ll probably see the recent photo of one in my latest blog post. I hope to get to know a little more about them – other than what it feels like to be stung. (-:


    1 Feb 10 at 2:20 pm

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