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I go, I see, I do, I walk, I think, I like…

Anatomy of a Sierra Nevada 'Aspen Blitz'

It is September – actually it may October when you read this – and time to chase the aspens in the eastern Sierra. I made my first serious attempt of the year yesterday. Here’s how the madness unfolded…

On Friday night – pack stuff for the day, including enough gear that I could stay out overnight if necessary. Try to get to bed early but more or less fail. :-)

Up at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. After a quick bagel and an espresso I’m on the road before 4:00 a.m. I drive out of the Bay Area and across the Central Valley in the dark and begin to see a bit of light in the east before Jackson. Fill the tank in Jackson and head on toward Carson Pass. The sun rises a bit before I reach Kirkwood, so I stop and shoot a few sunrise photos looking north towards peaks around Lake Tahoe… and including an inch of snow in the foreground.

I stop to take a few photos at Silver Lake and eventually work my way over the pass. I stop on the other side to look out over Hope Valley which holds many stands of aspens, quite a few of which are starting to turn yellow. I do a bit of photography in Hope Valley as far down as Sorenson’s and then head on down toward Woodfords where I turn right and head up past Markleeville to the start of Monitor Pass.

Lots of aspens on Monitor Pass beginning with some impressively colorful stands right along the road at the base of the climb. There is another brilliant stand near a lake about half way up, and the giant aspen groves near around the top of the pass are coming into condition. I stop at the pass and shoot in a the groves here for awhile before starting down the other side. (Near the top of the descent I make a mental note to return to several spots in this area later in the day should I return by this route.)

At the bottom of Monitor Pass I turn south on highway 395 and eat lunch as I drive toward Walker. After climbing the narrow Walker River canyon beyond town, the land opens up before Sonora Pass where many large groves of aspens are visible up high. I don’t go up that direction this time, but continue south with time for a detour out on a a dirt road south of Sonora Pass road. This takes me up to some very colorful groves – though the light isn’t great this time of day – but the road becomes a bit rougher than what I’m in the mood for, so I head back to 395 and on towards Bridgeport.

After passing through Bridgeport I take another dirt road south of town, those one marked “Green Creek.” This road is mostly in pretty good shape, and it travels though high and interesting country that would be worth the drive even if the aspens weren’t there. Eventually it climbs though some outstanding aspen groves up high – this is an area that is visible from Conway Summit below in 395. After the aspens the forest changes to coniferous trees and shortly joins the road to Virginia Lakes, where I stop for a few photographs.

Leaving Virginia Lakes I calculate my remaining daylight hours and decide a) that I have time to visit Lee Vining and b) that I’ll return the way I came and shoot at those spots I noted earlier on Monitor Pass later in the day. I pass by some aspens stands as I descend toward Conway Summit and the junction with 395 – these will be good in a few days – and turn right on 395. The groves just south of Conway Summit are very colorful but there seems to be no place to pull over, so I continue on to Lee Vining.

After buying $15 worth of gas for $20 and getting an espresso and a snack at “Latte Da” (where, by tradition, I sit on the porch for ten minutes) I start to retrace my path. When I arrive back at Conway Summit the sun is lighting the huge aspen groves there from behind so I stop to shoot some multi-image panoramas. I leave Conway Summit with the goals of getting back to Monitor Pass in time to shoot some hills on the east side of the pass before the Sierra crest blocks that light and then shooting at the pass in the last light.

I arrive at the Monitor Pass road more or less on schedule. After stopping to photograph some hills near the bottom, I head up to near the top where I can get a panoramic shot of the valley and ridges to the south and east of the pass. Then it is on up to the pass proper where I spend 15 or 20 minutes shooting the colorful light in the aspen groves at the pass as the sun drops. From here I quickly head just over the pass to a spot I had earlier identified as a possible sunset shoot location, and I arrive just as the last light is going. I think I may have just barely gotten a decent shot here, but now the light is gone and it is time to head home.

At the bottom of Monitor I decide that the better road over Carson Pass is probably a better bet than the slightly shorter but twistier route over Ebbetts, so I turn right, pass through Markleeville and Woodfords and climb over Carson Pass as the last light goes. Now it is just a plain old long drive home, with a stop along the way for some disgusting fast food and some Starbucks coffee. 600 miles later I’m back home at 11:45.

Next weekend I may take a somewhat more civilized two-day trip back to the aspens, though this time I’m thinking I’ll head south of Lee Vining towards June Lake, Rock Creek, and the North/South/Sabrina Lake area…


September 30, 2007 - Posted by | Commentary, Photography, Trips


  1. […] at my dan’s outside web site I’ve just recounted what it is like to drive from the SF Bay Area to the eastern Sierra and back in a day – all to photograph the […]

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  2. […] weekend I was in the eastern Sierra Nevada chasing fall aspen colors. Photos will appear here soon – in the meantime I have posted a few at my […]

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  3. […] Vining for a cup of coffee and some over-priced gas before heading home by retracing my steps. (See Anatomy of an Aspen Blitz at my other web site.) I started at 3:30 a.m., travelled well over 600 miles, shot several hundred […]

    Pingback by G Dan Mitchell | Photography » OK, I’ve Been Outdone! | October 16, 2007

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