Death Valley | Sierra East Side | Bodie | Mono Lake | Berlin Nevada
Well, here we go and just one week shy of a year since our last serious road trip. That one took us through six states over two weeks. While not as mile-crushing as that trip, we still covered 1750 miles over two states in under a week. 

The original plan had been to drive from our home in Sonoma County, down the valley to Bakersfield and up the hill to Tehachapi. However, I fell upon a post saying Sonora Pass had just opened for the season. With that, I cancelled our hotel in Tehachapi, and we instead drove straight from our home in Sonoma County to Mammoth Lakes, skipping hours of mindless driving along I-5. 

We only stopped for gas and a quick stretch at Donnell Vista, pictured below. The vacation doesn't start until we hit the East Side of the Sierras, so let's get moving.

A few shots from the view point and Sonora Pass, which is the second highest highway pass in the state at 9,600'.
Thanks for the good night's rest Mammoth, we'll see you in a few days!

We channeled our desert spirit guides, pointed the rental car towards the east and hit the gas pedal. Death Valley awaits!

We opted for going the eastern route and then returning to Mammoth in a few days via Hwy 395. The alternate route took us out Hwy 6 through Benton and Montgomery Pass just over the CA / NV border along the most northern section of the White Mountain Range. It's the same range that's known for its ancient bristle cone pine forest (still haven't been there!). 

Montgomery Pass had its heydays back in the late 50s through 60s and was known for its hotels and casino, all of which are long abandoned and/or burned down. Worth the stop.  
We continued trucking down NV-6 and then followed Hwy 264 south along the east side of the White Mountains, winding back into California for a few minutes, then back into Nevada. Views consisted of rolling, sage-covered hills sprinkled with the odd Joshua tree forest. Hours later, and quite a ways down NV-95, we made one last cheap fuel stop in Beatty NV before heading west towards Death Valley and back into California. 
Ah, but not quite! While the feelings of get-there-itis were nagging, we still had light to burn so we stopped in at the Rhyolite ghost town. Logan hadn't been there before, and every time I've been there it's been at midday with very lousy lighting conditions.  We spent 30-minutes snacking and doing a minimal amount of sightseeing before scurrying off again. 

The building featured below is the old train depot, once converted into a casino, and now fitted with a modern roof to keep it in an arrested state of disrepair. It's a bummer they've had to fit a fence around it. Seeing more of that than I used to as we travel around the rural west. Take that as you will. 
Death Valley - our first time back since 2012! 

Oh my, it sure is looking HAZY down there in Bad Water. Haze is common in the middle of the day and doesn't always spell doom. Thankfully I'd soon find that my concerns were mostly misplaced. 
We checked into our so-so room at the Ranch at Death Valley, freshened up, grabbed a quick bite to eat and then zipped up the road to Zabriskie Point where we'd join the crowd of other onlookers. Zabriskie Point is like the Eiffel Tower of Death Valley, and you'll always find the swarms gathering there at sunset. Bzzz, guess that's us too this time!
101 degrees, but that's five down from when we first arrived at the park. Might need that coat, scarf and gloves I left in the car yet. 

Looking south from Zabriskie Point

There's a measurable amount of sadness that comes with shooting a famous landmark, especially one that you've shot a number of times over various visits. There's the pressure to get it right, better than the last time. "You're not getting WORSE at this, are you?" 
Sure, we've come equipped with more experience and better gear, but somehow that only adds to the pressure. I'm running short on excuses. Pull out the cameras, start snapping and here it comes, that familiar voice screaming, "Here we go, making yet another batch of forgettable shots of Zabriskie Point." 
Usually that means it's time to put the camera down, give my wife a kiss and enjoy the simple pleasures of appreciating the amazing view before us - Which we did, all for at least 90-seconds before getting back to shooting until it's very clear that nature's light show has fully ended. 
Arriving late (oops!) and only having 15-minutes before the sun set behind the Panamint Mountain Range in the background did. not. help. at. all. Taking into consideration when the sun really sets vs. when you think the sun sets is vital. There's an app, because of course there is. Do I have it? No. 

I shared a few of the shots from this moment with a friend, and he rightly suggested "tighter crops", capturing more landscape details, really pouring the artsy heart into it. Well yeah, I agree! That'd been great, but with mere frantic moments spent realizing we'd shown up to the party right as it was winding down, there wasn't much more I could do. Still, he wasn't wrong. 

(it all sorta worked out)
Slightly defeated and very road wary, I asked Logan what she wanted to do? We could push harder and make a run for one final view point, still 30-minutes in the direction opposite of our hotel room, or retreat and call it a night. 
"Whatever you want to do hun is fine with me." (yeah, I'm one lucky dude!)

I stood there in silence for a few moments, checking-in with myself. Was I up for the drive to Dante's View? Twilight was here and should stick around for another hour-ish, maybe. Thinking ahead at the short amount of time we'd have at Death Valley, it really was a case of "now or never bozo," so off we went!

Looking across the badlands of Death Valley from atop Dante's View

Now we're talking. The temps dropped to the mid-60s with a howling wind. All those cars we passed going the other direction meant the parking lot was almost empty and we had the place to ourselves. Just the way we like it.

Looking down from Dante's View with a prominence of approximately 5800'. Below is Bad Water Basin at -282 feet. I've seen some awesome shots here at sunrise, but that'll have to wait for another time. One of the photographers I follow, Thomas Heaton, got very lucky on his visit to this spot six years prior.  
45-minutes later, and like magic we're back at our hotel room for the night. Head down and sleep arrives. I remember welcoming dreams of what our pre-dawn hike the next morning might be like. 

This was my fourth visit to Death Valley, and the first time I'd embarked on a  hike here. Back in '09, my buddy Russell and I had a surreal sunset walk on The Racetrack dry lake bed, but that was the flattest place I've ever walked and can't be considered a hike. My feet, my rules. 

Alarms buzzing at 5:30 AM, we hopped into our clothes, grabbed the packs and water we'd prepared the night before and headed off to the Golden Canyon to Gower Gulch loop trailhead. It's Death Valley, and did you know it's coolest early mornings? Of course you did, and I thought that everyone else would have gotten that message too. However, when we pulled up to the trailhead lot we discovered that were the first to arrive. I was truly dumbfounded. Pleased, but surprised! 

Logan, her breakfast egg and the empty trailhead parking lot

First light hitting the canyon walls

6 AM, let's go! We've got the run of this place. I've read it's more crowded in the evenings, but never expected empty trails. 

Ah, some real light! The sun was making itself known, but it'd still be another 45-minutes before we'd feel its rays on our heads. 
The section of the trail shown above was featured in the first Star Wars movie, where they filmed R2 rolling down the canyon while being hunted by the Jawas

Our first clear view of the steep trail winding up the face of Manly Beacon. If you click the image to enlarge it, you'll see a few hikers heading our way. They must have started from the Zabriskie Point trailhead.  

The pictures lie. This trail is steep. It's warm. Thankfully Manly Beacon is still offering us shade, well, for a few more minutes. Looking back where we'd come from, the valley was looking more lit-up than ever with the closest mountain peaks starting to turn into beacons of their own. 

Manly Beacon, once we had crossed over to the northwestern flank

Few places to hide from the sun from here on out

More snapshots from below the beacon as we continued onward to the Gower Gulch portion of the hike which heads back down and out towards the valley from which we started. 

Gower Gulch

This is such a great hike! I'd love to do it again, but during a cooler part of the year and at sunset to mix-up the lighting.

Geeked out

Two hours and 4.1 miles later, our loop ended back where we had started. Time for showers and breakfast. 

Logan emerging from the shade with my shadow capturing the moment from above

The last section of trail runs along the valley floor, all while the temps start to ramp up


Fed, rested and ready for more, Logan and I hop back into the CX-50 and make up north towards Scotty's Castle (still closed), and then west out to one of our favorite natural features in the park.
It was cooler up here thanks to the 2400' elevation. It looked like a furnace burning down in the Ubehebe caldera, so that would have to wait for another day. We opted to take advantage of a refreshing wind and instead hike the circumference of Ubehebe, which works out to be about 1.75 miles once we'd walked around some of the smaller craters too. There's some easy elevation gain, but the challenge is dealing with the sandy trails, loose surface and lack of shade. Well worth it, and that made for two amazing hikes in one day! 

The cherry on top was that once again, we were the only people on the trail. The vast majority of people come to the parking lot, walk a few feet to the viewing area, snap a few pics and leave. No complaints here. I was that person on my previous visits. 

Here's the big Ubehebe Crater. Half a mile across and 500-700 feet deep depending on which part of the rim you're measuring from

Well, here we are, once again back at a beautiful spot at the wrong time of day for photos. This would be another great place to hike and photograph later in the day or at sunrise.

Midday Moonscape at Little Ubehebe Crater

Motorcyclists ride through the volcanic fields north of Ubehebe

That's me, thanks for the pic, babe!

Taking a few minutes to chill out before heading south

It's not even 3:30 yet. A nap sounds good. So does an ice cream cone, which is what we have our sights set on for later that afternoon, back at the ranch. Our energy gauges were starting to bounce off the empty side of the gauge, so it was to get moving again. 

No rest for the weary. We've got one more stop on the way back, with one short jaunt through the first half mile of Titus Canyon. 

Hard light, hot air - Titus Canyon

Titus Canyon. Not saying visiting was a mistake, but it felt like we were taking on too much at this point. The three mile dirt and rock road in from the highway was fun, and while it was hot, it was another unique Death Valley experience. Logan was getting sunned-out, so she found a shady part and I ventured onward another ten minutes or so before deciding to turn back. 
After our incredible ice cream parlor dinners (zero guilt), we rested for a wee bit and then drove towards Bad Water basin to the Artist Drive for a sunset photo session.

Blissfully cooler temps, a slight breeze, a moonrise, and fewer tourists to dodge being it was a Monday evening. I've heard the drive is incredible if the rock is wet from rain, with golden light magically beaming down on it. Sounds like a dream, but more of the pipe variety, and we appreciated what we were dealt.

Moon Rise

Road to Bad Water

Artist Palette

More crowds spotted at the Artist Palette viewing area. Activating operation: Stay Away with waypoint BedPointZero being our destination. Tomorrow we head back up to Mammoth Lakes. 
Not a ton to share from this day as the activities from Day 3 meant we welcomed a relaxed travel day. Also, going from -100' to nearly 8k' in a day hit me harder than expected. A good dinner, lots of water and a great night's rest had me back in action for all we would take on the following day. 

We follow Ghost Town Living on YouTube, where a fellow named Brant and his business partner purchased the abandoned Union Mine and Cerro Gordo ghost town. They're building a hotel up there, and we'd love to come back and stay in a year or two. We still got a little excited driving by the road that heads up to the town, which is long and rather gnarly from what I've heard. Still gets the imagination roaring. 
The long and winding road making its way up towards Cerro Gordo
The long and winding road making its way up towards Cerro Gordo
Cerro Gordo Road at Hwy 136 in Keeler, CA
Cerro Gordo Road at Hwy 136 in Keeler, CA

Mt. Whitney (and others), Alabama Hills from Hwy 136 nearing Hwy 395

As you may have gathered from the sub-header, we've got another long day in store. Alarm set for 5:10 AM with a predawn date with Hot Creek Geological Site set for the next morning. By now I'm barely sure what day of the week it is, which I've been told means a person is mentally on vacation. Heck yeah. 


I've found the best way to get up early, even after a poor night's sleep is to just get out of bed when the alarm goes off. Don't hesitate. For every moment you lie there and think about, the more likely you'll bail on the plan. It's only photography after all. The "old me" (wiser me?) would gladly have gone back to bed and sulked about the missed opportunity over breakfast. 

Hot Creek at 6:06 AM

Truth be told, I'd liked to have dialed up the epicness of this scene. More snow on the peaks, some clouds, fall color. We still had a wonderful time, and enjoyed snuggling up while shooting in the 26 deg F air. This absolutely wasn't Death Valley anymore. 

Geothermal stuff with the Owens River in the midground

Still waking up

We hit the market for the supplies we'd need to get us through the rest of the trip, then back to the Airbnb, followed with breakfast. We finally got that nap in too. 
We used to take family vacations to the mountains and desert growing up, and on one of those trips we visited the famous ghost town of Bodie California. I don't know what year that was, but I'm sure I was younger than 10 as the memories are very faint. Since then, I've been back with family and friends alike, and each subsequent visit has a unique flavor of its own.

Being late May, the park still closes early at 4 PM. So much for peak light. Oh, and no clouds either. Most of the snow had melted off the hills as well. This wasn't going to be the best conditions for photography, but on the plus side the temperature was nearly perfect, the sun didn't feel that hot, and yes, the crowds must have been hanging out at some other ghost town. 

Being I had nothing to lose, I slapped on a 10-stop ND filter, a polarizer and my funky third-party manual focus Mitakon 65mm f/1.4, which on the medium format GFX100S works out to being a 35mm equivalent of around a 50mm f/1.0 lens. Holy shallow depth of field Batman. 
The ND filter enables both shallow depth of field in bright light, as well as being able to drag the shutter without over-exposing image.

Another quick stop to check out the happenings at Virginia Lakes. It appeared the road had only been cleared of snow, and there wasn't much going on. The lake was still half frozen, a cool wind was blowing from the high peaks. A bald eagle flew by.

This time of year, sunset and good light takes its sweet time to rear its head. The "problem" with light and Mono Lake is that there's a wall of mountains just to the west that blocks the sun way before you'd expect sunset to happen. You get  a very long twilight and sometimes magic happens. For the most part Mono Lake is a location that best rewards early risers. Tried that once, 14-years ago. Camped along the shores in 4 degree F (-15 C) temps only to wake up late and miss sunrise. Doh. 

On this trip, the main draw with our Mono Lake visit was to have it be a backdrop to our "dinner out in the bush".

To better understand my feelings about shooting Mono Lake (especially the tufa), see my notes above on shooting Zabriskie Point. Perhaps it's my portrait photographer leanings coming into play, but there's not a Mono Lake photo swimming around in my head that I feel I need to capture. In person, it's a wanderer's playground. It's unique, and I love the smells, the volcanic cones found all around the area, and it's easy, rewarding walking. Find a point on the horizon and start moving your feet in that direction. 

A different type of tufa at Mono Lake

Vernal pool with volcanic cones in the background

Lots of interesting, dead brush along the southern shore

Again, avoiding crowds at the hotspots was paramount in keeping our spirits high, so we parked east of Navy Beach, cooked our dinner in the wind and then walked to a outcropping of tufa we saw in the distance nearly a mile up the coast. 

The lake was whitecapped, so I popped-on the ND filter and shot off a few long exposures. Logan walked into this frame by accident, so I moved the tripod mid-shot and created this frame by mistake. I dig it.
We were greeted by a full moon rising above the desert hills, making our walk back to the car that much moodier. For my Think Tank friends: Atmospheric. 
Our last leg and final travel destination took us back to another weird camping destination that my pop dragged us to as kids. Imagine two fighting brothers trapped in the back of a late 60's pickup truck under a camper shell, hauling a trailer for hours upon hours at time. It was a mixed bag, but I appreciate my dad's knack for finding these remote places, with Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park sitting high up on the list. 

Logan had been here before, more than 25-years ago when we drove out and camped with a small group of close friends. 

Logan and I at Berlin, NV 1998 (thanks for the photo, Paul!)

Nevada takes care of this park. Great roads, awesome rangers, very tidy campground, etc. There's slightly more infrastructure than you'd expect being how far you are from real civilization. If you like the desert, you should put this on your radar. It's only 6-1/2 hours from the SF Bay Area too, making it a very doable day drive. There's not a ton do to here other than one hike, a small mining ghost town and a small fossil house, excellent star gazing, and some other sights within close driving distance (like another small ghost town). Two nights would be more than enough. But the atmosphere is unlike any other place I've camped. 
We arrived midday, got our campsite setup and set off for a warm and slightly strenuous 2+ mile hike with the trailhead being right within the campground. 

Nothing special about the photo, but the views were worth the climb

Ichthyosaurus used to swim in an ancient inland lake here, and the state built a house to protect a stash of their fossilized skeletons discovered here.
Dinner was prepared and consumed, and as I gathered up my gear we ended up chatting with some fellow campers who used to live in Santa Rosa. Small world. We then headed down the hill to wander around the mining site for golden hour. However, plans were once again altered as a front of overcast skies was blowing in and it looked as though the light wouldn't hit the ghost town itself. Thankfully there was quite the show going on throughout the valley. 

Raining Light

The Dusty Road

Welp... no star gazing tonight

Haters will claim this photo is doctored

Buzzing and pooped out (a common theme for our travels), we made the short drive back to camp and of course had to stop one last time for the glowing mountain. #nevadashit

Sun setting behind the mountain and below the clouds

Logan watches the light as I snap the final evening pic of the trip

Weird winds, but I slept like a rock. I don't camp anywhere as peacefully as I do when in the desert. 

Back on the road, with the car headed west by 8 AM. One last photo as we left Bodie, looking back at the town site perched on its lonely hillside. 
Thanks for coming along. If you made it this far, you have our warmest regards. --Randy and Logan

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