My wife, brother, sister-in-law and I took a trip to the Eastern Sierra and the desert of the Great Basin. I remember a trip to Yosemite and down Rte. 395 seeing the snow capped Sierra for the first time. It was an incredible experience. In the intervening years we have experienced drought. The snow left the mountains early causing the rivers to slow early. The beauty is always there but, it’s not as spectacular as when we get lots of snow and rain. This year we got a respite from the drought so the drive down 395 regained much of its splendor. We were treated to scenes from romantic westerns; large mountain valleys, ringed with high snowcapped peaks, cattle grazing on lush green grass. I felt like I should be on a horse with Hoss and Little Joe. The rivers were running hard, churning white water that glistened in the sun. At Yosemite, the waterfalls thundered.
As we travel south on Rte. 395 we reach a point where the terrain transitions from mountain valleys to the valleys of the high desert. The grass goes away and is replaced by gnarled shrub. Even the vegetation along the rivers is stunted. With this year’s rain and snow, the area took on a different look. The wildflower blooms in Bodie were near their end but, stalks retained their spring green, creating a strong contrast against the brown buildings and deep blue sky.
Mono Lake had a hue of emerald green instead of aqua. The lake color, along with the spring greens of its vegetation gave the tufa a softer, cooler gray color and gave a green cast to the air. The winds were very strong that day. They created white caps along with waves that crashed against the tufa and broke along the shore.
The strong winds followed us to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest where we had planned an early morning hike along the Methuselah Trail. We had to cancel the hike because the wind chill was really bad. We hiked the shorter Discovery Trail instead. The trail was clear but snow patches dotted the adjacent hillsides. The sun peeked through openings in the overcast sky highlighting the sculptural bristlecones and the mountains in the distance.
From the bristlecones, we made our way to Death Valley. Spring was in the desert air also. Wildflowers of yellow and white were in bloom along the road. The Joshua Trees were budding but not quite ready to open. Even the cholla cactus was putting on its spring display.
My brother and sister-in-law were taken aback by Death Valley. Like me, they were raised in the eastern US. We saw deserts only in movies. They were areas where sand dunes stretched from horizon to horizon; a place where people rode camels and hung out at an oasis with palm trees. Instead, Death Valley is a typical valley in the basin and range ecosystem. It is long and narrow and ringed with high mountains. It’s hard, gray-brown soil is dotted with gnarled vegetation and rocks that washed down from the mountainsides during storms. But even it was showing signs of spring. Some of the normally dry playas contained water. Tiny wildflowers, mostly yellow, were in bloom. We hiked back Golden Canyon and we watched a sunrise at Zabriske Point. The strongly eroded mountainsides, painted by mineral deposits are always a treat to see especially under the golden sunlight of a sunrise from Zabriske.
We continued our journey to Lone Pine, CA. Along the way, we chuckled at 2 coyotes working the tourists at a pull-off in Panamint Valley – Will pose of food.
The Alabama Hills are located near Lone Pine. They are oddly eroded, twisted rocks, at the base of Mt Whitney. They were used as the set for many Hollywood productions of western and other adventure movies. Those of us who were fans of Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey, Hopalong Cassidy and the other cowboy protagonists of our childhood would find those hills familiar. Lone Pine also houses the Lone Pine Film History Museum. It holds memorabilia from movies produced in that area. It was fun to see the fancy saddles and guns, stagecoaches and even some monsters and space aliens. It was fun to reminisce also.
The final part of this journey took us to Yosemite. Our plans were to go across Tioga Pass but a snowfall the night before closed it. We had to detour. The detour took us on Rte. 88 from Sorenson’s to Jackson; a stretch we’ve never driven. It was a beautiful drive over granite balds, along steep sided canyons and past mountain lakes. We found a new place to explore for photo opportunities.
Yosemite is at its most beautiful in the spring. Waterfalls thundered, the Merced River churned white water, ephemeral waterfalls were still flowing. We were only able to visit the valley. Even Glacier Point was closed due to “impending storm”. But wondering through the valley is a joy. The immense scale, with waterfalls crashing over sheer granite cliffs towering 3,000 feet and more above your head, drive home the power and awesomeness of nature’s forces and God’s creativity. I am always awe-struck by its beauty. It never gets tiring.
I hope my images and words give you a sense of spring in Northern California. Stay tuned for Part 2 of our adventure.