Dan Barr Photography | Trips: The White Mountains

Trips: The White Mountains

May 24, 2013  •  1 Comment

Last week, I spent three wonderful days traveling around the white mountains and photographing the Bristlecone pine trees. My main goal was to photograph the bristlecones at night and I was fortunate to have clear skies for two of the three nights there. I made the five and a half hour drive from San Diego to Bishop on Monday. For the most part it is a pleasant drive from San Diego to the Eastern Sierras. I always dread driving the I-215 section through riverside and San Bernardino as I  seem to consistently hit the morning rush hour traffic. I was looking forward to getting onto Highway 395 where I have a clear shot into the mountains. As I was driving I was doing a mental inventory of the equipment I brought along and it suddenly occurred to me that I had left my headlamp at home. I stopped at the Mount Whitney Portal information center and did a quick check to see if I had it with me. No luck, it must have stayed at home. I had several other flashlights with me that I use for light painting and in truth I probably could have gotten by without the headlamp this time. However, for someone doing night photography A headlamp in one essential piece of equipment. I often find myself walking a mile or more cross-country and in total darkness, usually carrying a tripod and other photographic equipment. A hands free light source like a headlamp becomes a necessity. I decided I didn't want to risk being without one so I drove past the white mountain exit in Big Pine and headed to bishop to buy a cheap replacement.

The view from Mount Whitney Portal. I always stop here on the way to and from the eastern sierras.

Armed with a brand new headlamp and a full tank of gas I headed up to the white mountains. My first destination was the patriarch grove where I planned to take a star trail and some milky way photos. The sky was crystal clear and there wasn't a cloud in site. It looked like I was going have great conditions for night photography! White mountain road was open all the way to the end but unfortunately the road leading into the patriarch grove was still closed due to snow cover. I parked off the road and made the one mile walk into the patriarch grove. The road is mostly flat but the 11,000 foot elevation made the walk much more difficult.

Bristlecone star trails

The milky wouldn't be visible until around 12:30 so I decided to set up a star trail first. This image is a stacked photo of 4 minute exposures for about 3 hours of star trails. Light painting was from camera left with a small incandescent flashlight. I have been looking for wide angle lens alternatives and so I rented a Zeiss 15/2.8 lens for this trip. Almost all of the night images were taken with this lens mounted on the Canon 5D mkII. I've been using the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens for night photography. I normally use it at the 16mm end and I haven't been very happy with its performance.  Its very mushy in the corners wide open and shows coma aberrations on the edge of the frame. What is Coma? You can read more about it here.   The good news is the Zeiss lens lived up to my high expectations. Its much sharper across the frame at wide apertures when compared to the canon and is much better corrected for lens aberrations. The is virtually no evidence of chromatic aberrations and very minor, almost non-existent coma. Its easily the best ultrawide angle lens I have ever used! Night photography really pushes the limits of lenses and will show lens flaws that are not apparent in other types of photography.

Ancient Light

A very dramatic tree in the patriarch grove. This turned out to be one of my favorite images from the evening. I took several different compositions of this tree and preferred this one due to the positioning of the milky way.

Ancient trees at night

Same tree, different composition. I stayed at the patriarch grove until about 2:30 I wanted to stay longer but I was dead tired from from a day of travel. The one mile walk back to the car seemed extra difficult.

I made one stop on the walk out to take this photo.


I left the patriarch grove and drove a few miles down crooked creek road to find a place to crash for the evening.

Crooked Creek Road our past the Crooked Creek Research Station.

I woke up Tuesday morning feeling refreshed. I brewed a cup of coffee and spent the rest of the day exploring some 4wd routes along crooked creek and Cottonwood canyon. I visited an old cow camp, two abandoned miners cabins and then spent the rest of the day exploring the bristlecone pine forest on foot.

The USGS map identified this at "cow camp".


The Entryway to one of the Cow Camp buildings


Inside Cow Camp.


McCloud Camp

From Cow Camp I backtracked to the cottonwood Creek road where I drove down to this abandoned miners cabin. It is labeled on the topo map as McCloud Camp. This cabin is way down a rocky 4wd road. Judging by the lack of tire tracks I may have been the first visitor in a while.

Cottonwood Creek Road winding through the Cottonwoods.


Golden Siren Mine

Abandoned Cabin at the Golden Siren Mine. This is the most accessible of the three abandoned sites I visited. its a half mile hike from crooked creek road and close to the intersection with White mountain road.

The golden Siren Cabin from the inside. This cabin is by far in the worst condition of the tree sites I visited.

Some remnants of the past.

From what I have been able to gather from the limited information online this was once a gold mine and seemed to be active in the 1920s. It looks like the cabin was used as a hunters lodge in subsequent years. There is writing on the walls in inside the cabin from the 50's and 60's describing hunting exploits. 

Following my 4wd adventures I went back to the patriarch grove to explore the area on foot.


That evening I returned to an area along Cottonwood creek road. I had scouted an area of dolomite cliffs that had some twisted and gnarled bristlecones that were perfect for a night photo session. The bristlecone pine forest occupies a huge area and there are multiple, unnamed groves aside from the well known Schulman and Patriarch groves that receive most visitors. When I go on these photo trips I like to explore. I prefer to find subjects and compositions that are new and have not been photographed before which means getting off the beaten path. 

A downed Bristlecone on a barren hilltop. I found that most of the best bristlecone photography subjects were in more marginal areas. This was a rocky area on top of a dolomite cliff. There were perhaps a dozen bristlecones here clinging to life and numerous dead trees. These bristlecones are survivors. The white mountains are a marginal environment at best, these ancient trees are one of the few things hearty enough to survive.

Dancing in Starlight Dancing in Starlight.

This is one of my favorite images from the trip. I scouted this tree earlier in the day and I hadn't even noticed the giant dolomite boulder embedded in the roots.  I wanted to include the boulder within the frame and it resulted in this unusual composition. I liked it! To my eye it has a graceful appearance. The camera was about 12 inches from the boulder in the root structure. In order to to get an in focus image that included the sky I had to take a focus stack. The Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 lens is perfect for this type of technique. There is very little focus breathing when changing focus making the assembly of a focus stacks much simpler.

Another one of these amazing trees. The tree in the prior photo can be seen in the distance.


One final image from the same area.

The next day I did some additional exploring on foot. I hiked up hillside and visited some off the beaten path groves of bristlecones.

I had already made a decision to return to the Golden Siren mine that evening to photograph the cabin at night. The clouds were building and I was becoming concerned that the sky would remain overcast all night. Clouds are one of those mixed blessing. They are essential for good landscape photography but for the type of night photography I like to do they are a deal breaker.

A return to the Golden Siren Mine.

Unfortunately the clouds did not clear that evening. I was not able to do any night photography but I was treated to a beautiful sunset.

I stayed around for about an hour that evening and took some long exposures of the cabin

Golden Siren Mine

While I was disappointed that I couldn't get any star photos from this location I was very happy with this image.  I usually find myself in remote wilderness areas for night photography and it isn't very often that I get to incorporate an abandoned structure like this cabin into my night photography portfolio.  This image was something different and great fun to make. I feel like I had a very productive few days of photography in the white mountains. I can't wait to return.

Headed home on a cloudy and cold morning.



Love your shots! Your "very dramatic tree" in the Patriarch Grove is my favorite of all bristlecones - I've photographed it many times, but never at night. Anyway, I would love to have a print of that tree with the stars behind.
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