Exploring the Night Skies of Alabama Hills and Bristlecone Pines

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Alabama Hills. That what my August Milky Way trip was all about. I have a list of places that I need to go to. Since it was August, though, a cooler climate might be what was on tap. Unfortunately, due to a heatwave that had California in its grasp, that was not to be.

The Alabama Hills is a mecca that draws photographers from all over the world.
The Alabama Hills is a mecca that draws photographers from all over the world.

DESTINATION ALABAMA HILLS

Awhile back, I found out that Aaron King of Photog Adventures would be conducting a Milky Way workshop in the Eastern Sierra. The Eastern Sierra is a mecca of landscape photography. Names like Mobius Arch in the Alabama Hills, Mobius Arch, and Bristlecone Forest are just a few synonymous names.

Several days before I hit the road, I built a sleeping platform in the back of my 3rd Generation 4Runner. Although I did not complete it before the trip, I did get the main part built – no more sleeping in the front seat for me! Building the platform will be the subject of a future article here.

IT WAS A SIMPLE PLAN

My plan was simple. I would get up Monday morning, throw my stuff in the 4Runner and go. When that Monday arrived, things got crazy quickly. I needed to do a quick rotation of the tires on the 4Runner. During that process, I found a nail in a tire. No problem, I will stop at a tire shop on the way out of town. I got loaded up and off to the tire shop I went to.

“We can get you in approximately an hour and a half,” said the service advisor.

Yeah, I was not about to have any of that. Apparently, half the state needed tires that morning and went to the same shop. I took off and got down the road to another shop. I ended up getting out of there in about 45 minutes. Not bad, but since temps were already knocking on the door of 100°F, I needed to get on the road. Although the 4Runner is almost 20 years old and lacks some of the creature comforts of modern vehicles, the A/C is cold. When I say cold, I do not mean 30 degrees below ambient air temp. No sir, this system is a solid 45°F on Max.

Alabama Hills and Clouds.
Even though we strive for clear skies, we have to love clouds like this.

GETTING IT LIKE WILLIE NELSON

After grabbing a bag of food, I was on the road. I bounced down SR-99 until I merged onto SR-58. A quick pit stop in Tehachapi for fuel, I was off again. Turning north at Mojave, I was soon on 395 making my way through the desert.

The mercury was pinging 107°F when I rolled into Lone Pine at about 3 pm. I met up with Aaron, Kaveh, and Li. A quick stop at McD’s for food, and we rolled up 395 and hit up the Bristlecone Forest. The forest is a favorite of photographers.

ABOUT BRISTLECONE

The forest is so named for the species of tree that rests within the boundaries. The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine tree grows between 9,000 and 11,000 feet above sea level. Also located within the forest is “Methuselah,” a tree that is over 4,800 years old. The forest itself is located about 30 miles east of Bishop, high up in the White Mountains.

There were a few people there when we arrived. Due to the pandemic, the visitor’s center was closed. Luckily, the temperature was a balmy 70°F degrees. Sadly though, it only dropped a few more degrees after the sun went down. Probably the “best” part was no cell service.

Mercury!
Better than 106°F by far!

SKETCHY FORECASTS ARE A PART OF THE GAME

During the 24 hour runup to the trip, I watched the HRRR weather models. The cloud forecast was sketchy at best. It looked like there would be an opening, but we were not sure as the sun dipped. What was even worse – due to the parking lot location, a hill blocked what appeared to have been a colorful sunset over the Owens Valley.

Once darkness descended, Aaron, Kaveh, and Li took off up the hill to work at the iconic location that defines it in the photography community. I stayed below.

Welcome to the Bristlecone Pine Forest.
A plaque at Bristlecone.

LUME CUBES AND 4RUNNERS

As part of a review I am doing on the Lume Cube 2.0 lights, I have been on an automotive light painting kick. I pulled my 4Runner out into a road and spent about 30 minutes photographing my 4Runner.

4Runner in Alabama Hills.
Automotive light painting is fun, yet drawn out process. I love doing it, I love the results but sometimes the headaches to reach my destination can be awful.

I went back to the parking lot to await the other group and our appointed 10 pm meeting time if the clouds held their position. Ten o’clock rolled, and no one showed, so I decided to mess around shooting the northern end of the Milky Way. A few minutes after setting up, the clouds in the south broke, and the core appeared.

BREAKING RECORDS

I repositioned my camera. I did not have much of a chance to get an interesting foreground into the shot, so I decided to make do with what I had. As you read this, you have surely heard about the wildfires here in California, and they are probably mostly out by now. This trip took place right about the time they really let loose. There was enough smoke filtering over the Sierra that it affected the clarity of the sky. I imagined that being at 10,000 feet, the stars and Milky Way would have been standing tall. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

When I was finished shooting, though, I did accomplish one goal – I wanted to get a Milky Way image at over 10,000 feet. Several months ago, I had been studying locations on grabbing this goal. I had identified a location where I could complete it. The irony is that my chosen location was not far away from where I captured this one. Now it’s on to see how high I can go.

Bristlecone pines and the Milky Way.
Once you shoot the Milky Way at altitude, you want to go higher.

TIME TO ROLL

Shortly after I wrapped up, Aaron and the workshop were at the vehicles. We had to get back to the Alabama Hills and a date with destiny. Mobius Arch was on the agenda, but we had to get there before the Milky Way would be out of position. We got back onto 395, and after a short pit stop in Independence for fuel, we arrived in the Alabama Hills. We grabbed our gear and range walked out to Mobius.

Before leaving Bristlecone, I had slipped on a hoodie. I regretted that at Mobius as it was still pretty warm. I had to shed it after settling in.

DISASTER ON THE HORIZON

While getting everything set up, I realized that I had overlooked something vital before leaving the vehicles. When I shot Pentax, I got spoiled because of the battery life. It seemed like the Pentax branded battery would last forever. I had taken note upon my jump to Nikon that battery life is not the same. Yes, I had failed to check the battery life when we left the vehicles. Although I had started with a battery sitting on 75% that evening, there were many long exposures on that battery.

I did not make it out of the gate. The camera died on the first shot. Luckily, earlier at Bristlecone, Kaveh had shown us his stockpile of Nikon batteries. I sheepishly asked him if he had brought some with him.

A camera battery pouch keeps your batteries organized.
This is just a sample of the stockpile of Nikon batteries that Kaveh has with him.

YES!!!!

My night was saved. After loading a fresh battery, I was able to get my composition dialed in and took my requisite 10 shots. After that, I called it an even and hung out while Aaron did his thing, helping Li learn Milky Way photography.

Mobius Arch in Alabama Hills.
Mobius Arch

Not long after, we loaded up and went back to our vehicles, where we said our “see ya later.” I rolled around the area for a few minutes and found a camp spot. Got the air mattress aired up, the portable fans on, and preceded to get a whopping 3 hours sleep until the sun was up.

LET THE LIGHT SHINE

This was the first time I laid my eyes on Alabama Hills, and it was easy to see why it is such a beacon. My time was short, but between photography and trout fishing, this is an area that I will definitely have to go back to.

An Alabama HIlls sunrise with my 4Runner.
One last 4Runner poser shot before I leave

After packing up, I hit the road with a particular destination in mind. I ended up going up to Lake Isabella and then followed the Kern River into the mountains. I had a location that I had learned about that I needed to scout in the day time.

THE TRASH IS OVERFLOWING

The drive through the mountains was nice, but some things I saw disturbed me. As I may have mentioned earlier in my articles about my trips to Kings Canyon, campgrounds are full or close. I saw the same thing on this trip. But I also saw a lot of trash scattered throughout some of those campgrounds. I am trying to comprehend why some bathrooms have been closed, only to have porta potties take their place. That is not something consistent. I have seen it in some campgrounds, but in others, including the visitor’s center at Bristlecone, the bathrooms have stayed open.

Closed Outhouses replaced with Port-a-potties.
After 20 years working government jobs, I still don’t understand some of the decisions they make.

I know a LOT of us are well aware of best practices out on public lands, but if you are new to the game, pack your trash out. In many campgrounds and public facilities, the trash cans have usually been full or overflowing. If you cannot do your part and pack your trash out if cans are full, then stay home for the rest of us.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Bristlecone is a few miles from any facilities. If you need fuel, get it before you head up the mountain. Also, no matter what time of year, make sure you take at least a jacket or hoodie. This time two years ago, I along, with a few others, was standing on a mesa at 8,000′ in New Mexico with nothing more than that, and the temps dropped on us. Although that did not happen at Bristlecone, be prepared.

Fuel and food can be had in Lone Pine and Bishop. Also, there is a gas station at Independence that has the cheapest gas in the area. It’s a great place to stop.

There are several campgrounds around Lone Pine, plus a ton of displaced camping in the Alabama Hills. Lone Pine has several restaurants, a McDonald’s, several stores with outdoor goods, plus a NAPA car parts store, which is well stocked. And yes, I can attest to that one.

One of the biggest faux pas I made was failing to download any Alabama Hills maps for Gaia GPS. Cell phone coverage off the pavement is sketchy. Not a big deal, but I will fix this when I go back.

ABOUT AARON KING AND HIS MILKY WAY PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOPS

This is the second time I have hooked up with Aaron at one of his workshops. If you have seen any videos that he has done on YouTube or listened to his Photog Adventures podcast, you know Aaron has a passion for Milky Way photography that is second to none. He has a great talent for teaching everyone about it. Everything from the basics to the advanced – Aaron does it in a way that makes learning easy. If you ever want to do an in-person workshop, check out what Aaron has available on his website.

CONCLUSION

Although I shy away from the more popular locations, this area is definitely a nice place to go. I will have to return someday. The sad part is, as the crow flies, I am only 70 miles from Lone Pine, but since there is no road over the Sierra, the trip for me is upwards of 4-5 hours.

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