Wednesday, July 11, 2012

California 1: Lone Pine

The classic Lone Pine view, from the appropriately named Movie Road. Looking due west, over the Alabama Hills, directly towards Lone Pine Peak (about 13,000 ft). Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 at 14,505 feet, is the prominent triangular peak to the right of this picture. This area is one the all time great Hollywood shooting locations (right up there with the Vasquez Rocks further south). In perhaps the most famous film ever filmed there, Gunga Din, it stands in for what was then the North West Frontier Province of British India (The Sierras are playing the Himalayas). It also featured in an old Humphrey Bogart movie called High Sierra, and stood in for Afghanistan in the film Kings of the Kyber Rifles, along with serving as any part of the old west from Missouri to Oregon in (almost) literally billions of  western films and T.V. shows, including How the West Was Won. More recently, the area had short cameo in Gladiator (in a few of the shots where Russel Crow is tired on his horse, while improbably riding from the Danube to Spain in what seems to be two or three days), and in Iron Man where it is, again, a stand in for Afghanistan. I have been seeing this area all my life, most notably in the Kevin Bacon subterranean monster film Tremors , which makes excellent use of the picturesque, rounded granite boulders the area is famous for. Yes, I can now say I've hopped on the same boulders as Kevin Bacon.

And now for something completely different......

This post isn't going to be about India, but, rather, California, though a part of California that has stood in for India in a number Hollywood productions....go figure....

So, my family went out to California for just a week in October of last year. My sister Sophie and her husband live out that way. We've actually gone to California two years in a row (though this year we're going out to Moab in Utah.) Where we decided to visit was a place called Lone Pine, and then Death Valley National Park. I would say that both areas exceeded our expectations, though this post is only going to be about Lone Pine.

Moonrise over the Inyo Mountians. I took this from the Lone Pine Campground at Inyo National Forest, just as we were pulling in on our first night there. The view is due east. Despite the fact that there's higher demand for the Whitney Portal Campground, which is up the road and higher in elevation (at around 8'000 feet), in October it was already getting pretty cold there, so the Lone Pine Campground was the place to stay.

Lone Pine is situated in the Middle of the Owens Valley, along the 395 in Eastern California. It's bordered on the West by the front range of the Sierras, the tallest mountains in the lower 48, and on the East by the Inyos, which rise to a respectable 11,100 feet. The valley itself is one of the deepest in the U.S., and I would estimate that where me and my family were, it is about 15 miles across. Despite the fact that the Inyos and the Sierras are so close to each other, they're geologically quite different from one another. The Sierras are essentially just a huge piece of granite, that formed when a series of giant plumes of magma rose and cooled beneath the surface of the earth, forming one massive rock, called a Batholith, that was subsequently pushed up farther by tectonic forces around 80 million years ago. Over time, the chunk of granite has been worn down by glaciers and other processes, carving it into peaks and canyons (such as the main canyon in Yosemite). The Inyos, on the other hand, are what is known as Fault Block mountains,  and are the westernmost mountains of the Basin and Range region of the Southwest, which extends from Eastern Utah to the Owens Valley. The Inyos are the result of tectonic pressures causing rifts to form in the Earth's crust, which allow huge blocks of sediments to be forced up, while others sink, forming valleys. 

Alpenglow on Lone Pine Peak before dawn, from the lower section of the Mount Whitney Trail, which starts directly from the back of the Lone Pine Campground. When the The Mount Whitney Trail was first built, it led all the way from the valley up to the peak. However, when the Whitney Portal Road was constructed in the 1930s, it rendered the first few miles of the trail unnecessary. Now the lower part of the trail receives little use, and is in pretty bad shape in a couple of stretches, but it still makes for a hell of an early morning hike....

Early morning, about 1000 feet above the Lone Pine Campground, looking north, over the Whitney Portal Road. The mountains on the right are the Inyos. I'm on the side of the Sierras. The Owens valley is what is known as a Graben, or a place where the Earth's crust has sunk and formed a giant trench. The valley would apparently be about 10,000 feet deeper if it hadn't partially filled in with loose sediments.

An early morning view on Mt. Whitney, which is the prominent, brightly lit feature in the center of the photo. This is from just a little higher than the last photo. You can just barely make out the line of the Whitney Portal Road to the left of the picture. 

Looking back East, over the Alabama Hills and towards the Inyos. Even though this is only an hour's walk from the campground, there is a huge difference in the vegetation. Below, it's still scrubby, desert vegetation, but up here, because of a relativity cool, enclosed canyon formed by a stream coming down from the high country, once you round a bend you're suddenly in very alpine looking pine forest. 

Mt. Whitney, after about an hour. Unfortunately, my camera isn't much for taking early morning seems to barely understand what it's seeing. The peak is actually much further away than it looks. Beyond that saddled just below the peak, there is a huge alpine basin, which is completely concealed in this picture, and Mt. Whitney is still several miles beyond that. Lone Pine Lake, which we visited later on, is at the edge of that saddle.

Looking in the opposite direction, over the Alabama hills, towards the Inyos. Already back down in more typical Southwestern vegetation. 

A big mountain......

A Cholla Cactus dramatically back-light.  This is just above the campground.

The same cactus. You would not want to put your face there. 

A typical cluster of Alabama Hills granite boulders, near the Tremors filming location. You can just barely make out a small natural arch on the rock farthest to the right. As always, these pictures tend to make these objects look much smaller than they actually are. Unlike the Inyos, which are geologically completely different from the Sierras, the Alabama Hills are part of the same structure as the larger mountains a few miles to the west, though they have been subjected to very different sorts of erosion. They are the peaks of large granitic intrusions that are still mostly submerged beneath the Owens Valley.  

That's a boulder strewn landscape if ever there was one. This view is looking north-east, towards the Inyos. That patch of green is the town of Lone Pine, which the 395 runs through. The name Alabama Hills comes from Confederate sympathizers, who named the hills after a certain southern privateer vessel  during the civil war called the Alabama. The Alabama was destroyed off the coast of France in 1864 by a Union vessel called the Kearsarge. After the news reached the Owens Valley region, Northern sympathizers named a bunch of locations in the near vicinity after the Kearsarge, I guess just to rub the Southern Sympathizers the wrong way.

This is looking up at the peak of the largest of the Alabama Hills boulder piles. This is the boulder hill in the center of the first photo in this post. In practically every film that uses the Alabama Hill as a location, there is at least one shot of this particular boulder pile, which you can identify from that saddle in the middle of this picture. However, whenever you see the gully that this picture was taken in from a distance, it looks almost vertical. It's only when you're right down in it that you get any sense of it being a slop rather than a cliff. Another odd effect of the perspective is that the boulders near the top of this photo are actually vastly larger than they look. This gives the impression that one is much closer to the top than one actually is. Me and my sister Jeannie learned all this first hand in an attempt to reach that saddle in the middle of the picture. We must have climbed close to 600 feet... we didn't make it. It was damn good exercise though...

Looking East, from up on the huge boulder hill. The roads in this picture are side tracks that lead off of the appropriately named Movie Road, which leads north through the boulder piles. The area is administered by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) as the Alabama Hills Recreation area, and I think you can basically camp wherever you want, provided you can find a parking space. You can just barely see our car in this picture. It's the tiny silver object in the small circular parking area just below the center of the photo.

Up in the Pines in the Whitney Portal, at around 8000 feet. The Whitney Portal is the base camp for the hike up to the Peak of Mount Whitney, which I'm told usually takes about 14 hours, and involves getting a permit and starting in the middle of the night. I fear this wasn't the trip to do that. This view is looking south.

The view from a bend on the road up to the Whitney Portal. The sun is setting behind the Sierras, and the jagged shadows of the peaks are advancing towards the Alabama Hills. Out campsite was next to that watercourse on the left side of the picture. The shadows of the mountains are just about to swallow it up.

The Inyos in dramatic, evening lighting. This side of the mountains is in a rain-shadow, and is obviously bone dry until nearly the top. Still, there are a few snow capped peaks a little further north of here. Death Valley National Park starts just on the other side of this range.

Alpenglow, Mt. Whitney, the Moon, and Jupiter, before dawn. I was surprised I got anything at all out of this photo. It was taken from a small dirt track that led off from the campground. I placed the camera on a rock (hence the tilt of the photo) and used the exposure setting. 

On the Horseshoe Meadows Road, which goes way up into the Front Range of the Sierras. The view is northeast, over the Alabama Hills. Despite the fact that it's not famous at all, the Horseshoe Meadows Road is actually a much more spectacular drive than the Whitney Portal Road (at least, after you've passed through the Alabama Hills). I would say that the road gains about 3'500 feet in only a few miles, quickly switch-backing up the sides of the mountains.  It gives one an extensive view from Mt. Whitney all the way to the Panamints in Death Valley. Also, it leads to a network of trails that lead deep into the mountains, starting in what's known as the Golden Trout Wilderness Area.

A high altitude swamp in Golden Trout Wilderness Area. There are, indeed, trout that are golden in these streams. As you can see, even in mid October, there had been snow in this area. This view is towards the West. I think that the mountain furthest in the distance is called Cirque Peak.

A view from Horseshoe Meadows looking roughly northwest. I do truly wished I lived in an area where I could access this kind wilderness. Oh well...

Back down in the rocks, in the Alabama Hills, late in the day. This is the area where the temple set was in the film Gunga Din. 

Sunrise on the Sierras (and Moon). Looking towards Lone Pine Peak from the Alabama Hills. The Owens Valley has to be one of the best places for viewing the sunrise in the whole of the lower 48. This picture only gives you the barest idea of how vivid the colors are. And, from an elevated point, you can see practically the whole front range, for what must be close to 100 miles, lighting up. Highly recommended. This photo was taken after an early morning scramble up a prominent rock pile me and my sister Jeannie took.

Lone Pine Peak on fire.

This is the view south at dawn. That line switch-backing up the mountains is the Horseshoe Meadows Road.

Alabama Hills in the early morning. 

All told, we only spent about three days in the Lone Pine area, though we got a whole lot done and, as you can see from these pictures, saw a whole lot. The only real hike we took during this time was a brief walk up to Lone Pine Lake, which is a small body of water that's just off the Mt. Whitney Peak Trail, just at about the point where the trail enters truly high altitude terrain. The lake is at somewhere between 9500 and 10000 feet, and it's the last point on the trail that you can legally visit without a permit. Obviously, I would like to go all the way up to the peak itself, but Lone Pine Lake isn't half siree....

The trail above the Whitney Portal. The air was getting thinner and the trees were getting shorter. There was a woman coming down all the way from Mt. Whitney, who had tripped and fallen on ice that morning, and had puncture her ear, so that that there was a hole all the way through it...the accident happened in the first few miles of the hike, but evidently it didn't stop her from going all the way to the peak and back....tough...

Lone Pine Lake, with the snow and bare granite much closer.

Another view on Lone Pine Lake.

So, that was Lone Pine. The next day, we went out to Death Valley, a different world altogether.......

That's all for now. 

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