For those of us who chase aspen color in the Sierra Nevada every fall, speculating about the potential of the upcoming aspen season is an annual obsession. Will the season start early or late? Will the colors be spectacular or less so? How will the past season’s weather affect it? What are the early signs telling us? When will the peak arrive and when will the show be over?
I’ve been playing this game — with enthusiasm! — for some years now. A few years back I think I finally figured out that I cannot really tell what will happen until it actually happens. As often as not, my “predictions” turn out to be less than perfect and/or immediate conditions (arrival of an early storm, wind, rain, etc.) throw me a curve. The real game is in being flexible and quick to respond to evolving conditions, and to have enough experience with the subject that you have some intuitions about what to do when you encounter the conditions on the scene.
For various reasons — projects I’m working on, clear signs of the changing seasons, photographs I’ve recently seen — I have been getting into that autumn frame of mind that comes at about this time every year. With that in mind, today’s “morning musings” post is about finding and photographing fall color in the Sierra Nevada. Rather than re-writing the whole thing, I’ll start by pointing you to an extensive guide that I wrote a few years ago and have updated every year since that time — if you are thinking of chasing aspen color this fall you may want to take a look: “Sierra Nevada Fall Color — Coming Sooner Than You Think”
If things evolve on a relatively typical schedule, eastern Sierra aspen color is perhaps about six weeks away. I have been photographing this subject for a while now, and it is one of my favorites. I intend to be out there again this fall.
One popular game at this time of year is to predict/guess when the colors will arrive and how good they will be. I’m fully aware that I’ve been wrong quite a few times, and my increasing knowledge of this subject has perhaps only made me more aware of how unpredictable this can be. However, this year I have to wonder about the effects on the trees from our three-year California drought, which has reached an extreme level all across the state this year. I don’t know what the results will be, but I’m considering some possibilities:
During the last two years it seemed to me that I was seeing the onset of color move a bit earlier in the season. I have to wonder if we may see stressed trees go into fall mode a bit on the early side this year.
Some people say that they are seeing a few aspen groves turning brownish-yellow already and looking like they are drying out.
Also during the last few dry years we have seen some anomalous early season storms, and I wonder if that pattern will continue. This can affect the season in various ways if it happens. On the negative side, leaves can blow down early. On the positive side, snow and aspens can make a beautiful pair.
As always, to the extent possible, I like to remain flexible about when and where I’ll photograph the aspens, and I watch the evolving conditions to see what this season may bring. How about you? What are your fall color plans?
It was 150 years ago today on June 30, 1864 that President Abraham Lincoln signed a congressional act that established the “Yosemite Grant” in the Sierra Nevada — the first instance of the US government setting aside land specifically for preservation and public use. (Technically, Yellowstone became the first “national park,” when it was established in 1872.) Between that first act of preservation and protection, the park passed through several intermediate stages including management by the state and by the military before it became a national park on October 1, 1890. (Little known fact: Beautiful Mount Conness, on the northeastern park boundary and visible from many areas between Olmsted Point that peaks near Tioga Pass, was named after senator John Conness, who was instrumental in getting the 1864 act through congress. Some have suggested that Lincoln was distracted by “other events” at about this time, and may have let this slip by without much attention. I’m fine with that.)
My family moved from Minnesota to California when I was four years old — and trust me, that was not recently! I’m sure that to Midwesterners the wonders of California must have seemed quite unbelievable, and my family travelled to many interesting places around the state. I don’t now recall for certain when I first visited Yosemite, though I think it was perhaps before this photograph was made. That’s me on the right and my brother Richard on the left. (Richard is also a photographer who does beautiful work in the Pacific Northwest.) My first clear recollection of the park is actually from just outside the park where, before the current mega hotels were constructed, there used to be a bunch of much smaller places to stay right along the Merced River. My memory is of sitting on metal chairs and watching the wild Merced River pass by. Continue reading Happy 150th Birthday Yosemite→
Gilia buds opening on a rainy day, Death Valley National Park
This is going to be a sort of hybrid post, covering two subjects and out of phase with my normal daily photograph posts. Think of it as a bonus post—a photograph and an informal report on Death Valley National Park wildflowers. The description of this photograph follows the report on Death Valley wildflower conditions.
By now it is no longer news that California and other parts of the west are in the throes of a very serious drought. The situation is especially serious in California, which is now experiencing the worst in a series of three below-normal precipitation years. Many parts of the state are experiencing what have been described as historic drought conditions. The situation remains critical—and many of us are worried about the upcoming wildfire season—though recent March and early April rains brought a bit of relief.
All spring I have been hearing that the drought would make this a poor year for desert wildflowers in Death Valley. However, I knew that Death Valley had experienced some rain events in the past few months and that desert plants are quite opportunistic, often quickly blooming in response to moisture. I know Death Valley fairly well, though I’m no expert on wildflowers. However, I had a hunch that we might be surprised by how the wildflower season would play out.
We visited the park for several days right around the beginning of April. Even before we arrived, we saw a decent number of wildflowers as we drove across other desert areas on the way to the park. It seemed like plants were acting in the opportunistic manner I describe above and quickly sprouting up and blooming in response to recent rains. As we entered the park and crossed Towne Pass we (especially my wife, who is passionate about photographing the “small things”) began to notice a lot of wildflowers in many places, including whole beds of colorful flowers in many places along this drive. While we did not see the tremendous blooms on the Valley floor that can occasionally occur, once we got up into higher country we saw flowers everywhere, at least when we slowed down and looked. There was more rain and snow during our visit, and the additional moisture is bound to encourage other plants and flowers to grow.
I just saw a report at the Desert USA website (which names the flowers in ways that I cannot hope to do) confirming what we saw—that there is actually a substantial bloom of desert wildflowers in many places. If you have the opportunity to head out that way soon, do so!
About the Photograph
Believe it or not, it was snowing lightly when I made this photograph! We began our day by driving on gravel roads before sunrise to reach a high location in the Panamint Range from which we planned to photograph at sunrise. The sunrise photography turned out to be a challenge, as it was cloudy at first light and the clouds only increased as the sunrise progressed. Soon we began to notice snow falling on nearby peaks, though it did not fall where we were until after we moved on. Later, in a less exposed location but with temperatures in the low thirties, we encountered our first very light snowfall, and we could see that it was snowing more heavily on the peaks and ridges around us.
We moved on, heading up into Wildrose Canyon. My original plan had been to drive to the end of the road, but by the time we reached the Charcoal Kilns it was snowing hard enough that this no longer seemed like a great idea. In fact, other drivers with two-wheel drive vehicles were having problems ascending the last section of the road to the kilns. We photographed the snowy conditions here and back in Wildrose Canyon, and then as the snow abated a bit we drove on, heading back in the direction of Emigrant Pass. Not far from the pass we found a hillside covered with a spectacular display of flowers. At first it was some cacti that caught our attention, but as we got out and looked around we saw many, many flowers all around. These gilia buds had not yet opened into their more showy display.
I originally wrote this article four years ago, in response to a lot of questions about this seasonal change, and I have updated it regularly since then. The short story is that the aspens begin to change near the end of September in a typical year, and if you know where to look you can find aspen color for the next three weeks or perhaps just a bit longer. The change starts in the highest groves of trees and then works its way down to lower elevations as the transformation progresses, with later potential down along the base of the range and in some of the east side canyons.
I have not (yet) been up to photograph the trees this season – though I plan to rectify that situation very soon! – but everything I’m hearing right now suggests that the change came earlier than usual this year. In a more typical year I would expect to see the best color perhaps starting right about now and continuing for another week or longer – but this year there are a lot of reports of high elevation trees already dropping leaves and of lower elevation areas already in peak form. If you are going this year, I would make it sooner rather than later!
I just read the stunning and deeply disturbing story of the theft (not “merely” the all-to-common defacing) of a number of petroglyphs from a California location. (See “Petroglyph Thefts Near Bishop Stun Federal Authorities, Paiutes”) Apparently a group of depraved individuals hauled rock-cutting equipment to the site and sawed out the rocks holding several examples of native rock art, defacing and destroying other examples in the process. Anyone who has visited the better known examples of rock art is aware that a certain pathetic sub-group of the human race finds itself unable to resist the temptation to add their own “art” or deface that which is already there, but this incident represents a new low.
Photographers, those who operate photography workshops, and those of us who write about photography need to take this as an opportunity to think very carefully about how much information we should share about fragile places and things and about where and how we do our sharing. A few years ago I wrote about an occasion on which some friends and fellow photographers called me out on this (“Disclosing Photo Locations: How Much Information is Too Much?”), causing me to re-think how and what I write about my photographs and the places where I make them.
Here is the problem, more or less. “Back in the day,” we might well share what we knew about certain places and subjects without much care at all. While we certainly would not blabber about fragile places in front of people who we thought might disrespect or even damage them, we had no qualms about sharing information with trusted friends. And, in fact, the dangers of that kind of sharing in the pre-web world were not really all that great. The word-of-mouth sharing reached very small number of people, and it was unlikely (though not quite impossible) that the information would eventually get to “the bad guys.” We could even argue that we were serving a greater good by sharing this knowledge with others who should know, and whose voices might contribute to the protection of these places and subjects.
However the web has changed everything. Anything that you or I post today becomes cataloged, is searchable, is readily shared and re-shared, becomes linked to other pieces of information about the same subjects… and can be seen by millions of people you don’t know, among them many whom you would not trust and some that you would never share this stuff with. That’s the new reality. Among the people who may see our work and read our descriptions online are thoughtless barbarians who stand on top of fragile arches, who climb on tufa towers, who inscribe their own “art” into ancient sites, who drive all over the landscape, who remove “sailing rocks” from their playa homes, who leave trash in the landscape, who create trails across wilderness landscapes, who harm wildlife, who party in sacred and quiet places, and more.
As photographers who share our work and write about it and even take other people to these places, we have a responsibility to our subjects to do everything we can to protect them, even if this means restricting what we say, what we share, and where we share it.
Using photographs of rock art as an example, I think that responsible photographers should adopt the following policies:
When posting a photograph, if location information is not important to understanding the photograph, don’t share such information at all.
When some location context is actually important – and sometimes it is – anonymize it as much as possible. Perhaps the name of the 200-mile-square geographical region is sufficient. Perhaps the word “canyon” can be used without naming the canyon.
When making photographs of such things, avoid the inclusion of surrounding or background elements that will help the cretins figure out the location. I know this is hard, given the photographic potential that you’ll need to forego – but a your discretion serves a greater good, and you can figure out an effective alternative way to shoot these subjects. (For my part, I enjoy the challenge of trying to work out an effective composition that doesn’t give things away.)
If you realize that you have been too open about information, edit your text, remove unnecessary or risky references, or withdraw certain photographs. (There used to be an extensive guide to photographing in Death Valley on this web site – it was removed for such reasons.)
When writing about photographs of such subjects, always include some reference to their fragility, their significance, the power of experiencing them, and the responsibility of protecting them.
Recognize that everything you share, no matter the online forum in which you share it, will eventually reach a much wider audience – and think about how much you want the lowest-common-denominator types in that audience to know.
Exercise caution even when you share directly with those you know. Share only with those who you trust to share your love for and concern about these places, and only with those who will refrain from sharing more widely. Perhaps sharing with “online friends” is a bit to liberal – maybe you want to restrict this to people you really know and work with. Even with direct, personal sharing… be conservative.
As tremendously tempting as it is – for financial as well as self-aggrandizement reasons – don’t take your workshops to these places. I’m afraid it isn’t enough to think you have told your students how fragile these places are. Once they leave they will share their photos, they will talk about your workshop, they will give directions, they will brag about the cool thing you showed them… and they’ll do it in that linked, searchable, uncontrollable world of the web.
Speak about these issues more openly – with other photographers, online, in your workshops, and so forth.
Our work to photograph these subjects and the photographs that result from this work should be evidence of our recognition of the importance of these places and of protecting them – and not something that will contribute to endangering them.
Update: A few months later the petroglyphs were recovered. Final outcome in the case is not known as of this writing.
Earlier today I posted my first photos of fall color from the 2012 season, so it seems like a good time to re-share my overview of photographing the Eastern Sierra aspen color, “Sierra Nevada Fall Color – Coming Sooner Than You Think!” The article gives a general outline of where you might look for aspen color in areas from about Carson Pass south to just below Bishop, and also goes into some ideas, both technical and aesthetic, about how you might photograph this subject. I first posted the article three years ago, and I’ve updated it each year since then.
The “coming sooner than you think” part of the article’s title seems especially appropriate this year. Although one can never be absolutely certain how the color change will play out or when it will start and end, there are signs that things may be a bit different this year. The main thing is that some color seems to have appeared a bit earlier than usual. I found some interesting color (though distinctly short of peak color) on a three-day backpacking trip into McGee Canyon on September 14-16 this year – and that seems significantly earlier than I normally expect. I have also heard some second- and third-hand reports of a bit of interesting color already developing in a few other aspen areas.
(9/25/12 update: Various sources who have been in the Sierra since I wrote the original post or who are there now are generally reporting that the color transition has indeed begun a bit ahead of schedule this season. While the progress of aspen color can never be precisely predicted, I’d plan on erring on the side of arriving a bit early this year – in fact, that’s precisely what I plan to do!)