Tag Archives: tree

First Light, Trees, Lake, and Ridge

First Light, Trees, Lake, and Ridge
Trees along a rock strewn lake as first morning light strikes a southern Sierra Nevada backcountry ridge

First Light, Trees, Lake, and Ridge. Sequoia National Park, California. August 8, 2008. © Copyright 2008 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Trees along a rock strewn lake as first morning light strikes a southern Sierra Nevada backcountry ridge

This was the scene on the morning of this fifth day or a trip of over a week across the High Sierra Trail, a trip that would eventually summit Mount Whitney before descending the east side of the Sierra. To me, this route feels like it is composed of several distinct sections. The first couple of days are the approach, reaching the first high country from a west side trailhead. The next few of days are the crossing of the Kaweahs and the descent to the ridges above Big Arroyo, a portion of the trip that has the distinct feeling of remoteness and of dropping down to much lower country. Then there is the march up the Kern and the ascent to meet the JMT, followed by the lateral over to a base camp below Whitney, with the finale being the ascent of this ridge and then the long descent to Whitney Portal.

This morning was in that post-Kaweah phase, at our second camp after crossing the Gap. This lake, a bit off the “official” route, is a quiet and forested place with a gentle feeling that contrasts the rough edges of the higher country. We awoke this morning and I was out before dawn, photographing the first light on this high ridge beyond the trees and across the lake.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Moraine Lake

Moraine Lake
Moraine Lake shoreline in evening, Sequoia National Park

Moraine Lake. Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks, California. August 7, 2008. © Copyright 2008 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Moraine Lake shoreline in evening, Sequoia National Park

I have only been to this remote lake twice, but as I think back on it now it seems a special place. My two visits were separated by decades. The first was when I was in my twenties and one half of a young couple on our first very long Sierra pack trip, a trip that had us taking two weeks to cross the Sierra from west to east. When I think back to pack trips from so far back, I realize that I have forgotten many details but this lake remains. On the second visit I came here on a trip retracing that earlier trip, though this time with a larger group of friends who had not been here before. It takes me a solid four days of walking to get this place, and the route covers some spectacular country and takes me into and across some very high places.

That route, and the contrast between it and what I found at this lake may account for the special feelings I have for this place. Both times on this route, the first day was a hard one under a heavy, long distance backpack load. The second day is about the same length, but it ends with a moderate climb to a lake. Day three starts right out with a brutal climb up the walls of the cirque above the lake, then crosses a high pass, drops into timberline country, and descends mostly open terrain to a camp where the trees grow thicker. Then on the fourth day things ease up. Much of the trail is though Sierra high country forest, mixed with open views, and then it leaves the main trail and takes a lateral out through more forest to this lake. I recall an expansive area of open forest along the shoreline, a shallow and pretty lake with forest on the other size, and a few peaks in the distance to catch the morning and evening light. From the right spots I could catch my first views of the summit of Mount Whitney, where I would stand a week or more later. And from this second trip I recall a slow and quiet evening with my hiking partners, hanging out in camp and sitting lazily on shoreline logs.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle
A bald eagle perches in a tree

Bald Eagle. Klamath Basin, California. February 13, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A bald eagle perches in a tree.

I rarely see bald eagles in my home territory in the San Francisco Bay Area, so seeing them when I travel is a special treat. This area of the Klamath Basin that I visited in mid-February is known for them — in fact there is one refuge in the area that is off-limits to humans, specifically so that these magnificent birds can flourish without being disturbed. As I was out in a refuge on afternoon and driving along a levee I spotted a group of people stopped ahead. I slowed down and approached slowly, not wanting to disturb whatever they say, and I soon saw the very big eagles nest up in one of the trees. Soon I saw that there were two eagles in the tree, and I made some initial photographs.

I returned to the area again the next evening, this time with a better organized plan. Sure enough, both eagles were again out and about in the are of their nest, alternating between perching in the nest and heading out to hunt. At one point this eagle returned from a hunt, but instead of going to the nest and sharing its prize, the bird perched on a branch a few hundred feet from where its partner was in the next and it proceeded to feast on something it had caught. This provided an excellent opportunity to get a relatively close (with a long telephoto) and unobstructed view of the bird. After eating, the eagle tore some trigs and small branches from the tree and flew off to carry them back to the nest — as if to say, “Sorry, no food. But I did bring something nice for the house.”


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Wetlands Tree, Fog

Wetlands Tree, Fog
A tree and brush reflected in still water of a fog-shrouded wetland pond

Wetlands Tree, Fog. San Joaquin Valley, California. February 15, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A tree and brush reflected in still water of a fog-shrouded wetland pond

These are my favorite days in California’ Great Central Valley, the winter days when the tule fog forms and covers the landscape, making almost everything seem mysterious. On days when most sane people avoid driving in this fog, I head this direction hoping I’ll find it. In certain areas, even when it is clear almost everywhere else, the fog can form above the winter wetlands and quickly drop visibility to near zero. (One of the strangest but characteristic experiences is driving slowly through pre-dawn darkness and fog so thick that you can barely see more than feet in front of you, yet being able to look straight up through the shallow fog layer to see the moon and stars overhead.)

It was tremendously foggy on the February morning. Arriving at this refuge we could hear thousands of geese and cranes off in the invisible distance in almost all directions, but we could not see a single bird. Eventually, on a perimeter road circling the wetlands, I came across this spot were a few trees stand in the shallow, still water. The fog hides distant elements of the landscape or at least mutes them, giving prominence to closer features that might otherwise be lost in background detail. The central tree, visually muted even though it is barely fifty feet from my camera position, curves above the reflecting water and its skeletal form stands out from the nearly invisible background plants and water that are almost invisible in the fog.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Winter Morning, Sacramento Valley

Winter Morning, Sacramento Valley
Winter clouds and morning fog, Sacramento Valley, California

Winter Morning, Sacramento Valley. Central Valley, California. January 8, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Winter clouds and morning fog, Sacramento Valley, California

I’ve been driving through California’s Great Central Valley (composed of the northern Sacramento Valley and the southern San Joaquin Valley) for decades, on my way too and from the Sierra and on travels north toward the Pacific Northwest and south toward Southern California. I confess that for many years it was just a place to pass thought on the way to someplace else, though years ago I began to develop an affinity for the sensations that came from driving across on a hot summer evening on the return from the Sierra or from slowing down for the winter fogs on the way to/from ski trips. And then I became away of the winter migratory birds, almost by accident, and I started regarding the winter valley as a destination rather than a route, and I have gradually come to appreciate the place itself.

This has also been (yet another) opportunity for me to relearn an important photography lesson, namely that it isn’t so much about going to distant exotic places (though I’ll do that, too, when I can) as it is about slowing down and paying attention to what there is to see wherever your are. And once I did that, this place that was little more than “the place I drove through” has become the subject. This photograph came on a short trip that I made with the goal of pushing out the boundaries of my experience in the Valley a bit. This time I headed further north up the Sacramento Valley to visit some areas that, frankly, I didn’t know existed until I started researching a bit. This area shares a lot with the more familiar locations where I photograph birds and landscapes every winter — the birds, the immense sky, the flat landscape, water everywhere — but it turns out to have its own personality, too. The birds are similar but not identical. (I photographed bald eagles here for the first time in California.) I saw snow-covered hills to my west in the dawn light. A small and isolated group of mountains rose to the east. And there was water everywhere, far more than where I photograph further south, and a surprise to anyone who has ever visited this area during get hot, dry summer months.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Blue Hour, Wetlands

Blue Hour, Wetlands
Late autumn evening clouds reflected in wetlands of the San Joaquin Valley.

Blue Hour, Wetlands. San Joaquin Valley, California. December 6, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Late autumn evening clouds reflected in wetlands of the San Joaquin Valley.

I have become a passionate photographer of winter migratory birds in California’s Great Central Valley, and I spend as much time as possible out there between late fall and the start of spring. For most of my life I was almost completely unaware of the great migration that takes place just a couple of hours east of my home and midway between there and “my” Sierra Nevada. For a few months this valley that seems primarily like farmland (at least to us coastal folks) for the rest of the year becomes a wildlife haven.

But it isn’t just about the birds. The birds may be the main draw, but they are certainly not the whole show, and the landscape itself fascinates me, especially with its surprising and varied effects of atmosphere and light. The ubiquitous fog creates mystery and the clouds of winter weather fronts produce beautiful skies. The dusk ending of a day out here rarely fails to produce some twilight magic.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Wetlands Dawn, Sierra Crest

Wetlands Dawn, Sierra Crest
The peaks of the High Sierra rise beyond San Joaquin Valley wetlands on an autumn morning

Wetlands Dawn, Sierra Crest. San Joaquin Valley, California. December 6, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

The peaks of the High Sierra rise beyond San Joaquin Valley wetlands on an autumn morning

In the late fall and winter, California’s Great Central Valley manages to provide some of the most diverse and beautiful effects of light and atmosphere that I know of. In a way this is ironic, since most of us probably tend to think of the place as a fairly boring, flat, and drab bunch of agricultural land that is too often smoggy and hot and dry in the summer. But in the winter, especially if you get away from the drive-through freeways, there is a lot to see here. This is especially true in the wetlands areas, with their wildlife, trees, ponds and fogs.

I arrived before dawn on this early December morning and, to be honest, I was not initially overly hopeful about the sunrise prospects. In fact, moments before I arrived I had driven past beautiful pre-dawn reflections on nearby marshes and decided to keep going toward my destination, only to arrive and find much less striking light. Sometimes the most brilliant sunrise light can blind me to more subtle beauties, but on this morning I found a quiet spot overlooking water and trees, stopped, and just photographed the beginning of the day. In this photograph the wetlands trees are reflected in the water as they march away into the slightly foggy distance, a few sandhill cranes fly past, and in the distance the crest of the Sierra Nevada rises toward the sky.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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All media © Copyright G Dan Mitchell and others as indicated. Any use requires advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.