Jay Sousa: Highway 395 in sight

July 25, 2013 

We continue our journey north along scenic and photogenic Highway 395 in the final installment of this photo adventure along one of the most diverse geological areas in the United States.

In my last column, I detailed the area around Mammoth Lakes. Today we travel a few miles north to our next base camp, the tiny outpost known as Lee Vining. The town of Lee Vining is at the junction of Highways 395 and 120, sitting just above Mono Lake.

The entrance to Yosemite is just 12 miles up Highway 120 via Tioga Pass. This long, steep climb does not offer much in the way of photo opportunities but Lee Vining Canyon below the road is a very pretty area filled with aspen trees and Lee Vining Creek rushing down from the high peaks of Yosemite.

I always like photographing small, rushing creeks late in the day using a slow shutter speed of at least one second to get the feeling of movement in the rushing water.

Back down in Lee Vining set your photographic goals on the incredible Mono Lake, It seems like this large, salty lake set in the high desert has many different faces as the constantly changing light and afternoon clouds drift over this amazing body of water.

The most unique feature to photograph is the South Tufas. Tufas are weird limestone columns, some of which are thirty feet tall. At sunrise and sunset they take on a rich, warm glow and are in striking contrast to the cobalt blue water of the lake.

To reach the South Tufa area, head south out of Lee Vining on Highway 395 a few miles and then turn left on Highway 120 going east. Drive another couple of miles until you find Test Station Road, turn left on this dirt road and follow the signs to the South Tufa parking area. A short, easy hike on a level trail will take you to the Tufas.

Try to arrange your photography time to be at the Tufas at sunrise or sunset; I like the sunset set light best, but be warned that this is a very popular area to photograph and you will have a lot of other photographers competing with you for a spot to set up your tripod. Plan on arriving early to scout the area and pick an area to work.

I have made some nice images at the South Tufa well after sunset, so don't be too hasty to pack up your gear after the sun has dropped below the Sierras. The deep, rich twilight sky with the Tufas silhouetted against it is very beautiful.

For many photographers, the ghost town of Bodie is the highlight of a trip to the Lee Vining area. Bodie is one of the largest and best-preserved ghost towns in the west. Bodie is approximately 20 miles from Lee Vining, 13 of them on a dirt road.

Bodie, a state park, is only open during the summer from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and in the winter from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Unfortunately this is not the best time to photograph the hundreds of old, weathered buildings and cars that dot the high desert hills.

Still, there are many great images that you can make, especially if the sky has some interesting clouds. Bodie is a great place to practice your black and white photography as well.

For those wanting to photograph some beautiful high alpine Sierra scenery, look no further than Lundy Canyon, located just 13 miles from Lee Vining, this spectacular canyon has a beaver pond, groves of aspen trees, wildflowers, open meadows and snow capped peaks above.

Lundy Canyon has some of the best fall color in the Eastern Sierra. In mid-October, the aspens turn into a sea of yellow, red and gold. These colors set against the white bark of these beautiful trees make for some amazing images.

As you leave the Lee Vining area heading north toward Bridgeport, you will find many other noteworthy photo stops as well. Just past Bridgeport, you will come to Highway 108, which heads west over the beautiful Sonora pass. This is the quickest way home with many beautiful areas to stop and photograph.

Editor's note: This is the last in a three-part series. Jay Sousa, a former Sun-Star photographer, has his own photography business in Merced, conducts private classes and teaches photography at Merced College.

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