This web page chronicles a 5-day Southern California photography road trip I made this spring April 17 through 21. A bit of insight for others into the field life of this landscape photographer. These were first days of sunny weather in about 7 weeks, one of the stormiest March and April periods in Northern California history with Southern California often cloudy. The belated wet weather saved what was expected in February to be a dismal wildflower season down south into a respectable bloom at a few wetter locations. After developing film from the trip, I decided to share some of my experiences and images.
Carrizo Plain is a special place that most of the year can look pretty boring on the surface. Accordingly some have questioned why President Clinton made the vast area a national monument. There comes a time however during springs every few years, when Carrizo Plain becomes every bit the scenic treasure we Americans associate with our national parks. I hope some of my images can show some of that glory to the rest of you. This page includes some small embedded images, however the associated slideshow selectable at the top of this page presents larger images including the best dozen of the trip from my large format 4x5 view camera work as well as three additional images at the end that were also taken at the national monument at the end of April on a second trip. The Bureau of Land Managementlink for Carrizo Plain National Monument. And this link contains a thorough list of plant species at Carrizo.
I also carry a 7mp Nikon 7900 Coolpix that I use for close-up and informational shots including those on this page. Eight Provia 100F 4x5 transparencies thus far from my 2006 field work including three from this trip and three from the end of April trip to Carrizo were recently sent out for expensive 300mb drum scans. After Photoshop processing and printing of large masters, they will be posted on my home page web index and available for sale. Those images are #2, #3 and #5 at page bottom. Some of the other images are certain to be processed in the future. Except for the three end of slideshow images from the end of April trip, all images were taken during this April 17 through 21, 2006 trip.
In March the bulk of several cold though modest storms tracked east into central California while just brushing areas in the southland. Rainfall in the southern state had been meager early in winter then picked up modestly in the late winter. As a photographer, I regularly monitor remote rain gauges via the internet since precipitation during our wet season has a direct correlation to the level of wildflower blooms. Additionally knowing exactly when rain has fallen together with the weather that has been occurring, allows me to make a fairly decent estimate of when to head south for peak blooms. Finally on April 3 the largest storm of the series stayed further west over the Pacific and dropped good rains over the northern parts of Southern California including 2.6 inches of rain at Carrizo Plain.
Remembering the Miracle March of 1991 that broke the 6-year California drought during a winter that had been exceptionally dry, I hoped for some level of a repeat. Wildflowers bloomed profusely in April that spring 1991 on the late deluges alone. The above graph shows total rainfall by the end of this season at the remote Carrizo Plain gauge was quite close to last season's El Nino year. However most fell late on April 3. So there were less plants that were prepared to come out of dormancy. The bloom this year was also subsequently quite a bit later than normal. By late March enough rain had fallen at Carrizo Plain that I thought it could still come through. After the big storm, I had to wait two weeks before the stormy jet stream pattern provided enough of a sunny break for me to bother making a trip south. The two weeks also proved to be about the necessary interval for wildflowers to thrust out into the sunlight. Days before Easter Sunday April 16, the NWS began firming up a forecast for a few mostly sunny days. Thus I anxiously got ready for a trip in which I would visit three areas, Shell Creek, Carrizo Plain, and Antelope Valley.
Sunrise Monday April 17 as the last storm showers were ending over the southern Coast Ranges, I drove south from where I live in the south SF Bay Area down highway US101. I was glad this first sunny weather was occurring during the work week because it meant I could expect to work peacefully without having other people or vehicles in my frames. By about 10am I reached my first destination at Shell Creek east of San Luis Obispo. Shell Creek is a small modestly known wildflower area on privately owned land, the owners of which have been gracious enough to allow wildflowers enthusiast's public access. The fenced property boundaries limiting public access where wildflowers grow are but a half-mile on either side of the road and end about a mile north of the highway 58 junction. Shell Creek is parallel to and just east of the road. Temperatures were chilly and skies were still mostly cloudy. It looked like I would have an hour or two to scout shots before skies cleared enough to be worth shooting. I had visited this area a few times during previous springs including the previous El Nino year of 2005 that perhaps put on its best show.
Out of my old Subaru, with heavy large format gear on my back, I crossed little Shell Creek on a wobbly log someone had constructed using my spread big Gitzo G1325 tripod for support. On this eastern flood plain there was but a modest display of yellow hued wildflowers that I had expected. Pretty much typical spring displays and far less interesting than the multicolor displays in 2005. Oddly due to the cold stormy weather, most blue oaks had not yet leafed out, thus still showed bare orange lichen colored branches. After making a brief tour a third of a mile out and back, I crossed back over the knee-deep stream returning to my vehicle.
I then set out to the main wildflower plain to the west. Unseen by the roadside due to blocking grasses, areas midway across the field showed a nice crop of wildflowers that had apparently risen after the big storm. Just interesting enough that I decided to go ahead and expose some film. Until the clouds cleared up more, I walked about taking close-up pictures of flowers with my tiny 7mp Coolpix 7900 digital camera. At about 1pm PDT I set up the first of six modest images taken that afternoon at Shell Creek. There were some nice areas of baby blue eyes, nemophila menziesii, and California poppies. (4x5 image #9 below) Amid other flowers were vast numbers of tiny ground covering goldfields that were already a bit past peak thus losing some of their bright yellow aesthetic that complements other wildflowers. A few other folk also stopped along the road and wandered about admiring the spring wonder. By 3pm as breezes picked up, I had returned to my car. I drove east on state highway 58 through the low coast range hills towards Carrizo Plain. Most of the scenery eastward is rolling green grassy hills dotted with blue oaks or brush and grazed by cattle.
Reaching vast nearly treeless Carrizo Plain late afternoon, I sped east then turned off the highway south onto paved Soda Lake Road that goes through the sleepy diffuse ranch home community of California Valley. I noticed some nice wildflowers along the roadsides. Several miles south, I turned off onto dirt surfaced Seven Mile Road a mile northeast to some familiar areas while also sizing up potential spots to overnight. Getting out in now windy conditions, I wandered about some noting our striking magenta hued purple owls clover, orthocarpus purpurascens, was making a nice show among goldfields, lasthenia chrysotoma, and tidy tips, layia platyglossa. What I had seen so far was nice but there were far more wildflowers all over that part of the valley during the El Nino years of 1995 or 1997. Back on Soda Lake road, I passed into the vast national monument driving southeast a few miles then turned back north on Simmler Road, a familiar dirt road that follows along the east areas of large Soda Lake. The beginning of the road has a difficult muck hole to pass after wet weather and I was both immediately glad the earth seemed to have already dried enough for my 4WD to get through and that there were a lot of flowers suddenly. I drove up the slight divide separating Soda Lake in the west to the other ponds to the east. Bingo! It was here I would be spending a good deal of time the next few days. A vast yellow sea of flowers species densely covered the landscape into the far distance. And most impressively, an obvious coreopsis that I'd not yet exactly identified, densely covered a wide area just below the road. Oh yeah, that species was making an epic appearance! Later I would find it was coreopsis bigelovii aka Bigelow's tickseed or B. coreopsis. For wildflower lovers, it doesn't get much more impressive than when Carrizo Plain is putting on one of its grand shows.
I became excited about prospects Tuesday morning. The little I'd seen so far along Simmler Road was not the high jungle of vast wildflowers of the spring of 1995, but the height of the flowers given the one big rainstorm was more even thus giving good visibility to distant areas instead of having the taller plants overwhelm the shorter ones. With the sun lowering, already cool temperatures dropped, thus I departed further north up the road to a nice flat area to overnight. I got out and rearranged gear to sleep in my sedan. I had all my camping gear including a tent, so could have slept outside as I often do, but inside the car where my back seat folds down into the trunk is cozy and simple. After heating up a can of beef barley soup on my backpacking stove, I retired into my sleeping bag and was soon asleep far earlier than I might have back home. Nearest people were miles away at tiny distant lights in the dark night. Outside was the peaceful sound of a few crickets and minor rustling of the breezes. Waking up every hour or two, the starry night continued to be breezy and that worried me. I hoped for calm conditions else photography would be rather limited. One cannot capture near image detail on vegetation if is bouncing around in the breezes. One may stop down a lens to minimum apertures to get adequate depth of field but doing so inversely requires slower shutter speeds that then requires target object stillness. The fate of productive landscape photography often rests with whatever the weather offers. In the wee morning hours as coyotes howled in the distance, breezes seemed to be waning. So I finally went back to sleep with a glimmer of hope.
I'm an early riser on road trips and so was the case Tuesday April 18. With dawn brightening the new day, I was up and whoopee it was dead calm! Birds are the most seen animals at Carrizo Plain, and just before sunrise their considerable numbers in what must be paradise for them, create a wonderful chorus of near and far songs in the quiet cool air welcoming each day. I reorganized my vehicle for the coming day. Back down the road to the large field of bright coreopsis, I got out and spent a half hour in warm early sunlight taking some shots with my digital camera. Before 8am would be too early for good landscape images with large format. The sun needs to illuminate flower and plants from a more overhead angle so translucent plant parts glow in the sunlight instead of just providing reflected light. Usually around 8:30am to 10am PDT is about the best spring balance of good glow and not having a sun angle too high to make the rest of the landscape too harsh. How wonderful this day promised to be. I was excited about the large brilliant yellow field of surprisingly even height, vibrant, fresh coreopsis. After a few for the record shots in different directions, I found one subject with a longer stem that I was able to isolate against the already nicely blue sky. One reason I had made my getaway as the storm moved east, was that the day after cold fronts pass is often the one with colder drier clearer air and correspondingly deeper blue sky. Another issue in such mountain range isolated valleys as Carrizo Plain is that increasing ground fog conditions often tend to set up over a period of days after rain that lead to chronic hazy morning conditions.
Back at my car, I grabbed the large format gear and sauntered back into the coreopsis. When walking in fields of flowers, I automatically through years of habit, attempt to step on spots of least growth and preferably bare ground. I am the dancer. I also try to be aware what I am walking through so as not to trample aesthetic spots I or others might wish to photograph. Within an hour in rapid fire, I exposed a surprising five sheets on different compositions of the coreopsis slope with backgrounds of either the sky or mountains surrounding the valley. (4x5 images #4 and #6 below) The best image was towards the greener hills of the Caliente Range to the west that had a partial moon above. Next I moved down below the coreopsis field where tidy tips and goldfields dominated among several additional overwhelmed species. I took a couple nice images where a nice patch of purple hued Fremont's phacelia, phacelia fremontii, was surrounded by dense tidy tips. (4x5 images #1 below) Tidy tips being a pretty yellow hued sunflower family flower with dainty white outer petal tips. How outstanding all conditions of flowers and weather appeared. What a joy to be here. Our world can be so beautiful!
Wandering off towards what I call Old Potato Lake, I hoped to get an image of flowers near the still lake waters. It is not a real name on the USGS topographic map but rather just a name I've made up because on the 7.5 minute USGS topo, it looks like an oblong old potato one has left too long in a bag that starts growing white roots. The roots on the map are the sloughs that drain into and out of the lake at the south. They are part of the Soda Lake slough system that includes several other large and small shallow alkali ponds at elevation 1915, the lowest of the vast valley. Old Potato Lake is about one and three-quarters miles long and a bit over a mile wide. Much smaller than large named Soda Lake a sixth of a mile to the west. Except after big storms, the lake is usually in various degrees of drying up with a wide expanse of flat white alkali rings around its shore. Ann at the Carrizo visitor center says locals refer to it as "east pond". But hey that sounds so dull? It's officially nameless like several dozen others hereabouts. Heck, I like eating potatoes. Right at the water's edge is a fascinating light pink ring likely some kind of bacterium. Above the surrounding alkali flats, is an abrupt crumbling rim of about ten to fifteen feet to the plain of flowers.
Approaching the water, lusciously soft dried areas away from the water can support one's weight, but as one gets increasingly closer it turns wet and firmer, then softer and softer, and is no doubt bottomless. It is a slippery, sticking, sucking, alkali muck that animals have learned to avoid so tracks are scarce except for lightweight birds like killdeer. A short section of this alkali clay has to be driven over at the south end of Simmler Road. During wet periods the spot may be impassable for weeks. Park personnel unfortunately end up having to pull quite a few vehicles out during such times including 4WDs. When wet, people that have anything less than a serious off road mud machine, ought be very cautious before gambling. Instead get outside then poke something into the mud to see how bad it has become.
After considerable walking back and forth, right and left, up and down, around and around, I homed in on a particularly nice coreopsis patch for a foreground. Just below was an alkali flat with goldfields, tidy tips, and purple owls clover, then the lake and Temblor Range in the background. A swath of diffuse clouds had moved in to obscure the southeast that variably blocked the sun moment by moment. I set up a shot and captured superb light while the waters delivered a nice calm reflection. (4x5 image #5 below) On I continued north along the lakeshore finding increasingly dense pink hued tiny red-stemmed filaree in the mix. Just about everywhere I was walking, long-eared jackrabbits would explode out in panic from beneath the knee-high growth. Near the northeast corner of Old Potato, coreopsis flowed down onto the lake's rim where I found another nice composition northeastward towards the Temblor Range. (4x5 image #11 below) At the far northwest end, I took my last image of the morning a bit after 10am, a reflection showing the curving shoreline and Temblor Range. Large format sheet film plus developing is expensive at about $3 a sheet. Thus I need to be pretty conservative exposing sheets on only the best images I see. Additionally I rarely bracket sheet film thus rely on getting the narrow slide film latitude exposure right the one and only time. On most trips I average about a half-dozen sheets per day but that varies considerably depending on how good or lousy the landscape and weather is. On this morning I'd exposed a whopping 13 sheets.
Simmler Road is next to this area but I didn't see any other vehicles until about 10:30am. The sluggishness of the photography word of mouth and internet grapevines would likely result in most other photographers missing these peaking midweek conditions. I expected a few self-motivated folk would show up so it wouldn't be totally lonely. And sorry but next weekend folks were facing more foul weather. Leaving the Soda Lake area, I drove the full five-mile length of rutted Simmler Road. At a half dozen muddy spots, vehicles had made go-arounds to avoid getting stuck. Some areas near a low point seemed interesting enough with flowers to return to later in the day while others were just dense fiddleneck. I reached Elkhorn Road and then followed that southeast. At dry Welch Creek a couple SUVs were parked at a new trailhead that I learned was a USGS developed San Andreas earthquake fault geology tour trail. President Clinton rather recently declared these former BLM lands a national monument on January 17, 2001. Given tight park budgets these days, only modest improvements have been done to enhance the infrastructure. Elkhorn Road had apparently been graded within the past year so was not the sketchy rain eroded primitive route I'd taken back in the El Nino year of 1995. As I drove down the road, I'd carefully taken a few useless detours up lightly used side dirt roads with growths of vegetation in the median that tickled the underbelly of my Subu. Yes I have a habit of doing that...Mr Curious. Along these dirt roads, golden mantled ground squirrels (look like large chipmunks) would frequently start running up the road in front of my creeping vehicle before diving into the fiddleneck jungles. There is something about the way those obviously well fed, chubby munks run with tail and legs galloping up in the air behind them showing their chubby bellies that makes me laugh.
Eventually I reached the Panorama Hills bench. Cattle were about areas along the road as well as their circular calling cards all over the ground. Yes cattle are allowed to graze in some areas at some times of year in this national monument in order to help control the considerable non-native species. Usual European grass species introduced for cattle grazing long ago. Here and there were dilapidated rusting cattle water tanks. For a few miles, I surveyed treeless slopes of distant Temblor Range heights for patches of wildflower color. In order to explore into the trail less obscure Temblor Range canyons, I'd printed out part of a topo map from topozone.com and had a plan to check out one small canyon. Analyzing topographic maps for routes is something I can absorb myself at for hours when home at night.
So I left my car, surmounted a barbed wire fence and scrambled up a rough trail less canyon. My Black Diamond L4.0 climbing pack with large format camera gear usually weighs at least 23 pounds depending on how much extra gear like food and clothing I toss in. On the back I strap an additional 6.5 pounds of Gitzo G1325 tripod plus head. The kind of photography I do takes fitness and endurance as I often hike considerable distances including crosscountry in difficult terrain. Well actually I backpack a great deal too carrying a crushing weight but that's another story. Immediately upon entering the lower ravine, wildflower species increased dramatically. Dense hilltop daisies and Fremont's phacelia patches grew on north facing slopes with fiddleneck and chia, on sunnier slopes, goldfields and filaree everywhere, joined by occasional California poppies, farewell-to-spring clarkia, mojave suncups, and several others I didn't stop to identify. Well into the route, I came to realize it was not a fruitful choice so at an opportune spot where I might attain the dividing ridge, climbed steeply up in order to peer down into the next drainage north. Sweating at the top, I took a good break while looking down on an old jeep road that was not on the topo. In fact I was to learn over the next couple weeks that the bare western Temblor slopes had many old bulldozed roads, most eroded to the point and so overgrown with brush that they were unfit for even trail bikes. This canyon below was obviously the well talked about canyon others had followed up in spring 2005 to see un-worldly glowing hillsides of color. Except this spring there was only modestly interesting color to see. But maybe some of the other canyons had more to offer?
A modest wind had come up that made any shooting even less likely. Curious, I bothered to follow up the road most of a mile just to understand what I might do during a good El Nino spring. Yellow hued monolopia lanceolata, aka hilltop daisies, dominate flowers on the Temblor hillsides and are visible from miles distant across the plains. I noted rather large numbers were still in buds thus would likely be blooming in the coming week. Rusty decrepit piping followed the road, apparently from old cattle water works that ended down at a water tank I'd seen. Then it was a fast ramble back down a long two miles or so of jeep road to the Subaru. California quail and dove flew up noisily at every bend in the dirt road and lots of shotgun casings told a story of hunters liking the area. My feet and ankles were a bit sore for the exploratory effort while my weighty camera had remained unused in the daypack.
Warm, sweaty, sticky, and weary back at the car, I revived on a banana, peanut butter strawberry jam sandwich, and cold milk. Eager for some productive work, I drove all the way back ten miles or so to the Simmler Road dip area I'd noted. A few SUV's containing monument visitors were appearing during this afternoon. About 4pm at a promising spot, I got out and wandered off a third of a mile towards a slight hill. That turned out to be fruitful as several wildflower species were quite thick and carpeting goldfields were the fresh bright yellow I seek out. Afternoon breezes were now surprisingly dying down. Great! After considerable walking about in circles trying to size up just where to plunk down my tripod for a shot within the jungle-like maze of knee high wildflowers, I took a couple more images that later turned out very nice. (4x5 images #7 and #12 below)
Back at my vehicle, I headed south towards the main coreopsis area I'd worked in the morning. Always the curious one about nature, I got out midway on a minor ridge where I noticed more yellow sunflowers. However upon inspection these were not the Bigelow's tickseed of the large field just west but rather hilltop daisies of the western Temblor. So there seemed to be a divide between the two similar looking big yellow hued sunflowers with species not intermixing at least where I'd looked. After a couple late mediocre images near Soda Lake, I totaled 17 exposed sheets for this Tuesday, the most 4x5 images I've ever taken in a single day. Later the following week after picking up my developed film, I would find it was a very good day indeed. With the sun setting and my bones still quite tired from the Temblor ramblings, I drove out to a remote spot to make dinner and set up my Subu for the second night.
After another quiet night in the vast emptiness of the plain, as the sun hit the Caliente Range Wednesday morning April 19, I rearranged gear and drove south to a spot where I could most easily reach the northwest end of Old Potato Lake. My hoped plan was the view from the northeast side of the lake might be nice. Maybe even a nice reflection across the expanse? So I rambled out a mile or so to where I could see the more remote lakes, however flowers thereabouts were too scattered to compete with the dense displays west. Thus I walked all the way back then drove south to reach the swales south of Old Potato Lake where a couple interesting ponds lie.
Before going far from the road, I became impressed by views north into the coreopsis field so took a couple shots. At one point an SUV drove into my frame and I yelled to them to drive back out of the way a bit for a few minutes. Photographers themselves, they graciously obliged. Jim and Joe they were and I would meet up with them again later that day. By the time I reached the nearby flats of goldfields and owls clover below, an increasing breeze had started that seemed to be pretty continuous. Having already nailed much of the Simmler Road area Tuesday morning, I decided to bail early in order to get a good start on my intended afternoon Temblor Range exploration. Making the ten-mile drive back to the Panorama Hills bench, I went to the area below where color on the Temblor heights had looked promising. Actually there was color in all the crest areas for miles so any of the canyon approaches would likely have found nice flower areas. I'd studied my topo maps the previous evening while laying in my sleeping bag, however most of my selected route was just off my more detailed 7.5 minute map so I would have to navigate by sight alone.
I left my Subu again, then climbed over a barbed wire fence. Oh how many wobbly barbed wire fences do I negotiate each year? Often still carrying the huge beast of a camera and tripod on my shoulder while doing so in quick smooth fashion. But yeah I've left some clothing on those barbs here and there too haha. I entered a broad ravine erosion run-out zone that quickly narrowed into the usual steep sided badlands erosion wash. Just like the previous day's canyon, as soon as I'd entered the mouth of the ravine, wildflower species and numbers increased dramatically. After a short distance, the canyon split and I took the obvious ravine north. The first running water I'd seen anywhere was trickling down the wash there. Deer tracks attested to wildlife being aware of it. There were no human tracks up the narrow wash but a few deer had been. Saltbush choked the wash bottom in places causing me to frequently walk up above the wash on the steep sides where deer had obviously decided to go likewise. Except my wide boots were far less suited for gripping the angled slopes than deer hooves. Shortly I came to another canyon split and spent some time scratching my head as to which way was preferable.
I took the right route east though had doubts as to where this deep down in a hole ravine was leading me. The way up was often quite steep through more saltbush and over crumbling landslide debris from the steep badlands slopes. All the way I kept a watch out for rattlesnakes. In 2005 at another Temblor Range canyon to the south, I'd seen a couple so knew they might be anywhere. Ticks were also latching onto my clothing as I passed through the saltbush. So at each frequent breather stop I'd pick them off before they had a chance to venture into areas beneath my clothing. Oh and jackrabbits were bounding out of bushes here too. Bet ticks were all over those hoppity fellows! Too bad nature had not given them fingers to pull those hated parasites off. At the top of the canyon, the headwall was especially steep though short enough so as not to be dangerous.
Reaching the canyon divide on a narrow dividing plateau, a splendid scene of colorful upper rounded hillsides broke forth all around including lots of flowers on faces directly in front of me. To the north, the main canyon dropped precipitously before rising steeply on the far side. Reasonable places to climb out of these badlands canyon bottoms to the spur ridgelines and hilltops were few. Directly north was perhaps the most impressive area of hillside color but I would need to go further east before finding a route to reach it as the opposite south facing canyon wall was far too steep.
It was now noon. Well one hour from midday given daylight savings time. Sitting against my daypack on the ground, I went about eating a bit of lunch and setting up my wooden view camera. Having done so myriad times, taking it out of my daypack, putting it together or at the end of a session, taking it apart and storing it, takes but a few minutes. After exposing one sheet in the immediate area, I wandered up the ridge east till reaching a location with a more sweeping view of the rest of the upper canyon. Nearby was a good patch of hilltop daisies that would become the foreground for my second image. Unfortunately it was quite the breezy spot and I waited a good 45 minutes before bothering to take a shot in less than absolutely calm. It was then midday 1pm so I doubted either image would actually look good given the harsh midday sun. I needed to control my eagerness in such an exciting visual place to expose film during harsh midday light that I had no hope for reasonable results with.
Now how to reach the hills on the other side of the canyon? Areas below dropped away too precipitously so I ventured further along the side of the ridge east into the canyon. The preferred routes within the knee-high flowers were on narrow 4 to 6 inch wide rodent dirt pathways that tended to be free of vegetation for my boot width. After passing up and around a few slight side canyon ravines, I reached a hard lens of steep rock. Instead of climbing up then around it, I gingerly gave in to carefully climbing across. Once I became exposed on the steep hard surface ripe with crumbly ball bearing grains, I had second thoughts about the wisdom of doing such. (See image with red arrow below right taken later from the other side of the canyon.) Past that and more wise, I soon reached a slight side ravine that appeared to offer a steep though doable route to the canyon bottom. It was also a good view towards the upper canyon for my 150mm lens so I set up to take a shot. Since it was just 1:20pm, I decided to relax in some shade for most of an hour to let the better light of mid afternoon catch up with me. After doing so, I took the shot at 2:10pm then began a steep descent into the canyon bottom below. Along the way I noticed some stunning desert candles and took shots as well as of the orange hued blazing star that at a distance I'd mistaken for poppy patches. Interestingly a few scattered orange hued California poppies populated many of the same slopes but never in the usual dense patches one often sees. Walking on the dense knee high wildflower slopes proved to be soft enough that I could easily dig in each step down. Gee just like Gorman in April 2003! It wasn't long before I reached the bottom. I began a route down canyon along the wash to a shallow ravine on the south facing slopes I thought ought to be climbable.
This main larger canyon wash was generally easier than the one I'd climbed up earlier. Soon I reached the shallow side ravine and began climbing up dense thigh high wildflowers. Lots of desert candles enjoyed the steep slopes as well as several less showy wildflowers that were generally overwhelmed by the dominating hilltop daisies. I climbed up about one hundred fifty feet to where the lower walls relaxed a bit, and then began moving away from the shallow ravine along a rodent trail crossing the side of the steep slope. Within fifteen minutes I'd rounded the ridge and was home free to travel the remaining slopes to the colorful wildflower area I'd seen from the opposite south canyon walls. I couldn't help but note all the hilltop daisies that were still just green in their buds. It looked like most of these slopes would be peaking in color in about a week or so. And I did come back with a friend April 28 but that's another story. Reaching the shallow side ravine of interest about 3:30pm, I quickly sized up where to expose my first 4x5 sheet and continued to take three more over the next hour. (4x5 image #10 below) Shadows began to overtake this aspect so I packed up my gear and headed down on a ridge route I'd spied for returning. Although I could have retraced my route to the canyon bottom then followed the wash back, this new route across the badlands ridge tops would prove to be a less laborious effort with little saltbush to wade through. Within 75 minutes, I was back at my Subaru, quite drained but still excited by the extraordinary journey into this rarely visited realm. I realized that few if any serious photographers had likely ever ventured in any areas I'd explored.
Back rolling down Elkhorn road, Jim and Joe's vehicle wedged alongside mine on the narrow dirt road. We commenced into a length of interesting conversations. They were also thinking of heading off to Antelope Valley like me. I said good luck and in half an hour reached the state route 58 highway. I sped east over the modest Temblor Range then down the much greener blue oak grassland slopes on its east side towards the modest oil community of McKittrick. Reaching state highway 33, I turned south and drove the few miles to the larger city of Taft within this intensely developed oil-producing district. In fact the US Naval Petroleum Reserve dominates the area. In Taft I got food supplies in a supermarket, slowly filled my 5-gallon water container from a city park water fountain, and filled up the gas tank again. Now well into the evening, I continued south onto Interstate 5, up the famous Grapevine passing beside an army of so so slow 18-wheelers to 4200 foot Tejon Pass atop the Tehachipi Mountains, and over the south side to the tiny way stop of Gorman. Gorman is a place I know well as its wonderful spring wildflower hills are seen yearly by millions of highway travelers. And for me Easter Eve of April 19, 2003 in the Gorman Hills will always be remembered as the most fantastic day among mind boggling wildflowers I will likely ever experience in my lifetime. There I left a phone message with a working friend back in the SF Bay Area that the journey south to Carrizo would be worthwhile if he decided to take vacation time to visit so. Passing the dark hills I wondered what they looked like in the daytime? Within an hour I'd reached some obscure BLM lands near the state poppy reserve in Antelope Valley and parked for overnighting. The area was a joshua tree woodland with browning goldfields covering the ground below.
One task I had to endure before retiring was a quick cool bottle shower. That done and very tired after a long exhausting day, I was quickly asleep about 11pm. Waking an hour later, I noticed noises seeming to come from beneath my Subaru hood. Hmmm??? Might be a pack rat? I rocked the car back and forth but that didn't seem to deter the critter. Too weary to get dressed and open the hood, I squeezed back into my drivers seat, started the engine and drove 100 feet down the dirt road. After stopping all was quiet so went back to sleep. Well about 4am I awoke again and heard the same rustling about my engine. Since it didn't sound like the critter was gnawing on my wiring I decided to wait till dawn before confronting the wild beast. As sunrise approached with the echoing sounds of increasing 18-wheelers in the cool dawn distance, I began organizing my gear once again, put on my headlamp, and then opened the engine hood. Aha...neotoma lepida! You fat little thing, aka a desert wood rat scurried underneath the plastic air filter covering. All over the engine were filaree and goldfield cuttings she had carried up and laid down. This was too good a photo op! So I laid down the hood again knowing the stubborn rat would likely return to her busy nest building as I spent a few more minutes organizing gear. Back at my hood, I flipped it up and snapped a quick flash shot at the startled little rodent. She disappeared below as I quickly tossed out her nest materials. Starting the engine back up, I hope she took a hint and dropped down to the ground. I drove down the road briefly then stopped giving her a second chance to leave if she had not already done so.
Back on the paved roads, I made a sunrise road tour this morning of Thursday April 20 about the perimeter of the Antelope Valley State Poppy Reserve. Reports had been that wildflower conditions were poor and what I saw in familiar areas quickly confirmed that. So without wasting time, I drove west on highway 138 then north on Avenue 190 into the sandy dirt road labyrinth on the north side of the west end of Antelope Valley where photographers had been visiting during the preceding couple weeks and reporting conditions on Internet sites. I could see square miles of orange fields in the distance and was soon happily passing through them within an area I had not visited before during past springs. I noticed the goldfields were already passed peak as I had worried about but hoped to find some workable locations. Since it was still early morning, poppies had not yet opened up.
California poppies, eschscholtzia californica, are fickle wildflowers that open up each day no earlier than about 9am then are quick to close up again about 3pm. In other words, well after sunrise and well before sunset. On days with clouds or cool wind they often stay closed all day. With time to burn, I drove up out of the orange plains on a rutted dirt road into the joshua tree creosote bush woodland above. Therein I quickly noticed pretty light purple hued thistle sage, salvia carduacea, were scattered in clumps all about while the ubiquitous goldfields covered the ground below. And given shade and protection from desiccating winds by the joshuas and creosotes, goldfields were generally a fresher brighter yellow. However one would never find a poppy up there, a curious mystery? Nice area to camp at was my first reaction. I got out, grabbed my Coolpix 7900 with Benbo tripod, and wandered off taking numerous images of joshuas and wildflowers. There were also areas of chia, salvia columbariae, sand verbena, abronia villosa, and a number of other common wildflowers one finds in Antelope Valley.
As 9am approached, I returned to my car then drove down the dirt road into the orange wonderland below. Within a mile of slow creeping beside the deserted road, I'd found an interesting area with desert dandelion, malacothrix glabrata, among dense poppy clusters. It was now 9am and indeed poppies were 75% opened up causing the plains to appear far more orange than I'd seen earlier at 7:30am. A slight intermittent breeze promised reasonable shooting conditions in this more often very windy valley. A blanket of high clouds had moved into the background skies and unfortunately jets passing through the atmosphere were leaving jet contrails, a serious bane of the landscape photographer. Many times those jet trails ruin a photographer's morning in otherwise fine conditions. One just has to wait till high elevation winds blow the contrails out of one's frame or better, atmospheric conditions cause rapid evaporation to invisibility. Despite the contrails, I exposed one sheet on an otherwise fine shot that later after development I would regret wasting the film on. I'm not one to doctor images in Photoshop to remove such ugliness from my shots anymore than an offending tree branch, as it is the top of a slippery slope I draw my line at. Read about David's Style & Philosophy.
Exploring further from the road, I came upon a spot where flowers grew up aesthetically within a rarely used dirt road that I should have taken my view camera out for but for the contrails. Such a disappointment! I took a quick Coolpix shot at right. Eyeing an area of poppies and joshua trees half a mile away, decided to hike that way instead. That effort of an hour proved to be worthless. I did expose another sheet that had a couple joshua trees behind some poppies, but it later turned out to be surprisingly flat and uninteresting. Back near the car with the jet contrails gone but breezes increasing, I made a third image that later turned out to be quite fine. (4x5 image #8 below) During the morning, a few other photographers and wildflower seekers had begun creeping along the poppy dirt roadways. A few long haired Christians wandered away from a bus with colorfully painted Jesus slogans, reveling in the expanse of orange wonder.
About noon, I stopped at a location where a group of isolated creosote bushes rose in a dense area of poppies and goldfields. Another photographer 100 yards away was setup up with a long lens on a digital SLR pointing towards some distant eastward hills. On the west shaded lee side of the bushes, goldfields were noticeably fresher yellow than others on the nearby plain. For about 10 minutes I moved about trying to size up the best spot for a 90mm lens foreground with the bushes at middle ground about 25 feet distant. I tend to be a patient perfectionist about getting the best foreground aesthetics and geometry in compositions. Finally decided on a spot and tripod height that allowed views of the orange plains behind through the bush branches at mid height. This was possible because of a gentle upward rise in the plain eastward. Something about the foreground pattern of poppies and goldfields seemed to cause my eye's visual focus to swirl about. Very nice indeed! A white SUV was parked along a road in the distance, so I adjusted my camera position slightly in order for some of the creosote branches to block its view. Despite the nearly constant breezes, as soon as I'd set up for the shot and shoved in the film holder, a fortuitous moment of calm occurred so I immediately took the shot. Wow! Considering how breezy it was getting that was really lucky. (4x5 image #2 below) The other photographer, Bryan, came by and I let him look into my ground glass before breaking it down to end my morning session. Bryan and I recognized our posting Internet webnames on the usual photo sites. We exchanged business cards and discussed what each other had seen on our road trips.
Thursday was turning into the warmest day of the week with temperatures midday into the low 80s. I drove east back up into the joshua tree creosote bush woodland I'd explored early morning. The whole time I was there just one vehicle ventured by. It would be a good opportunity to slow down and take care of several minor chores besides eating lunch. I found a shady goldfield covered spot below a joshua tree, laid down my blue plastic ground sheet, and brought out food, drink, books, and maps. But before snoozing in the shade, it was time for another bottle shower. I have a 64-ounce collapsible plastic juice bottle with holes poked into the lid that does a nice job self-showering. Turned upside down, little water drops out unless the bottle is squeezed. In the warm sunlight, I enjoyed the shower in this vast lonely area in contrast to my chilly shower near midnight the night before. Laying down in the shade, I napped a bit, then slowly over a couple hours ate lunch and perused some maps while wondering what to do next.
Conditions were past peak here in Antelope Valley and finding more worthwhile subjects would be difficult. I'd done the dirt road tour. Thus I decided to do a short afternoon session and drive back north to Carrizo. I had wanted to try to get a shot of joshua trees and a close-up of wildflowers therein so explored about then setup for a couple marginal shots that later came back mediocre. Out in the poppies with breezes even stronger than at noon, I walked about an hour, that only proved I was right about conditions not being workable given the browning goldfields. Weather forecasts were for a low-pressure trough to move down the California coast Friday afternoon, so there wasn't much need to prolong my trip south beyond Friday morning. Thus with some regret, my sedan soon left the dusty lonely dirt backroads of Antelope Valley and sped down the highway back towards Carrizo Plain where I ended up some time later in the evening. Despite the considerable extra pricy gas burned to visit Antelope Valley, I did end up with a couple fine images and explored some new areas I had not known about in the past.
As dawn broke Friday morning April 21, I rose from an obscure dirt road off 7 Mile Road, and then drove southeast to the Simmler Road area I worked earlier in the week. This day I'd decided to work areas I'd explored in past years. About 9am out in the wildflowers again, I exposed three sheets on the swales south of Old Potato Lake where quite a bit of Bigelow's coreopsis had suddenly broken out of the buds I'd seen just a couple days before. One of the images given some fine clouds to the northeast became the best image of the trip. (4x5 image #3 below) Across the flat plain, the patterns of clouds amid a beautiful cyan blue sky complemented the patterns of receding flowers in a way that made them wonderfully gloried in the light. I marveled at what a terrific way to end this fantastic week! By late morning more clouds had moved in so I left Carrizo Plain and drove back west on highway 58 to Shell Creek. Quite a few people were visiting those roadsides. Given the increasing clouds, I stopped just briefly to rest a bit before starting my long 175 mile drive north back home. On the way my Subaru passed into the cold front as a bit of wind and rain made mud on my quite dusty vehicle. By late afternoon I was back home in the SF Bay Area after five days out on the road. Over the five weekdays, I'd exposed 44 sheets of 4x5 film and taken about 275 digital images....David Senesac