Lori Carey Photography

Monday, July 31, 2017

Hunting Arches In The Alabama Hills

Moon, Mt. Whitney, scaly rock formation and tiny unknown arch in the Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierra, California

I am probably the only landscape photographer who has visited the Alabama Hills in the Eastern Sierra region of California without even once taking a photograph of Mobius or Lathe Arches. Google either one of them and you'll find thousands of photos, most of which look pretty much the same...."Stand here, put your tripod there, and shoot that.". Those two arches are easily accessible. The BLM put in a parking lot and a sign pointing the way to the well worn trail head. There are typically dozens of cars there at any given time of day. Even sadder is that most of the photographers mistake Lone Pine Peak for Mt. Whitney. It's an easy mistake to make if you don't do your research. From this spot, Lone Pine Peak dominates the landscape and looks much higher than Mt. Whitney, so everyone just assumes that it is Mt. Whitney. (HINT: That is Lone Pine Peak in the photo at the top of this post.)

I supposed I'm spoiled because I don't usually have to deal with other people when I'm out on the trail. I find that standing elbow-to-elbow, jockeying for position, and waiting for the selfie crowd to get out of the frame so everyone can shoot substantially the same image is more than I have the patience to deal with. It's even worse trying to photograph a popular location at night because someone will undoubtedly want to do some light painting with no concern for everyone else, or someone will hike up with a flashlight turned on, ruining the long exposure star trail shot you've patiently been waiting on.

I don't see the fun in that. I think that other photographers do it because a) they want to have the iconic shot in their portfolio, even if everyone else has the exact same shot, and/or b) the shot is a proven formula, guaranteed to get lots of "likes" as long as you at least halfway know what you're doing (and even if you don't know what mountain peak you are seeing).

I became fascinated with locating the lesser known arches after finding a hand drawn map several years ago that showed the general location of many arches and other points of interest. The man who drew the (not to scale) map had located hundreds of arches in the Alabama Hills area. Unfortunately the map only covers a portion of the area. While many of the arches are given names, others are only identified with a number.

Three Brothers rock formation, Alabama Hills

It's the same map I used to find the petroglyphs on the Three Brothers rock formation. To this day I haven't found any other mention of the petroglyphs on the Three Brothers, so I always make sure to bring the map with me any time I visit Alabama Hills, and my trips have become a game of of seeing what other surprises I can find.

My travels on my most recent trip took me beyond the area covered by the map and I found several arches that I haven't been able to identify. One is the small arch in the photo at the top of this post. I spotted that arch while hiking around somewhere between Cyclops Arch and Boot Arch.

Cyclops and Boot aren't hard to find. There is a small parking area for each, but there are no signs pointing the way like there is for Mobius and Lathe, so fewer people find their way to them. I actually found the Cyclops Double Arch by chance. I was doing some scouting around our camp when I spotted the large arch off in the distance. I attempted to see if I could drive closer, but the trail only took me further away. When we got back to camp, I grabbed my camera and set out to find the large arch.

Cyclops Arch, aka Double Arch, Alabama Hills

If you want to shoot Mt. Whitney, Lone Pine Peak, or any of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range through the arches, you need to shoot in the morning. The mountain range is to the west, and by late afternoon you are shooting directly into the sun.

As I got closer, I realized the arch was very different than it appeared from farther away. It was a massive double arch, several stories high. Shooting in the afternoon allowed me to capture the unique shape of the arch and understand why it was called the Cyclops Arch.

Cyclops Double Arch in black and white, Alabama Hills, California

I considered shooting the arch that night in the moonlight, but the moon and the Milky Way rose in the exact same spot at almost the exact same time, and the moon was behind the arch, so it was wasn't worth making the hike. I made a return trip the next morning to get the traditional shot of the mountains through the arch. Sunrise was bland and boring, but there was still a tiny moon setting in the sky and I hoped to include the moon in my composition. I had to scramble up some boulders in order to frame the mountains through the arch.

Mt. Whitney through Cyclops Double Arch, Alabama Hills

The moon was closer to Lone Pine Peak and I couldn't get the angle. I instead chose to frame Mt. Whitney in the arch (the rather un-dramatic high peak is Mt. Whitney, and you can see why many photographers mistakenly photograph the more dramatic Lone Pine Peak, believing it is Mt. Whitney. It's a trick of perspective from this location.).

I was glad to be wearing good boots with sticky soles. After I finished shooting, it took me several minutes to figure out how to get back down the rocks I had climbed while holding a camera in one hand. I spotted Boot Arch off in the distance and started making my way over. I found the tiny unknown arch in the top photo while wandering toward Boot Arch.

Boot Arch

Boot Arch is named for the shape of the arch, the hole in the rock. Many people see a horse head in the shape of the rock itself. Once again I found myself scrambling for a position that would get me high enough to shoot the Sierra mountains through the arch, this time with Lone Pine Peak and the setting moon.

Boot Arch, Lone Pine Peak and the setting moon, Alabama Hills

Those were the only two new (to me) arches I was able to identify on this trip. While driving along the dirt roads and trails gathering material for some DrivingLine articles, I found several more large arches and a few tiny ones. There isn't much information available on line about the arches of Alabama Hills, and after several hours of researching I've thrown my hands up trying to identifying of them.

I found this arch overlooking Owens Valley when I followed a hiking path up in the hills. It wasn't far from where we had camped on our previous visit.

Unknown arch overlooking Owens Valley, Alabama Hills

I might be able to identify this one if I had photographed it from the other side. I thought possibly it was Fat Slob Arch, but it doesn't match up completely to the photos I've been able to find.

Unknown arch, Alabama Hills

Then there's the tiny arch in the photo at the top of the post, and several more almost-arches or very small arches whose photos aren't worth posting here. Shooting trails for DrivingLine usually means shooting under the desert midday sun, very challenging conditions and not exactly my favorite time to shoot. I've learned to consider it as scouting trips for "real" photography in the future instead of letting it frustrate me.

The Alabama Hills trails I covered for DrivingLine are suitable for any SUV, so if you want to escape the crowds of boondockers at Alabama Hills check out my two DrivingLine articles on Alabama Hills. You can get directions to where I found these arches and discover a few of my favorite "secret" camp locations, although they're not much of a secret now that I've published them and I have only myself to blame if I find someone there next time I visit.

The Other Alabama: Alabama Hills in the Eastern Sierra

Exploring Unmarked Trails in the Alabama Hills
That's not the original title I gave this article but my editor changed it. ;)

In closing, this is Morning Moon Over Lone Pine Peak (NOT Mt. Whitney!). After a boring sunrise, I was glad to have something unique to add to the composition.

Morning Moon Over Lone Pine Peak, Alabama Hills

Prints are available in the Gallery.

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