Dawn Squalls at Frog Lake

Dawn Squalls at Frog Lake

After endless days of blue skies, it looks like there is a change in the forecast. A generally dry cold front will roll through early Sunday morning, bringing strong winds and, more importantly, mid-level clouds and a slight chance of precipitation in the Sierra. After a couple unsuccessful, but fun, photo excursions among the fall colors of Hope Valley, I had to take advantage of the change in weather, getting up high to experience the brief storm.

So, I am on the road, heading up Highway 88 to Carson Pass, in the dark of Sunday morning. Frog Lake, on the Pacific Crest Trail, south of the highway trailhead, is an easy hike and, having been there scouting and photographing previously, it is a nice place to visit on short notice as conditions warrant. Ledges northeast of the small tarn overlook the length of Hope Valley and peer southward from Mokelumne Wilderness into the crags of Carson-Iceberg Wilderness; wide open compositions abound.

It was 20°F when I parked my rig at the trailhead. Wind gusts whipped at the doors as I reached for my pack and tripod, there was one car in the parking area. I dropped into the dark forest, enjoying the little adrenaline rush of a dark mountain trail seen only from the tunnel-like beam of a headlamp—waiting for the reflected eyes of critters, small and large, that watch my passage, as the limbs of the tallest trees shudder and crack in the wind. I cover my headlamp at intervals to soak in the darkness and watch the clouds moving with promise against the stars. Soon I am at Frog Lake, the dark water riffling in the wind. I am now exposed on the tarn’s shore as I move to the ledges above its northern margins. It is here that ancient glaciers scoured the rocks before dropping into Hope Valley far below. Today, the north wind scours the ledges in the opposite direction, blowing a squall’s few snow flurries through the cone of my headlamp, hints of snow’s hopeful return to the mountains.

As the light glows the clouds form overlapping bands extending to the eastern horizon. A lower cloudbank rolls over Freel Peak and Jobs Sister at the north end of Hope Valley. This is what I came for. And yet, the mid-level clouds are the bane of sunrise light; they block the horizon and flatten the view. Without illumination, the distant rolling cloud is almost invisible against the intersection of mountain and sky. In my mild disappointment, I realize my hands are painfully cold. I need to acclimatize or succumb to the endless need for handwarmers. I have some fancy gloves and liners, but something is not working.

Markleeville Peak at Sunrise. I did not plan a panorama in the field, but after reviewing images captured of slightly different compositions, I stitched this two-image panorama together to capture dawn’s window at Markleeville Peak. 0.5 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 5Div, 100-400mm (100mm).

As I turn from the northward view, smiling at the pain in my hands—it is the feeling of mountain winter, I notice that the sunrise is aligned with a gap in the clouds much further southeast than I expected. I climb a few stepped ledges and tuck into a gap between boulders, out of the wind, sort of.

The images of the red dawn were a challenge as my hands lost feeling. I want to focus on the image and enjoy its capture, but the wind at my hands, and whipping at my jacket and hood, reminds me that I am exposed at elevation, experiencing firsthand the change of weather. The images become secondary.

Misty mountains. This image, from the windswept ledges of Frog Lake, reminds us that winter is coming. 1 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 5Div, 100-400mm (255mm).

I am, however, happy with their capture. The images reveal the dark morning squalls and the brief glow of a red sunrise. The sun was masked by the mid-level clouds but there was enough gap to alter the scene for a moment. I could see that this would be a moody image with a “Mordor” drama on the horizon. These scenes were not my first idea walking into Frog Lake, but I enjoyed watching the sky develop, once I was looking in the right direction.

I look forward to getting to know the Frog Lake ledges in all conditions. Let’s move toward winter here.

Recon at Carson Pass, CA

Recon at Carson Pass, CA

Reflections and fractures. A focus-stacked image looking north across Frog Lake, Carson Pass, CA. 1/80 sec, f/9, ISO 100, 24mm.

The smoke had cleared a bit at StoneHeart, so it was time to see how things were at the altitude of Carson Pass. I did not expect a compelling golden-hour sky this morning, but I have been wanting a spot that would provide some scenic backdrops, with relatively quick access from home. A place I could get to know and then hike into quickly when conditions present themselves. Frog Lake, less than a half-mile south of the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead at Carson Lake, is a good candidate. I was out the door at 4:30 AM for the hour drive and even shorter hike.

Access to the Winnemucca Lake trail, traversing below Round Top Mountain, is very easy. The trail was quiet and the light was growing. A few clouds beyond the smoke made for a pretty sunrise, but the lake was my focus. I circumnavigated the small, mirror-like pool. Frog Lake is perfect. I now have a location for any dramatic storm days or seductive sunsets. There are expansive scenes to the north — Hope Valley to Freel Peak, and south — Round Top and its eastern ridge. Frog Lake could be a prominent mirror or frothy foreground. I can’t wait to give it a chance.

But I can’t walk away without a couple images. I focused on developing some foreground interest with the lake reflecting some of the sparse pines and snags at the lake margin and found a textured boulder with some prominent contrasting fractures. This provided some subtle leading lines and patterns against the stillness of the lake and loneliness of the haggard trees. Today’s images are focus-stacked and blended in Photoshop to emphasize the foreground texture.

Fractured snag. The tree is not only reflected in the water, the foreground boulder mirrors the pine. I used the same boulder as foreground in both images, but I found the change in perspective produced a very different foreground weight. This image is focus-stacked and I have removed some distracting, bright-white bird-stains from the rock. 1/100 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 5DmIV, 17-40 mm f/4L.

I look forward to returning to the possibilities and easy-access of Frog Lake. The access this morning was so simple that I was soon fly-fishing along the West Fork of the Carson River in Hope Valley below the pass. A nice combo for the morning.

Link here for Full Image Gallery

Morning Tarn near Carson Pass, CA

Morning Tarn near Carson Pass, CA

Round Top (10,381′). I enjoy this peak above Carson Pass. Good summit trail. Captured this image after sunrise on my hike out. 1/50 sec, f/9, ISO 100; Canon 6D, 100-400mm (118mm, cropped).

Up at 4AM and out the door by 4:30, headed for Carson Pass and a short pre-dawn hike to the tarn at Carson Gap. Again, the access to the pass and its surroundings is so easy and relatively quick — still pretty quiet in the early hours of the last day of the Labor Day weekend. The trailhead has more overnight cars than I saw as I started my trail run over Carson Pass to Meiss Meadows on Saturday morning, but there are still plenty of spaces just before 5:30. I sign in, grab the pack and headlamp, and start up the trail.

Always mildly spooky at the get-go, but soon I settle in to the quiet and slowly growing light. It’s only about a half-hour hike to the pass. I make a couple video recordings to get some sounds and check the light (the video results are ok, but the audio is, as expected, mostly terrible). Ok, if I’m talking right into the camera but otherwise useless. I am probably not cut out for vlogging.

It was on Saturday’s run over the pass that I first encountered the small tarn and its reflecting views of Round Top beyond the pass to the south. The setting is perfect of some compositions of Round Top, a peak I have climbed several times, and I am sure astrophotography from the tarn would be special.


Carson Gap tarn. I waited for sunrise under a practically cloudless sky. Enjoyable for recon along the PCT south of Carson Pass. 1.8 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 6D, 17-40mm (40mm).

This morning, the Monday of Labor Day, I was half-afraid I would find someone camped at the pond, but, as I crest the pass, coming immediately upon the tarn, I see I easily have it all to myself. Perfect, but for a rather uninteresting sky. Seems to be some low clouds to the east, out of sight but muting the sunrise so not much hitting Round Top. Nonetheless, there is a brief moment of goodness and I bracket some shots (2 stops around center). I position myself on on the north side of the pond to get some rushes in foreground and a slight mirror of the distant and striking Round Top. As the sun continues to rise, though still not in view, I get several more bracketed exposures, but the last image of Round Top appears to be the best, at least from the jpeg on the back of the camera.  I try another position further west to capture a few more clouds and reflections of Elephant Back.

Tarn and Elephant Back. It was worth a try. 1/8 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 6D, 17-40mm (40mm, cropped).

I notice, as I am packing up to leave, a trail leading up the long ridge west of the tarn of Little Round Top, a minor but prominent highpoint northwest of Carson Pass. The unmarked trail diverges from the PCT in the brush along the south side of the tarn and heads upward to the northwest. It is worthy of a run soon, and I find a few good bivy spots. I will be sure to get back up here for a night of astrophotography.

I head back down to the trailhead carrying the camera with the 70-200mm telephoto, hoping for some wildlife. I left the tripod attached thinking that might be useful — really just a hindrance.  Although there are some cute birds twittering around, I am way too close to the trailhead for anything of interest. On the other hand, it is a very nice walk out.  I am back to the trailhead by 8AM and home by 9. Nice.