The lands east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains are a special place. For one thing, if you've come from the west side of those mountains, the all-out scrubby-desert lands that greet you on the eastern side are startlingly different! The Great Basin Desert of the U.S. laps against the eastern Sierras, at their central and northern foothills, and the Mohave Desert meets their southern flanks. This post has some of the sketches/notes from my travel journal, taken during a trip there a few months ago, October 2017. (Read more about the mediocre paper in this journal in the previous post :)
On the very first day, while crossing the higher reaches of the mountains on a narrow, winding road, I came around a bend just at the moment a brown bear cub dashed across (safely!):
I pulled off the road to see if another cub or a mama bear would follow, but no. Instead, there were other treasures in the forest right there, including a White-headed Woodpecker--my first sighting ever!
In the fall season, the Sierras are zig-zagged by yellow ribbons: the golden leaves of aspen trees that line streams and rivers where they course down the mountains and through the foothills. People come from afar to view them, just like they do for "leaf season" in the northeastern U.S.
Common plants east of the high peaks suddenly greet you with their distinctive aromas and textures, like Rabbitbrush blooming golden in October. You won't find most of these plants on the western side of the Sierras.
The Visitor Center at Mono Lake, just outside the teeny town of Lee Vining, teaches about them in its outdoor "garden" which birds enjoy as well:
Every time I visit the eastern Sierras, I try to recall which plants are which. Drawing them and writing descriptions helps. Messy handwriting, however, does not help! But these notes usually are written while standing along a trail, holding too many things at once.
"Bundles of sticks" would describe many of the shrubs that populate these lands, especially during fall and winter seasons when flowers, and sometimes leaves too, are gone for a time.
The silence (except for wind!!) of these wide lands suggests no animals are around in the daytime. But they are...
Further south, Great Basin Desert melds into Mojave. "Bundles of sticks" continue to populate the desert, but also--surprise!--several plants besides Rabbitbrush are in flower (if you look carefully). Buckwheat-family plants are especially conspicuous, their geometric arrays of wiry stems dotted with puffs of delicate flowers in yellow, white, russet-red...
Highway 395 runs north-south along the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, coursing over rolling high plateaus whose 4,000-6,000-foot elevation is low compared to majestic mountain ranges that rise above in all directions. It's unbelievable how many different groups of mountains transect the landscape in addition to the Sierras! (It's also unbelievable that anybody was able to cross them in covered wagons.) Amazingly, thanks to a car and pavement, I can drive here in a day, and enjoy the view of White Mountains shown below in a painting made on an earlier trip while, literally, soaking in an outdoor pool at Benton Hot Springs. Heaven!
The White Mountains are home to some of the oldest trees on earth: Bristlecone Pines. The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is reached by a winding, narrow road east of the town of Big Pine. I have often said "I must go there some day." This trip, I did. Here is the view from a trail near the top of the White Mountains, looking east:
What a stunning, odd, moving experience to see this unique forest, home to deeply charismatic tree individuals, many of whom are more than a thousand years old!
At the visitor center (closed for the season), chipmunks and ground squirrels rush up to you, hoping for treats, which obviously people cannot resist offering... I have never seen such rotund rodents! I walked some miles from the visitor center along a steep trail at elevations of 10,000-11,000 feet, which few people did, so there was silence, peace, stunning views, raucous flocks of Clark's Nutcrackers harvesting pine nuts from the treetops, plus other high-elevation critters.
The final stop on the trip was Lone Pine Campground, which turned out to be a great place to watch birds and make notes of campsite "neighbors":
The most popular hiking trail towards Mt. Whitney--the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states--and into the John Muir Wilderness begins at "Whitney Portal" a few miles up the road from Lone Pine campground.
Whitney Portal trail begins at about 8,000 feet elevation, then immediately goes up up up, and then there is a small flat area and little Lone Pine Lake, then it goes up up up ... you get the idea. I spent four hours enjoying nature along the trail--and only made it about 3 miles in!
In some areas I met tremendous Foxtail Pine trees, and beautiful, shy, non-native Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis):
... and enjoyed the company of other critters and indulged in more tree studying.
The next day began the trip home... after first sipping a latte at the charismatic Lone Star Bistro and finishing up journal notes and, as usual, wanting to explore for longer. Someday, another trip!