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2017 Trip Chronicles: Contents
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest 6/26
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest 6/27
Little Lakes Valley 6/28
Little Lakes Valley Backpack 6/29
A few days after returning from the Styx Pass backpack, SR108 across Sonora Pass opened so I decided to fit in a short trip to the Eastern Sierra with only vague plans of where I might work. Thus on Monday morning June 26 drove out over the pass, down to US395, then south viewing familiar areas. The forecast was for windy conditions on this day, to wane some Tuesday, with lighter breezes the rest of the week. My first stop was about Mono Craters on the Bald Mountain Road where I noted wildflowers were mediocre compared to past years so continued south past Mammoth all the way to Bishop. News that the Rock Creek Road to Mosquito Flat had just opened with an image on a web board showing Long Lake melting out interested me as there are superb views of the big peaks above that basin. But I would save any visits there till forecast breezes quieted since lake reflections would be of interest.
Instead this Monday June 26, I would drive up to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest reserve in the White Mountains, part of Inyo National Forest. In Bishop, I stopped in at the White Mountain Ranger Station and asked questions about current policy in the reserve. By 4pm I had reached the new Schulman Grove Visitor Center and was pleased to see the new building built after the arson destruction a few years ago is larger with more exhibits. The personnel related the Patriarch Grove Road was blocked by snow just beyond the Barcroft Road intersection while the latter was blocked a bit further up that road above the grove. Decades long policy is that one cannot park or overnight within the reserve boundaries. However given the road snow blockage, they were allowing parking at the latter road end provided a note was put on a dash indicating occupants were backpacking out beyond the reserve boundary, another 1.5 miles up the road at the 11,860 foot elevation.
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I have visited the reserve several times over the years and put in several miles of off trail rambling looking for aesthetic trees and subjects. However the reserve is enormous so there are vast areas I have not explored. On this trip there were a couple zones I had optimistically analyzed on the topo that I hoped to explore. The paved road from SR168 ends at the visitor center that was about 350 miles of driving for me this day. From there at 10060 feet, it is 11 miles to the Patriarch Grove on a dusty flat hard surface dirt road with much embedded protruding small sized angular metamorphic rock. To drive this road one does not need a 4WD or high wheel base vehicle but rather good tires and a vehicle that can survive the severe rattling and shaking that occurs driving it even at slow speeds of 5 to 15 mph. The possibility of getting stuck somewhere along the road due to a tire rupture or worse mechanical breakage from shaking is very real and such would require walking all the way back to the visitor center phone to contact a very expensive auto tow from Big Pine.
I drove out north on the road and was immediately aware why I hated and was afraid of the road so much, even as I kept my speed low. A couple miles along, parked, grabbed my photo gear, and set out up a hill to areas others rarely visit. There are vast areas of the reserve only a few dendrochronologists have explored as visitors rarely venture far beyond roadsides or the two noted grove trails. Thus there is much for an adventurous photographer looking for unique subjects to find. Reflecting that nonsense is the majority of publicly shown images of bristlecone pines are of just a couple of well known trees.
Well my loop went for a couple miles with a few hundred feet of vertical in the thin air, and I took my camera out for a single modest subject. Thus another unproductive area scratched off my list. The main problem with the area was the same situation with much of this high altitude forest, is that aesthetic tree subjects only really work if one can isolate them within their forest surroundings. And trees about most of the forest are simply too close together. Thus I look for trees on ridge lines, outcrops, and exposed areas where wind forms trees into severe shapes and where one might isolate trees up against the sky. Or I explore the highest elevations the species can survive at where they are more sparse. Another factor is the majority of bristlecone pines grow on dolomite rock, that is old metamorphosized limestone. For decades besides USGS topographic maps, I have used geological maps to understand landscapes and in terms of knowing where bristlecone pine species grows, it is of great value. Most of these trees are on ancient Reed and Poleta Formation dolomite or to a lesser extent, the Campito Formation dark shales. Trees on the bright white dolomite stand out best. The Patriarch Grove is at the species highest elevations with few trees above about 11500 feet. That zone is ideal for photographers because it is all dolomite, at the species elevation limit thus sparse, and very wind prone especially during winter storms. The following link is a good source of online geological maps for the southeast Sierra Nevada and White Mountain region:
It was soon nearing 8pm sunset so I drove to an unfamiliar near zone the topo orientation indicated late sunlight would occur then rambled about quickly trying to find a subject. The windy conditions and somewhat dirty atmosphere to the west due to the windy conditions did not motivate me to put in much effort. I was again unable to find a worthwhile subject as trees were not isolated. I then drove a short distance to the microwave radio towers that is just outside the reserve boundary where I parked behind a large bristlecone offering some wind protection and set up to sleep inside the bed of my Forester. Although there were scattered snow fields about along the road, there was just a single spot I would find the next morning where running water was available due to the very porous nature of the geology. During the evening looked at maps preparing a Tuesday morning plan and then had an uneventful night of sleep. Online topo map of Bristlecone Pine Reserve at radio towers: mapper.acme.com
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Tuesday June 27 awoke at early dawn in order to locate a tree with unblocked sunrise light. It was chilly, just above freezing and the wind had become light. I drove a couple miles north to where the awful road climbs on the ridge to a hill, then parked. An exceptional living tree was in a perfect position to capture soltice early sunrise light on its bright white bare branches from a tripod position just below at the sketchy brink of a small cliff where I could image the tree up in the sky. I began to recognize that I had worked this same tree in the past and also that it is one in Galen Rowel's Mountain Light book. Dozens of miles to the east a glow began rising on the ridge line of a distant range in Nevada. After some puttering about looking at the area, I then recalled I had explored down the hill and found other very worthwhile trees as it has some of the most impressive trees in the reserve. It was time to set up for the shot so set up a stable tripod position and with my Sigma 30mm lens already on the A6000 body, found the tree filled just half the frame and worse the foreground was sure to show my on axis cast shadow. One needs to be on the sun axis in order to capture the most saturated warm color. Thus switched to my Sigma 60mm and noted that was about right except it would need to be a 2 column 1 row stitch using my Nodal Ninja 3 MKII panoramic head in order to just barely capture the full width of the squarish frame subject.
As the sun began shining on the tree, I annoyed myself by muffing the first couple shots on this tight frame by being just a bit too far left that caused the right branches to be clipped out of the frame so started again. Five quick focus stack shots on the left frame and another 4 on the right created the above result. The hue and saturation closely matches what I experienced, not as red as on an exceptionally clear day, thus somewhat reddish orange, and nonetheless bright at the 10k plus thin air altitude. I could image Galen at this location years before with a wider angle lens on his 35mm SLR Nikon camera with Velvia film exposing a single frame. Select the enlarged vertical slice view to see the excellent resolution captured. The form of the tree is similar to some others that give the vague appearance of an alien creature rider carrying children riding on the saddle of some beast with a bushy tail behind. I have a couple 4x5 view camera film images from a 2006 backpack outside the reserve in the White Mountains in my Gallery_B with similar forms of whimsical creatures riding on the back of beasts:
Riding the Beast
Riding the Dinosaur
Note the reptilian tail in the foreground.
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Instead of continuing on quickly to the Patriarch Grove, another 6 miles north, I decided to work a few more trees first. The image below page top at right shows a more intimate shot of an aesthetic trunk base with its characteristic golden brown barkless highly resistant wood surface. This stretch of the road for a few miles is right atop the ridge of the White Mountains offering perfect views west towards the full length of the Southern Sierra Nevada Range.
Thus with my Sony telephoto SEL55210 Zoom lens set to 159mm, captured the above extra wide 9 column single row stitch 20000 pixel wide panorama between Mt Sill and Basin Mtn. The downsized web image above is however far too small to be able to recognize much. Thus below have included two annotated crops to help peak identification plus 3 annotated 67% downsized crops that shows near real detail. Note the long distance of atmosphere filters out longer sunlight wavelengths via Rayleigh scattering that adds a bluish cast. Also resolution clarity is reduced, softening the image. I thus reduced the original size about 23% from its original 25800 pixel width. At these near 10,000 foot atmospheric heights, on the dry lee side of the Sierra Nevada on this above average clarity morning at about 7:20am PDT, the air is however much clearer than at sea level over these 30 mile distances. The image also preserves for future reference how much snow still covered the east side of the range at the end of June after an exceptionally snowy winter.
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To capture Sierra Nevada areas north of the previous panorama between Bear Creek Spire and Dunderberg Peak, widened the zoom to 109mm to capture this 8 column 20400 pixel wide image above. Below are a couple annotated 67% downsized crops that shows near real detail. At frame left, Bear Creek Spire is about 33 miles distant while about 60% to the right, Mt Ritter is 58 miles. Note the increasing Rayleigh scattering blue cast. At the far right, Dunderberg Peak is about 74 miles. Can you see the fisherman in that boat out in Lake Crowley lifting up a 23 inch rainbow trout?
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Exploring about I found an interesting situation with a toppled bristlecone with its root stump parallel to the Sierra Nevada including a window through its woody roots. Thus I first lined up Mt Tom to fit in the window and then the above image with Mt Humphreys. Want to see Humphreys better through the root window? Well select the enlarged vertical slice view. The wonders of this focus stacking era.
After all the above time about the Campito Formation Cambrian shales, I wondered if I had enough time to drive the 5 additional miles north to the Patriarch Grove then set up some shots before landscapes became too harsh. A significant issue this early in summer was all the snow in frames as the sun rises higher would quickly strain exposure dynamic range. On my drive north I impatiently pushed my Subaru speed a bit more while it noisily rattled about on the tortuous road. By about 8:30am arrived then parked in front of a large lens of snow blocking the final 8/10 mile of road to the Patriarch Tree parking lot. Without wasting time hiked up a barren slope of dolomite stones to a tree I call "The Thing" after the alien life form in John Carpenter's 1982 most excellent scifi movie starring Kurt Russell. In the background of this 5 wide 30mm lens stitch was the south end of the grove. See the marquee image at page top, QZ00003-00028-3x1v. At page right is a crop from this image of the snow patch blocking the Barcroft Road. And that is someone's SUV parked in front.
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After that quickly pounded down the hill across the wide snow field, then laboriously climbed up about 300 feet to a tree I consider the grove Wind Monarch in the above large image. I've unsatisfyingly worked the subject a few times in the past with my 4x5 view camera and again was not satisfied with the above either as I need to make a visit at a different time of year for better lighting. In any case part of the subject's issue are trees behind reduce isolation. The older dead snag frame left is an example of a piggyback tree where over centuries the original trunk side to the left dies due to harsh winter storm winds while its strip of living cambium covered by bark on its right side of the original trunk continues to live and grow a new trunk. That process repeated to a fifth trunk before that ancient one succumbed leaving a dead tree that over centuries slowly disintegrates due to its rich pitch content. The accumulating old dead wood that has lost its bark, acts as a wind shield for the living right side of such trees. The Wind Monarch with its impressive mane of dense swayed back pine needle branches is in its prime and just on trunk 2 while numbers of its neighbors on the slopes have 3 or 4. The form of its top bare branches is particularly magnificent. It may be that before this human technology era, if in fact intelligent alien entities exist and visited our unique blue world, that I could imagine them at this very spot admiring this world class wonder of life.
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I climbed up to near the tree limit on the sunny east slopes of Sheep Mtn. Just a few old trees manage to survive while a few more young trees were scattered about, most of which would die young from the severe environment where strong winter storm winds blow snow and ice pellets with the force of bullets and summer thunderstorm lightning over centuries prunes away all trees but those in the most electrically favored locations. Of the 3 trees centered in the image above, just the middle tree still lives.
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I rambled north in the grove and at 10:15am shot the above 5 frame panorama. The Barcroft Road routes over the skyline frame upper left. Far in the distant horizon frame right are remote Great Basin ranges of eastern Nevada. I continued on to the grove parking lot, looking at familiar trees. It was all too bright now for any more serious work so looped back along the blocked road to my car. Driving back south, I wondered whether in the afternoon I ought hike out to the other zone I had wanted to explore and then work the Patriarch Grove earlier Wednesday morning or drive back down to Owens Valley? As my Subaru rattled in agony on the rocky road, I knew to do so would require driving all the way back and forth the 9 miles or so from where I would be forced to legally park overnight at the microwave radio tower site. Much better to visit the reserve once the Barcroft Road blockage melted because I would just need to drive 1.5 miles from an overnight spot. Additionally there were areas along that road I needed to work and a lot more in the Patriarch Grove itself. Also the considerable bright snow patches on the landscape tended to make exposures difficult. Then I thought about how much more pleasant it would be up in lush Little Lakes Valley. And how about a burger, fries, shake stop down in Bishop! So just kept driving to the Schulman Grove paved road and began passing numbers of mid day vehicles just arriving at the reserve as I was on my way out.
Down in Big Pine, temperatures were 30 degrees higher in the low 90s. I stopped in Bishop to pick up some fast food then drove to eat in the shade of huge Fremont cottonwood at Bishop City Park. I had wanted to check out conditions up on the Buttermilk Road given the nicely snowy big peaks above so drove out there and found things drier than expected. That zone probably had been worth visiting about the end of April into early May. Continued north up US395 through the volcanic tablelands then turned west up the Rock Creek Road. Outside of snow patches, there had not been any water to get into about the arid White Mountains so after the road passed the bridge at 8k I turned off at a familiar lonely spot, parked, then walked down through the sagebrush and jeffrey pines to a roaring with whitewater Rock Creek. Hunting downstream found a convenient spot I could safely get in then very refreshingly did so. Back on the road drove all the way to the Mosquito Flat Trailhead at 10220 feet. They had just opened that section of road earlier in the week and the restrooms were still closed. Late afternoon there were just 8 vehicles in the lot so hardly anyone was backpacking thus a permit would be easy to obtain. I would need to drive back down and cross US395 onto Owens Gorge Road where beyond a couple miles there are many spots off on lonely side dirt roads to disperse camp.
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Wednesday sunrise June 28 showed sunny skies with a light breeze. Up outside at the Mosquito Flat parking lot temperatures were however in the low 30s with ice about. As I started up the trail, the sun had already reached the canyon bottom. Figuring warm clothes would soon be unnecessary, I turned around back to my car, took off my fleece jacket, trading that for a second long cotton t-shirt layer, then set out again. The trail climbs 250 feet before reaching Mach Lake at 0.8 miles so I was soon reasonably warmed up. Patches of snow were all about with melt water and streamlets often running across or down the heavily traveled trail. Soon at 7:30am I was at Marsh Lake at the 1.2 mile point where as expected, I found a calm lake edge behind water grass that blocked minor sumping night breeze waves on the main lake. Thus set up the above modest 3 column stitch reflection.
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Continuing on, I reached Heart Lake at 1.5 miles, then spent too much time looking for subjects that in the end were rejected. Eventually continued on to reach Box Lake at 2 miles where again puttered about unproductively. All 6 of these lakes had melted though still had significant areas around the shores still showing snow. I continued on to my primary target, Long Lake, where at the unpleasant rock and loose log stream crossing below the lake, chose to instead take the use trail up the sunny west side of the creek. Everything on the other side was increasingly fields of shaded snow. I reached the lake at 2.5 miles along about 8:45am and immediately went to work on an outlet bay reflection subject. The lake at about 11555 was about 70% still ice covered as expected given the online image I had seen the previous Sunday, very much a beautiful scene. A down canyon night sumping breeze was interacting with an up canyon breeze creating brief periods of calm that I was able to wait out and shoot some reasonable quiet water moments per above.
A nice young couple, Bill and Jessica camping above the lake, came down for water and we chatted awhile. I worked just 3 more subjects at Long before light on the background peak snow fields became too harsh and a stronger breeze came up. I needed to arrive here an hour earlier, climbing up on the snowy bluff east of the lake. Thus decided to pull the plug on this morning, hike back, and drive to Mammoth where I would pick up a one night wilderness permit. Later this afternoon would hike in, set up camp maybe at Box Lake, then much more easily get up to Long early Thursday morning.
Along the way north I turned up the McGee Creek road up to the trailhead where a returning family related wildflowers at the canyon bend that some years are some of the most impressive along the Eastern Sierra looked scarce. It was thus too early and that reflected my own observations driving along US395 looking at areas like the Parker Bench or about the Mammoth Lakes SR203 junction. Interesting that in this massive precipitation year, wildflower displays in many areas of the north state unlike at our southern arid region, have been relatively mediocre.
At Mammoth Lakes, I went in and easily picked up a one night wilderness permit for the Mosquito Flat Trailhead to enter the John Muir Wilderness this day. After that spent a couple hours with lunch, Vons, and logistics, then drove back the 18 miles south to the Rock Creek Road junction. Up the canyon parked below the trailhead and spent an idle hour organizing and packing gear. With a minimalist one night attitude, left quite a bit of usual gear like my cooking set, extra clothing, etc in the Forester resulting in a carrying weight probably just around 50 pounds. I had stuffed myself with a fat Carl's Jr Famous Star burger at Mammoth so didn't need to eat much the rest of the day. A couple yogurts, granola, and snacks would do.
At the trailhead about 4pm were maybe 20 vehicles, most of which were from late to arrive day hikers not yet back from hiking. Indeed as I began up the trail, a train of such groups continued to pass me by, including good numbers of families with lively kids. My light pack made the 2 mile effort to Box Lake go quickly. The first couple spots along the northwest shores I checked out had already been taken. Where the trail meets the mid section of the lake on a bluff, I vectored off up a rib and found a wonderful spot with a view of the lake and more. Thus made camp and had a quite pleasant final couple hours of the day before warm sunset light illuminated the top of Mt Morgan above right.
I waited until about 6:30am to crawl out of my sleeping bag then outside my tent Thursday June 29. And I was in no hurry to get going up to Long Lake as it was just an easy half mile away. Unknown was how the creek crossing and climb up onto the bluff on the lake's east side would play out. Packing up gear could wait till I got back and a bit after 7am was on my way along the trail under similar weather to Wednesday with low 30F temperatures that were likely to warm up quickly once the sun appeared. A sumping night breeze was again flowing down canyon across Box Lake due to cold air creation against the considerable snow fields of the higher basin elevations. I was soon at the stream crossing below Long Lake where I surveyed a few rocks and logs bridging the 20 foot or so width of the fast flowing but not too deep stream. The main problem was near the far shore where I could see an ice coating on the dark wet logs that makes such wood extremely slippery. Half way across I thought it was not too wise that I started across without bothering to remove my camera from the top of the tripod I was hand carrying. At the crux was a gap of about 3 feet over the fastest section of the stream where I had to step on an icy log at water level and then jump off to reach a small boulder on the opposite bank. I moved my food onto the log slowly pushing down on its uneven surface till I felt it would support my full weight then bounded in a single dynamic move to rock across the gap.
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From there I worked a very irregular route up to the top of the bluff, avoiding as much of the firm snow as possible and then continued up and down several times continuing south on that bluff till I reached the portion along the mid point of Long Lake where I found reasonable bedrock foregrounds. It took quite awhile before the sun reached the west shore of Long Lake and the bluff I was on so I could start shooting that was about 8:30am. In the image above from frame left is Bear Creek Spire at 13726, Mt Dade at 13606, and Mt Abbot at 13704. Note the straight lines melted out across the lake. Expect that is where cross country skiers earlier this spring skied across the lake in consistent tracks once a trail was broken creating lower depths of snow. Most trees atop the lichen surfaced dark gabro granite bluff and across the lake in this landscape are whitebark pine. Note the striped dark and white bands across granites of the peaks.
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A half hour later I was down at the Long Lake outlet, where worked a nice reflection in the outlet bay, then crossed the stream on a more difficult spot than I had done earlier. A couple of side by side 6 foot long 8 inch diameter icy logs guarded the crux of that effort so I got down on my hands and knees to carefully inch across its slippery surface. On the other side set up this nice image with patches of pink hued perennial ground hugging shrub alpine laurel, kalmia polifolia, up against embedded rocks in soils fresh green grass rose from. The near shore ice had melted out earlier this week but refroze over night offering an interesting icy translucent surface foreground. In addition to the 3 peaks mentioned in the previous image, at frame left is the aesthetic pyramid of Peppermint Peak at 12840+.
By 10am I was back to my Box Lake camp spot. Before breaking camp, took the above image as I point down towards some inconsiderate backpacker's small campfire spot that from the black coals showed recent use. When I arrived at the spot the previous afternoon, I tossed most of its circle of rocks off a minor drop off just right of the frame. Note part of Box Lake at 10500 feet shows on the right frame edge. Campfires are prohibited above 10000 feet in the Rock Creek basin of the John Muir Wilderness. A sign at the wilderness boundary shows a campfire symbol with a NOT slash through it.
INF fire policy page
Before sunset Wednesday I noticed a cloud of smoke rising from the well used camp spot along the northeast shore of Box Lake that I had looked at on the way in, noting someone had already set up at the site as was the case for another spot about 100 yards along that shore. I could not see their camp spot from my site due to considerable lodgepole and whitebark pine. Thus yelled out loudly NO CAMPFIRES three times over about a minute. The smoke diminished a bit and then a larger cloud rose. I then walked down to the site where a young man and his son had set up camp and were standing around their fire while another man that had come over from the nearby camp spot was talking to them who apparently had heard my yelling and went over to discuss it with them. As I approached with my cell phone camera taking a picture, I asked calmly with a smile, "Do you have a wilderness permit?", as is my usual initial statement.
The father didn't answer while the neighbor related he was not part of the group and did have a permit. I calmly instructed to the father that campfires are prohibited. The father related he thought the campfire restriction elevation limit was 10400 feet which is the case in some areas of the Southern Sierra Nevada further south. I related it was 10000 feet within the whole Rock Creek basin without bothering to note he was above 10400 feet in any case. The person who I sensed was a nice considerate person was obviously embarrassed as is almost always the case when I approach groups so. Of course most groups that ignore policy do so because there are so few backcountry rangers. For years I have advocated that those backpackers able to do so without emotion without blaming, calmly confront others who disregard policy and thus send a message that they need to worry about more than just USFS personnel. It appeared he was just going to let what he started burning smolder, so instead of just leaving, I said "let's put it out". He and his son grabbed pots as did, and we walked back and forth a few times for water at the lake edge drowning the sizeable logs that had been burning. I emphasized the need for backcountry users to get a wilderness permit so they will understand current policy. Am certain he is one person that will do so in the future.
Before noon I had hiked out to the trailhead and was soon on US395 northbound. Before reaching the Mammoth Lakes junction decided this short 4-day road trip had run its course even though I might easily have occupied myself a day or two longer. By Friday roads would be full of working people escaping for the Independence Day 4-day weekend that I had reason to avoid. The trip had been reasonably productive adding a few more interesting landscape images to my large body of work. And as always, I greatly value the experience just being out in these wonderful natural areas that is most important as an enthusiast. Places that looking back through human history, only we in this modern era are living at a time able to experience and enjoy.
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2017 Trip Chronicles: Contents