California has much more than its famous coastlines. It’s a large, gorgeous state with the towering Sierra Nevada Mountain range, forests, glaciers and dramatic vistas. There’s many places to go out to photograph, enjoy the fresh air and if necessary, socially distance.

Yosemite National Park

There are two main ways to enter Yosemite by vehicle. Both are stunning. 

One of the most spectacular ways is to enter Yosemite Valley via Wawona Road. After a long tunnel, you emerge to see a dramatic view of the valley spread out before you. Stop at Tunnel View along with all the other tourists to take in the breathtaking views. You may have to park down the road during peak tourist season. This is a classic place to photograph Yosemite Valley below in all its majesty.

Tenaya Lake, Yosemite National Park

The other common way to enter Yosemite National Park is through Tioga Road from Highway 395. This keeps going up and up. 

One of the many mini-lakes surrounding the larger Saddlebag Lake before getting to Yosemite National Park. Shortly after this photo was taken, we experienced very heavy rain and got completely drenched.

However, before you ever get into the park, the scenes are already jaw-dropping. One of my favorite places outside the park is Saddlebag Lake. A walk around the lake takes several hours, and takes you through varying terrain of indescribable beauty.

The strange tufas of Mono Lake at night

Another place just outside the park is the very strange looking Mono Lake and its spire-like tufas. The most popular place for photography is the south tufa area, which has the largest collection of tufas. It’s often windy here, so dress appropriately. 

Tenaya Lake at night
One of the many beautiful scenes along Tioga Road

However, Yosemite awaits. Tioga Road continues through the less-visited Tuolumne Meadows. This is at about 8,600 feet in elevation, considerably higher than Yosemite Valley. You could spend decades exploring these meadows alone. Indeed, people such as John Muir have done just that.

Lower Yosemite Falls, Yosemite Valley

In the popular Yosemite Valley, one of my favorite areas to photograph Lower Yosemite Falls and then beyond to Yosemite Falls. But really, whether photographing Sentinel Dome, Half Dome, El Capitan or anywhere else, the views are dramatic. I’ve been to the Himalayas several times, but I must say that the very sight of these glorious mountains rising from the valley floor keep right up with them.

Mammoth Lakes and the Eastern Sierras

Lake George, Mammoth Lakes

Mammoth Lakes is a very popular ski resort. And certainly, this is a great time to get photos of snow-capped peaks and beautiful azure lakes. However, the warmer times of the year never disappoint. Like much of the Eastern Sierras, Mammoth is full of beautiful lakes, pine forests, towering jagged mountains and much more. The town has a number of good restaurants and bars as well.

The hiking is great here. One of my favorite trails is the hike from Lake George to Crystal Lake. This offers amazing vistas of the surrounding area. There can sometimes be mosquitoes during parts of the year, so pack accordingly. 

Hilton Creek, one of the many splendors that can be found in the Eastern Sierras, its fresh water flowing from Davis Lake above.

Seemingly any road that goes high up into the Eastern Sierras will offer amazing scenery and lakes. Lots of lakes.

Sequoia National Park

One of the magnificent giant redwoods of Sequoia National Park.

If you enjoy some of the world’s largest trees, jagged peaks and waterfalls, Sequoia National Park is a great place to visit. It’s quite large as well. 

View near the top of Needles Lookout in Sequoia National Park, located in the southern part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

One of my favorite hikes is to Needles Lookout. The trail has great vistas the entire way, great for photography. But going up to Needles Lookout, a former fire lookout tower sitting atop a spire called “The Magician,” feels like you are on top of the world. As a bonus, Navy planes sometimes zoom through the canyons on practice runs. This is also a great opportunity for photography.

Along the River Trail in Sequoia National Park

Other great places to visit include the popular and accessible Trail of 100 Giants, Peppermint Falls and River Trail. River Trail leaves from the Johnsondale Bridge where Mountain Highway 99 and Forest Route 22S05 come together.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

This unusual forest is the only thing I will mention that is not in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This is on the other side of beautiful Owens Valley in the more arid White Mountains.

Here are some of the oldest living things in the world, the ancient bristlecone pine, some of which are over 5000 years old. From Big Pine, enjoy the winding drive up Highway 168 to White Mountain Road. From there, you can stop in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitor Center and learn more about these fantastic trees.

Schulman Grove

There are three loop trails that leave from the visitor’s center. One of the trails, the Methuselah Trail, goes through the Methuselah Grove, which has the oldest tree on record. However, don’t expect it to be labeled. Its location is a secret for fear of damage. See if you can guess which one it is!

The Discovery Trail is well-signed. If one is in a hurry, I would recommend this trail first. It has some amazing trees, including one of the most iconic bristlecone pines anywhere. And it’s relatively short.

Milky Way arching above Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains near Owens Valley.

Patriarch Grove

If you have lots of time, consider heading twelve miles further up along a rough dirt road to Patriarch Grove. The rangers will warn you, though. If you get a flat tire, it may cost you more than $1000 to get a tow truck. 

Near the visitor’s center in Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

Schulman Grove, where the visitor’s center is, and especially Patriarch Grove, are high in elevation. Patriarch Grove is 11,000 feet in elevation. Some people get altitude sickness from this height. And no matter how hot it is in Owens Valley, it is always cool up here and is always cold at night. 

Patriarch Grove is often popular with photographers. The pines are spread farther apart. The trees and mountains light up beautifully at sunset. The clouds often glow with vibrant colors from the setting sun. There is a crude outhouse, a few picnic tables, and ample parking at Patriarch Grove.

The mountains are calling!

There are countless photographic opportunities in California. One could spend several lifetimes exploring this state. But if you love mountains, you will love these locations.