The circus of North Lake, Bishop, during fall color season

It’s well-known that the stretch of Highway 395 from Brideport to Bishop that skirts the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range is famous for its spectacular fall color. There are many iconic locations that provide the picture-perfect postcard image of fall colors, and North Lake in the Bishop Creek Canyon is arguably right up there. 

This little lake is a photographer’s dream in the fall, where the essential ingredients for an iconic fall color image come together – the brilliantly lit aspen groves on the far side of the lake, snow-peaked mountains in the background, an assortment of rocks in the foreground, and much more. Naturally, this type of scenery is a magnet for anyone who loves autumn foliage and, as a result, attracts loads of photographers in the two-week span where fall color graces its shores. That “iconic shot” is typically at sunrise, where most photographers arrive early and set up camp in the pitch dark.

My first trip to North Lake was in the fall of 2015, in mid-October, past the peak fall colors. I arrived around 5:30 am in the dark with no idea how to get to the lake from the parking lot, but managed to stumble upon it soon enough. There were already a few photographers on the scene. While the sunrise was nothing special, it was fun to capture images with the endless possibilities around composition, as seen below. 

My next trip was in 2017, this time late fall, where the color was way past its peak, and the leaves from the aspen groves mostly stripped bare. As a result, there were no hoards of photographers to deal with, and plenty of space to operate within. Again, the sunrise was nothing special, but there was a  nice alpenglow for a few moments that provided a pink tinge to the scenary. As a bonus, Marlboro Man decided to grace us with his presence, along with his buddy.

In the fall of 2017, Apple decided to use an image of North Lake for its High Sierra release of macOS, which likely triggered large scale interest in North Lake as a premier fall destination. Not only that, but the Instagram crowd also brought attention to North Lake by dialing the coordinates into all corners of the western region. Either way, when I made my next trip in early October of 2018, it was an utter madhouse. I arrived in the pitch dark, this time a few minutes after 5 am, confident that I was ahead of schedule, only to find hoards of photographers occupying every inch of the lakeshore. I used some sensibility to chat up a few folks and negotiate some space to pitch my tripod. Sometimes, photographers can get pretty territorial about space, but this was a friendly bunch, and we worked it all out.

Wow! What an epic morning of weather, from the light sprinkling of snow to stormy skies to a magnificent rainbow. As you can see from the images below, the light was heavenly, where one moment the sun was shining through the clouds, and in the next moment, there was complete shade, as seen in the tonal range.

After three trips, my default reaction was that I had seen enough of North Lake, and the likelihood of capturing unique images from here onwards is low. But I knew I would be back eventually.

And I did. I stopped by North Lake again a few weeks ago during my annual fall color trip to the Eastern Sierra. The word on the street was that the fall color in Bishop Creek was the best it has been for a long time. I got to the lake around 5:30 am, and even though it was packed with photographers, there was still some space available to pitch a tripod. The sunrise was pretty lame, so after taking a few photos that mostly represented the same compositions from previous years, I ventured to walk around the lake for the first time. I soon found out that I had missed out in prior years by only shooting from roughly the same location along with the rest of the herd. Even though the sun had come out, and the light was harsh, I was able to take several decent photos. There is nothing like experiencing the same destination differently, and I was excited to find various new compositions. And the fall foliage was truly spectacular. 

After this latest trip, I know I will be back again. I know there are new angles and compositions that I want to explore, and previous images that I wanted to improve. And to me, that’s what’s fascinating about photography and landscapes in particular.

Three outings at Martin’s Beach in Half Moon Bay in December

There are many scenic beaches in Half Moon Bay, but from a photographic perspective, Martin’s beach is right there at the top. Part of the attraction is that it’s relatively new to most of us, having been opened up to the public recently. Back in 2008, Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla bought a large plot of land in 2008 that included the access road to the beach, which he then proceeded to make private and remove public access to the beach. After a lengthy battle between the state and Kosla, the road leading to the beach is now accessible, but perhaps not for long due to the ongoing saga. During typical day time hours, the locked gate is now open, and you can drive partway down the road and park for a fee, or you can park on Highway 1 and walk approximately a quarter mile down the road to the beach. 

So, what’s the attraction for photographers at Martin’s Beach? To start, it’s a wide beach that’s about 3/4 mile long with a cove in the middle, and bluffs on both ends of the beach. It also has a small creek and a large tide pool at the entrance that seems to be permanent. The main attraction, however, is a tall sharkfin-shaped rock that’s relatively close to the beach that dominates the landscape. 

In December, based on the likelihood of a decent sunset, I made the trip to Martin’s beach to take photos in the golden hour. To my pleasant surprise, I found that I had also stumbled upon a negative tide that conveniently coincided with sunset, which, of course, exposed a significant part of the beach towards the sharkfin-rock with interesting tidepools in the midst. The sunset was fantastic – a color show that started orange and ended purple. Also, there was only one other photographer on the scene, so it was nice to have the whole beach to explore. With a negative tide comes many exciting opportunities, with the ability to explore unique angles, from tidepools to eroding sandbanks. You can see these unique perspectives in the images below.

A few days later, we made a family trip to Half Moon Bay and decided to stop by Martin’s Beach for sunset. The negative tide was still in effect, but the landscape was different, and many other unique angles to explore. I only got the opportunity to snap a few frames based on family commitments. As you can see below, the landscape looks pretty different from the last time.

The trio of visits was completed on the last day of the year, as I snuck out to take some photos while spending the night at Half Moon Bay. The negative tide was gone, but that there were plenty of other unique angles to explore. Again, the landscape on the beach had changed, and my focus was mostly on the big tide pool at the entrance to the beach.