The Cow Fire burned brightly to the south, smoke wafting skyward and colliding with billowing, puffy monsoonal clouds hovering above the Eastern Sierra.

It was early last September, and I had a great vantage point to watch fire and monsoon. I stumbled upon the perfect plateau and laid out my sleeping pad and sleeping bag tucked between granite slabs buffering from any possible winds my bed for the night. The sun had already set behind me as I sat in my sleeping bag, monsoon and wildfire keeping to the south of me. I was camped at 12,500 feet, well above Chicken Spring Lake—just me, the yellow-bellied marmots and chirping pikas all concealed somewhere within the granite clefts, caves and alcoves.

Sierra bighorn sheep were around too, but I had no luck locating their outwardly curling horns and nimble hooves on the steepest, most sheer granite walls and slabs. They could’ve been looking right at me, but they blend in so well in their surrounding habitat, and that makes them difficult to detect. However, the mountains aren’t going anywhere, and I’ll be back before it’s snowed in.

I dream about them all the time, those granite spires in the Eastern Sierra. As much as the Santa Barbara Channel and the Channel Islands National Park draw me close every day, I always need that gritty, granite fix. The years just don’t feel complete unless there’s quality time spent on California’s 14ers. Thirteen of the Golden State’s 15, 14,000-foot peaks are in the Eastern Sierra. They are a good training ground, always scenic and my last two excursions at 14,000 feet my camera was always out, bighorn on the brain.

Fortunately, I slept well as I always do when I’m outside above tree-line. The aridity, stillness, mind-boggling stargazing and that cool, crisp air always allows me to be comfortable snoozing amongst the granite. Dawn was spectacular. The highest peaks always look best before sunup. Rising before first light, Cirque Peak, Mount Langley and Mount Whitney jutted prominently to my immediate north. I could hear several backpackers speaking below, their voices carrying up to me 2,500 feet above, making me appreciate my secluded campsite that much more.

I quickly scrambled over to Cirque Peak, tapping out on its 12,900-foot summit before heading back down a steep scree slope to Chicken Spring Lake. Back within the trees I was gratefully overwhelmed by chipmunks, golden-mantled squirrels, more marmots, black-capped chickadees and small flocks of mountain bluebirds.  

After descending Horseshoe Meadow, I looked for herds of Tule elk along Highway 395 before finding a car camp along Movie Road in the Alabama Hills. Lots of fantastic movies filmed within the unique, high desert landscape of those granite clusters. Epic scenes from Clint Eastwood’s “Joe Kidd,” Steve McQueen in “Nevada Smith,” Russell Crowe in “Gladiator,” and Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Django Unchained” popped into my head as a trail of dust wafted behind my truck.

Eventually, I found a great spot with tall clusters of granite behind me and to the west and sunset views of the desolate Inyo Mountains to the east. A canyon wren and a great horned owl were all that broke the high desert silence as I drifted off to sleep.

Again, I was up well before first light. I had a date with an archway, and I couldn’t be late The Alabama Hills are a natural wonder and hidden within that granite fortress are some amazing archways that perfectly frame the North Ridge of Lone Pine Peak, Mount Whitney and Mount Russell. For 45 minutes from before first light and just after the first soft hues of alpenglow drape across the high peaks, the light shifts magically until it becomes to harsh to shoot anymore.

It’s less than an hour, time well spent at 5,000 feet watching the light dance across all those iconic mountaintops.  

Adventure and travel writer Chuck Graham lives in Carpinteria and contributes his writing and photography to publications far and wide. For more wildlife photos visit chuckgrahamphoto.com or follow Graham on Instagram at @chuckgrahamphoto.

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