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Dark Sky Duo Takes On The John Muir Trail

Scott and Nick

Scott Lange and Nick Foster, Dark Sky Photography

By Scott Lange —

This week we’ll depart San Francisco on a journey to capture the nighttime sky along the 211 mile John Muir Trail, which begins in Yosemite and terminates atop Mt. Whitney.

Leaving just after Labor Day will hopefully make for a quieter, less traveled trail, as well as some great late-summertime weather.

Range of Light: Night & Day on the John Muir Trail

A lot of planning goes into a hike of this magnitude, and extra consideration is required when doing nighttime photography.  We’ve been fine tuning our backpacking and camera gear over several prior expeditions, and our food choices are always evolving, but this particular adventure will require some extra attention to conquer the task at hand, which is to photograph (mostly) night and day on the trail and create a book with the images.

Pica Lake Camping photo by Dark Sky Photography

Pika Lake Camping, Dark Sky Photography

First off, we needed to pay attention to the moon phases for the dates that we’ll be on the trail.  To capture the nighttime sky it’s best to be as dark as possible, so unless photographing the moon itself, the best thing to do is to work around it.

This means we can shoot earlier in the night during a last quarter moon, any time of the night during a new moon, we’ll have to stay up late to shoot during a first quarter moon, during the full moon we’ll have a lot of unwanted light in the sky that we’ll have to deal with, and of course we’ll get a blend of these conditions in between.

In addition to this, there are also objects in the sky to consider – mainly the Milky Way – which moves around through the night and reveals different faces of itself at different times.  All of this information was considered to form a strategy to capture the places we wanted most.


Preparing rations for the trip

After we had a plan in place for the hike, we began ordering the extra supplies we’d need such as camera batteries (8 to be exact), food, first aid and repair items, and we reserved a couple of really nice lenses for rental.

The tracking device we use for long exposures of the sky was also streamlined to weigh less by using a local machine shop’s water jet to cut out portions of the body.  It really is true — when backpacking, every ounce saved helps!

For food, we bring a lot of bars of all brands and varieties, beef jerky, snickers, trail mix, and while Nick goes with the traditional freeze dried backpacking meals, I tend to keep it simple with a lot of peanut butter and jelly, pita bread, and ramen.  We also bring what we call “Trailsgiving,” that is, a bag with stuffing, dehydrated potatoes, gravy powder, and cranberries all mixed together.  A cup or two of hot water over this and 10 minutes later it’s almost Thanksgiving!


Eight batteries carefully marked

Once the extra supplies arrived, they were divided up into the 4 resupply caches that we’ll pick up along the way.  For the first half of the trail, there are 3 resupply points not far off route: Red’s Meadow Resort, Vermilion Valley Resort, and Muir Trail Ranch.  All three of these places offer a service to hold a resupply which can be mailed to them.

On the second half of the trail, there are no resupply points on the trail, but many people drive in and stash a resupply at Onion Valley – about 8 miles off route – and this is what we will do.  We’ll then have to hike out to get it when the time comes, which will be about 7 days after Muir Trail Ranch — the last of the first half resupplies.  From there we’ll have about another 5 or 6 days on the trail before we finish at Mt. Whitney.

Nevada Fall by Dark Sky Photography

Nevada Fall by Dark Sky Photography

The John Muir Trail has gained so much popularity over the last few years that it’s difficult to obtain a permit to do the hike due to quotas put in place to prevent overcrowding.  Since we don’t have a reservation (those need to be made about 6 months in advance), we’ll instead wait in line for a “next day” walk-up permit.

This means we’ll need to get in line sometime around 5 or 6 in the morning at the Yosemite Wilderness Permit Office, and then hopefully be granted a permit for the following day a few hours later when they are distributed.  Since we’re leaving after Labor Day we should face less of a challenge with this, but nevertheless it will involve a very chilly, early morning wait in line.  Hopefully not more than once.

Duck Lake Milky Way photo by Dark Sky Photography

Duck Lake Milky Way photo by Dark Sky Photography

After we obtain the next-day permit, we won’t be ready quite yet.  We’ll drive a couple of hours to Onion Valley to drop off our resupply and leave a car somewhere near the end of the trail to help us get home.  We’ll then head back to the trailhead at Yosemite and depart on the trail the next day.  The planning and preparation is a fair amount of work, but once on the trail it will all be worth it.

The Sierra Nevada, also known as The Range of Light, has an incredible amount of amazing scenes to be photographed.  Passing through Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks, as well as the John Muir and Ansel Adams Wilderness Areas, we are certain to produce our best work yet as nighttime photographers, and we can’t wait to share it with you when we return in a few weeks.

“The mountains are calling, and I must go.”  —John Muir

Dark Sky Photography

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