PHOTO Essay

12 california campsites, Remembered

By Brian Klonoski

The glowing tent shot has become a staple on Instagram, but not all images in this style are created equal. All too often, photographers pitch tents in places where it is illegal to do so — or where it is just silly, like the edge of a cliff — in an attempt to create a photo that will blow up on The ‘Gram.

It’s bad enough when regular Jills and Joes do this, but when influencers with millions of followers create such imagery, the wilderness is left to suffer. The glowing tents you see on Kingdom California (mostly my trusty L.L. Bean Microlight FS2 and my Mountain Hardware Shifter 4) were all pitched to be a camp first and foremost, serving as humble bases for photography missions. I actually slept in all the spots you’ll see in this photo essay, usually for a few nights.

I understand images like these are considered trendy and overdone, but I still enjoy taking them when they’re sincere. Personally, these shots take me back to special places and what it felt like to be there. On a grander level, I appreciate the way these images use scale to set mankind against the much greater and more dominant backdrop of our planet and the universe. Sheltering away in our little tents, we are truly at the mercy of it all.

This was the first time I shot night photography — a quick trip to Red Rock Canyon State Park in the winter of 2015. I had just purchased my 14mm Sigma lens that is still my go-to glass for capturing the stars. It was a new moon and boy was I excited to get some shots of the Milky Way. I drove up from LA in the middle of the week, and sure enough, I had the place more or less to myself. I think I stayed up until 2 AM drinking beer and taking photos. It was a formative experience, fueled by the rush of creative experimentation.

I kick off every camping season with a spring trip to this spot in the Eastern Sierra. This shot is from my first visit there. I’m not going to tell you exactly where it is, because it’s too good a secret to give away. The camping is free, the firewood is abundant and the streams are teeming with beautiful, wild trout. In fact, the whole week I was camping here, there were half a dozen big rainbows in the pool just down the bank beyond my tent.
Here’s a shot from my second trip to the Alabama Hills back in 2016. I stopped here on the way back to LA after my stay at the super secret spot in the previous photo. The Hills were blowing up on Instagram at the time (that’s how I discovered them) and it was easy to see why. Despite easy access and close proximity to a megalopolis, the Alabama Hills are one of the most dramatic landscapes in California. When you camp here, you feel like a wayward space traveler, marooned on an undiscovered world — even though firewood, groceries and plumbing are ten minutes away in Lone Pine (see the distant glow on the horizon). It’s the most comfortable but out-there camping experience I can fathom.
The Alabama Hills must have stolen my heart, because here I was, less than a month later, chasing stars again. That’s my old Wrangler on the left. This time, I was a bit more adventurous and found a spot miles away from where most folks camp, in an isolated outcrop of rocks. It was too hot to sleep — I don’t think it dipped below 72 degrees that night — so I stayed up til’ four in the morning, watching the world turn beneath the stars.
It’s hard to go wrong in the Eastern Sierra. If you’re headed north up US 395, turn left and you’ll soon find yourself in the mountains. This is Big Pine Creek Canyon — one of the more well known spots. There are some nice campgrounds up here, and it’s a good basecamp for trekking into the high country, where you’ll find the famously turquoise Big Pine Lakes. I hadn’t even planned to shoot this night, but when I walked back to the Jeep to grab something, I turned around and saw… this.
Ah yes, I remember this night well. One of my favorite moments from a backpacking trip with my dad and my pup up in Desolation Wilderness. This is our camp at last light, with the night’s first stars beginning to twinkle, and the rush of snowmelt singing us to sleep.
Whoops, I guess I lied. I actually didn’t sleep in this spot. This is my buddy’s tent. Mine is just outside of the frame, to the left. This is our camp at Big Flat on the Lost Coast Trail. What a wild and beautiful place. Before bed, we sat on the beach and watched a full moon rise through the wildfire smoke and clouds, with the lights of Shelter Cove twinkling on the horizon. I especially remember this night because I left all my gear outside, where it got soaked by thick fog that glided into camp under the cover of darkness. This was a great trip. Can’t wait to do it again.

Shortly after I moved to the North Coast, I read Richard Preston’s mesmerizing book, Wild Trees. It’s the story of the scientists and amateur botanists obsessed with discovering and documenting the tallest trees on earth — California’s ancient coast redwoods. Many of the places and trees Preston wrote about were an hour or two away, so I had the great fortune to spend many days exploring the redwoods, hunting for the giants mentioned in the book. I liked to visit some of the more popular parks in the off season, like this trip to Humboldt Redwoods State Park in February 2018. The weather was perfect — mild and sunny during the day and cool at night. The campground and trails were mostly empty. And my time in the trees was profound and spiritual.

A month later, here I was, with my mind, body and soul in the redwoods again. I had some heart wrenching business to take care of down in LA, so I stopped at Big Basin Redwoods State Park to break up the drive. There weren’t many spots available at the campground, which is why I ended up with one next to the restrooms. Not ideal, but I soon noticed that the light from the bathrooms was setting off the trees beautifully. I used this to my advantage to capture what is one of my favorite photos — my tent pitched amongst a grove of upland old-growth redwoods.
Remember that secret spot in the Eastern Sierra I go to every year where everything is perfect? This is that spot again. Haven’t been finding as many trout here recently, but I’ll be back to keep looking.
This was a crazy trip. This shot is from a three nighter in Emigrant Wilderness last summer (2018), when California was ablaze. We were worried about the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite, but the Donnell Fire, which we saw breaking out as we drove to Kennedy Meadows, turned out to be the bigger foe. The hike up was bad, but not awful. While we were in the backcountry, the smoke would drift up and down the valley with the wind.This image is from a rare, smoke-free moment late at night. The winds eventually shifted and the fire pushed in our direction, forcing us to hike out through brutal smoke. When we made it to the trailhead, everyone was gone, except for firemen from CAL Fire cutting lines. Kennedy Meadows had been evacuated for a couple days at that point. Despite the wildfire drama, this was a great trip. We caught some fish, explored a new wilderness and enjoyed the blissful solitude of the high country. I’ll be back for sure — just not when it’s smokey, as if that’ll ever be a time again.
This spot is listed in my GPS as Penthouse Camp. It’s located at about 10,800 feet atop a hill overlooking a lake that always seems to be dimpled with rising trout. You’ll sometimes hear coyotes howling as they run through the rocky canyon below. But the best sound by far is the wind whistling through the pass just south of here all night long. This is the high country and it is heaven.

The glowing tent shot has become a staple on Instagram, but not all images in this style are created equal. All too often, photographers pitch tents in places where it is illegal to do so — or where it is just silly, like the edge of a cliff — in an attempt to create a photo that will blow up on The ‘Gram.

It’s bad enough when regular Jills and Joes do this, but when influencers with millions of followers create such imagery, the wilderness is left to suffer. The glowing tents you see on Kingdom California (mostly my trusty L.L. Bean Microlight FS2 and my Mountain Hardware Shifter 4) were all pitched to be a camp first and foremost, serving as humble bases for photography missions. I actually slept in all the spots you’ll see in this photo essay, usually for a few nights.

I understand images like these are considered trendy and overdone, but I still enjoy taking them when they’re sincere. Personally, these shots take me back to special places and what it felt like to be there. On a grander level, I appreciate the way these images use scale to set mankind against the much greater and more dominant backdrop of our planet and the universe. Sheltering away in our little tents, we are truly at the mercy of it all.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.
This was the first time I shot night photography — a quick trip to Red Rock Canyon State Park in the winter of 2015. I had just purchased my 14mm Sigma lens that is still my go-to glass for capturing the stars. It was a new moon and boy was I excited to get some shots of the Milky Way. I drove up from LA in the middle of the week, and sure enough, I had the place more or less to myself. I think I stayed up until 2 AM drinking beer and taking photos. It was a formative experience, fueled by the rush of creative experimentation.
Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.
I kick off every camping season with a spring trip to this spot in the Eastern Sierra. This shot is from my first visit there. I’m not going to tell you exactly where it is, because it’s too good a secret to give away. The camping is free, the firewood is abundant and the streams are teeming with beautiful, wild trout. In fact, the whole week I was camping here, there were half a dozen big rainbows in the pool just down the bank beyond my tent.
Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.
Here’s a shot from my second trip to the Alabama Hills back in 2016. I stopped here on the way back to LA after my stay at the super secret spot in the previous photo. The Hills were blowing up on Instagram at the time (that’s how I discovered them) and it was easy to see why. Despite easy access and close proximity to a megalopolis, the Alabama Hills are one of the most dramatic landscapes in California. When you camp here, you feel like a wayward space traveler, marooned on an undiscovered world — even though firewood, groceries and plumbing are ten minutes away in Lone Pine (see the distant glow on the horizon). It’s the most comfortable but out-there camping experience I can fathom.
Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.
The Alabama Hills must have stolen my heart, because here I was, less than a month later, chasing stars again. That’s my old Wrangler on the left. This time, I was a bit more adventurous and found a spot miles away from where most folks camp, in an isolated outcrop of rocks. It was too hot to sleep — I don’t think it dipped below 72 degrees that night — so I stayed up til’ four in the morning, watching the world turn beneath the stars.
Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.
It’s hard to go wrong in the Eastern Sierra. If you’re headed north up US 395, turn left and you’ll soon find yourself in the mountains. This is Big Pine Creek Canyon — one of the more well known spots. There are some nice campgrounds up here, and it’s a good basecamp for trekking into the high country, where you’ll find the famously turquoise Big Pine Lakes. I hadn’t even planned to shoot this night, but when I walked back to the Jeep to grab something, I turned around and saw… this.
Ah yes, I remember this night well. One of my favorite moments from a backpacking trip with my dad and my pup up in Desolation Wilderness. This is our camp at last light, with the night’s first stars beginning to twinkle, and the rush of snowmelt singing us to sleep.
Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.
Whoops, I guess I lied. I actually didn’t sleep in this spot. This is my buddy’s tent. Mine is just outside of the frame, to the left. This is our camp at Big Flat on the Lost Coast Trail. What a wild and beautiful place. Before bed, we sat on the beach and watched a full moon rise through the wildfire smoke and clouds, with the lights of Shelter Cove twinkling on the horizon. I especially remember this night because I left all my gear outside, where it got soaked by thick fog that glided into camp under the cover of darkness. This was a great trip. Can’t wait to do it again.
Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

Shortly after I moved to the North Coast, I read Richard Preston’s mesmerizing book, Wild Trees. It’s the story of the scientists and amateur botanists obsessed with discovering and documenting the tallest trees on earth — California’s ancient coast redwoods. Many of the places and trees Preston wrote about were an hour or two away, so I had the great fortune to spend many days exploring the redwoods, hunting for some of the giants mentioned in the book. I liked to visit some of the more popular parks in the off season, like this trip to Humboldt Redwoods State Park in February 2018. The weather was perfect — mild and sunny during the day and cool at night. The campground and trails were mostly empty. And my time in the trees was profound and spiritual.

A month later, here I was, with my mind, body and soul in the redwoods again. I had some heart wrenching business to take care of down in LA, so I stopped at Big Basin Redwoods State Park to break up the drive. There weren’t many spots available at the campground, which is why I ended up with one next to the restrooms. Not ideal, but I soon noticed that the light from the bathrooms was setting off the trees beautifully. I used this to my advantage to capture what is one of my favorite photos — my tent pitched amongst a grove of upland old-growth redwoods.
Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.
Remember that secret spot in the Eastern Sierra I go to every year where everything is perfect? This is that spot again. Haven’t been finding as many trout here recently, but I’ll be back to keep looking.
Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.
This was a crazy trip. This shot is from a three nighter in Emigrant Wilderness last summer (2018), when California was ablaze. We were worried about the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite, but the Donnell Fire, which we saw breaking out as we drove to Kennedy Meadows, turned out to be the bigger foe. The hike up was bad, but not awful. While we were in the backcountry, the smoke would drift up and down the valley with the wind.This image is from a rare, smoke-free moment late at night. The winds eventually shifted and the fire pushed in our direction, forcing us to hike out through brutal smoke. When we made it to the trailhead, everyone was gone, except for firemen from CAL Fire cutting lines. Kennedy Meadows had been evacuated for a couple days at that point. Despite the wildfire drama, this was a great trip. We caught some fish, explored a new wilderness and enjoyed the blissful solitude of the high country. I’ll be back for sure — just not when it’s smokey, as if that’ll ever be a time again.
Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.
This spot is listed in my GPS as Penthouse Camp. It’s located at about 10,800 feet atop a hill overlooking a lake that always seems to be dimpled with rising trout. You’ll sometimes hear coyotes howling as they run through the rocky canyon below. But the best sound by far is the wind whistling through the pass just south of here all night long. This is the high country and it is heaven.