Pacific Coast Highway Trip Report – Part 2


Part 1 of my Pacific Coast Highway Trip Report left off with a nail-biting shootout with a squad of FBI agents, and left readers wondering whether our heroes would escape in a blaze of glory. Okay, that’s not quite what happened, but on our way up from Shark Fin Cove, we were stopped by two police cars, with the officers in those cars proceeding to question us about what we were doing on the beach.

They point blank asked us if we were doing meth, but that was after seeing our camera gear, tripods, wet pant legs, and overall dorkish appearances (well, my dorkish appearance, at least). By that time they had probably sufficiently stereotyped us and realized meth is not what we were doing on the beach, so I think the question was pretty tongue-in-cheek.

It turns out that the last time the officers had spotted a car in that location, they had busted people down on the beach for doing meth (which probably explains why two cops stopped instead of one), and that the beach is a hotspot for nefarious activities. We sort of surmised this much, as the signs in the area were covered with graffiti, and there were beer bottles and assorted trash all over the place.

The cops proceeded to tell us that we were parked illegally and that we shouldn’t do that again because we could get ticketed. They let us go without a ticket, as it turns out that they were more concerned with people illegally use meth, and not so much with crazy photographers parking illegally and taking photos of the full moon. However, all of my readers who are meth-aficionado, let this be a lesson to you: don’t do your meth at Shark Fin Cove in the middle of the night, as the cops will be looking for you! 😉

After that little scare, we noticed that the moon was starting to get lower in the sky, so we figured that we ought to head to Pigeon Point Lighthouse to grab some photos of the moon over it, and possibly the moonset. I don’t know if that’s an actual term, but it’s the same idea as a sunset, except with the moon.


As we approached on the PCH, I was keeping an eye out on the angle of the moon in relation to the lighthouse, hoping to pinpoint the location where we’d want to be to line things up so that the moon dropped directly behind the lighthouse. About a mile away, we noticed that the water was really lit up by the moon in front of Pigeon Point Lighthouse.

We decided to stop at that spot and do some shooting with our telephoto lenses to see what we could get. We were both a little apprehensive at this point, because those cops who had been friendly before and not given us a ticket might not be so pleasant if they saw we had stopped and parked illegally again. Still, we couldn’t resist shooting this, so we took our chances.


After a bit of that, we headed to another parking area or service road or something (we were nearing a full day with almost no sleep at this point, so apologies if I’m not getting all of the details right) and hiked down near the water to see what kind of shots would be possible from that vantage.

Looks almost like we found another Fake Shark Fin Cove (see out in the water on the left?), too!


I love shooting long, multiple-minute exposures at night, but the two shots above aren’t exactly my favorites. The real challenge in photographing long exposures with the full moon is that the light reflected off of the moon is pretty bright, but the rest of the scene is really, really dark.

There really is no “proper” exposure in this case, and you have to make a compromise somewhere. Usually, I just let the moon be super blown out to more resemble a daytime pic (for no other reason than I think it looks cool), but the problem with that is you get weird looking color patterns in the sky.

I’m still working on refining my technique with all of this, but reviewing my EXIF data and processing these photos was really helpful for me in making adjustments to my in-camera settings when I shot Joshua Tree National Park for the next full moon. Hopefully I can iterate on that a bit more and really hone my process for my next full moon photo spot…


After shooting close to the ocean cliffs for a while, we headed back down to our location about a mile from Pigeon Point Lighthouse and waited…and waited. The funny thing about the moon-set is that it seems to occur waaaay slower than the moonrise, which goes by in the blink of an eye (they are both actually the same speed, but whatever).

I realized pretty quickly that the shot of the moon directly behind Pigeon Point Lighthouse was not going to happen. The moon moves at an angle (#science), as evidenced in the long exposure above showing its movement over the course of a few minutes. On the plus side, I know when to go to Pigeon Point next year for the telephoto moonset shot I want!


We had like an hour until the sunrise, so we drove back to the pullout/parking area/whatever, parked, and reclined our seats to get a little shut-eye. No less than 30 seconds later (or so it seemed), Bill woke me up to go take some sunrise photos. Bill is normally a cool guy, but at that precise moment, I hated him. I trudged out of the car, fired off a few frames of the dawn light, then seeing absolutely no clouds in the sky that would provide a good sunrise, we called it and decided to head out.

This is technically where it stops being a Pacific Coast Highway report, and becomes, “Random Places in NorCal Trip Report.”

We headed into town on the way towards Yosemite and stopped at a strip mall, where Bill hit up Starbucks and I went to McDonald’s. I’m sure the employees at both fine establishments wondered why we smelled like seaweed and who knows what else. After a breakfast of champions and plenty of coffee, we headed off towards Yosemite.


The drive from where we were to Yosemite National Park is long, and not particularly exciting. Even with the coffee, I was starting to drift off here and there, and then suddenly as we drove through the Santa Cruz Mountains (I think), we saw a layer of clouds absolutely lit up by the sunrise.

It was too late for Bill to slam on the brakes, but we doubled back, got out of the car, and started shooting. The really crazy glow was gone by that time, but it was still a pretty serene scene.


I think I started to drift off a bit again, almost in a state of purgatory between sleeping and waking, with my body propped up by caffeine but my mind on empty, when we suddenly saw this. I was suddenly wide awake.

Santa-Cruz-Mountains-Crystal-Springs-tight-sunrise copy

Right then I was pretty sure that Bill had just punk’d me for starting to doze off: “YOU FELL ASLEEP? WELL I JUST DROVE US TO MORDOR INSTEAD OF YOSEMITE, SUCKA!”

In actuality, we were at Crystal Springs Reservoir. Now, I’ve never visited Middle-Earth, but I’m guessing this is what the skies there look like on a regular basis. As I edited these photos, I tried to capture what we saw there, but I don’t think any of them quite nailed it.


It was one of the craziest skies I have ever seen, and the clouds were moving pretty quickly, so the light was dynamically changing.

This is otherwise a fairly ugly stretch of road, but about 10 other cars stopped while we were here to get photos: everything from tourists with DSLRs to a trucker with an iPad. It was really crazy…I just wish this would’ve happened at a more interesting spot.


The next several hours as we alternated back and forth taking turns driving to Yosemite were pretty dull. When we finally arrived, we found that the park was much colder than we expected, with a layer of ice in the Merced and some of the waterfalls frozen over.

We had several hours to kill, so we went to Yosemite Village to get some more coffee and random snacks, and then tried to scope out the location of the trailhead for this hike. We talked to a bunch of NPS employees in Yosemite Village, and 75% had no clue what we were talking about, and the other 25% looked at us and told us it was “too dangerous.” Not dissuaded, we wandered around looking for it ourselves, but were unable to find it. Looking at that post, it now seems like it would be easy to find, but we didn’t have the benefit of consulting the internet that afternoon.

After we had done enough wandering around in the Village, we decided to head to the Tunnel View parking lot to maybe get a bit more rest and then head up to Artist Point. Unfortunately, shortly after we arrived a car pulled up and the people in it decided to have a “Screaming Children Festival”, so the hope of getting a little rest was quickly abandoned. Instead, we decided to just head up to Artist Point and await the moonrise.


Bill had all these fancy apps and other tools that would make Galileo envious, and he knew pretty much exactly where the moon would come up. Let me tell you, when that sucker comes up, it comes up fast!


We were firing shots like madmen, and had the benefit of the moonrise on this particular day occurring just before the sunset, which meant that we could properly expose for the moon and the sky, which was really nice…as was the sunset light kissing the face of the mountains.


Our plan was to try to race down the mountain and continue shooting the moonrise from lower elevations as quickly as we could. The benefit of starting high and going lower would mean that the moon would be relatively lower in the sky as we moved down (of course, it continued to rise, but this is still the better plan of attack).


As dusk was starting to fall in Yosemite Valley, I literally ran down the trail with all my gear, veering off to find one of my favorite spots for shooting the Valley. Unfortunately, I had only ever previously accessed this location while heading up the trail, and my decision to cut across early to save time did not pay off…I ended up nowhere near the spot I wanted, but on the plus side, I did find a new spot. Getting down from here in the dark was a little scary, but oh well.


I finally found Bill again on the trail down, and we quickly made it down the rest of the way, and then drove to Valley View. As you can see, the moon looks lower in the sky here than it did from the later shots at Artist Point, despite this shot being taken a good 45 minutes later. Despite being absolutely exhausted, we shot here for a good 30 minutes, wanting to take advantage of the rare ice on the river.

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By this time, it was almost 8 pm, and we figured that we had probably better head back, rather than pushing ourselves further for more photos. We had left early in the morning the day before, and each of us had only had brief naps here and there in the intervening time. It was a looong 6 hour drive back to Southern California, and we found ourselves caffeinating several more times and taking turns driving, but I think the fruits of that crazy ~40 hour, 1,000+ mile weekend photography trip were worth it.

For this trip, I carried my a Nikon D750Nikon D810Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 LensNikon 24-70mm f/2.8Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRand Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 Fisheye, plus my MeFoto travel tripod, some other assorted junk, and tons of caffeine.

If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. 

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Your Thoughts…

Any thoughts on these photos our our crazy journey? Have you visited any of these locations? Ever been to Mordor? Share your thoughts on this or anything else, or questions you have in the comments!

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10 replies
  1. William McIntosh
    William McIntosh says:

    You hated me?? I see how it is…

    I love how these came out, especially the mordor swamp and your shots of the Lighthouse. I think the third to last Yosemite shot is my favorite of the bunch. Such an interesting POV and one that you don’t see every day. Glad we survived ! We’ll have to try it again soon! Banzai!

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Haha…I think I had drifted into a mild coma after only about 20 minutes of sleep there. I certainly was NOT ready to get up and head back out in the cold at that point. In the end, it was worth it…but at that moment I was really wishing I was not awake!

  2. Kayla
    Kayla says:

    Wow, I love that first photo of the lighthouse with the water illuminated by the moon. And then those hazy shots and that great telephoto of the moon! Great post with lots of beautiful photos.

  3. KCmike
    KCmike says:

    I think my heart was racing as I read your entries, then gazed at a photo, and returned to speed reading more entries. What incredible story and photo journey. I think the Mordor image and the valley floor of Yosemite are my favorites. I’ve been to NorCal twice and Yosemite once. I am so anxious about our early summer trip. Do we get a part 3? Any Socal photos in this installment?

    Bravo Tom.

    Take care,

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Yes, here’s Part 3: “I went home, tracked dirt all over the floor, and promptly took a shower for about 2 hours and then slept well into the next day.” 😉

      No photos from SoCal on this trip–we just drove through SoCal–didn’t stop for any shooting.

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