Ravaged by treasure hunters and the harsh elements, the decaying mining sites of the Bodie hills are fleeting photographic subjects about to vanish soon. Chemung Mine is one of the largest mines in the Masonic District and it is one of the most photogenic.
Located at 8000 ft and surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery, it is hard to believe that a deranged ghost, who allegedly only takes offense if you show up on Saturday nights, haunts this place. Then again, who am I to discount stories of other travelers who chose to believe? Make up your own mind on a visit to one of the coolest historic mining sites of the west.
I prefer the undisturbed and natural setting of these old mining sites to the well-maintained but somewhat kitschy gold panning places along Highway 49. As time takes its toll and shows us that we are just a blip in history, I wish fellow travelers would behave a bit more responsible. The urge of some to destroy these places puzzles me. Tread lightly or face the fact that either more of these cool places will vanish or someone will fence them off.
During my brief visit, I encountered a large group of “treasure hunters” who scoured the site with metal detectors in search of anything not bolted down. Suddenly, loud yelling and beeping from countless detectors announcing the void underground broke up the ghostly silence we enjoyed.
Chemung Mine is still the most impressive mining site in the Bodie hills. Its large mill and several other structures cling together like a corral, trying to fend off unwelcome visitors. The mine is a lot of fun to explore, but also a dangerous place. The structures are not safe anymore and the mining shafts pose dangers as well.
Combine your visit with a trip to nearby Pittsburg Liberty Mine at the town site of Masonic. Although Masonic is not as impressive photographically, it is a nice detour and lies on the way from Chemung to Bodie.
How to get there
Only dirt roads lead to Chemung Mine and Pittsburg Liberty Mine (Masonic Mine). Here is a GPS track log leading from Bodie to Masonic, Chemung and back to the Highway. Stay on the main trail. I took a detour along an almost invisible path leading alongside a fence line, which I would not recommend. You can find the mine without a GPS device, but I recommend them for driving in this area. I use a relatively cheap Garmin e-Trex Venture. You can find free topographic maps of California online. Those work well with the e-Trex and the Mapsource software that comes with the device.
Take Masonic Road from Highway 182 at 38°18’33.44″N 119°12’50.23″W. Follow it about 5.2 miles to Chemung Mine. Continue on Masonic Road for another 3.9 miles to get to Masonic Town (keep left at the intersection. Backtrack about one mile to the intersection and turn left, heading towards Bodie, about 15 miles).
How to photograph Chemung Mine and Masonic Town
Similar to Bodie, you should walk around the mine and use your imagination. Do not lock down your camera on your tripod but explore all options first. Carefully navigate the ruins and make sure you stop before you look through your viewfinder. The structures are going to collapse in the near future and holes in the ground and the floor are common. Check your background, middle ground and foreground. It is tempting to just frame the large stamp mill and press the shutter, but it often pays to think. If you shoot from the road, you can step back and use a longer lens to simplify your background. The hill behind the mill then covers the entire frame instead of splitting the frame in half.
Although I loathe gun crazy yahoos, the bullet holes make good photographic subjects. As the sun reflects off the metal, your camera will underexpose. I used exposure compensation in the picture of the metal sheets and +1 ½ stops. Always watch your histogram and make sure you do not blow out highlights, while moving the histogram as far to the right as you can to minimize shadow noise.
Using a long lens, you can compress the distance between some of the structures and the distant mountains. Bringing the mountains closer can yield some excellent images. Although I did not fully explore all possibilities, the shot above illustrates this point. I am addicted to my wide-angle lens and sometimes I have to force another lens on my (camera) body to see how the world looks like through it.
The mine has great photographic potential. Many objects, like the old shot up car or the wheels of the belt drive inside the main tower, can yield some good shots. You could use shadows to imply ghosts (or maybe shoot a real ghost). Look around for items that help you document the harsh life of the miners. Imagine how it was working in these conditions to get in the right mood for a shoot. Take your time to walk around before you take your camera out and prepare yourself mentally for this place.
Masonic (Pittsburg Liberty Mine) is not very photogenic. It is mainly of interest to history buffs. Since it lies on the way to Bodie, should you decide to go the long (and scenic) route through Bodie Hills, you may as well stop here to see what you can make of the scene. Do not miss the cable tower on the opposite side of the ravine. Mine operators used it to shuttle the ore out of the valley.
Remember, even if you are not superstitious and even if you do not believe in ghosts, why risk some curse or the wrath of some ghost by stealing a worthless piece of junk metal? Tread lightly, leave everything as you find it and do not risk any injury by climbing around in unsafe territory or by falling into a mineshaft.
Best Time of the Day and Best Season
The light is better during the afternoon hours. In winter, snow may make the roads impassable.
The drive from Highway 182 to Chemung Mine takes about 20 minutes, to continue to Masonic about 15 minutes. I spent most of the time on the trail between Bodie and Masonic. You may be faster going back to Highway 182, 395 and 270. Photography at Chemung takes at least one hour.
- Wide-angle lens
- Telephoto lens
- Polarizing filter (careful at high altitudes, do not over-use)
- Tripod (HDR shots)
- Tripod and Flashlight (light painting should look awesome here)
- Sun screen, Sunglasses, Water (high altitude sunburns and dehydration can be nasty)
There is no fee to see the mines.
Difficulty Getting There
Although I have seen people on the road in a Ford Mustang, I definitely advise a vehicle with a bit more ground clearance. In good weather, the road is passable, but still has some larger boulders and bumps which are hard to overcome in a Mustang.
- Bodie Ghost Town
- Aurora Ghost Town (Nevada)
- Mono Lake
- Mammoth Lakes
- Devils Postpile National Monument and Rainbow Falls
- Mammoth Consolidated Mine
- Tioga Pass
- Mono Craters
- June Lake Scenic Loop
- Convict Lake
- Carson Pass, Carson Creek and Monitor Pass
- My GPS track log (from Bodie, via Masonic town to Chemung Mine and back to Highway 182)
- A lot about the History
- A Photo Gallery
- An ongoing Series about becoming better Photographers
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