Saturday, February 12, 2011

Exploring Death Valley

Given that winter has been almost non-existent (save for one December storm) in the desert southwest, I decided it was time to quit grumbling about it and go somewhere warm! Death Valley National Park in southern California had long been on my "must-see" list and I figured it was time for a visit. I figured since I'd be driving all that way (about 7 hours from Sedona), I'd make a side trip to the Alabama Hills Recreation Area on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains as well. The Sierras have also been high on my photographic bucket list and was time to pay them a quick visit.

Death Valley is actually a fairly recent member of the national park was designated so back in 1994. Before then, it was bequeathed national monument status back in 1933. When it became a national park, the amount of land protected was increased. So much so, that it immediately became the largest national park in the continental U.S. (there are larger parks in Alaska). Because of its enormous size and remote location, a fair amount of planning is required to successfully photograph it...especially for a first time visit. One thing's for sure...don't expect to be able to do a quickie day trip here. The closest major city, Las Vegas, is almost a three hour drive. That's six hours spent before even seeing the park. Plus, many of the major sights within the park require anywhere from a half hour to more than two hours of drive time between them. That's a prohibitive amount of driving in my book. At least a one overnight is a necessity. I chose to spend four days in the park on this trip (with a fifth day spent at Alabama Hills). One would need to spend weeks here to really experience everything the park has to offer.

The main claim to fame in the park is that it's the hottest place in country. Triple digit temperatures are the norm from May through a good part of October, and can top out at over 120F! Needless to say the summer months are not the time to visit! Another is that the park contains the lowest point in the country (and second lowest in the western hemisphere) at 282 ft below sea level in the Badwater Basin. A common misconception of the park is that it's nothing but desert. So wrong! There are multiple mountain ranges present in the park with the Panamint Range being the largest. Telescope Peak in the Panamints rises to over 11,000 ft and can be viewed from the Badwater area. That's a lot of vertical relief in such close proximity!

Ok...enough of the background information concerning the park and on to my particular adventure! Probably the best way to tackle this is in the form of a day by day travelogue. So here goes....

Day 1: Long drive from Sedona, AZ to the little community of Stovepipe Wells within the park. Highlight of the drive was the Lake Mead National Recreation Area (including Hoover Dam)...lowlight was navigating my way through Las Vegas and all the crazy drivers.

Calling Stovepipe Wells a community is a bit of a stretch. It basically consists of a general store (with restaurant), a lodge and a very unsatisfying, wide open camping area. My reason for camping there on my first night was because it's situated only a couple of miles from the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes...a very popular and quite photogenic area. My hope was that there would be enough winds recently to minimize the number of footprints in the area. Things were looking promising when I began the long descent into the park as it was windy as all get out. Unfortunately, by the time I got to the dunes at the bottom of the valley, there wasn't a breath of wind! I arrived to see the dunes were all tracked up and not looking all that photogenic. Bummer!

There was one promising aspect of the weather, however. Lots of high streaming clouds abounded and the prospect for an interesting sunset got me all jazzed up. Now where to go?? My original plan of shooting the dunes wasn't too appealing. In the end, I settled on the Badwater area. Why? Because I knew it was still flooded from all the mega-rains the park received back in December and there might be some interesting reflection shots to be had. What didn't appeal to me was the fact that it would be roughly a 75 mile round trip. After a 7 hour drive the thought of that wasn't too thrilling, but I sucked it up and headed out there with the image below being the result. It was nothing too exciting for sure, but that had more to do with fact that I just didn't have enough time to scope out the area and had to settle for what you see once the sky started lighting up.

Sunset Reflection at Badwater
Day 2: I rose early and made my way out to the Mesquite Flats dunes under the cover of darkness. I had a feeling it would be a frustrating outing trying to find a decent untracked composition before first light. I was right! To make matters worse, as the sky slowly started lightening up, I could see the possibility of interesting pre-dawn light. I was actually able to find what I thought was a stellar composition before that happened, but the scene was just too tracked up. I snapped off a few shots anyway and spent the rest of the morning exploring the dunes in what turned out to be very flat, unphotogenic light (caused by high clouds obscurring the sun). Even though I didn't come away with anything too interesting that morning, I considered it to be a good outing as it gave me the opportunity to explore and locate some interesting compositions that I hoped to revisit under more optimal conditions. That's half the battle in my book.

After grabbing some lunch, I broke camp and headed 20 miles south to the community of Furnace Creek, where I planned to camp the second night. Furnace Creek had a bit more to offer than Stovepipe Wells, but the pickings were still pretty slim. Fortunately, I was pretty self contained and wasn't in need of anything anyway. My goal this evening was to further explore the Badwater Basin, particularly in search of the photogenic salt polygons that can be found there.

In normal times, the basin is bone dry with the exception of a small pond that can be found at the main Badwater parking area. However, with the December rains that pond was now an expansive, shallow lake that pretty much submerged most of the salt polygons that were normally found in that area. Instead, I decided to follow a graded dirt road that cut across the basin before paralleling it on the west side (the main highway runs along the east side). This road split off the highway well north of the flooded area so I hoped to find more polygons there. Bingo! The rest of that afternoon was spent exploring these smaller salt pans until I settled on my location for a late day shoot. The area of most interest to me contained a smaller pond that transitioned to a completely dry salt pan. It was the transition area that really caught my interest. There, the salt polygons were no longer submerged but still contained some unevaporated water in them. My thought was that this little bit of water would nicely reflect a colorful sky at sunset. Given that the current weather pattern of high streaming clouds showed no signs of abating, this was looking like a real possibility. To my amazement, I got my third straight sunrise/set with amazing sky color and my hopes were realized!

Salt Polygons at Sunset
Day 3: My subject of interest this morning were the fantastic badlands found at Zabriskie Point, a short 10 minute drive southeast of my Furnace Creek campsite. While most photographers shoot this from the scenic overlook adjacent to the parking area, I had planned to shoot from a different vantage point atop a ridge that was found immediately northwest of the parking area. Since this was my first visit, I decided the previous afternoon to stop by and scout the area to figure out where I wanted to shoot from. I was glad I did! While it wasn't that big of a deal to figure it all out in the daylight hours, it would've been much more difficult to do so under the cloak of early morning darkness. Thus, I eliminated what would've been inevitable frustration and wasted time and was able to go directly to my chosen spot on this morning.

Not all was perfect on this outing though. Not long before I dragged myself out of my sleeping bag, I noticed a slight increase in the wind. Since I'm cursed with being an extremely light sleeper, I notice stuff like that. By the time I got up, it was getting stronger and stronger. By the time I arrived at the top of the ridge, it was absolutely raging! Crap! There was really no way I was going to get a sharp image shooting along the top of the ridge. Since the wind was at my back, my only hope was to descend down a little ways and hope that would break the wind. That worked, but it was a harrowing descent given all the loose rock that sat on top of the steep, hard packed the walls of the ridge. I slid down quite a ways on my arse and was wondering if I'd ever stop! Finally I did on what turned out to be a perfect little ledge from which to shoot.

It wasn't until I was finished with the preoccupation of getting myself into position that I noticed that yet another sweet sunrise was in the offing. Somebody pinch me! I never get this lucky...better enjoy it while I can! Despite the still gusty winds, I was able to rip off some nice pre-sunrise shots. The first light shots were less impressive due to heavily filtered light by all the clouds. Can't have it all, I guess! After getting my fill of shots, I packed everything up and made my way back up to the ridge...very slowly and on all fours!

The Badlands at Zabriskie Point

That was the extent of my shooting on this design. As this was Super Bowl Sunday, my plan was to drive out to the little town of Lone Pine, CA which is situated just outside of the Alabama Hills Recreation Area. Since this area is much more renowned as a sunrise location, I limited my activity to a little scouting before checking into my hotel, grabbing a shower, and watching the big game!

Day 4: Say it ain't so....another fabulous morning appeared to be in the offing as I made my way from the hotel into the Alabama Hills. While this turned out to be the last of my stellar conditions before the sky completely cleared, I'm not gonna complain. It was a good run! My main subject this morning was the spectacular Mobius Arch (also referred to as the Alabama Hills or Galens Arch). This fantastically shaped and textured arch is perfectly positioned to frame two of the most promiment peaks in the Sierras...Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney. It's an iconic shot for sure, but who cares!

Mobius Arch and Lone Pine Peak
After exploring and shooting within the Alabama Hills for a few hours, I packed it in and made my way back to Death Valley and the Mesquite Dunes. This was going to be my last chance to get any kind of decent shots of the dunes. A wind event was in the forecast, but the timing was uncertain. Unfortunately, nothing materialized through the evening hours so I decided to walk back as far as I could into the dune field to see if I could find any interesting untracked compositions. It took a while, but I think I actually succeeded. At least I figured I came away with something of interest from there, even if the morning turned out to be a bust.

Shapes and Contours of the Mesquite Flats Dunes
Day 5: I was awakened around midnight on my final evening by some noisy camping neighbors. I layed awake in the bed of my truck (my tent of choice) and listened for any sign of wind. Nothing. After my neighbor rattled around some more, I poked my head up to see what was going on. It was then I noticed that the stars were no longer visible and the valley floor seemed to be enveloped in some sort of fog. Strange! After thinking about it a bit, I realized that it couldn't have been fog, it had to be dust. It was mere moments after that when the first wind gusts ripped through the campground, filling everthing with sand. I quickly closed the truck gate and topper before being buried alive! For the rest of the evening violent winds rocked my truck and pelted it with sand. It was very freaky and pretty much kept me awake the rest of the night. Then, almost as quickly as it began, it started to calm down. I checked my watch. Half hour til sunrise. Shit! I leaped out of my sleeping bag, started up the truck and hurried my way out to the dunes. This was gonna be my only chance to get some untracked shots. From the parking area, I double timed it into the dune field to the spot that I had found on the first morning of the trip. Nothing like trying to double time it through loose sand when just getting out of bed after getting no sleep!! It was exhausting, but I actually made it to the spot with a few minutes to spare (it helped that the sun had to first clear the distant mountains to the east). My exhaustion all melted away when the first rays of golden light swept over the dunes and I tripped my camera's shutter. My trip was complete!

Golden Morning Light On The Mesquite Flats Dunes
To see more imagery from this trip, click the following link...

Death Valley National Park Images


  1. Hey Guy,
    So pleased that you had such a successful and productive time in DV. You got some outstanding images, many of which are amongst your very best. Maybe I should start hangin' out with you more to catch some of that lucky light!

  2. Great trip. I love DeVa. Next time make the effort to get to the Racetrack Playa. If it has rained recently, it will be flooded, but if not, you will be well rewarded.

    Also, I've experienced those winds while sleeping in my car. (Also, my tent of choice.)They can be intimidating.