For my first major trip of 2018 I set my slights on a location I had not visited since I was a kid in the back seat during a family vacation – Death Valley. I distinctly remember driving through Death Valley during some family vacation, it was late enough that the rental Town Car had an outside temperature gauge which was of course an interesting stat for a dash through the valley in what was most likely June, but I’m also fairly certain we didn’t stop to experience the valley heat for ourselves. For my trip this year, in order to avoid the heat that the park is famous for, I planned my trip for the middle of February.
My planning for this trip started like most of my trips. Once I had decided on a location I started researching sample photos on various online galleries to gather ideas on shots, purchased the Photographing California Vol. 2 (South); a series of books which has always been a valued research tool before and during a trip, as well as looking at moon phases and weather. With the hope of shooting some early season Milky Way in the desert, or at least some star trails while the days where short and nights long, I aimed for near the new moon around the 15th of the month. For lodging, I decided to fly out and stay the first night in the Las Vegas area so I could shoot Red Rock Canyon in the morning before heading out to Death Valley. The rest of the trip was intended to be spent camping within the park. Like many other National Parks, only a couple of the campgrounds in the park take prior reservations. Furnace Creek did, but by the time I booked I was only able to get a reservation for the middle of the week. My friend David and would be winging it for a couple nights, not something I usually do, but the guide books promised that Death Valley campgrounds were never filled to capacity. More about that in a moment.
After reviewing all the photos online, figuring out that I wouldn’t be able to get too far off the beaten path even in a rental SUV without renting an off-road vehicle at a local outfitter at a steep price, I decided that I had plenty of photo locations to hit within the week out of the Furnace Creek central base of camp. Zabriskie Point is only a short drive, Artists Palette not much further south, and Badwater Basin about as far south as I’d plan to go about 30-40mins away. To the north Mesquite Dunes wasn’t a difficult drive, and even the Ghost Town of Rhyolite, NV wasn’t an unreasonable distance.
So they say no plan survives the first encounter with the enemy. On this trip the enemy was an unexpected 4 day weekend local to Southern California. I was starting this trip over President’s Day weekend, and after countless problems starting or ending trips on holidays I said I was done, but this wasn’t Labor Day or something, expect, it was. In southern California they take the Friday before President’s Day as a ‘Frontier history’ holiday, which means everyone in the region heads for the desert, and Death Valley. After a longer than intended drive through Titus Canyon from Ryholite into the park, and getting into Stovepipe Wells where we had planned to spend the night well after dark, we found it – FULL. Really really full. And of course after dark trying to find one or two possible empty spaces if there was one, or anyone who was in charge, was impossible. I already knew Furnace Creek was full, so we went in search of a campground. In the process we also caught wind, quite literally, that the weather was in for a major change overnight, with high winds, and possible freezing temperatures and even snow in the upper elevations. Between the pending storm and fully booked campgrounds, hotels, motels, anything short of the Bates Motel between Death Valley and Ridgecrest California, well over an hour to the south, was full. So Ridgecrest was were we found ourselves the next morning. Well out of the park where we’d intended to shoot, but with a decent night’s sleep and calorie packed breakfast we started fresh with aims on Death Valley.
The rest of the trip went much smoother, though we ended up in a hotel a night or two more than we’d originally planned even after the night in Ridgecrest. As sometimes is the case, I choose blowing the budget over the frustration and time lost in ‘dealing with’ the unexpected. The Furnace Creek campground is a very nice area, right next to the still under renovation Furnace Creek resort which looks like it’s going to be a nice option here very soon as well. During down time mid-day, David and I did swing back through the Stovepipe Wells campground to get a look at it in the daylight, though by the time we did, the hordes of weekend vacationers had left and it looked like a ghost town compared to what we had encountered the few nights prior.
While the skies didn’t cooperate quite as much as I’d have liked, with clouds coming in shortly after sunset when we would have wanted them, and then screwing up night shots when we didn’t want the clouds around, we did get a chance at some star trails one evening, to explore many of the regions of Death Valley’s lower elevations including Badwater Basin, Zabriskie, Artists Palette and others. Overall most of our best luck came during the blue hours before the clear blue skies of the desert started beating down on the valley. And as is usually my luck, and I’m sure more than a few photographers out there can agree with this, the best skies and most interesting light came just as David and I were having to pack up camp and head back to town for our flights home. During the drive back from Death Valley into Las Vegas, I could see churning storm clouds on the horizon, just over the tops of the mountains that surround the city. Once back in range of a cellphone signal, a quick check of the radars confirmed what I suspected, the storms were sitting in the peaks around Red Rock Canyon where I had visited my first morning. What I wasn’t aware of was that it wasn’t rain coming down, it was snow! The white stuff what short lived, but the opportunities too good to pass up as I scrambled to get into the National Conservation area – an idea I seemed to share with hundreds of other people who were in the Las Vegas area. So in all – the trip ended much like how it started, with unexpected crowds and weather!
Continue reading below for details on specific locations throughout the park and beyond that for me had the most photographic opportunity and success.
One of the few places we visited multiple times, Zabriskie Point is one of the iconic spots within Death Valley. With easy access and only a short walk from a fairly ample parking area up to the official view point that provides panoramic views of the surrounding badlands and the easily recognizable Manly Beacon peak. As you walk up form the parking lot, you can be tempted to be distracted by the badlands on either side, but unless your plan is to hike out into the badlands or one of the trails down through Golden Canyon, the best shooting locations is from further up just out in front of the official view point. The main point of going further out is to get the ground in the immediate foreground out of your shot. Manly Beacon is straight ahead, just off to the right. Further right is a larger ridge (on top of which I actually saw some photographers setting up and shooting) of darker colors, which blend and mix into the lighter color hills below. On the left side of the view point is more light hued badlands that are topped with darker colors, backed by multi-hued hills. My best shots in this location were all on the longer focal length. Without hiking out further into the hills there really aren’t options for ultra-wide shots.
A place that a day time visit does no justice, this hillside of many colors looks best under diffused light. I recommend an evening shoot, getting there around the time that the sun disappears behind the mountains on the far side of the valley will give you soft shadows, no direct light, but enough light left to get the natural colors of the hills to come to life. As usual the official view point provides good views, but not the best views. While I recommend venturing through the wash to explore the hills up a little closer, I found that finding a slightly higher vantage point in the hills right around the parking lot provided some great stacked color compositions with the 70-200mm lens. I shot here until the exposure times reached 30 seconds at moderate f-stop settings and ISO200, throughout the colors were plentiful right out of camera, and needed only some general editing for contrast and detail to get these images to truly pop. I’ve heard that the colors here are even better after a rain, but in one of the driest places on earth, I wouldn’t hold your breath for that sort of luck. Getting there is fairly simple, just look for the aptly named Artists Drive, a one-way road off Badwater Dr.
Mudflats near Artists Dr.
One of those things that almost everyone but a photographer would pass up without a second thought, there are several areas throughout Death Valley that can create cracked mud flats depending on the brief storms and rains from the year before. I asked around to numerous friends and follow photographers who had frequented the park in the past, compared photos from many sources until I zeroed in on an area in between the exit and entry to Artists Dr. Good news is that parking is easy right off the side of Badwater Dr, and a short walk towards the mountains will find you on infinite compositions of cracked mud. Depending on the time of year, you can possibly get the Milky Way core coming up over the horizon, or an ideal spot for a sunrise almost any time of year – I would recommend going out on the flats the day before and pinning a few specific compositions first though. In retrospect, David and I probably didn’t venture far enough across the flats to find the really interesting patterns and textures, being our first time in the region we really didn’t know exactly where to find the best stuff, and in the excitement of the moment didn’t pay enough attention to the reference photos and other materials we had. Since coming back and comparing some of my shots to those of other photographers from the same area – I believe the best stuff was probably another half mile or more away from the road. Another reason to go scout in depth during the ‘off times’ and not be torn between finding the best foregrounds or missing the best light.
Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes
Easily the most accessible sand dunes in Death Valley, Mesquite Flats is a good place to explore, but the downside is as the most accessible dunes, everyone else is exploring those dunes too. And unless you get there in the middle of, or right after, a major wind storm finding dunes without foot prints may be the biggest challenge of the day. Some of my favorite shots I’ve seen of these or other dunes have been in the middle of blinding sand storms, with streams of sand flying off the top of each ridge and peak. And if David and I had been smart we would have hit the dunes as soon as we got back into the park after that first night storm. I feared however that a lingering knee problem would flare up after a day of trudging through the dunes ruining the remainder of the trip’s planned hikes. So instead I finally stepped into the dunes later in the trip, on a much calmer and brighter day. Like snow, bright sand plays tricks on your camera’s light meter, be sure to take some test shots and adjust accordingly with your exposure compensation. I never got a chance to do the real golden hour shots here that I wanted to. David ventured back out later at night to do some amazing single frame star trails that really made me regret playing it safe with my time on the dunes, and is certainly a place I will return to.
When you think of Death Valley, the chances are Badwater Basin is what you think of. The lowest point in North America, its salt flats stretch for miles. Coming from the Furnace Creek area, take the aptly named Badwater Rd past the loop for Artists Palette to the parking area for Badwater Basin. It’s approximately 18 miles down from Furnace Creek, so give yourself enough time to reach both the parking area, and for the hike out to the best salt formations. Note – the speed limit is low, it may take a bit more time than you might expect. From the parking area a well worn smooth path of highly tread salt leads out onto the flats. It’s well over a half mile, closer to a full mile out onto the flats before you start finding pristine examples of the iconic polygon shapes of cracked salt that the basin is best known for. This is *the* place for that ultra wide lens. Getting low, with that ultra wide lens to accentuate the shapes of the salt up close that then fades into the endless flat of the salt into the distance. Now if you’re really really lucky, and time your visit to Death Valley just at the right time you might be treated to a real experience – a flooded basin. Once or twice a year, the valley gets enough rain to fill the polygons with water to create amazing reflections across the flats. I will say, no matter what the weather is like, I recommend getting to the flats with plenty of time to spare. The sun disappears behind the mountains to the west earlier than you’d think and you may end up screaming at the sun to stop while you’re still trying to get to the parking lot let alone out on the flats. Ask me how I know.
In between the magic hours, David and I spent most of our time either scouting locations for the day or morning ahead, or just exploring the vastness that is Death Valley National Park. While where we could reach was ultimately limited by the rental cars and our desire not to change a flat tire with a bottle jack on rocky soil, we did drive the rough West Side Road which leads to the Devil’s Golf Course. Beyond the Golf Course we didn’t find a whole lot of interest, imho it’s not worth going beyond on West Side road unless you just want to explore. I’ve seen some amazing shots out on the Golf Course from the golden hours of sunrises coming up over the mountain ridge, but as with most places lost all it’s magic during the mid day light when we were there.
Harmony Borax Works is a historic site located between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells not far from Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes. I only visited this location in the darkness, choosing to shoot star trails here instead of out on the dunes with David. The old mule train wagons out front made for an interesting foreground for the shot. One thing I hadn’t considered was due to the fairly early hour in the night I was shooting, there was still a lot of air traffic in the area. This resulted in a lot of extra work during post processing to remove the plane trails. It’s possible, just tedious.
Rhyolite Nevada is a ghost town and art exhibit area just outside the park boundaries near the town of Beatty. Yes, I said both ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘Art’ – don’t ask me, this is the wild west, but trust me, it works. There are a number of sculptures of various types and styles around the area – including ‘The Last Supper’ seen above which I lit using a set of LitraTorch cubes. Further up the road is a set of ruins of several buildings, and the old rail station which is still in great shape – and heavily protected by chain-link fencing. Old cars and other items of interest are also within easy walking distance. As this is a fairly popular area, ideally shoot here on the weekdays if aiming to do astrophotography to avoid problems with other visitors possibly arriving after dark with headlights hitting whatever foregrounds you’re working with.
Death Valley was the second of a sequence of 3 major trips into the desert landscapes of the west. The first was a workshop with Mark Metternich through Arizona and southern Utah, an amazing experience in learning how to shoot in these landscapes with a photographer knows the region like the back of their hand. This trip to Death Valley was the second of the three, with a week in Big Bend a month and a half later. Of the three, Death Valley presented a unique set of challenges, mostly weather related. As always, David and I did our best to stay flexible with our schedule and plans, adjusting and adapting to what mother nature threw our way. I came away from the trip with an amazing set of images, not all of them the way I had set out to capture, and not every item on my wish list checked off. But that’s just the way landscape photography goes. If everything went exactly to plan, the light perfect at every turn, there would be no growth, no adventure. And for me, the adventure means just as much as the images on the card. I hope your own trips are a good mix of the two as well.