At the end of 2015 I ditched the Colorado snow and headed for the warm sun of Death Valley, California. Well, okay, it's not that warm there in December (stupid northern hemisphere and science) but the days are far more pleasant and the nights more mild than they are in Colorado this time of year. I'm going to write a bit about my experiences in the park but mostly I want to share the images!
Death Valley National Park has been on my radar for many years, but this was finally my first trip there. From the moment I entered the park all I could say was, "Wow!" It's truly an oasis for landscape photography, containing just about every type of desert landscape you could imagine and then some. I entered the park on the east side, near the Badwater salt flats so right after I checked in at the visitor center I headed towards the flats and set out on foot to explore. Right away I was amazed how empty the park is. I turned down a dirt road to explore the flats, but only saw one car pass by on the road in the three hours that I was on foot exploring the otherworldly salt formations. Perhaps it was the time of year and the fact that it was the week before Christmas, but almost no one was there.
This turns out to be my absolute favorite time to photograph. I don't have to worry about crowds of people and my mind can finally detach itself from humanity and really connect with nature. I was just beginning a full week long journey so I had no rush and from here on out all that mattered was when the sun rises and sets. The salt flats were unusual at this time because there had been massive flooding back in October of 2015. I could only assume that the flooding is what caused this unusual salt and mud flow seen below.
For someone like me who likes to travel in a van and not pay for camping, this park is just wonderful! Yes, there are a few paid campgrounds (none of them all that pricey actually, around $12-$20 from what I saw) but I was able to spend the entire week there without spending a dime on camping. Most of the massive park is open to backcountry camping, meaning that you can park your vehicle on the side of many dirt roads and spend the night there for free. Of course you gotta bring lots of water and definitely practice leave no trace ethics, but this is just perfect for me! Make sure to check with the visitor center and get your map that shows where you can camp. You can only practice this dispersed camping on dirt roads that aren't day use only areas, but because this park is so huge that still leaves a lot of great spots. Chances are you won't be bumping into people most nights either.
The first night I was there, I drove two miles up a dirt road (more like driving up a dry wash into a canyon) to get to a spot where camping was allowed. It was about an hour after sunset and I could see 20 miles in each direction. And it was all dark, beautifully silent and dark. I saw one set of headlights meander across the very far side of the valley, then back to complete darkness until the moon rose and lit up the valley. The experience was bone-chillingly surreal, for the first time in weeks I was truly alone and could hear my own thoughts. It was wonderful.
The park exceeds its expectations for spectacular scenery and solitude in every corner of the huge expanse of land. And when I say that it's huge, I mean it. It would take at least 5 or 6 hours of driving to cross the entire north to south expanse of the park from the Eureka Valley to the Ibex Dunes. Even if the park has a lot of people in it, there's plenty of room to spread out.
I also found that this desert seems to have sunsets that go on forever. I had never seen colors in the sky last so long, for nearly an hour after the sun had dipped below the horizon. And the light-colored sand, salt and earth picks up on those hues of sunset and twilight like nothing else.
The Racetrack was definitely the highlight of my trip, and also the source of a lot of worry about the road conditions leading up to the trip. The dirt road is 27 miles one-way and they say it takes two hours. They also recommend having a way to deal with at least two flat tires. I have no doubt that you could drive it faster, but I wouldn't recommend it. Seeing how I was in no rush, I set my pace for about 14mph and took it easy. While I had a full size spare, a compressor, and a tire plug kit I still didn't want to deal with flats. The road doesn't really look like it would puncture tires, but it's laced with extremely sharp rocks that can make short work of rubber. Slow speeds and careful driving helps. At the time I went there, ground clearance wasn't an issue for just about any vehicle but it had just been graded after the floods. The grading didn't help one bit with the washboard, as it was about the most intense I'd ever experienced. My slow driving (along with luck) paid off and I was able to get in an out without any flats, but I did have to help out a guy in a Jeep on the way out with a flat tire.
After two hours of rattling your teeth out on the washboard, your ears will likely be ringing once you finally step out of your vehicle and walk out onto the Racetrack Playa. I arrived many hours before sunset so I had the time to stroll around and and scope out just about every rock in the area. For those who don't know, the Racetrack is an unusual place where rocks glide across the playa on their own. No one has yet seen them in action, but time lapse footage was finally captured in late 2014. It appears that a combination of mud, ice and wind moves the rocks by a rather good amount, then they remain in one place for a while until the conditions are right again. You wouldn't want to be out there in the conditions that move the rocks, nor should you because if the playa is wet you'll leave footprints that will last for years.
The sunset I experienced there is one I won't soon forget. Just like the rest of the week, I had the entire place to myself at sunset. It was just me, the rocks, and the changing light out there after a few tourists strolled through in the afternoon. And the sunset was downright amazing to watch from there. I burned through every single sheet of film I had loaded and literally cheered as the sunset finished! Yeah, I'm a bit of a photo-nerd.
The park also has several dune fields, some of them rather remote and untouched. Which is perfect, because it can be hard to find sand dunes without footprints on them. I really can't wait to explore even more of these dune fields in the future and to see what else the park has to offer. A week here really is hardly enough!
If you decide you want to go to Death Valley, I highly recommend Ron Coscorrosa and Sarah Marino's ebook "Desert Paradise: The Landscape Photographer's Guide to Death Valley National Park" It's a very complete guide to Death Valley that would be great not just for photographers, but for anyone wanting to see the best parts of the park. This ebook gave me some very valuable information that saved me time and a lot of gas money (and gas ain't cheap in this park!), so I highly recommend it. You can get your copy of their ebook here.And no, this was not a paid endorsement, I just think its a very high quality guide.
Well that's all the images I have for now. As a large format film shooter, that's honestly quite a bit to come away with for just one week! Now I'm back in Colorado and in the cold, which isn't all that bad to be honest. In fact I need to finish writing this post so I can go catch some of the fresh snow that just fell in the mountains. I hope you enjoyed the images!
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