There’s something special about the desert, especially that magical time around sunset and dusk, the smell, the dryness of the air, the color of the light. From childhood the concept of the desert has always held a certain allure for me.
Photographing in Death Valley has always been a dream of a lifetime and apparently it was meant to be. As mentioned in my last post, I was very fortunate to have won a free registration for a Death Valley workshop with Mike Mariant and High Sierra Workshops. I still look back and it feels like a dream, traveling through what really turned out to be just a small portion of Death Valley National Park but experiencing so much variety in environments, vegetation, topography, climates and history.
Death Valley spans an altitude differential of 11,330 feet (3,462 meters) with the high point being Telescope Peak at 11,043 feet (3,366 meters). The lowest point in the park, and also the lowest and hottest point in North America is Badwater Basin at 287 ft (96 m) below sea level.
The view from our first stop, Dante’s View, is pretty spectacular, looking down into the Badwater Basin and surrounded by the Amargosa Range on the east, the Panamint Range on the west, on the nothern border are the Sylvania Mountains and the Owlshead Mountains to the south.
Photography is a bit of a challenge here because the first thought is to use a wide angle lens to capture the expansive scene but everything is so far away any detail gets lost in the image. Add to that a blue cloudless sky and you have a lot of nothing in the frame. The key in this situation is to put the capabilities of that wide angle lens to good us by finding something interesting to place in the foreground and get close enough to that something to have it fill at least 15-20% of the frame.
Another interesting feature of the park that makes for an easy hike is Golden Canyon. Canyon situations always make for interesting composition challenges and opportunities. It may take a while for you to wrap your head around the image opportunities, but once you free your mind you can start to see shapes and features in the shadows and outlines of the rock formations.
Of course the ideal time to shoot in almost any landscape situation is around “golden hour”, that 60 minute period around sunrise and sunset. On this day we decided to experience the golden light of sunset at the Devil’s Golf Course. I love the names given to many of the locations and features in Death Valley, each with it’s own visual imagery before you have ever even seen the location.
There are so many “favorite” locations I found in Death Valley that it’s hard to prioritize them but one of the top spots was the sand dunes, and there is no better time to shoot sand dunes than sunrise or sunset. The beautiful stark definition of light and shadow coupled with the beautiful natural undulating patterns of the wind-blown sand make for natures own masterpieces, ever changing and always mesmerizing.
Shooting the sand dunes this particular morning presented a few challenges, fortunately none of them insurmountable. First off, in the desert it’s hard to tell distance because there isn’t much to use for visual and depth reference. The dunes we were going to be shooting looked relatively close but ended up being a good 20 minute hike to get to. Now granted that doesn’t sound like much but walking through soft sand carrying 20+ pounds of photo gear in the dry desert air and I think everyone was very happy to finally make it to the shoot location. The second challenge is that not everyone visiting the dunes was interested in photographing them, in fact many people that show up at sunrise at the dunes are there apparently to walk across the pristine sharp defining edge of the dune thus destroying its primary photographic appeal. I am still not sure why they had to be there at sunrise for their experience but, oh well. It certainly added to the challenge but everyone still managed to get some really great images of this iconic feature of the park.
I love ghost towns. Not that I had ever actually been to a ghost town, that is until visiting Rhyolite.
Rhyolite is an long abandoned town at the eastern edge of Death Valley. In its heyday Rhyolite was a booming mining town with three railroad lines for taking the gold and other ores out of the middle of Death Valley. It’s a town with lots of history and interesting stories…
Along the road from the railroad station to the jail is a single gravesite surrounded by a wire fence. On the fence and inside the fenced area are many artifacts left in commemoration of Mona Belle who met her end at the age of 21. As the story goes, Isabella Haskins (aka Mona Belle) needed money to get her “crazy” boyfriend out of jail. To do this she turned to prostitution. Once she had saved enough money to bail him out he was released. Shortly after that he shot poor Mona, in the back, four times because apparently he WAS crazy. Every year on the anniversary of her death a mysterious group of women come dressed in period clothing, drink whisky and celebrate her life. This is evidenced by the many empty whiskey bottles in the fenced area. There are many other versions of how Mona met her untimely end but this one is the most interesting one I heard.
Also included in the outskirts of town is a “Bottle House”. Tom Kelly built this Bottle House around 1905, around the height of the gold rush in Rhyolite because there is not much wood in the desert and reportedly in Tom’s words “it’s difficult to build a house out of Joshua’s trees”. Built from 51,000 beer bottles and adobe mud over one an a half years. The beer bottles were donated from the 50 bars in town at the time.
Outside of town are a couple more interesting sites. There is a museum with period artifacts from Rhyolite’s busier days. Outside of the museum is what can only be described as an eerie collection of sculptures depicting the Last Supper. I guess the reason they seem a little creepy is that they are all white and look like people draped in sheets, looking like ghosts. Very different…
Also outside of Rhyolite is the Bullfrog Cemetery. Sadly it has not been maintained or protected. As a result many of the wooden grave markers have been taken. According to our guide there are even fewer now than there were just a year ago.
We had to skip sunset at Badwater this day due to the unseasonably warm weather conditions for the time of year (March). Temperatures were expected to be about 105 degrees. With hiking required everyone reluctantly agreed to pass on this site.
One of the most popular sites to photograph in Death Valley is Sunrise at Zabriski Point. True to form this area was overrun with photographers jockeying for position to get their images of sunrise as the warm morning light painted the peaks of Tucki Mountain in the distance, and eventually Manly Beacon and the landscape of Zabriski Point.
The following day would be the longest, most exciting and most anticipated. This is the day we would be traveling to the area known as the Racetrack playa. A playa is a dried lakebed. This is the location of what used to be known as the Mysterious Sliding Rocks of Death Valley. That is until 2013 when the mystery was finally solved. Now they are just referred to as the Sliding Rocks. However, we would schedule our day to arrive at the Racetrack playa shortly before sunset for the best light to capture the amazing texture of the dry lakebed and of course, the sliding rocks. Before getting there we would hit several noteworthy locations.
Due to the treacherous driving conditions we would be encountering this day we rented rugged jeeps with reinforced tires. The reason for the special vehicles is that the road in the area where we would be traveling is made up of very jagged and sharp rocks. People routinely try to drive their personal vehicles along these roads and get flat tires, sometimes multiple flat tires. It can take many hours to get your car rescued in these remote locations and if the breakdown occurs late in the day you may be spending the night in your car. That’s also the reason the park strongly recommends several gallons of water per person per day and blankets for that unexpected overnight stay when temperatures can plunge.
This day we start our day driving through Titus Canyon. A 24 mile long canyon that changes elevation several times throughout the trip, and narrows down as you traverse the canyon until you finally get spit out at the other end. The canyon is full of interesting sites including natural marking on the large stone faces that resemble imaginary animals like dragons and crazy plastic aliens…okay, maybe I was a little dehydrated.
From Titus Canyon we headed toward Ubehebe Crater, and from there, to the Racetrack!
On the way to the Racetrack we passed the Joshua Tree Forest and Teakettle Junction. There is something about Joshua Trees that just make them look cool. Maybe it’s because they look so different from any other kind of tree. Maybe it’s because they come in different sizes and configurations. Maybe it’s because while you’re admiring these trees you need to be careful where you’re walking lest you have an unpleasant encounter with a scorpion or a rattlesnake. I’m not sure, but I just think they’re cool looking.
Teakettle Junction sits at the crossroads where the road from Ubehebe Crater meets the road to the Racetrack playa. Sadly the story of it’s name is lost to history but it is adorned with an assortment of tea kettles, many with messages on them, left by previous visitors.
And finally after a very long day and a seemingly endless drive we arrive at the Playa Racetrack. The road from Ubehebe Crater to the Racetrack is about 27 miles long, only wide enough for one vehicle even though it is a two way road, and full of twists and turns. And as I mentioned earlier, covered with hard, sharp tire piercing rocks.
I was happy that (1) I was not driving, (2) I was traveling with a team who had made this trip many times and (3) our vehicles were equipped for the road conditions. We were also lucky it had not rained or had any snow runoff into the lakebed. When this happens you can’t (or should not) walk on the wet areas because your footprints will cause a permanent mark in the mud which can last for decades.
This was the pinnacle of the trip for me, the place I had dreamt of visiting, the place I would have wanted to stay for days. I had no idea how difficult it was to get to this location. Unfortunately we only had about 60-70 minutes to shoot. The closest area where there is a concentration of the sliding rocks is about a half mile hike from the parking area. We shot until the sun went behind the adjacent peak, at which point the visible texture of the ground all but disappears, and then had to head back to the cars so we could make it back to a paved road before it got too dark.
As short lived as it was, this time at the Playa was magical. There was just something about the “feel” of the place. It may have just been in my head, or because I had looked forward to those moments for so long. But I was very happy to have experienced and photographed in one of my dream locations, and now look forward to my return.
We finished off the excursion with a follow up trip to the sand dunes but I don’t feel the conditions were as favorable that last morning as they had been when we were there several days earlier. Maybe because there were some high level clouds that softened the light and prevented us from getting those stark lines of light and shadow on the dunes. It was still a beautiful ending to a magnificent trip.
While it was a quick 3 days I’ll never forget the experience and I am grateful for the opportunity to experience one of my dreams! I look forward to the day I can return, add to the images of the locations we visited, and maybe visit some of the areas we did not get to.
Hotel Information: Longstreet Inn and Casino – they were very accommodating it was a nice mix of visitors and locals, especially for karaoke night!
If you’re in the area you will want to make a trip to the best sandwich place for miles, KC’s Outpost Saloon and Eatery, 100 E. Main St., Beatty, NV
Many Thanks to Photo Guides: Michael Mariant assisted by Aaron Lambert. (High Sierra Workshops)
Joe Vargas Photography has received no compensation in the writing of this blog post.