Death Valley national park
“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” ― Allen Saunders
Things don't always go as planned. I started researching national parks last year. I had decided that they were a perfect canvas to improve my photography skills, providing a wide variety of environments to capture. The usual suspects began to top my list, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, or Arches maybe. The more research I did, however, the more I discovered that they were incredibly crowded, not ideal for photography. So I began looking at different landscapes and stumbled upon Death Valley. I, like most people I assume, pictured Death Valley as a barren desert devoid of photographic possibility. I could not have been more wrong. The more I learned about it the more I started to realize it was exactly what I was looking for. I like to shoot cold weather and mountains, this was pretty much the opposite and I became fascinated with shooting outside my comfort zone. I had big aspirations for expanding my photographic horizons. I was going to make an attempt at astro-photography for the first time, and I planned to capture a comprehensive vlog for the first time. So with dreams of my burgeoning media empire in tow, I set out.
Arriving in Las Vegas I scooped up my Jeep Wrangler which would serve as my home for the next three days. Diving north through Nevada I made my way into the park. I was immediately struck with the size of this place. Long narrow ribbons of asphalt snake between ever growing mountains, you feel as though you are growing smaller by the mile. The drab brown mountains of Nevada give way to the stripes of color in the Funeral mountains. It becomes increasingly difficult not to just pull over and stare in astonishment at the enormous beauty of the landscape. Stopping at the Furnace Creek visitors center I familiarized myself with the layout of the park, and the proximity of the sites I wished to visit. Top of my list was the Eureka Sand Dunes. I had read many online accounts of the treacherous road to the dunes, miles upon miles of rough, tire chewing washboard dirt road leading to one of the most remote spots in the park, perfect.
As I left the comfort of smooth paved road, I could not imagine what an epic journey I was about to embark upon. The map that I had so wisely purchased ( there is NO cell service in the majority of the park) showed a 9 mile road leading through the mountains to my destination. The road was just as advertised, it shook every fiber of my being and I was forced to keep the Jeep at about 20mph. I can fully understand why you are told never to bring a rental car out here. When you get a flat you are on your own, in the vast desert, and did I mention that there is no cell service? If I weren't in the very capable Wrangler I would have quickly turned around and sought the safety of pavement. As the miles slowly accumulated I realized that I was not nearly as far as I should be. Ten miles passed, and then twenty, the mountain pass seemed to stay just out of reach. The sun was beginning to sink behind the mountains and I became concerned that my first sunset was going to be spent on this dirt track instead of on the dunes. After 30 miles and about two hours of being shaken to death, I pulled over to consult the map. To my dismay what appeared to be a 9 mile journey, was in fact a 45 mile trek. Too far in to turn back I drove on, exhausted from the flight and drive I had no choice but to make it to the dunes.
As darkness crept slowly over the desert I made my way cautiously through the mountain pass, ever wary of the pitfalls along this steep rough road. Finally clearing the pass I saw the first sign pointing to my destination. I pulled into the dune area in total darkness, fully expecting to be the only soul in this vast remote void. To my surprise there were people everywhere. Campfires and tents dotted the side of the road as I searched in the darkness for a place to rest. I was becoming concerned that this trip was not going as planned, The first day was over and I had yet to capture the an image. But as I stepped out of the Jeep to shake off the weariness of the long journey I looked up and remembered why I was here.
Now I have seen many images of the night sky and the milky way. But as I stand there, mouth agape, I was not prepared for the enormity of this place. It seemed as though I would leave the ground and fall into this vastness, every inch of the heavens were covered with flashing beauty. I will admit as I set up my camera I thought it might be impossible to convey the boundless glory of it all. Having never seen, much less photographed, a night sky of this magnitude I must admit I was a little intimidated. After shooting for what seemed like an eternity I decided to finally rest.
I swear I just heard footsteps, I leaned up to try and make sense of the blackness, but I couldn't have heard anyone out here.The clock says 4:25 a.m. There were no campsites within a few hundred yards and its 29 degrees but, there it is again! I pulled my flashlight and began to scan the area and there, someone in a black jacket with no light. Having caught his attention he began walking toward the Jeep. I grab my knife, sleepily ready for mortal combat. As he approaches I realize that rather than some lost psycho killer, hes just a lost twenty something. He explains through chattering teeth that he left his campsite to use the bathroom with no flashlight and now he is wandering the desert, freezing and desperately looking for his tent. Against my better judgement I tell him to get in and we will try to find his friends. I do however, keep the knife in the seat at the ready. After what seems like an hour we finally find his campsite, he is grateful and exhausted. With my early morning life saving adventure finished I decide to scout the area before dawn. Arriving after dark I did not get to see what was looming directly behind me, but as the sun crept toward the horizon the Eureka Dunes were finally in view.
The Eureka Dunes rise 700 feet above the desert floor. Surrounded by the Last Chance mountains they
are an impressive sight. Now in full-on photographer mode I scaled the dunes as quickly as possible (which is not very quickly) trying to beat the quickly rising sun. Everywhere I turned compositions came into view, textures and angles laying themselves out before me.
Once the sun had crested the mountains and the light became harsh I decided it was time to move on. The drive to the dunes still fresh in my mind I consulted my map. My choices were limited, go back across the rough path I had taken here, or go deeper into California and take the longer, but smoother route back to Death Valley. This was an easy choice. I Headed down the mercifully paved road through the Inyo mountain range. I would have to cross over into Big Pine and make my way south following behind the range before crossing back into Death Valley. The landscape became more incredible with each turn. The huge boulders of Death Valley now transformed into the Joshua trees of the Inyo National Forest.
Like an alien world, the undulating hills covered with these spiked trees continued on. As I made my way through tight passes and sharp switchbacks I came to a valley and was absolutely astonished at what lay before me.
Rising over the desert horizon, the Sierra's suddenly made their presence known. I have never seen such an impressive mountain display. Towering peaks covered in snow strike a sharp contrast to the terrain I had just covered. These images don't do justice to the sheer size of this range. After taking a short rest in Big Pine I made my way through the valley in the shadow of Mt. Whitney back to my destination. After reentering the park I made my way to the charcoal kilns. These kilns were built in 1877 to supply charcoal to the many mines in the area. Remarkably they still have the burnt wood smell even after all of these years.
As day two started to wind down it was time to make my way to the other big dunes in the park, the Mesquite Flats sand dunes. I knew I was in trouble as soon as I arrived, there were hundreds of people on the dunes. Dunes are best shot when pristine and smooth. There was no chance of getting good shots with this many people. My only saving grace was shooting them from a distance.
As the day slowly began to fade, I couldn't help but marvel at the beauty of this place. Every direction provided a more spectacular view.
My next stop was one of the most anticipated of this trip, Ryolite ghost town. I had already decided that I wanted to shoot in Ryolite after dark. The array of broken down deserted buildings juxtaposed against the stars provided a brilliant, if creepy, canvas.
To my surprise there were a group of three other photographers shooting the dilapidated town that night. we combined our efforts and knowledge and had a great night of shooting.
Once again exhausted I made my way to Beatty, NV to grab a bite to eat and then headed back to Death Valley for my final night.
I knew that Zabriskie Point is one of the highlights of Death Valley, and I intended to be there at sunrise to witness the light creeping over the mountains. I spent the night in the Jeep intent on being one of the first ones there. As the horizon began to glow I could see the sightseers and photographers were already scrambling for position. Securing my spot I marveled at the size of this formation.
The people who were adventurous enough to make the trek down onto the rocks, appeared as tiny specks in the distance. In the image below you can see the hiker just rounding the bend in this section of the creek bed. The sun began to cast its glow on the multi colored layers of stone, igniting their colors. This was a fitting end to my journey.
I didn't get to see or photograph all of the things I had planned on. The racetrack with its crawling stone, Ubehebe Crater, and the Artist's drive all eluded me because of time constraints. I didn't vlog as I had intended, the media empire will have to emerge another day. But this was still a special, if exhausting, trip into the deserts of Death Valley. And even if I never make it back to this special place I will remember it fondly.
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