More Than Sand and Heat
I've seen Death Valley from several perspectives. The most common approach is to see the sights by car. To that experience, I've added single-day 200-mile bicycle rides from Furnace Creek to Shoshone and back, and many hiking adventures. Each experience has it's advantages, and each brings new appreciation for the area.
California's Death Valley National Park is much more than sand and high temperatures. Take time to do some exploring. Unique geological features and remnants of mining operations can be found in several locations. Except for Above Golden Canyon and Marble Canyon, the photos below are samples of the diversity that can be seen not far from the roadway.
Most of my favorite places at Death Valley are along the perimeter of the valley and away from the paved road. There are dozens of canyons surrounding the valley. Hiking the canyons and ridges brings a chance to see the shapes and light that make this area so much fun and challenging to photograph. Four-wheel drive will expand your range, but there's splendid hiking starting near roadside, too. Take plenty of water, even in winter. This is a dry place.
This area often overlooked and not promoted by the Park Service (which is probably a good thing since it would easily be degraded by foot traffic). It offers excellent opportunities for making high contrast images of light and line. If you visit this area, tread lightly, respect all plant life—even those that look dead—and don't draw graffiti on the salt (geez). Enjoy the stark beauty of the land, without interference, and make interesting photographs.
As dawn approaches, photographers arrive at the ridge. Zabriskie Point overlooks canyon formations and Manly Beacon. There, photographers hope to see and photograph the contours and color in good light. Hues shift as the sun rises higher. When sunrise is over, and the shadows become shorter, the photographers move on to other subjects.
Badwater is 284 feet below sea level. Generally, there's not much water there; mostly salt. Low angle light best reveals the texture of the salt formations. A bit of weather in the sky can make photographs more interesting. The most likely opportunity to see and photograph clean, white salt is after rainfall before dust and dirt settles on top.
The Sand Dunes of Death Valley are among the primary attractions for photographers. Sunrise and sunset provide warm light at a low angle, and there are ample opportunities for images of light and form. However, there's an element of luck involved that determines which sort of opportunties are best pursued. If the night was windy, the tracks of visitors may be absent in morning and photographers can pursue a large, pristine view. However, the sky is not always clear, and an overcast haze will mute high contrast light, reducing definition on the dunes. That situation can create other possibilities, such as Sunrise on a Photographer. And when footprints are everywhere, it's often best to look for smaller, close views of the sand. Sometimes including the people - or animals - who make those footprints can improve a photograph by providing a sense of scale to the sand formations. With so many shapes and diverse possibilities, a trip to Mesquite Flat Dunes should not be disappointing.
Canyons surrounding the basin of Death Valley provide interesting hiking and, with patience and effort, interesting photography. Golden Canyon, Mosaic Canyon, and Natural Bridge are probably the most frequented. One of the challenges of Death Valley photography is establishing a sense of scale. For that reason, it is sometimes advantageous to include people or other features of recognizable size. Lighting can change rapidly in the canyons, so take advantage of good situations when you see them; the light will be different later. And don't forget to take water with you. Death Valley is dry, even in cool weather.
Death Valley Comes Alive
Death Valley is a land of extremes, and their nature is not always predictable. Winter of 2005 brought more rain and runoff to Death Valley than any of the previous fifty years. The first row of photographs in this section were made in March and April of that year.