Death Valley National Park has been another "bucket list" destination of ours for a while. After returning from Africa last year we decided to try a new domestic destination for 2020. Death Valley was high on the list, and going in winter seemed like a good idea. Summer temperatures soar to 120F. It's also interesting to note that this year saw a new 5-year heat record, reaching 128F in June 2020. Winter is a different story, with temperatures in the 20s and 30s in the dunes in the morning and warming up to the 60-70s by mid-day. It also means that some places can be inaccessible due to snow and road closures from flooding. We took a chance and went in January and we had great weather. There had been heavy rain and snow the week before which washed out some roads and blocked off the high passes, but the week we were there the weather was really good (we even had one day of wind that smoothed out some footprints in the dunes). We spent 3 days in Stovepipe Wells near the sand dunes and 4 days at Furnace Creek -- close to Zabriskie Point and Badwater Basin. This was also Mike's first trip with an infrared converted camera and Hali had a brand new full spectrum converted camera as well. It's always a challenge to take a new camera on vacation, but for both of us we had used the cameras in other forms before, it was the challenge of learning infrared for Mike and working with the different IR filters for Hali. Although 7 days was good, it wasn't nearly enough. We foresee a return trip when things settle down a bit. We hope you enjoy the images that we’ve shared from our vacation. Best wishes to you all and Happy Trails! -- Mike and Hali
> Just click on any image to see a larger version <
We flew into Las Vegas, rented our sad excuse for an SUV and drove out towards Death Valley. Our first stop was Pahrump, NV to buy food and water — knowing that the dining options were limited in the park. We bought important things, like peanut butter and jelly, bread, oranges, dark chocolate M&M's, apples, cheese, juice and lots of water. We thought it was enough to last the entire trip, but it turns out that we had to make a return trip later in the week for more peanut butter and jelly and bread. And more dark chocolate M&M's -- those never last long. After our stop at Pahrump we continued to the park.
We got up well before dawn the next day and made the short drive to the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes. Hali had done a lot of research and reading on where to park, where to walk, etc. All of that went out the window in the wonderful full moon dark, and we just parked in the main lot and walked through the dunes. Our eyes soon adjusted to the light of the moon, and we found our way to probably the most trampled section of the dunes -- but it was...perfect! Having never been in dunes like this before, it was going to be great. But... wow, there were a lot of footprints in the sand!
After our early morning in the dunes we went back to the hotel for a buffet breakfast. Then we went right back out for a walk in Mosaic Canyon...
After that we headed out with thoughts of driving up Emigrant Canyon Road to the old Charcoal Kilns. We got pretty far up Emigrant Canyon road, but as we approached the charcoal kilns the road was covered in snow and our nearly bald tires were not going to make it safely. On the way back we stopped for a selfie on the deserted road.
We took in sunset that night at Aguerberry Point. The drive up there was a little nerve wracking considering the rental vehicle and it's tires. But Mike, as always, got us up and back down safely (although there are now indentations of Hali's fingers in the "oh sh*t" bar above the passenger door).
While up there we met David Kingham and Jennifer Renwick, the owners of NPN (Nature Photographers Network). Jennifer was kind enough to take a picture of the two of us.
We thought about leaving as the clouds started to roll and the sun went down without much of a show. But we decided to wait it out and we were rewarded with fabulous color after the sun set.
The next stop was a long drive to Rhyolite, NV, -- a small ghost town to the east of Death Valley. Rhyolite, named for the area's unique volcanic rock, was one of those boom towns during the gold rush. It started in 1905 when gold was found in the Bullfrog Hills. Rhyolite was near the biggest mine -- the Montgomery Shoshone Mine. Rhyolite grew as long as the gold held out, from 1905 through 1910. At it's peak, Rhyolite had electric lights, telephones, three train lines, three newspapers, three swimming pools, three hospitals, two undertakers, an opera, and symphony and 53 saloons. During the height of the goldrush in 1907-08 it had a population approaching 5,000 people. The decline of Rhyolite happened as precipitously as its rise. In 1908 there was a re-evaluation of the mine which found it to be overvalued, and the company's stock crashed, by 1910 the mine was operating at a deficit and closed the next year. By 1911 the population had dropped below 1,000 people, and by 1920 nobody lived there. Now it is a tourist attraction and has also been used as a setting for motion pictures.
On the edge of town there is a house made of glass bottles! Australian Tom Kelly built this house for himself in 1906. That was before the railroad had reached Rhyolite and building materials were scarce. Lumber was nearly impossible to find, so Kelly used adobe mud to hold together the 50,000 glass bottles that make up his three-room, L-shaped home.
Our next morning was the last staying at Stovepipe Wells and close to the dunes, so we got up early and headed out to the dunes again.
You are all going to be entirely sick of sand dune photos soon (if you are not already).
It's a bird, it's a plane, it's air force testing grounds!
We packed up and took the relatively short drive to the Furnace Creek Inn. When we checked in we were pleased to see a nice restaurant there. We were less pleased when we noticed that entrees started somewhere around $50. PB&J was sounding better and better. Our supply of peanut butter and bread was running low, so we took the drive back to Pahrump for more supplies, and on the way back took the picture below at the welcome sign.
The late afternoon saw us taking a short drive down Badwater Road to Artists Drive. The rock formations were incredible along the way, and the colors on Artists Drive were beautiful.
We decided not to go to Artists Palette for sunset because hadn't had a chance to do any scouting during the day. Instead we headed back to Zabriskie Point to watch the sunset...
The next morning we decided to try Zabriskie Point for sunrise. It is a *very* popular spot with photographers, for good reason. I am pretty sure we get up earlier on vacations like these, than we do at home. But we are motivated to capture the early morning light!
There are so many photography workshops given in Death Valley that sooner or later you will show up somewhere that has 2 or 3 groups all shooting at once.
After a nice drive and a few fun hikes we headed back down Badwater Road and made a few stops. One of these was at the Devils Golf Course, which is a large salt flat that is named after a line in the 1034 National Park Service guide book which said "Only the devil could play golf" on it, due to the very rough texture of the salt crystal formations. It is the bottom of the former Lake Manly, which covered the valley, and the salt that remains is from the minerals that were dissolved in the lakes water and left behind when it evaporated. Because the "Golf Course" is slightly higher (by several feet) than the floor at Badwater, the course remains dry even after rain storms, the salt forms large, complicated forms. Unfortunately, during times of government shut downs and lack of ranger oversight, people have gone out with ATV's and driven on these delicate formations, crushing and destroying them, leaving permanent scars on the landscape.
We had planned to catch sunset at Badwater Basin, but since we had some time we continued driving down Badwater road where Hali took some more infrared landscapes and Mike got a good picture of the only wildlife we saw the entire trip: a coyote.
And so we finally came to Badwater Basin, the lowest spot in North America, and home to the hottest temperature in the world. Interestingly, Mount Whitney, the highest spot in the contiguous 48 states is only 84 miles away.
Badwater Basin was amazing. There had been heavy rains the week before, and I heard the entire basin had been flooded. This day the water had receded quite a bit, enough to start seeing the salt polygons beginning to reform. Like Zabriskie Point, Badwater Basin is a big draw for photographers and photography workshop groups. There is a good reason for that -- it is amazingly photogenic with the water reflecting the beautiful sky above as we were treated to another gorgeous sunset.
We decided to sleep in our next to last morning, we had heard the weather wasn't going to be great, strong winds and possible rain had been forecast. We woke up to beautiful skies, though so we set out to make the best of it. The forecast had moved the wind even up to the mid afternoon, so we planned around it. We took an early morning drive down Badwater road to see Artists Palette in the morning light, and to plan for our sunset shoot there.
Artist's Drive is beautiful loop off of Badwater Road. Even if you didn't want to spend time at Artist's Pallete, the drive is still well worth it. Wikipedia had this great detail on the area: Artist's Drive rises up to the top of an alluvial fan fed by a deep canyon cut into the Black Mountains. Artist's Palette is an area on the face of the Black Mountains noted for a variety of rock colors. These colors are caused by the oxidation of different metals (iron compounds produce red, pink and yellow, decomposition of tuff-derived mica produces green, and manganese produces purple).
Called the Artist Drive Formation, the rock unit provides evidence for one of the Death Valley area's most violently explosive volcanic periods. The Miocene-aged formation is made up of cemented gravel, playa deposits, and volcanic debris, perhaps 5,000 feet (1,500 m) thick. Chemical weathering and hydrothermal alteration cause the oxidation and other chemical reactions that produce the variety of colors displayed in the Artist Drive Formation and nearby exposures of the Furnace Creek Formation. *Thank you Wikipedia*
Then we went to hike the Golden Canyon Trail to Red Cathedral. The Golden Canyon trail is well known to Star Wars fans, several locations from the original Star Wars movies were filmed there, there are even online guides that give step by step guides for different spots and their scenes as you hike.
The Golden Canyon Trail splits, one way goes off towards Manly Beacon and Zabriskie Point, the other goes towards a massive sandstone formation - Red Cathedral. The first part of the hike is pretty flat and wide, with interesting side canyons, then the last bit is a scramble through rockfalls and up a steep slope, with loose sandstone and gravel underfoot. But the payoff was beautiful, if very unnerving to stand on.
We returned to Artists Palette for some sunset shooting. As the sun went down the colors in the rocks became more saturated. The colors in the rocks are due to the presence of different minerals, which are mostly forms of iron. The red/orange rocks are due to Hematite, the yellow ones are from Limonite. Green/Blue rocks are a mix of Chlorite and Nontronite, and the purple ones are also from Hematite.
Sadly, all great trips come to an end, and for our last day we started out with a drive back to the Mesquite Flats sand dunes. The wind storm during the previous night was not as strong as was forecasted, but it did remove a lot of the footprints. It was an experience making first tracks in the sand, and we tried to minimize the ones we did make. Another beautiful sunrise awaited us...
And we weren't the only ones out there to experience the sunrise.
With all that beautiful smooth or rippled sand we just had an amazing morning, shooting both color and infrared.
The sun is fully up now, and we just have to make our way out of the dunes one last time during this trip...
We had breakfast then wandered over to the corral where they kept the horses for trail rides. A few of them were feeling feisty.
We had heard that the old Harmony Borax works site was great for night photography, but we never stayed up late enough for that, instead we took a walk through it on our last afternoon. Borax is, and was, used in many laundry and cleaning products, used as a pH buffer and for scientific purposes, it was also, in years past, used as a food additive (it is now banned in foods in the US). The Harmony Borax works were the reason for the opening of Death Valley, and the plant, with its location near the Furnace Creek Ranch, was the reason for the popularity of the area. The plant, which started operations in late 1883 was only in business for 5 years. The difficulty of getting the borax to market, the high heat of the summer which prevented the water from cooling enough to crystallize the suspended borax caused the owner to go bankrupt and the new owners never resumed work there. The image of the 20-mule team is the symbol of the borax industry in the United States. On December 31, 1974 the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
We went back out to Badwater Basin for our final evening. The water had receded more, leaving the salt polygons in more relief, but enough water remained for reflections. It looked it would be a dull sunset until the sun fell below the mountains and the clouds just lit up again. A wonderful send off for us!