As you may have gathered from last week’s post, I got home on October 24th from a trip to Death Valley National Park. Four of us from the Photography Interest Group (me, Tom M., Kevin M., and Kevin K.) were out there together, exploring this waterless wonderland on our longest, farthest group photo expedition yet.
When you think of the desert in the western US, you might imagine extreme heat and monochromatic scenes of empty barren land. If so you probably haven’t been to Death Valley. There is some empty barren land:
Badlands sunrise – This was my first visit to Death Valley and what I thought it would look like.
And there are sand dunes and wind-blown textures:
Photographing Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – A distant photographer lines up his shot.
But there are so many more things to experience there.
It’s the largest national park in the contiguous US at over 3.4 million acres. The habitats are varied and the elevation ranges from 282 feet below sea level in Badwater Basin (the lowest point in North America) to more than 11,000 feet at the top of Telescope Peak.
Panorama of Badwater from Dantes View, looking west toward Telescope Peak
Wait – did I say “waterless wonderland”? When we arrived on October 18th, there was an epic rain storm in progress that caused flash flooding, road closures, downed power lines and other damage inside the park. If you’re interested, I’ve posted a short video on YouTube that we made on our drive into Death Valley, showing the rain storms and some of the flooding we ran into. And you can read this article on the National Parks Traveler webpage about the floods and damage.
Many of the places we wanted to see weren’t accessible while we were there. The good news is that there were more than enough locations we could still get to, and the water created some rare views of the area.
Death Valley Reflections – Some locations had 5 inches of rain. The following morning, we saw large pools of water west of route 190 and north of Furnace Creek. It was a long walk (~1.5 miles from the road) to get close, and at times I wondered whether it was a mirage. I’m guessing it’s rare to see the mountains and clouds reflected in standing water at this spot.
And are there any waterfalls in the desert? You wouldn’t think so, right? We decided to find out one day and after a long drive, hike, and rock scramble through a gorgeous canyon, we arrived at Darwin Falls, which seems like a miracle in the middle of such arid country.
Darwin Falls – This desert waterfall in Death Valley had about a 40 foot drop. It’s spring fed and flows year round, although the rains may have added some water while we were there.
There’s a lot of history in Death Valley too. The Native American Timbisha tribe have lived in the valley for at least 1000 years. Gold and silver mining started in the 1850s and Borax was discovered in the 1880s. There are also several ghost towns to explore in the park and the surrounding areas.
20 Mule Team Wagon Train – Used in 1885 to haul Borax From Death Valley to Mojave.
Borax Museum, Furnace Creek, California
Landscapes and scenery aren’t the only things to see. There’s very little light pollution in the area. The milky way is easily seen and we viewed an active Orionid Meteor shower on the morning of 21 October.
There’s also a surprising amount of wildlife. While hiking back from the Mesquite Flat Dunes we spotted some motion ahead that turned out to be my first sighting ever of a fox in the wild.
Kit Fox at Mesquite Dunes – We saw it from a distance. At first I thought it was a coyote, but Eric Vanbergen on Flickr suggested it might be a Kit Fox. Judging by the info on Wikipedia, he’s right. I made the photo handheld (with my tripod still attached!) using a 24-120mm lens that I was using for landscapes. This is a small crop from the frame. It was nice of the Fox to stop, stand in the light, and look at the camera for me – but it should have come closer!
We also saw several of these, curiously along or as they crossed the road. They’re large enough (~3 inches across) to spot as you drive by.
Classic Death Valley (Photo by Kevin McKinney – used with permission) – We saw several Tarantulas while we were there.
And birds: The National Park Service official bird list has hundreds of species that frequent Death Valley. On this page they have some info on where to look and migration patterns. Kevin M. also had a good time birding in places around and on the way to the park.
Here’s one last photo. We’d been searching for a Road Runner all week but hadn’t seen any. On the last afternoon we finally sighted this one as we drove by the visitor’s center. Of course, none of us had our camera gear – thank goodness for iPhones!
“Beep Beep” – A Roadrunner outside the Visitor Center at Furnace Creek. I think this is the one the rangers have nick-named “Robbie”. It’s very tolerant of humans and went about catching and eating bugs while we watched.
You can view many more photos from our trip at these links:
This is really more of trip report than a review or guide. With so little time on site, I’m not qualified to give you much specific advice on photographing Death Valley. But here is some info I found very useful:
Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. We are really blessed in the US with all our national parks. Now – visit one and make some photos!
©2015, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved.