Welcome to the first part of a two part series on our November 2021 visit to Death Valley National Park. Last week, I gave you a peek at the park and some of what it has to offer visitors. Click here to check out that post.
I was in Death Valley to meet up with a small group of photography friends that I met at a workshop in 2015 at the Madeline Island School of the Arts, MISA. The group has been getting together once a year in different locations around the country to photograph and enjoy each others company. We hire a professional photographer that knows the area to take us to the places where we have the opportunity to make photos. The gathering in Death Valley was supposed to happen in the fall of 2020. You can guess why it didn’t. With good luck on our side, we gathered after the Delta variant was waning and just before the Omicron variant took hold.
The leaders for our group were Brenda Tharp and Jed Manwaring. Brenda was our instructor at Madeline Island in 2015. She’s an excellent photographer and teacher, never too busy to answer questions or help participants with equipment or composition. Jed is also an excellent photographer, not afraid to go off the trail to seek a unique photo or angle. We were in great hands and we all looked forward to quality time photographing one of the more interesting places on earth.
Death Valley National Park is vast, covering over 3.3 million acres between the Great Basin to the east and north and the Mojave Desert to its south and west. Death Valley was designated a national monument in 1933 and upgraded to a national park in 1994. It preserves a diverse environment of deserts, salt flats, sand dunes, mountains, valleys, canyons, and craters. This park also preserves a number of plants and animals that have adapted and thrived in this harsh environment.
It was the California Gold Rush of 1849 that brought hundreds of people to this area looking for a short-cut to the gold mines. Legend has it that the name comes from a member of one of the group that barely survived their long journey through this forbidding land turned and bid goodbye to “Death Valley.” Some of their group perished. The name stuck.
After meeting up on Sunday night to get reacquainted and talk photography, we were up at 0-dark-thirty to make the drive to Zabriskie Point for sunrise photos. Zabriskie is located on the east side of the park off of Highway 190 that brings visitors from nearby Pahrump and Las Vegas. It is a high point that overlooks Death Valley and the dry Amargosa River bed towards the Panamint Mountain Range to the west.
I had the pleasure of riding with Chuck and Nancy, a husband/wife couple, to our photo locations. It was pitch dark when we arrived at Zabriskie Point. Equipped with headlamps and flashlights, we carefully made our way to the edge of a cliff and set up our cameras and tripods, excited for the first glimmer of light behind us and the potential for making some great photos. We weren’t the only photographers waiting for the light. As dawn drew nearer, there were perhaps a hundred or more people lined up for photos, most with cellphones and some with the newest in digital cameras. Above us was the overlook, here’s what it looked like from below.
As the light began to appear, the photographers got busy fiddling with their camera settings, peering through the viewfinder to check their composition and focus, then began making photos. Here are a few of my earliest photos, a couple with my big boy camera and some with my iPhone.
Then the light began to touch the Panamint Mountain across the valley.
You may have noticed that I swiveled my tripod to capture different scenes, some wide angle, some zoomed in on a specific location. Here are a few more photos from our couple hour shoot at Zabriskie. As the light changed, the photos changed.
One last photo from Zabriskie. As we were packing to head back to Furnace Creek for coffee and breakfast, someone noticed a hiker on on the trail that leads to Golden Canyon. I fumbled for my 70-200mm zoom telephoto lens to show the expanse of Death Valley and just what those 49er’s were up against. The hiker is the speck in the middle lower part of the photo.
After recharging our bodies and our camera batteries, we spent part of the morning (before the 90 degree heat drove us inside) at the Borax Museum located next to our lodging at Furnace Creek. The indoor portion of the museum was closed due to Covid restrictions so we wandered among the outdoor exhibits.
The discovery of borax in Death Valley in 1873 began a years-long mining of the mineral. The “twenty mule team” hauled borax from Death Valley for 165 miles to the railhead in Mojave! It was difficult terrain and they had to carry their own water. A discovery closer to the railroad effectively shut down mining in Death Valley in 1888. Here are a few photos I took during this shoot.
Mud Cracks and the Artists Palette
In the mid-afternoon, not far from Furnace Creek, we stopped along the highway where Jed led us about a half mile into the desert. Our goal was to photograph the mud cracks in one of the driest places on earth. Here are a few photos I made during our photo shoot. Isn’t the desert beautiful!
Not far away, we entered the nine-mile Artists Drive to the scenic Artist Palette. Note the array of colors; aqua, pink, orange, green, and brown tones splashed across the Black Mountain Range.
As the sunset, I pointed my camera towards the sunset. A beautiful end to a fun day.
The next morning, it was another pre-dawn departure to photograph Badwater Basin. This is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. In the photo below, the sign in the middle indicates sea level!
Badwater is one of the most popular stops in Death Valley. All the tour buses from Las Vegas stop here for a walk through the salt flats. The salt crunched as we walked between 1/2 and 3/4 mile into the valley where few tourists go. These interesting salt cracks are formed by combination of heat and water evaporation. Note the repeating patterns of the polygonal cracks. The clouds moved in during the night to give us a colorful sunrise.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
After lunch and a brief siesta, we made the 30 minute drive to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for some late afternoon photography. Remember this visit was in mid-November when the sun set at 4:39 PM Pacific Time. We drove about a mile past the large parking lot to avoid the crowds. After parking on the side of the road, we trekked about a half mile into the west side of the dunes. We had the place to ourselves.
There were a few places where someone trod through the dunes. While we didn’t see any wildlife, we could see they had been there. Mice, rabbit, coyote tracks gave us clues to those who live in this harsh environment. We even saw a few places where there was a tussle between species, someone ate well last night!
Between the high dues, we came to this wind swept hard pan that made for some fun photos. There was one with a footprint imbedded, likely a coyote or fox.
My last photo of the day before hiking back to catch my ride. Another day well done!
We ended our day with dinner at the Stovepipe Wells Restaurant and Saloon. At the time, the State of California had strict Covid requirements in place at bars and restaurants. The Saloon had an occupancy of 12 and the Restaurant 34 customers were allowed. We were a party of 11, they graciously put in a separate dining area and brought us drinks as not to push the capacity of the bar past it’s limit. When we left, there were small groups waiting outside due to the capacity limits. Not many dining options in the park. For more information on Death Valley National Park, click here.
This was Day 1 and 2 of my adventure in Death Valley. Join me next week for Day 3 and 4.
Until then, happy travels!