DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
As a fine art nature and landscape photographer living in the Pacific Northwest, fall and winter are long. The grey days, the constant rain, and I’m training to race bicycles again. This means I’m outside on my bike in the miserable weather for hours on end. The grey days wear you down and sunshine is the only answer. I sent a message to my coworkers saying I will be gone for a week. I loaded my car and drove to Death Valley National Park. Coming from the Evergreen State to Death Valley is a shock to the system. The brown landscape, the sand dunes, dry lake beds and everything else that makes up Death Valley is in stark contrast to the Pacific Northwest. This new scenery is what I was looking for. Oh yeah, the sun was shining as well.
Known for being the hottest, driest, and lowest national park, Death Valley is full of extremes. On July 10, 1913, the weather bureau recorded a temperature of 134º F at Furnace Creek. This is the hottest temperature ever recorded on the surface of the earth. The lowest point in the western hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level is Badwater Basin and Telescope Peak (to the west of the basin) is 11,049 feet above sea level. Death Valley became a national monument in 1933 and was substantially expanded to become a national park in 1994. Death Valley is an excellent place for stargazing as it was designated a national dark sky location in 2013. This is great news for the astrophotographers shooting the Milky Way Galaxy. The name Death Valley comes from a group of pioneers who became lost in the area. Although only one person in the group died, it's rumored that as they finally left, one person in the group looked back and said "Goodbye Death Valley" and the name stuck.
A NATIONAL PARK OF ABSTRACTS
Visiting Death Valley National Park for the first time, it’s easy to be amazed by the grand landscape. The vast mountains, the sand dunes, dry lake beds etc. but these aren’t always the best photos for Death Valley fine art prints. For myself, it’s the abstract wall art that becomes the focus of attention. For instance, the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes cover a large area. But taking a photo of all the dunes becomes overwhelming to the viewer. Therefore, turn your attention to a small section and the photograph becomes a fine art, abstract masterpiece. The same thing goes for Zabriskie Point. While alpenglow behind the mountains makes for a brilliant image before sunrise. After sunrise, the light and shadows cast across the landscape of Zabriskie Point create the best Death Valley abstract wall art.
IS DEATH VALLEY WORTH VISITING?
Death Valley is an amazing place. It's a stark contrast from the Pacific Northwest where everything is green and lush. Death Valley is the exact opposite. One thing that makes Death Valley unique for a national park is you don't have to stay on trails while walking around but look for the rehabilitation signs and stay out of those areas. Otherwise, you're free to walk around anywhere without a trail. Just don't drive off the roads. I don't think it's a park you can plan on spending many days unless you have other plans like cycling or just enjoy the scenery. 3 or 4 days is my limit for the park. After that, I'm ready to move on but I sure enjoy the days I'm there.
WHEN TO VISIT DEATH VALLEY
Visiting Death Valley is best from November through March. Temperatures are more tolerable this time of year. Be aware that deserts can be quite cold at night even at Death Valley. The overnight temps can drop below freezing in the winter. April through October, mid-day temps can reach well over 100 degrees, which can be dangerous for long exposure. These high temps can affect your vehicle by running the air conditioning, causing the engine to overheat. As a photographer, December through February are the best with the increase chance of rain and dramatic skies. As the rain falls in Death Valley, dry lake beds such as Badwater Basin will fill with water for amazing reflections of the sky and mountains.
WHERE TO STAY
Lodging can be difficult to find during the winter months in Death Valley. The hotel options are The Inn at Death Valley, Stovepipe Wells Village, The Ranch at Death Valley, and Panamint Springs Resort. I went to the valley in late February and the hotels were over $600 per night and no rooms available. You can book a room up to a year in advance so it may be cheaper by booking early. Camping is an option in the cooler months with many campgrounds throughout the park. Most are closed in the summer because of the extreme temperatures. Not all campgrounds have bathrooms and water, so do your research before setting up your tent. Most of all, check the wind forecast if camping. We had 40 mph winds that flattened my tent and blew sand in everything. Not a good time.
CREATING DEATH VALLEY WALL ART
Although my time in Death Valley was short, the images I was creating were abstract of sand dunes and colors. Most of the sunrise and sunset locations were from Zabriskie Point and Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes. Photographing sand dunes can be challenging. Using a telephoto lens helps reduce the distractions and footprints. Walking further than other visitors ensures clean sand for the abstract wall art. Of course, walking in sand dunes is like walking through soft, powder snow. Sunrise and sunset casts light and shadows across the dunes for brilliant images. Add wind to blow sand from the tops of the dunes and the fine art prints are perfect. Of course, this requires you to stand on a sand dune in the wind. The sand gets in everything. Other dunes that I wasn't able to see on this trip are Eureka, Ibex, and Panamint. About an hour outside the park is Big Dune but it's a popular off Road vehicle area and hard to get a clean image.
Zabriskie Point offers amazing colors for sunrise and sunset. I found the best location was walking up the ridge to the north. The viewpoint from the ridge offers more abstract images by looking down on the scene instead of across it. Zabriskie Point is located 15 minutes from Furnace Creek. A short walk on a paved trail to the viewpoint makes this a very popular location for photographers and visitors alike. After the sun comes up, the light and shadows dance across the scene throughout the golden hour.
Badwater basin (the lowest point in North America) is a great sunrise and sunset location. When I arrived, the white salt was brown and not a brilliant image. When it’s white, getting low with a wide-angle lens creates the most drama in an image. After heavy rains, the basin will fill with water and create amazing reflections of the surrounding area. The salt ridges are above the water and make for leading lines throughout the image.
Death Valley National Park is a great place to visit in the winter and spring months. Most of the locations like Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, Zabriskie Point, and Badwater Basin are popular among photographers and visitor. Spend the time scouting new locations and driving off the beaten path. I found great mud cracks on my last visit by driving past Badwater Basin. But, with the recent rain, it filled the cracks and the mud was soft. But now I have a new location when I return. As a photographer from the Pacific Northwest, Death Valley is a great place to visit when the grey skies and rain take their toll. Although a long drive from Seattle at just over 17 hours, it’s worth the trip.