Death Valley Trip report
Mike and I had put Death Valley on our trip list a while back, and this year we knew we wanted to take a January trip somewhere to get out of the cold, so I started planning for it back in September.
I really enjoy trip planning pulling together all sorts of information to make a list of possibilities for each day. We never go into a trip like this with a set in stone plan, I make a list of areas which would be fun to visit and pick from it like an a-la-carte menu. I have to give a shout out to these resources: Robert Hitchman’s Photograph America PDF’s and Sara Marino and Ron Coscorrosa’s amazing E-book Desert Paradise: The Landscape Photographer's Guide to Death Valley National Park. I also depended heavily on the PhotoPills app for sun and moon rise and phases and ascension and declination information. The last thing I used extensively was the Nat Geo Death Valley National Park Trails Illustrated Topographic Map. That was super helpful in orienting ourselves when we didn’t have any cell service (it was sparse in the park)
That being said here is the trip report:
We landed in Las Vegas and picked up the SUV. We had originally reserved a small SUV but when we told the clerk we were headed to Death Valley she talked me into an upgrade to a large SUV (Mike left the decision to me!). It might only have had 5500 miles on it but the tires were pretty thin, something that kept us from venturing too far off the beaten track. We drove to Pahrump, NV (on our way) and stopped at the store to stock up on snacks (apples, oranges, carrots, peanut butter, dark chocolate M&M’s and water) and continued onward. Once we got into the park we stopped at Zabriskie Point a little before sunset. We took a few “snaps” and left before the color got good because I wanted to stop at the Visitors center before they closed. A quick stop in the visitors center let me know that the road to Dante’s View was closed due to snow. That was a shame because Dante’s view has, by all accounts, the best view of the park from above, but it sits at 5, 476 ft and gets a lot of snow which doesn’t melt all that quickly. We made it to Stovepipe Wells and got a glimpse of the Sand Dunes before it got completely dark. There is one motel at Stovepipe Wells and it’s associated Saloon and restaurant. That and a general store, a gas station and RV parking is the sum total of Stovepipe Wells, but if you want to go to the dunes it’s a great place to stay. The room wasn’t bad, the bed was soft but the linens were clean and the heat kept the room comfortable. Dinner at the saloon wasn’t bad and not crazy expensive either. We crashed after getting our gear ready for an early start to the dunes the next morning.
Early up at 5:15. A recheck of sunrise before we went to sleep showed me that sunrise would be at 7:01 am, astronomical twilight started at 5:30, blue “hour” started at 6:32 (and ended at 6:43!) Golden hour started at 6:43. So plenty of time since the dunes are about 5 minutes from the motel. My research all pointed to not parking in the parking lot because it gets really busy, but when we got there, there was just 1 other car and an RV. Because I had no idea what to expect we just parked there and headed off into the dunes. We tried to navigate along the base of the dunes as long as we could but ended up climbing up to what was the tallest dunes in the area. We found some nice compositions, even though they were full of footprints. Those taller dunes are people magnets, thank goodness for Photoshop and frequency separation! Early light is beautiful and for infrared the twilight time is wonderful. For color photography the sun rising over the Amargosa Range hitting the Panamint Range is beautiful – it turns the peaks all sorts of pink and purple. Then as the sun continues to come up the sand turns all orange on the eastern side and blue/black on the other making those striking contrasts. A word of advice – make sure your pants are long enough to cover your boots so that sand doesn’t get into the boot, that first day my pants hit just past the top of the boots and I had about a pound of sand in each boot by the time we got back to the car. Even better would be wearing short gaiters.
After a buffet breakfast at the restaurant (not really great but filling and the only thing in “town”) we drove the short distance to Mosaic Canyon and hiked for about a mile and a half in the canyon. It’s got all sorts of beautiful walls. The entire hike is about 3 miles. Next up was the drive to Emigrant Canyon Road. The plan was to go all the way to Wildrose and to the Charcoal Kilns before heading back and going to Aguereberry Point for sunset. It’s a long and windy drive at times. There is a beautiful stand of Cottonwood trees at Wildrose itself that were the biggest plants we saw outside of the Oasis at Furnace Creek (And they made great IR subjects). Where Emigrant Canyon road turned from paved to hardpack we began to have trouble with our not so great tires – there was a lot of snow that made us slide around. We got about 5 miles into a 7-mile drive and had to turn around (carefully!!) and head back. We headed up to Aguereberry Point and had similar issues with snow but we persevered (mostly because there was no way we could turn around after a certain point) and made it up there to find it all cloudy… but amazingly at sunset the sun broke through giving us wonderful pink clouds and soft light on the Panamint range. We left just as the light was fading, trying to get down while we could see. It’s about an hour to an hour and a half back to Stovepipe Wells from Aguereberry Point. It would have been great to stay out late and do some astrophotography over the old Eureka Mine, but it was a long day and we were planning to get up early again the next.
We didn’t get up quite as early (5:40 AM), but we went right out to the dunes. We still parked in the lot, this time we were the only car there, and headed out towards the smaller dunes (to the east). We were able to find some nice curves and patterns and shot away until about 8AM when the light got a little harsher. Breakfast and then we went back to the dirt road that leads to Aguereberry point to explore Pete Aguereberry’s old house and the Eureka Mine area. There is a section of 190 after the dunes and before you get to Scotty’s Castle road, which you take before going to Daylight Pass road to Rhyolite, called the Devils Cornfield which is Arrowweed bushes that have adapted to growing in the desert, the way the outer roots grow upward makes it look like harvested corn. We drove to Rhyolite to see the ghost town, got there just around sunset. Dinner was peanut butter and apples.
Last morning in Stovepipe Wells. Another relatively early morning to go out to the dunes. While on the dunes we watched a B2 bomber make 2 passes over the area. I had the 100-400 lens so was able to catch one decent image of the bomber. When we got to the motel we had the fun of watching a jet fighter do loops around the area. That aircraft was fast. Wasted a lot of pixels getting nothing, after about 20 minutes the plane moved on. Packed up and drove to Furnace Creek. Big difference in the area and accommodations. The Ranch is a big complex with palm trees and areas of grass. The rooms are much bigger and more modern. The other accommodation in Furnace Creek is the Inn at Furnace Creek. It is quite posh, and you park your car and are assigned a golf cart to get you around the complex. Along with the upgrade in accommodations, there were more choices for dining, but the price tag was commensurate. Reservations at all restaurants are required, and we looked at the menu for the Saloon. The first dinner item was a prime rib (16 oz I believe) for $108.00. We ate in our room each night, not unhappy with fruit and PBJ sandwiches. After checking in we drove down to Artists Drive and shot some of the beautiful colored rocks around the drive, then finished up the day at Zabriski Point. It was a nice sunset but the best part was afterward, with a nice even glow to the sky the badlands are beautiful, something about the way the rock reflects the light was fabulous.