Standing at the top of the Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley while the sun rose in the early morning was a tremendous sight. The wind the night before smoothed the dunes so that they looked completely unspoiled. The air was still warm from the night before – temperatures dropped down to a ‘brisk’ 96 degrees overnight so it was probably broaching a 100 at this point. I was sweating profusely from the climb to the top – it may not look like much but climbing the dunes is a struggle as the sand slides from under your feet. Often you take two steps forward just to fall three steps further back.
Ultimately, I made it to the top. I framed this shot with the dune hitting the lower left corner but with it leading the eye out towards the sun before turning back towards the mountains and smaller dunes in the distance. As the sun crested above the mountains I opened up the aperture to make sure I was able to see the burst of the sun and its rays streaming into the frame as well. Death Valley is a fun place to photograph and I certainly had more luck this time through with the dunes than I did on my trip in early 2014.
Sunrise over Death Valley (Death Valley National Park)
Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park is noted for its unique landscape that was formed over 5 million years ago when this whole area was covered by a gigantic lake. A favorite spot for landscape photographers at sunrise while in Death Valley it is often extremely crowded before the sun comes up. I visited my first morning there and after exploring the rest of the park decided that would be my only day there. The constant doldrums of other photographers bemoaning the light (less than perfect), their gear (damn Canon hasn’t made any improvements in years), etc… ruined the experience for me. The rest of Death Valley I found to be an absolute delight because of the solitude – Zabriskie Point did not afford that luxury. So if you are like me and enjoy to work alone – check out some of the other spots throughout the park where the ability to disappear and be on your own is greater.
Zabriskie Point (Death Valley National Park)
Zabriskie Point is a popular place among pop culture apparently – in doing my research before the trip I learned that it is a popular place to trip on acid, has represented the surface of Mars in Hollywood films, was the backdrop of the U2 Album Joshua Tree and is a soundtrack for a movie of the same name featuring Pink Floyd and Jerry Garcia…Fortunately, I saw no one tripping on acid during my hike throughout the area.
I spent two mornings at Cottonball Basin in Death Valley waiting for the sun to rise. Cottonball basin was noted in an ebook I purchased before the trip called ‘Desert Paradise: The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Death Valley National Park’ by Sarah Marino and Ron Coscorrosa as being among the best locations to watch the sunrise in the park. The unique salt flat shapes that form periodically throughout the year and the mountains that surround the basin on all sides make it highly photographic. However, the area is fragile so it is important to be sure that you leave no trace while hiking there so you need to be sure the weather conditions are right or else you may leave footprints in the mud for years to come. The authors noted they were fearful of including it in the book but that photo safari/groups had popularized the area in recent years so they did not feel like they could leave it out without the book being complete. Luckily, in my several days in the park I didn’t see a single soul down in this area.
Death Valley – Morning from Cottonball Basin
In this image it appears like the salt flat shapes may stretch forever but this was really a rather small area of the overall ‘Cottonball Basin’ which stretches for miles in all directions. Somehow these shapes shift periodically throughout the year so it is imperative to go out the day before with a handheld GPS and pinpoint the location or you won’t be able to find them in the morning. Unlike other national parks the ‘trails’ in Death Valley are essentially non-existent as you are free to roam everywhere – however, this means you have to work to find unique and photographic opportunities as opposed to walking up to a well known viewpoint. Without the GPS I would have been completely lost many times out there in the desert.
The view from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley of the colorful clay and mudstone Badlands in Death Valley National Park. Millions of years (nine million by the estimates that I saw) ago the area that is now Death Valley was a giant lake – these Badlands formations were once on the bottom of this lake. There was also a volcanic eruption around five million years ago that covered this rock – the hardened lava is what formed to make the dark rock in this photo.
Photo of the Day – Badlands of Death Valley
Unfortunately, the clouds in the East blocked the suns rays from providing nice contrasts on the rocks and the mountain range in the distance. However, the sky was still colorful in the pre-dawn ‘blue hour’.