DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
When I was a kid, my family had a large cabin in Crestline, California. It was perched on a hillside that looked over The Mojave Desert. There was a large picture window in the living room that had a telescope in it, presumably for star gazing. As a kid though, I would use it to watch people in pickup trucks drive along the dirt roads a couple of miles away, with the dirt and sand blowing behind them in great, billowing clouds. I always wondered what it was really like down there, and my spying had the feeling of voyeurism, as I could literally see the faces of the drivers and they had no idea I was watching them from several miles away … kids!
So, one day I got my opportunity to visit the desert myself. Our family and another family all piled into our family station wagon and headed off to Death Valley. It wasn’t a national park in those days, but it was a national monument. I didn’t know anything about that stuff though in those days, but all I knew was we took a day trip out to Death Valley. The name had a ring of finality to it, for sure.
I honestly don’t remember much about it, except sitting in the back seat of the station wagon with the moms. I was the oldest child of the two families. The rest of the kids all piled into the way back and rode the tailpipe out to Death Valley, sans seatbelts of course. The place seemed like a giant wasteland to me. I remembered only one place on that trip, and that was when we came to the crest of a hill and looked down into the deepest dip I’d ever seen in a road before! Beside us, and on the right, was a giant, white boulder. This is the way I remembered it anyway. Turns out this spot does in fact exist and is located on the road known as “Artist’s Drive.” There’s actually two giant, deep dips and hills there with white boulders on the right-hand side of the road. I didn’t photograph this spot. It’s burned in my memory forever!
A note about Crestline, California: When I was a kid, I thought of it as high in The San Bernardino Mountains, but it sits at about 4,600 feet in elevation, about the same height as Grand Junction, Colorado, where I live now. Grand Junction sits in a valley carved by The Colorado River and is surrounded by much higher peaks, including The Grand Mesa, which tops out at over 10,000 feet. But I digress …
While we were in Death Valley, we stayed at The Ranch at Death Valley, which is run by Xanterra, the company that holds most, if not all, the hospitality contracts for the national parks. They have two resorts there; the other is known as Oasis at Death Valley. I had hoped to find time to visit Oasis, but the beauty of the park kept me otherwise occupied, and I didn’t make it over to that resort. The pictures I’ve seen of it are beautiful. The Ranch though, is more utilitarian, but still comfortable and nice. We spent two nights there. Our sliding glass door opened up to a golf course green with a few palm trees and oleander bushes scattered throughout the grassy area. They are making some additional upgrades to the property, which undoubtedly will raise the prices when they are finished.
One thing they have done at The Ranch and at Oasis as well, is plant a large date palm orchard. Date palm farming is becoming a big thing out in the desert these days, and Xanterra is jumping on that bandwagon by growing their own dates, which they use to make ice cream and milkshakes. At first, I wasn’t too excited about the prospects for this delicacy, but before we left the park I decided I wanted to try it. They advertise it as their “World Famous Date Ice Cream” and “World Famous Date Milkshakes!” I figured I’d pick one up on the way out of the park. When I made my order, I was informed without apology that they didn’t have any date ice cream, so neither of these two “World Famous” goodies were available. I ended up with a chocolate milk shake I neither needed nor wanted. Note to self: Be more assertive and don’t settle for something you don’t want. This chocolate milkshake I didn’t need or want set me back about $12 or $13.
While we were there, the main restaurant, called The Last Kind Words Saloon wasn’t open, ostensibly because of Covid. The only food available then, was food from the ice cream shop, which is basically junk food, like eating dinner at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor or A&W; two other world-famous gourmet food places where we used to eat when I was growing up in Orange County, California. So, because of Covid, we decided that rather than eat their junk food and possibly become exposed to a fatal disease, (while further wasting our money,) we would bring our own junk food and eat it in the privacy of our own room. So, for two days and two nights we feasted on potato chips, trail mix, mixed nuts, and cookies. We also had some fruit we brought with us, but all in all, not the healthiest of eating ensued. Forewarned is forearmed.
There is a gas station on property that sells gas at about $7.50 a gallon at the time of our visit. Be sure to fill up before arriving at the park. We drove back to Nevada on gas fumes after our visit to Death Valley to avoid paying that exorbitant gas price. We made it, but don’t take any chances. You don’t want to get stuck out in the desert with an empty gas tank.
I had seen many photos taken from this location on social media and other photographer’s websites and this was the very first place I wanted to visit. I wasn’t disappointed! We arrived the first evening for sunset. There was a fair amount of other people there with cameras; everything from cellphones to mirrorless Sony’s were present. These badlands are spectacular at both sunrise and sunset. I know too, because I showed up there the next morning for sunrise, and then again, the last morning we were there. I couldn’t get enough of the place! Watching the light traverse the sand hills and peaks of Zabriskie Point is like looking at the world through a constantly changing kaleidoscope. If I could, I would go there once a month for at least a year just to see what the light is like at sunrise and sunset. But since I only had two sunrises and two sunsets in the park, I had to make my decisions about where to go. This is a don’t-miss location for anyone with a camera. It’s a short uphill hike from the parking lot to the shooting location, but most people should be able to do it without trouble. It’s paved. Most people with cameras wait for sunrise on a hill directly below where the official viewing platform is, which makes sense, if you don’t want a photo filled with other people and their cameras. This was my location for sunrise.
Zabriskie Point at Sunrise - Death Valley National Park
20-MULE TEAM CANYON
Remember 20-Mule Team Borax? Well, this is the location where they actually drove 20-mule teams that hauled borax out of the desert in the late 1800’s. This was a huge thing back in the day, and Ronald Reagan starred in a TV show in the mid-60’s that was sponsored by 20-Mule Team Borax. This is where the stuff was mined that was processed into those scrubbing bubbles! It’s a short one-way drive that is quite scenic and reminds me very much of a place closer to home for me, known as The Adobe Badlands, just outside of Delta, Colorado. You would think that after spending a couple days out in Death Valley I would have had enough of this kind of scenery, but my intention to spend time walking through the Adobe Badlands with my camera is stronger than ever. These colorful, sculpted hills are amazing!
20-Mule Team Canyon - Death Valley National Park
I walked out on the salt flats and looked around. It was chilly out there. It was still early morning and the mountains to the east cast a long shadow over the salt flats. The first thing I noticed was the smell. There is a small puddle of putrid water out there that puts out an impressive smell of rotten eggs, or sulfur. It’s large enough to use to capture some reflections, which I did. There’s a sign on the side of the mountain close by, that upon further inspection, signifies where sea level is. This spot is the lowest point in North America, at 282 feet below sea level. I turned around and looked west, out into the valley. The salt flats are white, but very reflective, so they were reflecting the shadows and the blue sky, making them look blue as well. The part where you walk is very flat, probably having been trampled down by hundreds of pairs of hiking boots. It’s reminiscent of snow and it crunches beneath your boots. Kids have been down there digging it like they would beach sand and their little scratch marks can be seen here and there. Tiny pyramids of salt are piled up within these scratch marks, but they’re not very big. The salt is very hard and compressed. I snapped a few pictures on my short hike out to the end of the compressed salt flats, kind of wondering what the big deal was about this place. Then, when I started processing these photos later, I appreciated this location a whole lot more. This salt is highly reflective, and the photos portray a kind of abstraction that is usually only present along shorelines of very still lakes. Sometimes for me, and maybe for all of us, it takes looking at things a little differently to see their true beauty.
Badwater Basin - Death Valley National Park
Badwater Basin Salt Flats - Death Valley National Park
This is the location I told you about that we drove through when I was a kid. The spot with two huge dips! This is the only place on earth I’ve been to that has such huge dips in the road. Now, in all fairness, I’ve seen relatively little of the earth’s overall surface, but still … these dips are impressive! There are many amazing bends in this one-direction road with amazingly colorful hills and rocks. If you think of Death Valley as a kind of a gray place with very little vegetation, you might be surprised when you get there! Some of the colors are truly awesome! We live on an amazing planet!
A Bend in Artist's Drive - Death Valley National Park
Rock Outcropping on Artist's Drive - Death Valley National Park
MESQUITE FLAT SAND DUNES
A good place for both sunrise and sunset photography, these dunes are also very popular with families. Kids love to play in them! There are little footprints everywhere! We were there at sunset one day during our visit. The footprints are impressive for sure! I didn’t get out there for sunrise, but if or when I’m able to get back, I certainly will, as I’m told the morning has the very best shadows and light. You do have to be careful out here, although it all looks like fun and games. Earlier this fall, a young woman wandered out into the dune field and never returned. They found her body about a mile and a half out, just past the tallest dune. She was only 27 years old. I don’t know what happened to her, but don’t plan to hike out there after about 10am and bring plenty of water.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes - Death Valley National Park
As we were exiting the park, we took a drive out to Dante’s View, which is a terrace view point about a mile high overlooking Badwater Basin and The Death Valley. The panoramic view is amazing, but the thing that appealed to me the most were the abstracts I was able to find in the patterns in the desert sands below. According to a nearby sign, there is an underground river that runs the length of this valley. Additionally, it gets rain runoff at the surface, and this creates some very beautiful abstract designs. So, of course, it just depends on what you’re into, but for me, the panoramic view is wonderful, but the intimates and abstracts are truly incredible. I love erosion! This view point was used in the 1977 Star Wars movie as well, with some art added to it to make it look like a star port.
Death Valley as seen from Dante's Overlook - Death Valley National park
Abstract of the floor of Death Valley - Death Valley National Park
Part 3 coming soon! Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada