There is life in Death Valley
Updated: Aug 8, 2022
Landscape photography in Death Valley National Park
How many places have you declared you must return? Probably quite a bit, but Death Valley National Park in California is surely one of them for me. Death Valley may not offer the most beautiful hiking trails or the most impressive views in America but it is no less then a paradise for landscape photographers. Within a relative short drive it offers a huge variety of unique landforms and so many great photography locations. Whether you shoot abstract, landscape or astro, you will definitely find a real playground here, one that would not bore you for a single moment. No matter how much time you spend here, I bet you feel it wont be enough. The following article briefly summarizes some wonderful days of photography I had in Death Valley National Park (and many hours of advance preparation on the computer).
When to come and where to stay
Death Valley is one of the hottest places on earth. The average maximum temperature in summer is over 40°C. That's the average, yes? Temperatures around 50°C are not uncommon. Even as someone who is used to hot temperatures in summer, it sounds like a rather dubious pleasure to me. The best time to get here is between late fall and early spring. If you are into landscape photography I strongly recommend coming here for at least a few days. There is so much to photograph and detect, and each of the sites mentioned below is worth a few days on its own. To visit the park a payment is required. That can be done 24 hours in the vending machine placed at the entry point or in the visitor center during business hours. The receipt should be placed on your vehicle's dashboard and that's it, get going.
Accommodation within the park is quite limited and fills up fast. We could not find a vacant room in one of the two hotels in Furnace Creek so we had to stay not a short drive from the park. It's not that bad but much less convenient for those who want to photograph sunrises, sunsets and maybe even at nights. Other options beside Furnace Creek are Stovepipe Wells Village, Beatty Nevada (+/- 45 min.), and Pahrump Nevada (+/- 75 min.). Another option is one of the campgrounds in Furnace Creek. The Ranch at Furnace Creek has a few nice restaurants and bars and also a general store and a gas station. The park's visitor center is located there as well.
Recommended equipment and general information
Despite it's menacing name, the park is very wellcoming, friendly and enjoyable. At the same time, the harsh climate requires attention to the rules of caution for those who are not used to activity in the desert, especially in the hot season. In the summer an extra care must be taken and it is recommended to avoid long walks in the hot hours of the day. Even a relatively short hike might become chalenging at that time. Scouting and getting to the best locations deos require some walking and the distances can be quite long, so it is necessary to carry plenty of water with you. Sunscreen and a hat are highly recommended. In winter it is best to dress in warm clothing using the layered method (winter's mornings can be quite cold). A headlamp (or other light) and extra batteries are always recommended safety items in your photo bag for getting to or back from a location in the dark. Death Valley is one of the darkest areas in America. Along with the obvious benefits of it, one should take this into account when getting away from his vehicle for sunset photography. For those who are worried of disorientation at night, it is recommended to have a navigation app that allows you to download maps in advance (cellular reception throughout the park is very limited).
Recommended photography locations in Death Valley
Death Valley features countless of wonderful photography locations. Some are formal, marked and very accessible and other require a little more time and effort. It is worth taking into account that in order to reach the best locations some feetwork has to be done. Also notice that the sun gets behind the mountains some time before the hour of sunset, so go out well in advance. The general principle is to walk west. A lot. Have'nt find anything? Just keep walking. The list below is partial of course and consists of relatively easy to reach locations that do not require a high clearance vehicle nor a difficult navigation.
Badwater Basin is probably the most iconic and famous site of Death Valley. A must-see location which has to be photographed at least once. The famous salt polygons provide great foreground and endless photography options. The site is easily accessible, very popular and can be a bit crouded. Access from the parking lot is very short and convenient but as you progress west the shapes become more perfect and there will be fewer people, so be prepared to walk about a mile to a mile and a half in each direction. Badwater Basin is suitable for both sunrise and sunset (and astro) photography. A super wide lens fits very well here.
Mesquite Flat Dunes
This is another well known attraction of Death Valley National Park. For landscape photographers the dunes are a real playground and a good training field for finding compositions. The shapes of the dunes and the light falling on them create almost unlimited possibilities. Sunrise and sunset are both suitable. As always, finding a composition in dark is difficult so on sunrise you have to work fast (or be prepaired in advance). A super wide lens is possible but a medium or a long zoom lens would be my first option here. The sand of course is not your camera's best friend, so it is highly recomended to avoid changing lenses on the dunes on windy conditions. Access to the dunes from the parking lot is easy and immediate but the big challenge is to find a place free of foot prints, and that requires some walking. The deeper you go into the area the chances increase. Keep in mind that walking on the sand is much slower than usual so it is advisable to arrive early and allow enough time for wandering around.
Mud tiles or mud cracks are one of the favorite and most famous patterns of Death Valley, but they are not part of the park's official sites and are not found in it's publications. It seems that vlogers and photographers also do not tend to betray their locations and even after many hours on the computer I had a hard time finding the exact location. Happily enough, the advance work combined with some field scouting did the job in the end. For the location I found park your car at Golden Canyon trail head parking lot, cross the road and walk west and slightly south along the floods channels about 1 - 1.5 miles. It is recomended to take a preliminary scouting tour at day light. Keep in mind that the exact location can vary from time to time depending on the floods. its a sunrise as well as a sunset location and a wide angle would probably be your choice of lens here.
The Salt Playas
Another beautiful location that amazed me and is not part of the official sites of the park is the uniqe formations in the salt flats. Slightly remind of Budwater but still different, very special and well worth the effort. If you have some time it is worth hanging out in this section of the park and looking for different paterns. This area is known as Cottonball Basin. There is no neat parking or walkway here. Simply park your var carefully along the side of the road at a point called Salt Creek in the navigation apps and go west to the depths of the terrain according to the "walk west principle". The chances are you will find many interesting shapes. This location is suitable for both sunrise and sunset. A wide lens will be the most suitable for emphasizing the uniqe foreground formations.
Some other locations I visited without taking photos (beyond some souvenir photos on my cell phone) includes:
Zabriskie Point - one of the well-known locations with an easy access. Great for abstact photos of the badlands. Mostly a sunrise location but also sunset and night.
Dante's View - a beautiful panoramic view of the valley from above. Perfect for sunset.
Artist Palette- beautiful colors of the rocks which can make very nice abstract photos.
Devil's Golf Course - a special and very interesting place with harsh salty terrain not far from Badwater Basin, but looks to me very challenging in terms of photography.
Some remote locations I have not visited which require a high clearance vehicle, planing and more time are:
The Racetrack ("the moving rocks") and the more remote sand dunes (Panamint Dunes, Eureka Dunes). But these will wait for my return...