Death Valley National Park Trip Report – Part 1

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This trip report cover my recent overnight trip to Death Valley National Park, which included stops at the Mesquite Dunes, Furnace Creek, Badwater Basin, and other places around Death Valley National Park in California.

I almost didn’t do a trip report on this visit to Death Valley, as I missed a lot of key experiences in the park and didn’t really have the best of luck with weather. However, I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to return (hopefully sooner rather than later), so I wanted to at least write a brief trip report while the experience is fresh in my mind.

I’m already anxious to get back, as Death Valley really surprised me in the diversity of the landscape and beauty of the park. To be perfectly honest, I was going because I wanted to get some photos of the dunes and salt flats, but figured that would be about it. Don’t get me wrong, some of the places in the park have rad names, like the “Devil’s Golfcourse” and “Hell’s Gate,” but those names don’t exactly evoke images of beautiful, vibrant landscapes.

I was shocked to find a park that offers more than just heat and long stretches of desert, but I’ll cover that in the summary at the end. Suffice to say, I only saw a small portion of the park, but even what I did see was striking. I can only imagine my opinion of the place once I see more of the environment and points of interest.

This trip started out with Bill and I heading out one Friday afternoon, racing to Death Valley to try arriving by sunset. When we left, Google Maps was showing us arriving just after sunset given the current traffic, but we figured we could make up some time as the app assumes you won’t speed, and that’s just ludicrous. Unfortunately, Google Maps led us astray. There was an accident outside San Bernardino where the 15 meets the 215 (cue ‘The Californians’ voice…which I finally understand and now find hilarious, as opposed to just weird) and the app said we could save an hour by exiting at Glen Helen Parkway and taking that for about 5 miles.

What it failed to note is that Glen Helen Parkway was closed about two miles after the exit. We had the feeling something was amiss when we saw a line of cars getting on the 15 as we got off, and sure enough, we realized it was closed when the line of cars in front of us did u-turns and headed back to the highway. Thinking we could outsmart the crowd, we tried heading down a side street that Google Maps said would get us through, only to find it turned into an unpaved, private road about a mile in. In Google’s defense, the Glen Helen Parkway shortcut had signage on the 15 calling it a ‘highway alternate road’ with no mention of it being closed until we actually got to the spot where it was closed. Still, Larry and Sergey are lucky the sunset ended up being a bust, or they would have incurred my wrath (I’m sure they are trembling).

At this point, it would take a miracle–or Bill driving like 105 MPH the entire way–to arrive before sunset. Fortunately(?), the weather was only getting worse, with the storm clouds over us intensifying rather than breaking up. We didn’t even bother trying to race against the clock, as it was pretty clear that the sunset would be a bust. Of course, always loving a bit of drama in our photography adventures, we opted against purchasing the $4+/gallon gas in the gateway town outside of Death Valley, and rolled into the gas station in Furnace Creek with barely anything left…and concerns that the station might not even be open. It was open and we were fine, but the gas situation before we saw that it was open was a little nerve-wrecking.

After that, we decided to head to Badwater Basin when we arrived to see what the water levels were like there. This area gets an average of 1.9 inches of rain per year, and I think it got about that much rain the night we arrived!

One of our friends had gone to Death Valley earlier in the week and captured an amazing photo of water in the salt flats here, but we couldn’t locate his spot, and with almost no cell service and internet in Death Valley, we weren’t able to get a message to him until later. We wandered around a bit anyway, noting how cool the salt formations looked.

After wandering for a while, we decided to head to Stovepipe Wells. We were planning on meeting talented Bay Area photographer Ryan Engstrom, but had some time to kill, so we stopped at Tollroad Restaurant there. This type of place is what it is, and with the exception of the pricey ‘Dining Rooms’ located in some of the flagship lodges, National Park dining is pretty much universally bad. There are only a handful (at most) restaurants in any of the parks, so options are limited, and whomever runs the restaurant knows that they have you over a barrel. For most people, the proposition is eat there or don’t eat at all. The restaurant itself was interestingly quaint with posters from movies shot in Death Valley throughout, but the food was suspect.

Following our grand feast, we went out to the parking lot, where Ryan arrived shortly thereafter. We decided to move the party to the Mesquite Dunes parking lot down the road, where we all talked shop for about an hour or so. I was really hoping to shoot the desert under the full moon, but the cloud cover was really thick, so we decided to just do a few hours of ‘car camping’ before getting up to hike out for the sunrise. Car camping is never the best sleep, but it was amplified this particular night as we kept waking up like kids on Christmas morning to check and see if the clouds had cleared and the moon was illuminating the landscape. Even while doing this every 30 minutes or so, it was still better sleep than on the Pacific Coast trip!

The next morning, sunrise seemed promising. We excitedly started hiking out into the dunes, and based on the hints of colors in the sky and the parting appearance of the clouds, we were all getting pretty excited. It was going to be a good morning. Or so we thought.

You know that feeling when you’re driving in the desert and it seems like you’ll be closer to some distant landmark in a minute or two, only to have it seemingly just as far away 10 minutes later? The desert is a tease like that, with so many things being mere mirages. That’s what this sunrise was.

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The clouds were breaking, the colors were starting to appear, and it looked like any moment things would clear a bit more the sky would explode in a sea of light. Just a few seconds more and it would happen. This same scenario kept playing out. The colors were all there, the clouds had perfect texture and were moving, and it seemed like the thick portion of the sky in front of the sun was just about to break for one really amazing sunrise.

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At least when the sky was really filled with interesting light just before the sunrise, that never happened. Finally, about 20 minutes after sunrise, the clouds did break a little and allow the sun to come out. At this point, it didn’t light up the sky, but the look it gave to the sand was pure magic. For less than 4 minutes, about half of the sand had this amazing golden aura to it, while the other half was dark in shadow. This juxtaposition of dark and light was stunning, and I tried like a madman to capture it, frantically taking photos and cleaning sand off my lens. And like that, it was gone. So were the photo opportunities in the Mesquite Dunes that morning.

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In hindsight, I’m not at all satisfied with the photos I captured that morning. I know this may seem disingenuous or overly picky since I have a few decent photos from the morning, but hear me out. I squandered far more shots than I nailed, and given the flashes of diverse and brilliant sky, I should have walked away with more and better keepers. I expected photographing the dunes to be easy and straightforward. It was anything but. The big mistake was that I shot wide far too much, as evidenced in both of the photos above.

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Take the first sunrise photo in this post. There’s pretty much one sweeping dune in the frame, with the rest being off in the distance. Had I instead used a mid-range zoom or telephoto, I could have focused on stacking the dunes in the distance, and highlighting the range of colors near the horizon.

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Same goes for the sunburst photo–there are some interesting sweeping dunes in the distance that could have been more integral parts of the photo. Composition-wise, I just kept striking out.

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The other big mistake I made was not being more diligent about cleaning sand from my lens, causing a lot of my into-the-light shots to have significant sunspots and artifacts that render them unusable. Enough complaining for now, though. Regardless of how I feel about the photos it was a good learning experience that has me better prepared for next time.

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After we all trudged back to the parking lot, we decided to head back to Stovepipe Wells Village to revisit the Michelin star awarded Tollroad Restaurant for breakfast. After that delicious meal the prior night, we just had to return! The all you can eat breakfast buffet was actually fine–that’s the kind of meal I like at this kind of restaurant, as you can make up with the underwhelming food by having a lot of it (that’s sound math right there).

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From there, we started figuring out what we might want to do that day, and it seemed like the plan was more or less to kill time while waiting for the sunset. As a big fan of the National Parks, I wanted to go see some of the points of interest, even if they wouldn’t be entirely photogenic in the middle of the day.

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We decided to head back towards Furnace Creek to see what the salt flats looked like, and to determine if we could find any with pools of water in them.

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Along the way, we noticed the sky was still looking pretty good, so we elected to stop at some of the salt flats on the way to Furnace Creek that had trails of water through them (I assume these have a specific name, but I don’t know what that is).

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The texture of the clouds coupled with the slight range of light and deep blue skies really made the scene pop, and we were surprised to see it look this gorgeous even in the late morning.

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I tried getting low and using my telephoto lens to capture the color at the horizon, as well as the glisten of the water on the ground. I sort of like the out-of-focus look of the ground shot with wider apertures.

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I have confined most of my photography to the hours between sunset and sunrise as of late, but seeing that sky, I now sort of question the decision to regularly write off the middle of the day.

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The shadows of the clouds on the mountains in the distance looked cool, too.

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After shooting for a while there, we decided to head to Badwater Basin to see if we could find some of the salt rings with water in them. Given how much it rained the previous day, we were certain we’d find some.

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After wandering aimlessly for a while without seeing any, we figured there was nowhere with standing water. In hindsight, I wish we would have kept wandering–it’s not like we had anything better to do–but continuing to look might have been a waste of time. This is especially the case since the sunset didn’t end up being anything special, so even success at finding water wouldn’t have had a payoff.

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While we were out here, my BlackRapid strap failed. Literally. The carabiner clip broke while I was walking, causing my camera to hit the ground. This is the second time my camera has fallen from the BlackRapid strap, with the first causing several hundreds of damage to my camera and requiring me to replace a lens. If I had any sense, I probably would have purchased those “safety straps” after that incident, but I figured there’s no way it would happen again. It really frustrates me that a company charging such a premium for its products (BlackRapid straps are roughly 2-3 times the cost of their competitors) uses inferior materials.

There’s no excuse for a carabiner simply breaking while a camera is attached to it. BlackRapid should be using the same quality of carabiners that rock climbing companies use. A camera certainly weighs less than a human being, so I can’t imagine the carabiner breaking like that had the materials been of sufficient quality. Anyway, I intend upon writing to BlackRapid and sending them an invoice for my camera repairs to see if they own up to the problem or blow me off, and I’ll report back. I really like BlackRapid straps, but this is ridiculous.

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After that unpleasant incident, we decided to head back to the Inn at Furnace Creek, which is basically a swanky oasis hotel in the middle of the desert. It’s really shocking how nice this resort is, and it’s probably the most lavish National Park lodge I’ve seen.

Continue reading Part 2 of my Death Valley National Park Trip Report

For this trip to Death Valley National Park, I carried my a Nikon D750Nikon D810Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 LensNikon 24-70mm f/2.8Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRand Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 Fisheye, plus my MeFoto travel tripod, some other assorted junk, and tons of caffeine.

If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. To get some more Death National Park photo ideas, check out my Death Valley National Park Photo Gallery, which includes additional shots I have taken on my visits there. For photo licensing inquires, please contact me.

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Your Thoughts…

What do you think of the photos here? Have you visited Death Valley National Park? Do you “get” the humor of SNL’s The Californians, or is it weirdly unfunny to you? Share your thoughts on this or anything else, or questions you have in the comments!

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12 replies
  1. Eric Gail
    Eric Gail says:

    Hey Tom,

    I would have to say that even with only a relatively modest spattering of color you managed to pull off some great shots. I’m sure you’ll get your revenge in the future. LOL. Really enjoyed reading the write-up of the trip. It gets me very excited for my next trip. I call Bill and Ryan the Dynamic Duo, but now that I know your part of the group I might have to change it up to the Terrific Trio. Loved visiting your stream and keep up the fantastic work.

    Kindest Regards, Eric Gail

    Reply
  2. Chandra
    Chandra says:

    I am going to Las Vegas in April and have booked a tour of Death Valley with stops at furnace creek, the basin and a couple other places on the way. Enjoyed your pics! One question, so do you get any cell service at all? I wanted to be able to text with my husband as he will be doing other things that day and we will be meeting up for dinner.

    Thank you,
    Chandra

    Reply
  3. M
    M says:

    Um, yeah, I think I HATED Death Valley. No, really. I did. We were there this summer and had horrible weather. We got caught in a flash flood and it was an incredibly terrifying experience. Rain and the desert don’t mix, so when I was reading your trip report and you guys had rain, I thought, UH OH.

    But you guys were lucky. We weren’t. When we got through the flash flood, we were really shaken up and wanted to get the hell out of Death Valley. We only stopped at two points (Mesquite Sand Dunes and Zabriskie Point) and we had enough, lol. This was during the middle of the day and we have the shitty photos to prove it! I totally wanted sunset pics of Mesquite Sand Dunes, but it wasn’t happening.

    So yeah – I say that I “hated” Death Valley, but I do kinda want to go again during better weather and during the right time of day. I’m just really spooked about the weather, after the bad experience we had. Flash floods are nothing to mess with, especially in Death Valley!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      That really stinks, but it sounds like you hated the *weather* in Death Valley than you did Death Valley itself.

      I have heard those flash floods can be pretty brutal and unexpected. We were paying attention to the satellites showing the rain in the mountains. Anyway, I’m far from an expert on Death Valley, but I will say that under the right conditions, I think it’s a pretty cool place–at least what I saw of it!

      Reply
  4. Laura B
    Laura B says:

    What I really want to know is if you went to Scotty’s Castle. That was always a highlight of my many trips through Death Valley.

    Reply
  5. Mia W.
    Mia W. says:

    Death Valley is super weird in a good way. I visited in the summer when it was 125 on the valley floor. I hope you have the chance to return and do photography of some of the more off-the-path sights, my midday snapshots don’t come anywhere close to capturing the stark beauty that’s there but I have a feeling you can capture some great blue hour or even nighttime images.

    Anyway, I am enjoying seeing your posts more frequently this year!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I’m definitely going to revisit and I plan on hiking to more remote locations then and attempting some unique stuff. The problem is that I have a limited window that is shrinking with summer approaching. Definitely don’t want to be there for one of those 125 degree days!

      Reply
  6. William McIntosh
    William McIntosh says:

    Great write up, Tom. I’m glad you’re writing this stuff down as I had already forgotten half of it in my sleep deprived semi-coma. All of these shots came out very well, but I think that first one is my favorite with the different layers of light and shadow and texture. I definitely need to try two bodies next time as changing lenses in that environment was making me very nervous and I quit changing entirely after the wind picked up. Looking forward to heading back there, hopefully sooner rather than later!

    Reply
  7. KCmike
    KCmike says:

    I’m really enjoying this installment. I was hoping to do the Great American Roadtrip this year and hopefully see this part of California but it looks like I’m flying again. Those pics are truly stunning work. Such vast, empty, harsh and brilliant beauty in the sand.

    I’m looking for forward to seeing more of the hotel.

    California has so much to see and do. Have you thought of visiting the Channel Islands yet? That is another area that I think would be such a treat especially for photography.

    Mike

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      What happened with the road trip? It seemed like you were pretty excited for that!

      Death Valley was a real shocker for me, and although I haven’t even come close to seeing all of the park, I already know that there’s much more there than meets the eye. I really can’t wait to get back so I can write something more comprehensive and help more people explore this place.

      Channel Islands are high on my list of places to visit, but I need to do my research. I’m not too familiar with the ferry situation, and I want to make sure I have adequate time and a good weather forecast for when I’m there.

      Reply

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