Death Valley National Park Trip Report – Part 2

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Picking up from where we left off in Part 1 of my Death Valley National Park Trip Report, this photo above is probably not what you’d expect to see in Death Valley. The Inn at Furnace Creek would be an anomaly in any National Park, but it’s the ultimate contrast in Death Valley. The land around it is almost entirely barren, with scarcely any vegetation to be found in the area. Then, out of nowhere, this beautiful lodge rises out of nowhere, surrounded by palm trees, a pool, and bustling with life.

It’s almost as if the Inn is defying the natural order of the land. Humans are apt to do this, and it almost seems oddly fitting that Death Valley would be home to the most lavish (at least of those I’ve seen) National Park lodge. When it comes to things like this, mankind as a whole is a bit like Barney Stinson. We build sprawling metropolises in dangerous flood plans. We construct bridges on earthquake fault-lines. We want houses on sea cliffs where erosion is a fact of life. I don’t know if it’s that we aren’t properly humbled by nature or it’s some misplaced sense of manifest destiny or if humanity just has a subconscious thirst for adventure, but this type of thing is no surprise.

Setting aside the whole man v. nature thing, the Inn at Furnace Creek is also yet another example in Death Valley of a surprising thing you wouldn’t expect to see–something that makes the park so much more than just barren desert.

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Since we had some time to kill that afternoon while awaiting the sunset and we were a bit too tired to spend the middle of the day hiking, we decided to visit the Inn to check it out. We were greeted by a fountain that I can only assume is filled with small children looking for a respite from the heat on those 125 degree days.

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While the Inn at Furnace Creek is a Four Diamond award winner from AAA, it isn’t simply a generic luxury hotel. It has the same type of rich history as can be found in other National Park lodges, it’s just more lavish and has some amenities I’m guessing are not the norm among lodges.

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After doing some scouting on the internet and trying to figure out where else we might want to go–things I definitely should have done prior to the trip as internet is pretty uncommon in Death Valley, we headed to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. I’m sure this temperature readout is a popular photo op in the summer, but with 59 degrees displayed, it’s not like we were really braving the heat or anything.

I wanted to visit this Visitor Center because–don’t laugh–I collect stamps from the National Parks in this little passport book that I have. I’m trying to collect a stamp at every National Park Service site that I visit (with any luck, I’ll lose the book right before my last stop).

I also like going the the Visitor Centers because I believe they set a good tone for the park, placing guests on the lookout for certain things to expect in the parks and providing a background for the “in the field” learning people do as they explore the parks. I don’t have children so I’m certainly not advocating any type of teaching style, but as I child, I rarely paid attention in school. In hindsight, I feel that much of what I’ve learned over the course of my life has been absorbed during the course of experiences I’ve had, and most of what I gleaned by doing has stuck with me better than what I read in books. I don’t intend to disparage classroom learning here, and I realize everyone learns differently, so I suppose this is just my sort of odd way of expressing why I think these Visitor Centers serve an important role.

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After wandering around the cool exhibits (and they really were cool–the Visitor Center just completed an extensive refurbishment) for a while, we decided to head out. From there we stopped briefly at the Ranch at Furnace Creek to meet a couple of other photographers before heading to do a loop around Artist’s Drive and then back to the Mesquite Dunes for sunset.

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The conditions on the Mesquite Dunes were far worse than they were that morning, with footprints almost everywhere that was within a mile of the road. The sunset looked like it was going to be a bust, and I was already feeling a sense of defeat over my photos from that morning, so I didn’t make the greatest effort to find a compelling perspective.

In hindsight, I really wish I would have made more of an effort, because it would have been a good learning experience in terms of learning how to photograph these dunes. Usually, when it comes to photography I have an unrelenting persistence that keeps me trying new things even when success is unlikely, but I guess I just “wasn’t feeling it”, as the kids say, that day.

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Before this trip, I didn’t realize that Death Valley National Park is such a popular spot with photography workshops, but it appeared there were at least a few workshops occurring while we were there.

I used to hate the idea of workshops, as I didn’t understand why someone would spend money they could otherwise set aside for new gear on something they could figure out themselves with just a little more research and self-motivation. I would still never take a workshop, but I’ve come to realize that they can be valuable for others who learn differently or need in-the-field assistance. (I’m not sure why this trip report has a ‘learning’ motif, but that wasn’t my intent going in!)

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This was where I was camped out for about 30 minutes with one of my cameras on a tripod waiting for the sun to disappear over the horizon. I think the ripples in the sand are interesting, but otherwise, this photo suffers from the same problems identified in my wide angle photos from Part 1 of this trip report. I didn’t catch onto those problems until I got home and looked at all of the photos, unfortunately.

death-valley-telephoto-logWhile one camera was on the tripod, I used the other with the 70-200mm lens to try some different shots. I don’t think any of those shots with the 70-200 are really anything special, but I like them much more than the photo I captured with the wide angle on the tripod.

Although I still have a lot to learn about photographing the dunes, I think I am much better prepared for my next time after reviewing these photos and seeing how I screwed up. That’s one thing I love about photography–it’s a constant journey and challenge to improve.

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After sunset, we headed off to photograph the salt flats with the rising full moon overhead.

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 By the time we got to this area of the salt flats, I was really frustrated. I spent a ton of time moving around to the different flats trying to find some good leading lines and patterns, plus the right angle for a good composition with the moon.

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When it comes to photography (or a variety of things, for that matter), sometimes you’re in the zone, sometimes you’re not. I just wasn’t in the zone. Fortunately, the weather was great, the landscape was far more interesting and dynamic than I ever expected, and I was among good company. Even though I view the trip as more or less a bust in terms of photography, what I learned from the other photographers there and through my own failures was actually far more valuable than what I’ve learned on any recent trips that were “successes” for photography. Perhaps I’m just trying to be optimistic here and am overcompensating, but I don’t think so.

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Overall, regardless of the photos I capture in Death Valley National Park, I had an excellent time and really can’t wait to revisit the park. This is not just because I want to redeem myself in terms of photos, but because in looking at different locations in the literature at the Visitor Center and other places in Death Valley National Park, I realized there were a ton of really cool spots we didn’t have a chance to visit. I knew about the Racetrack before that visit, and it remains high on my list of places to see, but now Scotty’s Castle, the Borax Works, Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View, and many other trails are also on my list of places to visit. And maybe, just maybe, next time I will make a Faustian Bargain so that I get some good photos at the Devil’s Golf Course… 😉

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…

Have you visited Death Valley National Park? What do you think about experiential learning? What about learning through your own failures? Share your thoughts on this or anything else, or questions you have in the comments!

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7 replies
  1. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    I hear ‘ya on the photography workshop stuff. I won’t go to that stuff because they’re so damn expensive and I’d just as rather spend that money on a new lens or, in my case right now, a new body (I want to move to full frame). I know if I put more effort into my photography, it’d be a hell of a lot better, but sometimes, you’re just not feelin’ in — and in my case, a lot of the time, I’m never visiting spots during the right time of day — which really makes all the difference. I need to make more of an effort to visit during the right times of day but it’s just not always possible when traveling.

    Or the weather will throw you a curveball — I loathe shooting on overcast, gloomy days.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Yep. Not to knock workshop photographers as I’m sure there are a lot of amazing ones out there who do great things for their students, but I feel much of what is “taught” is simply prime locations, and most of the time a few hours on Google will yield pretty solid results.

      Then there’s the issue of weather. Can you imagine paying $1,000+ for a workshop and having a couple overcast days? Ouch. I wonder how the instructors deal with those types of issues.

      Reply
  2. Kayla
    Kayla says:

    I’ve looked back at these photos a few times since you first posted it. I really like the picture early in the post with the undulating lines in the sand. It looks like it could be a rolling ocean.

    Reply
  3. KCmike
    KCmike says:

    Very entertaining blog entry here Tom. I completely agree with the “in the zone” feeling and those days of “not feeling it”. That is one thing I love about photography is that you never know what your in store for. I could be shooting something I’ve shot several times before but it could feel completely knew this time around. I feel like I’m learning constantly and while I’m still on the beginning part of my photography arc I’m loving what I’m doing.

    Mike

    Reply
  4. Kayla
    Kayla says:

    Did you get the National Park passport at a visitor’s center? I’m interested in starting the same thing when we visit GSMNP.

    I’ve enjoyed seeing your perspective of a park I knew little about. I will be interested to see how you approach your photography next time you visit!

    Reply
  5. Patricia
    Patricia says:

    Death Valley had never been on my radar, but your photos have certainly changed that for me, Tom. Thanks so much for all the efforts you go to bring us this beauty. Now I will plan a trip to this national park.

    Reply

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