Quick: say what first comes to mind when you think of Death Valley National Park.
Although I can’t hear you through the computer screen (the technology for that isn’t quite there yet), I’m betting your answer had something to do with absurd heat, dunes, or miles of barren land. Maybe it skewed more comically towards tumble weeds, steer skulls, or frying eggs on the ground. The park does itself no favors with its name, which doesn’t exactly evoke mental images of rainbows, vibrant gardens, unicorns, and the like. (Admittedly, “Death Valley” is a pretty legit name.)
I’ll be honest, when someone first told me about taking a photo trip to Death Valley National Park, my first thought was a mix of heat, sand, and nothingness. Why would anyone want to photograph that? Heck, why would anyone want to experience that?! However, since it’s my goal to visit each of the 59 US National Parks, I “had” to visit Death Valley once, if only so I could cross it off my list.
I could not have been more wrong about Death Valley National Park. It’s not all about death and nothingness–note even remotely so. There are gorgeous hikes, beautiful views, other-worldly landscapes, iconic historical landmarks, and even life. Really. It may not have rushing rivers, waterfalls (plural–as there actually is one waterfall in Death Valley!), and lush forests, but Death Valley National Park certainly isn’t as bleak as stereotypes and preconceptions might suggest.
Okay, I’ll admit: there is a lot of barren land and huge sand dunes. However, I guess I didn’t realize just how awesome sand dunes are. Several movies have shot in Death Valley. You might be familiar with a little film called Star Wars: A New Hope. Well, numerous shots in that were filmed in Death Valley National Park. Tatooine basically is Death Valley. I’m pretty sure most children dream of walking to Mos Eisley Cantina, and you can make that dream a reality in Death Valley National Park (minus actually stepping inside Mos Eisley).
Seriously, though, sand dunes are way more impressive to walk in person than I ever expected. During my first visit to Death Valley’s Mesquite Dunes, we hiked about a mile into the dunes while it was dark, not really able to see much along the way.
I was absolutely mesmerized when the sun broke the horizon, casting a warm glow over everything as the dunes themselves sharply contrasted with shadow and light. This ranks as one of my all-time favorite moments in a National Park, and put the Mesquite Dunes on my list of top places to shoot the sunrise and sunset.
Then, there’s that barren ground that I assumed was just a grassless expanse of lifelessness. This is such a reductionist, closeminded view of the ground, and the Badwater, Devil’s Golf Course, and Salt Creek quickly taught me this. Each of these areas were different from one another, and brought different photographic opportunities–and challenges–to the table.
Right now, a shot of the Salt Flats at sunset after the rain is actually on my photo bucket list. I don’t fancy photographing “nothingness” so I think that speaks volumes to just how intriguing of a subject it is.
And that just covers how I was wrong about the beauty of my mistaken belief of the limited scope of what I thought was in Death Valley National Park. It turns out there is so much more than what I thought.
For starters, Death Valley isn’t all ‘death’. There’s actually a lot of life in the park, from animals to beautiful spring wildflowers. That’s right–Death Valley National Park has a wildflower season! What’s next, a lake with fish, LOL? Oh wait.
Beyond that, there are gorgeous hikes and beautiful drives through the canyons and hills. Admittedly, I wasn’t too surprised to find canyons and hills in Death Valley, but I didn’t expect them to be nearly as beautiful.
Artist’s Drive is my favorite little loop to pass through in the car to kill some time, and Natural Bridge Canyon Trail is a short hike that packs in a lot of beauty.
Likewise, there are myriad views throughout the park, from the iconic Zabriskie Point to Dante’s View to numerous other mountains. Zabriskie Point is the iconic one of these for good reason, and the afternoon light beautifully illuminates the rainbow-colored sediment in the badlands that the Point overlooks.
These and other mountain views have less in common with the Sierra Nevadas and more in common with the mountains of Tatooine. That’s neither a bad or good thing–variety is the spice of life.
Shifting from these easily accessible spots to the lesser known locations, and you have arguably the most intriguing natural phenomenon anywhere in the moving rocks of Death Valley’s Racetrack Playa.
I rented a Jeep, drove to Death Valley by myself, camped out overnight, and got a flat tire on the way back (I should probably do a trip report on that visit…) all in the name of capturing a photo of these moving rocks under the full moon.
Despite all of that, it was totally worth it, and not just for the Racetrack. Everything from the Joshua Trees to the mountains to Teakettle Junction along the way made the journey just as fulfilling as the destination.
Then there are the cultural elements of Death Valley National Park. I think the best National Parks have beautiful, historic structures that showcase man’s relationship with nature. Grand Canyon National Park has El Tovar, Desert View Watchtower, and Kolb Studios. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has Mingus Mill and Cades Cove.
Death Valley National Park has Furnace Creek Inn, Scotty’s Castle, and Harmony Borax Works. Not only are these photogenic, but they are demonstrative of man’s stubborn battle against nature. (In this case, it’s most definitely a battle…working in 130-degree heat qualifies as a battle in my book!)
This all really just scratches the surface. I’ve only taken three trips to Death Valley National Park thus far, and it’s one of the largest National Parks, so there’s plenty I have yet to see.
There’s Darwin Falls, Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, Aguereberry Point, Eureka Dunes, and probably a ton of other places I’m forgetting. Plus, revisiting my favorite locations when the conditions are better and I can capture the photos I’ve envisioned.
The point is that Death Valley National Park is one of those locations about which it’s easy to form preconceptions and write off as somewhere that’s monotonous and uninteresting. While it likely does have some of the things you’d expect, it has so much more, and can be a treasure trove for photography. (It’s also a nice challenge for photographers, and I’ll keep going back because I’ve struck out on several shots I want.) I would consider this a “sleeper” National Park, and it’s one of my favorite parks due to its diversity and how dramatically different it is from many other locations. Perhaps a more apt name would be “Diversity Valley National Park” but that just sounds like some cheesy PC thing. In this case, Death couldn’t be more alive.
For these photos of Death Valley National Park, I used my a Nikon D750, Nikon D810, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 Lens, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR, and Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 Fisheye, plus my MeFoto travel tripod, some other assorted junk, and tons of caffeine. You can see the settings of most photos by clicking them to view their gallery page, and then clicking the info button.
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.
Have you visited Death Valley National Park? Do you agree or disagree with this post? Does this make you want to go? Share your thoughts on this or anything else, or questions you have in the comments!