Death Valley Days

Discussion in 'Travel' started by joewhite, Jul 27, 2013.

  1. Any advice for photos on a trip in October to Death Valley? I'm planning on being there for a few days and am wondering what other areas to shoot besides the most popular ones, such as Zabriskie Point, the Artist, and the dunes...although I imagine I'll get those in as well. Also going to try some night shots, there should be only a crescent moon in early Oct. and maybe I'll be able to get some Milky Way shots.
    I don't currently own any grad neutral density filters, would you recommend having at least one for the type of landscapes there, or will it not be necessary?
    We'll be carrying about 10 gallons of water, 5 gallons of emergency gasoline, a high center 4WD truck, and some clothes for chilly sunrise and sunset outings.
    Any hints or advice appreciated. Thanks.
  2. Never been to DV other than the Nov-March window....and the days are usually in mid 70's and nights are quite clear and full of moon light. Oct can be still rather hot. There is the salts (Devil's Golf course), the the low area below sea level, Scotty's Castle and the rock that looked like it moved on its own. The dunes are great, tho you need to get up early and wait for the sun to clear the distant hills. You should be able to get some interesting sand textures.
    Yes, good wide angle with ND/grad would cut the horizon-sky (light) intensity. If possible, and if you have a model or a companion that would model, this person could wear some contrasty clothes (red-ish, turquoise, etc) + a veil-like material + some movement....and you'll get some contrast from the drabby looking desert.
    Make sure you have a number for nearby AAA towing :>).
  3. Ha...thanks, Les, for the advice and hints. I'm hoping my Tacoma will overcome any obstacles. ;)
  4. david_henderson


    You sound quite well prepared. I presume you have a spare wheel for the truck- in my experience the area is very hard on tyres and to my surprise there's a fully stocked tyre facility at Furnace Creek which I needed to use on my last visit after driving very slowly for hours from Eureka dunes on a temporary spare on the basis that I could survive one shredded tyre but not two.
    A few thoughts
    • Given your vehicle and sfter enquiring with the Rangers at the visitor centre, you seem sufficiently equipped to tackle the road to the Racetrack, a long drive over rough roads but the reward is a unique landscape that only a tiny proportion of visitors will see.
    • I recall a nice drive following the Beattie road as far as Rhyolite, a ghost town, then back via an unmetalled road through Titus Canyon
    • If you are going to get out for dawn to places like Zabriskie Point, try to get there before time as the light before the sun creeps over the horizon is interesting and very soon after it rises you have full-on daylight. Dawns and sunset times are precious so plan them out carefully. A dawn at Badwater, one at Zabriskie Point, one in the dunes.
    • I would absolutely get a couple of grad filters and carry a polariser. The real enemy at Death Valley ( besides the contrails) in a glary white detailless sky or a foreground that far too dark because you've had to expose to get sky detail. You'll need grads there more than in most places. I'd probably settle for a 3 stop hard and a 2 stop soft edge , remembering that the camera will need to be on a tripod to position them right.
    • If you're approaching from the north try to visit the Eureka Dunes. They are quite spectacular but unlike those at Mesquite Flat they're a long way from anywhere so early or late light there carries a cost.
    • Average high is about 90F and average low is about 60F but the variation from those averages is considerable. I guess if it were me I'd expect to be working in comfortable temperatures but prepared for much colder mornings which might occur.
  5. Thank you, David, that was very informative. Yes, I've got a full sized spare tire. I also have a good tripod, a necessity IMO, and a polarizer.
    We will be coming from the north, I'll check out the Eureka dunes. I recall reading on the Park Service website about them. They stated those dunes were much less frequented (and harder to get to), so it sounds like a good option.
    It's likely that I will only get one GND, since the boss (wife) has concerns about my profligate spending. ;)
    Thanks again.
  6. All good advice. I'll add 2 ideas.
    First, the colors at Artist's Palette are amazing, but the get washed out in open sunshine. If you wait until the sun is over the hills in the afternoon and the Palette is in shadow (not darkness), the color will show very nicely. An advantage to this is that you can shoot at Artist's Palette in mid-late afternoon and still relocate to somewhere else to get sunset shots.
    Second, Milky Way shots can be difficult if the weather is not favorable. Because of the less than zero elevation in the valley, you will be shooting thru the most atmosphere on the planet to see the Milky Way, and the amount of haze and smoke is a factor. Higher elevation helps a lot. A friend of mine makes a couple of trips a year over to Panamint Springs each year with his telescope because of the reasonable accommodations, inexpensive beer, and good "seeing" there. Something to consider.
    Got any friends who could loan you an extra wheel/tire that fits your Tacoma? If you plan to get out to the Racetrack, having 2 spares is regarded as good planning.
  7. Thanks, Bob. I hadn't considered the elevation, but now that you mention it, that's a very good point. Also, appreciate the tip for the AP.
    Man, the road is really that bad, huh? Ok, I'll make that info part of the plan.
    Appreciate your help.
  8. Joseph, the road out to the racetrack is a tough one, and don't be tempted to go off the gravel road surface to go around a bad spot. Many of the plants in the desert have sharp points, and sidewall punctures are more than just a problem - they become inevitable. Before I retired, I managed some operations that required offroad travel in the desert, and specialized tires with reinforced sidewalls were necessary. Without them I had trucks that punctured 3, sometimes 4 tires in a day.
    Also, expect no cell phone service anywhere but Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. When you get away from those facilities, you can't phone for help, so you need to be self-sufficient. Make sure someone knows the parts of the park you plan to go to each day, and if you get stuck, stay with the vehicle - you'll be much easier to spot from a distance. If you will going to DV by yourself, call or text someone each morning with your plans, and call or text when you are back to civilization each night. Cheap insurance.
  9. Thanks again, Bob.
    I am about as cell phone independent as possible, didn't even own one until last year.
    I'll stay on the road and carry about 10 gallons of water in the truck; food snacks; warmer clothing for night; maps and a compass.
  10. Hike a few of the umpteen dozen canyons. I STRONGLY suggest you buy the Mitchel Digonnet book: today, and spend some time picking a few likely destinations.<br><br>

    I like the Gower Gulch - Zabriskie - Golden Canyon area. If you're up for a real hike, you can make a loop of all three. If you get a crack-of-dawn start, you can be back to the car before the sun bakes your brain.<br><br>

    Titus Canyon is a superb drive and is not to be missed.<br><br>

    IMO, the Racetrack is a tad over-rated, particularly given the time it takes to get out there. If you do go, make it an overnight excursion.<br><br>

    Be sure to check out a few of the Panamint Range highlights, such as Charcoal Kilns, Skidoo, Aguereberry point, Wildrose Canyon, etc. These are good (high!) places to be if the weather is hot.
  11. From my DV trip report dated 1997, in November.
    Reference material:

    - "Adventuring in the California Deserts" by Lynne Foster: Excellent
    coverage of the Park and surrounding area, sprinkled with photo hints.

    - "California Desert Byways" by Tony Huegel: Description of unpaved

    - Sunrise and sunset sheet from DVNP: Popular locations listed as
    silhouette or oblique points.
    Sand Dunes near Stovepipe Wells:
    The big dunes were very photogenic, IF not marred by footprints. Hiked for miles looking for dunes sans footprints, but came up empty. Resorted to shooting from a distance. From Stovepipe Wells, a short drive up Mosaic Canyon Road yielded good views. But the sunlight hitting the dunes directly from the west was flat. A better vista point is from Grotto Canyon Road: a short but rough climbing dirt road that is not well marked (across from the big dunes viewing area, off 190). Along this road at varying elevations, different perspectives of the dunes with distant mountain ranges in the background can be captured. Side lighting was good for both sunrise and sunset. Most shots were taken with 100mm to 300mm range lenses. A warming filter would help cut down the blue cast from the morning light. Watch out for the telephone poles. According to another photog, the big dunes were pristine during his previous visit. Probably swept clean by winds. So YMMV. A park ranger suggested the Eureka dunes, which were a couple of hours away, and more off the beaten path.
    Golden Canyon:
    The last trail marker was reached after a mile hike into the narrow canyon. There the trail forked to the left and right, and the Red Cathedral and the Manly Beacon rose in front of you. Look for small trails ascending the canyon walls. Took one on the right that was short but quite steep. From the top of the bluff, the view was unobstructed by the canyon walls. The challenge was getting everything into one frame (hint: need your widest angle). The setting sun hit the mountains straight on, casting few shadows. Then the Photo Gods smiled: a couple of hikers appeared on a distant ridge, providing a much needed scaling detail. Unless a silhouette effect is desired, this is a sunset location.
    Zabriskie Point:
    Scouted the location one evening before a sunrise shoot. From the viewing area, waited an hour for the setting sun to peek through the low clouds. Rewarded with golden mountain ranges and colorful high clouds to the east. After sundown, towards the west, Manly Beacon was a silhouette in the afterglow skies. Shooting sunrise here was quite tricky. As the sun climbed, different features in the landscape got lit up at different times. Had to make quick composition decisions to switch between isolated lit up areas and panoramic views.

    Twenty Mule Canyon:
    Winding dirt road offering many views of rock formations and mountain peaks.

    Artists' Palette:
    Colorful rock formations, facing west.
    Small pool of water with mountain reflections.

    Dante' View:
    Panoramic views in all directions.

    Death Valley Junction:
    In the middle of the desert, a funky hotel with wall murals and an active opera house.

    On route side trips:

    - Bristlecone Pine Forest:
    The road to the Schulman Grove was still open. Upon arrival, the setting sun hid behind the low clouds, and the howling wind shortened the visit.

    - Mount Whitney:
    From Lone Pine, took a pre-dawn ten minute drive up the Whitney-Portal Road to the Movie Flat Road (where numerous westerns were filmed). Mount Whitney's peaks glowed in the morning rays. Looped back to Lone Pine on Lubkin Canyon Road. Still some foliage color left. This area is loaded with photo ops, and deserves a return visit.

    - Keeler:
    A speckle of a desert town 20 miles from Lone Pine on 190. Creative front yard decorations.

    - Cerro Gordo Ghost Town:
    Reached by a torturous eight mile dirt road starting from across Keeler. A white knuckles drive: narrow, s-t-e-e-p hairpin turns, and many sections single lane. Spectacular panoramic views along the way. Not much of a ghost town at the end of the road, compared to Bodie. But definitely more atmospheric, with not a, eh, ghost around.
  12. Greg - thank you. Since my time there is going to be limited to four days, it's important to try to get to places somewhat off the beaten path. Appreciate the book suggestions.
    Robert - great tips and book suggestions.
    The DVNP website said that there were enough activities there to last at least a lifetime. I'm beginning to see that.
  13. Excellent thread, since I live in Los Angeles, and plan a trip there sometime soon. Great, informative posts! Keep 'em coming! I'll definitely look into the recommended books as well (thanks, Greg, Robert!). I would love to see some member photos posted here from some of the mentioned locations!
  14. This looks like an interesting place... ;)
    as does its neighbor, just a few hundred feet to the north.
    Just about any of the Black Hills canyons are likely to feature colorful geology.
    Grotto Canyon will make a nice drive in your truck. It's easy to underestimate the scale of Tucki Mountain until you've driven into one of its major canyons. There's a neat (if not particularly colorful) slot/narrows section to hike.
    Coming from the north, you could spend fun a day exploring Eureka Valley. Check caltrans and/or for road conditions.
    There's another Digonnet book ...
    One general note:
    DV is vast and the speed limits within the NP are low. It can take hours, which add up to days, to drive to and fro. With only a few days available, I'd suggest you somewhat limit the number of general areas you visit, so as to spend more time shooting and less in the car.
  15. Go to Rhyolite like I did and take a photo of the lights of Vegas at night. Also, you can see the lights of LA from almost the
    opposite direction but you have to know where to look. Stars at night are beautiful!

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