Death Valley Field Guide

At around 5,000 square miles, Death valley is the largest national park in the lower 48 states. The desert conditions are caused by the rain shadow formed by the Panamint mountain range in California. There are two routes into the park from California, but I fly into Los Vegas and drive in. It’s about a 150 miles from Las Vegas to Furnace Creek. I stop off on the way at Rhyolite, a ghost town left over from the borax mining boom. Lodging within the park is available at Stovepipe Wells, Panamint Springs and Furnace Creek. Given the size of the park I would recommend choosing you accommodation based on the areas of the park you most want to explore. I stayed in Furnace Creek. This provides reasonable access to Zabriskie Point, Dante’s view, Badwater and the Mesquite Dunes.

Ironically, on my first visit to Death Valley, the preceding weekend saw record precipitation that dropped three inches of rainfall into Death Valley. The rainfall washed out the Artist’s Palette road, caused closure of the Salt Creek road and the Dante’s View road with snow! For my second trip the weather was back to its more typical dry conditions. Both these trips were in mid-February, if you want to see the wild flowers in bloom, you will fare better visiting later in the spring. If you are especially interested in photographing the flowers, it would be best to check the winter rainfall levels as this has a big impact on the amount of bloom. I don't recommend visiting in the summer as the temperatures often exceed 120 ℉.

This guide is not complete by any means.  There are plenty of other areas to explore, especially if you have a high ground clearance 4 wheel drive vehicle and can travel on some of the rougher dirt roads. A final word of caution, there is a lot of salt and sand in Death Valley, both of which can easily damage photographic equipment. 

Route 190 South from Furnace Creek 

Will get you Zabriskie Point and Dante's view. You will encounter Zabriskie Point first, about a ten minute drive from Furnace Creek. There is a short paved path from the parking lot to the overlook. At the overlook there are views of great wavy rock formations on all sides. Towards the west is the well known view of Manley’s Beacon and the Panamint mountain range.  It’s an excellent location for both sunrise and sunset. I was fortunate to have a little bit of cloud and some color in the sky for each of my visits.

Manley Beacon, Death Valley

Manley Beacon at sunrise

 

Further down route 190 you will find the turnoff on the right for Dante's View road. The turn is about 15 minutes from Furnace Creek and then you have another 30 minutes up a steep mountain road to the Dante's View , driving to the parking area. For any of you who, like me, don't like narrow roads with steep drop offs, the road feels pretty safe overall. The final section of road near the parking lot is a little narrow and exposed, but quickly past. Dante's view is over 5,000 feet above the valley floor and it's typically 10 degrees colder and often windier than the valley itself. On the morning I was there the temperature in the mid to high thirty's with 50 mph winds. 

The view west is over the Badwater basin towards the Panamints. The basin itself is in shadow until later in the morning, but it's possible to get good shots as the morning light catches the ridge you are on while the valley is in shadow. You can get good photographs from the parking area and there is also a short trail at the south of the parking lot that will give you alternate vantage points and a choice of foregrounds. You can get a sunrise shot facing east, but the mountains will tend to be in silhouette. I haven't visited Dante's View at the end of the day, so I haven't seen the sunset possibilities as yet.

Dante

Dante's View at sunrise

 

The Badwater Road

You will find the turn for Badwater road, five minutes South of Furnace Creek on route 190. Another five minutes driving will bring you to the parking area for Golden Canyon. The canyon gets its name from the bright yellow rock formations. The light is very good in the mid afternoon, when the sunlight will bring out the color in the rocks. In addition to the predominate yellow color, there are some nice contrasting formations in red and green. I usually hike in for about an hour and then turn. This will get in far enough for a view of the Cathedral red sandstone formation and a back view of Manley Beacon. If you are inclined, you can continue the hike through to Zabriskie point.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley

Golden Canyon

 

Another six miles down the road will get you to the turn for Artist's Drive. This is a one way loop road that runs from south to north, so you might want to do this on your way back from Badwater. The drive itself will take you on a narrow bending road through a range of rock outcrops and gullies in a variety of colors. There a number of pullouts along the route. The overlook at Artist's Palette brings together a wide range of colors, including red, yellow, green, magenta, dark brown and black in a small area. Most of the rock formations face west, so this is a good late afternoon or sunset spot. The route itself is around seven miles, but I would allow and hour to drive this route allowing for shooting time.

Artists Palette, Death Valley

Artist's Palette

 

The turn for Devils Golf Course is about 20 minutes south of Furnace Creek on the Badwater road. The final road is a graded dirt road. You may find some washboarding, but it should be passable in a passenger sedan. The Devil's Golf Course is an area of dried up lake bed that has crusted into small rock formation a couple of feet high. You can walk out on the "golf course", but take care as the formations are quite hard and sharp. Best shots are low down near the formations. 

Back on route190, the Badwater Basin is another 13 miles south. The is a small spring fed lake and some possibilities for mountain reflections. Immediate access to the lake is somewhat limited to help preserve the eco system. You can walk out onto the salt flats, where this salt has dried into polygon shapes, making for some interesting foreground subject matter. I have only visited Badwater in the middle of the day and in the late afternoon, but it is reputed to be an excellent spot for sunrise and sunset.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley

Badwater Basin

 

If your time is limited, you can easily do the Badwater road in an afternoon. Suggested route from Furnace Creek would be:

  1. Mid afternoon hike in Golden Canyon
  2. A brief  stop at the Devils Golf Course
  3. Badwater for the late afternoon
  4. Drive back to Furnace Creek via the Artists Drive for sunset.

 

190 North of Furnace Creek

In furnace Creek itself, there is a small museum dedicated to borax mining. There is an outdoor section with some old mining equipment. Being exposed to the elements, the weathered wood and rusted iron surface provide some interesting textures from a photographic perspective. A couple miles north you will find the Harmony Borax Works with more weathered equipment and the borax wagons hauled by the famous 20 mule wagon trains. I usually fit these locations in some time during the day when the light is less interesting at the premier photo locations.

Borax wagons, Furnace Creek

 

Salt Creek is about 25 minutes north of Furnace Creek on route 190, with the final mile on a graded dirt road. You may find occasional washboarding on the road. In the Salt Creek area, you are restricted to walking on a system of board walks, but there are plenty of angles to capture views of the mountains and badlands in the distance with the Creek in the foreground. The is an excellent sunrise location. It's possible to get some nice shots with the sky color reflected in the creek. After the sun crosses the horizon, the marsh itself is lit up, along with the mountains and badlands in the west. 

Salt Creek, Death Valley

Salt Creek

The Mesquite Dunes are about a 45 drive north from Furnace Creek. I made two visits to the dunes. The first in the mid-afternoon when I first entered the park. I don’t recommend this time of day, the light was harsh and it was very hot out on the  dunes (make sure you take plenty of water.) I came back in the next morning. It was much cooler and the golden hour light made for much improved shooting. On the way back to Furnace Creek, I stopped at the Devil’s Cornfield, a five minute drive from the dunes. This isn’t corn at all, but creosote bushes, one of the few plants that can live in conditions this dry and hot. From a distance the bushes can look like corn stoops. 

 

Devil

Devil's Cornfield, morning light

 

Continuing west on route 190, just past the Mesquite Dunes and Stovepipe Wells, you will come to Mosaic Canyon. The final mile to the trailhead is a dirt road. For me the narrow first part of the canyon is most interesting with its polished rocks and mosaic patterns. There are plenty of angles for framing interesting shots. Part the way in the canyon opens up some providing some alternate framing opportunities. I hike for about an hour and then return. There are some fine views looking north out of the mouth of the canyon. If you are in the area around lunch or dinner time, you can get a meal in nearby Stovepipe Wells.

Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley

Mosaic Canyon

 

From Beatty to Scotty's Castle

If you are arriving from Las Vegas, you will pass Rhyolite Ghost Town. The Ghost town is well worth a visit, with its collection of abandoned and ruined buildings. Rhyolite is just outside of Beatty, NV and depending on your travel plans, Beatty can be a convenient place to break your journey. I found the best light in Rhyolite from mid to late afternoon. As sunset approaches, the surrounding mountains put Rhyolite into full shade. Aside from the ruined buildings, there is an abandoned railway caboose, some Joshua trees and mountains for a backdrop. The Goldwell Open Air Museum is just outside of Rhyolite and provides interesting outdoor sculptures. 

As you enter the Death Valley national park, you can turn south on route 190 to Furnace Creek or head north to Scotty's Castle. The castle is actually a large Spanish style villa built in the 1920's by millionaires Bessie and Albert Johnston. The villa's name came from Walter Scott a friend of the Johnston's who liked to pretend the "castle" was his. To see the inside of the building you will need to sign up for one of the tours. It is fairly dark in the building, necessitating a high ISO, but there is plenty of good photographic subject matter.  Also, check out the garage at the top of the hill, where there are some old un-restored  vehicles that make interesting subjects.  On your way back to Furnace Creek, you can make a short detour to Ubehebe Crater.  The large crater is worth a visit, but is in shade at the beginning and end of the day.

Rhyolite Ghost Town, Nevada

Rhyolite Ghost Town

 

Gallery

My full gallery for Death Valley is at http://www.rbpics.com/death-valley. To see the exif data, hover the mouse over the top right corner of the image and click on the Info Icon.