Well that sounds like a fun vacation: fire and death.
It was time for me to finally visit two places on my bucket list: Death Valley National Park and the Valley of Fire State Park outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. You would think that, after nine years of living in Southern California, I would have visited either or both by now. Nope.
January and February are great months to visit Death Valley, with temperatures in the 70s during the day and 40s or 50s at night (or colder, depending on where you are). Of course, going into a valley named “Death” means you should be a little better prepared than usual. It also means you’re there during the high season, and will pay dearly for that privilege.
I loaded up my car with my sleeping bag, a 2.5 gallon container of water, 24 half-liter bottles of water, a small army shovel, and a big container of trail mix. On me, I had my hat, my Navy dog tags (so they could identify the body), an emergency whistle, a compass, and a small pocket knife. Oh. And Chapstick. Lots of Chapstick. I also used a newly downloaded hiking app onto my phone called GAIA (more on that later).
Death Valley National Park
The drive from San Diego to the southern entrance to Death Valley took about six hours, and I arrived around 3:30 p.m., making a beeline for Badwater Basin before sunset. It had the potential to be a colorful sunset with some rare clouds high in the sky over the valley, and I didn’t want to miss that opportunity.
Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America with an elevation of 282 feet/85.5 m below sea level. It’s also known for its expansive salt flats that extend for miles across the flat-as-a-table-top valley floor.
The entire valley floor isn’t covered in salt. There’s plenty of sand, rocks, and dried mud as well. Two of the iconic Death Valley images that most photographers try to get are the patterns in the salt flats and the cracked mud. I didn’t find the cracked mud, but found some pretty interesting salt formations about a mile out from the parking lot.
Between Badwater Basin and Furnace Creek, where my hotel was, is Artist’s Palette. To get there, you have to drive on a narrow, one-way road carved through the rocks and boulders. When you arrive at the viewing area, you’re greeting by these multi-colored layers in the hillside. Oxidation of different minerals within the rocks is what causes the different colors.
I suppose I could have gotten better photos of the colors had I been ambitious enough to hike to where the man and woman in the photo below are standing (click on the photo to enlarge). But I know my limitations and opted to view from afar.
A mile above the valley floor and Badwater Basin is Dante’s View where you can get a commanding view of the valley and the mountains to the west. From a photography point of view, it’s probably better to go up there for a sunrise and early morning shot, with the sun behind you lighting up the mountains and valley in front of you.
It’s about a 45-minute drive from Furnace Creek to the top of Dante’s View, and I was thankful I brought my winter coat along with me. My car’s thermometer read 44° F and there was a good 20+ mph steady wind. It was cold.
Zabriskie Point is only a 10-minute drive from Furnace Creek, and its colored badlands-style rock formations make it a great place for sunrise. Get there early to get a parking place, though, because there were dozens of us photographers all trying to grab the best shot.
There’s a trail that will take you down into the formations if you’re so inclined.
About an hour and fifteen minutes’ drive from Furnace Creek is Ubehebe volcanic crater. It’s about half a mile wide and 500 feet deep, with several smaller craters off to the side. It’s also on the way to the famous Racetrack, where rocks mysteriously slide across the ground leaving a trail behind them. To get to that, you need a high clearance vehicle.
Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes
Getting a decent photo of the sand dunes was high on my priority list and the one that I put the most effort into obtaining. It was the only location that I scouted in advance hoping to up my chances of success. All the others, I just showed up and made the best of what was available.
Wednesday morning, after shooting sunrise at Zabriskie Point, I drove to the dunes to try to figure out where the best place to take a photograph would be. This is where my new GAIA GPS app came into play. You can record your hike so you know how to get back to where you started or how to get back to the point you want to photograph the next morning. That’s really helpful when you’re hiking in the pre-dawn darkness.
The dunes cover a vast area, several miles long and wide. Some of the dunes are relatively small, while others probably approached 100 feet tall. As I was scouting for my perfect location, I quickly realized that this was going to be much tougher than I imagined. My old legs were beginning to remind me how difficult it can be to walk in loose sand, too.
After wandering around for a while, I finally saw a place that I thought would work for sunrise Thursday morning. I noted its position and headed back to the car and headed up to Ubehebe Crater.
On the way back to the hotel later that afternoon, a strong windstorm turned the dunes into a near white-out of blowing sand. That, for me, was going to be a good thing because that meant that all the footprints on the dunes would be erased making for great conditions the next morning.
Sunrise Thursday morning was right around 6:30 a.m., so with the 30 minute drive and the hour or so hike plus “insurance” time, that meant that my alarm went off at 4 a.m. and I was out the door around 4:45 a.m. It paid off. Mine was the first car in the parking lot.
I loaded up my camera and tripod, got out my trekking poles, and turned my headlamp on and headed off into the desert darkness. Alone. Keeping an eye out for coyotes, kit foxes, or those really dangerous kangaroo rats. I tried to stay in the valleys between the dunes to avoid leaving my footprints in the sand for either my own photos or those of someone else, but I’d occasionally climb to the top of a dune to check out the possibilities.
As I was standing on top of one of the dunes, I could see another person approaching me with her camera and headlamp. It was a woman my age or so. She very kindly asked if I was going to be shooting a photo in the direction she was walking because she didn’t want to screw it up with her foot prints.
We chatted for a few minutes and, as we were talking, I heard a couple of “putt-putts” and thought, “That ain’t no coyote,” and then she let a long and loud fart rip. And again. And one last time for full effect. She just talked right through all three of them without skipping a beat, and I didn’t say a thing. Shortly after that, she went her way and I went mine.
As I climbed the dune that I photographed, I really struggled. The sand from the sandstorm the previous afternoon was very loose, and I was trying to go up a 40 to 45 degree incline. I’d take a step, plant my foot, and as soon as I put any weight on it, it slid right out from under me and I’d topple over into the dune, pretty much face first. Fortunately, with the angle, I fell only about 2-3 feet and it was like landing on a firm pillow. Obviously, I made it to the top. Eventually. The sand in the side of the dune where I struggled, though, must have looked like a murder scene to the next passersby.
It really is amazing how the sand can permeate everything. I had a gift card in a small envelope inside my wallet, and sand somehow managed to get inside the envelope! I have no idea how, but it did.
While these aren’t the photos that I had pre-visualized in my head, I think they were worth the effort to get them on my last morning in Death Valley.
Death Valley Logistics
When I was putting this trip together, I looked at different lodging options. From a budget perspective, I was looking at lodging in Pahrump, Nevada, about an hour and a half drive from Furnace Creek and an even longer drive to some of the other locations. That would have meant that I would have to be getting up at 2:30 a.m. or 3 a.m. to make it to some of the places for sunrise. That wasn’t going to cut it, so I bit the bullet and splurged to stay at The Ranch at Death Valley which was centrally located to most of the places I wanted to see. Just like in real estate, you pay for location. My room ran $300 per night with the taxes and resort fee thrown in.
There were two restaurants at the resort offering take-out food during the COVID pandemic. The main restaurant didn’t have an entree under $30, and a little pizza/wings/burger stand didn’t have anything under $20. I opted for pre-made sandwiches in the general store for $7-$10 each. Next time I visit, I may be sleeping in a tent in a campground and putting food in a cooler.
There was a gas station with gas running nearly $5.00 per gallon, but given the distance between so many things in the valley, you’ll likely have to fill up at least once.
Valley of Fire State Park
Valley of Fire State Park is about an hour and a half northeast of Las Vegas, and it’s a stunningly beautiful park. But there’s so much to see that it’s really difficult to know how to even begin to photograph it and do it justice.
The red sandstone reminds you of Sedona, Arizona, and other bits and pieces of the park remind you of Zion National Park or Arches National Park. There are several campgrounds and multiple hiking trails throughout the park that will take you to some pretty spectacular rock formations and even ancient petroglyphs.
Like Death Valley, you really need to be prepared. There is no water beyond the visitor center and no place within a good 30-45 minute drive to get something to eat.
One thing that I like to do when I arrive at someplace I’ve never been before is to just drive around to see what appeals to me initially, and then go back and spend more time at the places I want to go back to. I was so taken aback by the drive from the visitor to White Domes at the end of the road, that I knew I had to drive it again. But this time, I wanted to make a video of the drive.
I’ve barely dabbled with the video capability of my camera, so this may not be the best quality video you’ve ever seen. It’s shot out the windshield from the passenger side of the car, and covers the entire drive from the visitor center to the end of the White Domes Road. Don’t worry. I was safe. I set the camera up on my tripod in the passenger’s seat.
It’s 14 minutes long which is about the same amount of time it takes to make the full drive (I cut a few bits out). Enjoy!
For me, one of the most memorable moments in the park is when I walked a few hundred yards up to a ridge overlooking Fire Canyon below. I literally blurted out, “Oh, f*ck! Oh, f*ck! Oh, f*ck!” when my eyes saw the view before me (panoramic photo above). (Yes, I need to work on my vocabulary and, no, the fart lady wasn’t there to hear me.)
Logistics of Valley of Fire
Aside from camping, there is no lodging in the Valley of Fire State Park, so I stayed at a trusty old Holiday Inn Express in North Las Vegas, just outside of Nellis Air Force Base. (I actually got to see the Thunderbirds do a couple of practice flights.) The neighborhood had a very industrial feel to it which wasn’t all that appealing.
It costs $10 for a day pass to the state park, and the main road shown in the video is only open from sunrise to sunset. Outside of those hours, that part of the park is closed and you could be considered trespassing if you’re caught there when you’re not supposed to be.
The nearest food would be at the truck stop at the I-15 exit for Valley of Fire or it looks like in Overton, northeast of the park.
When you drive through the Mojave Desert from Victorville through Barstow and then to Baker, you’re surrounded by wide open spaces with sage and tumbleweed and even the occasional Joshua tree dotting the landscape. But once you drive down the mountains into Death Valley, it’s a completely different and almost alien landscape. It’s so wide-open and so barren it boggles the mind.
The weather was perfect for most of the trip. In Death Valley, it was 70-75° F most of the time, and in Valley of Fire, it was hovering right around 60° F the entire day. Humidity hovered in the 10%-15% range. The sun, though, was relentless. Without any trees around, there was no place to escape it. None. I was trying to figure out how to hike with trekking poles in either hand and an umbrella to provide shade.
One of the photographers that I follow always says that just because you’re standing in front of a stunning scene doesn’t mean it’s going to make for a compelling photograph. There is so much to see, it’s really difficult to hone in on a particular subject and then turn it into a meaningful photograph. It’s tough. It requires multiple trips to the same locations to gain that intimate knowledge needed to get that portfolio-worthy image.
This was a great first trip to both parks. Three nights and two full days at Death Valley gave me a good overview of what’s there and what I can do on my next visit. A full day at Valley of Fire gave me the same baseline of information to be used for my next trip. I will go back to both.
|Total Driving Time:||27:49|
|Total Distance Driven:||1,340 miles||2.157 km|
|Fuel Consumption:||28.2 mpg||8,3 l/100 km|
|Average Speed:||49.5 mph||79,6 km/h|