Top Photo Spots: Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is one of my all time favorite places on Earth. Why? Because every time I go back, it’s different! Death Valley is always changing; the sand dunes are constantly being re-sculpted by the winds, Badwater Basin is constantly being changed by the river beneath and rainfall above and the rocks at Racetrack Playa move from time to time as well.
Death Valley is an incredibly dynamic and fluid environment and one thing that is for certain is that if you don’t go prepared, you will be overwhelmed. This national park sits on over 3,000 square miles of land and is the lowest, driest and hottest location in North America. Badwater Basin sits at 282 feet below sea level and it is not uncommon for temperatures to exceed 120˚F in the summer.
I suggest visiting Death Valley in the winter or early spring. The winter will be your best chance for rainfall (which can create some incredible conditions in the park) and early March is when the wild flowers bloom.
I recommend staying inside the park during your visit. You can certainly get a cheaper room somewhere like Beatty, but you’ll have an hours drive in and out of the park each day. Within the park, you can either stay at Furnace Creek or Stovepipe Wells. Furnace Creek has two hotels (The Inn and The Ranch). The Inn is a historic hotel that will run around $500/night or more while the The Ranch is the cheaper alternative at between $100-$200/night on average. While I prefer Stovepipe Wells (nicer rooms than The Ranch, better food, nicer staff), Furnace Creek is undeniably better located within the park.
Las Vegas McCarren
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
There are several locations within Death Valley National Park where you can see, explore and photograph sand dunes; but the only one that is centrally located, easy to access and doesn’t require driving for hours and hours are the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes near Stovepipe Wells. The Mesquite Dunes are one of the most visited locations in the park and because of that, it can be hard to get a shot without footprints in it. To do so, you’ll need to be willing to walk far out into the dunes (at least a mile or so in). The best time to go is in the morning because there will be less people; and if the winds were high enough overnight, you might get lucky and have pristine sand free of footprints. That being said, the dunes are just as incredible at sunset because you have a clear view in all directions.
If you decide to go out at sunset and stay into the night, be sure to bring a GPS with you. It’s very easy to get disoriented in the middle of the dunes and at night even more so.
Badwater Basin is my favorite place in Death Valley NP. I’ve been there more times than I can count and it’s always a challenge to photograph. First and foremost, the patterns are always changing and always in different places. This means that scouting is critical to your success unless you just want to count on luck (which I don’t suggest). Again, a handheld GPS is a great tool here because when scouting, you can drop a pin when you find good patterns and come back to the same location at sunset.
If a heavy rain storm comes through in the winter and fills Badwater Basin with water, it will wipe out all of the patterns; meaning that wherever standing water was, the cycle of the patterns will have to start over. The basin is an underground river, so after a rain it will just be flat and pure white. As time goes on, the ground shifts and patterns begin to form. The patterns are best (in my opinion) when they are low to the ground and the edges are well defined. If too much time goes by, the edges will raise too much and begin breaking apart (like in the photo above). This doesn’t mean you can’t get a good shot, you’ll just have to work harder to find a good composition.
This is without a doubt the most visited and easily accessible location in the park. Most visitors will stop here right before getting to Furnace Creek (if they’re coming from Las Vegas). There’s a parking lot and a clear path that leads up to the overlook. Most of the time I tend to avoid overlooks and scenic pull offs but Zabriskie Point is different. It’s one of the most incredible views you’ll ever see and if conditions are right it can be the highlight of your trip.
West Side Road
Badwater Basin is a massive area, but when I think of it in terms of a photo spot, Badwater Basin is the parking lot area where you reach 282 feet below sea level. Sometimes the patterns at Badwater Basin just aren’t there, so you have to resort to Plan B, and Plan B is West Side Road. West Side Road is an unpaved road between the Badwater parking lot and Furnace Creek. It runs all along the west side of Badwater Basin but just a mile or so after turning onto this road (off of Badwater Rd), you’ll find a few salt covered tributaries that almost always have patterns in them. There’s a parking area on the left side of the road so just park there and then walk up to the tributaries. You can’t miss them because the ground to the left and right is dark dark brown and the tributaries are bright white.
Everybody wants to go to the Racetrack Playa and see the “sailing stones.” And hey, I get it. They are incredible to see and witness. The problem is, most get in over their heads when going out there. Racetrack Playa is in a very remote part of Death Valley. While Furnace Creek is below sea level, the Racetrack is over 3,000 feet above it. To get there, you’ll need to drive to Ubehebe Crater which will take a little over an hour. From there, you’ll take the single lane, 27 mile unpaved Racetrack Rd to the playa. Sounds easy enough right? Well, Racetrack Rd isn’t just unpaved, it’s so rough you can’t really drive more than 15-20mph on it which means you’ll be on the road for around an hour or hour and a half. The surface is like a washboard so you’ll be vibrating the entire way while trying to dodge large rocks that always end up in the middle of the road.
I’ve been there 4 times. The first time was with my buddy Cliff Baise in his VW Toureg. We made it in ok, but on the way out we hit something in the road that bend his drive shaft and we had to drive below 30mph (or else the car would shake uncontrollably) all the way to Las Vegas to get it fixed. The second time I was in a Chevy Suburban and we got a flat tire on the way in. The gravel road isn’t your typical small gravel. The rocks are large and coarse and it chews up tires like you wouldn’t believe. It’s also one lane so if another car comes you’ll have to pull up on the side (which is just a raised mound of rocks) which can easily puncture the side of a tire. We put the spare on and made a very nervous drive back (since we were out of spare tires) after sunset. The 3rd and 4th times out we rented 4×4 Jeeps from Farabee Rentals & Tours in Furnace Creek. The difference was night and day. The ride was tolerable on Racetrack Rd, we had big thick off road tires and you’re equipped with a distress beacon in case anything happens.
After experiencing this road with a friends SUV, a rental SUV and two 4×4 Jeeps, I think that anyone making this drive without a well equipped off road vehicle is asking for trouble. Yes, the Jeeps are expensive but not nearly as expensive as getting a tow truck out to Racetrack Road which will cost over $2,000. If you want to photograph the sailing stones, do it right and do it safe.
The other issue with Racetrack Playa is the mistreatment of the playa and the stones. It’s gotten so bad that I really don’t foresee ever going out there again unless I’m leading a workshop. People chip up the dirt around the rocks, move rocks to different trails, take rocks home as souvenirs, stand on the rocks to take selfies and much more. I’ve written extensively about this issue on my blog and Digital Photography School and would fully support closing Racetrack Playa to the public and requiring permits to go out there. So if you’re going to make the trip, rent a Jeep and respect the playa. Please!
Rhyolite Ghost Town
Once you’ve had your fill of playas, sand dunes and colorful canyons, it’s time to head up to Rhyolite Ghost Town for some spooky night time photography fun. In addition to the incredible ruins in the town (like the bank pictured above) there are also a number of really strange and creepy art installations on the outskirts of the town. There are countless photo ops in the area so be sure to scout during the day before coming back for sunset or night sky photography.
From Wikipedia: “The town began in early 1905 as one of several mining camps that sprang up after a prospecting discovery in the surrounding hills. During an ensuing gold rush, thousands of gold-seekers, developers, miners and service providers flocked to the Bullfrog Mining District. Many settled in Rhyolite, which lay in a sheltered desert basin near the region’s biggest producer, the Montgomery Shoshone Mine.
Rhyolite declined almost as rapidly as it rose. After the richest ore was exhausted, production fell. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the financial panic of 1907 made it more difficult to raise development capital. In 1908, investors in the Montgomery Shoshone Mine, concerned that it was overvalued, ordered an independent study. When the study’s findings proved unfavorable, the company’s stock value crashed, further restricting funding. By the end of 1910, the mine was operating at a loss, and it closed in 1911. By this time, many out-of-work miners had moved elsewhere, and Rhyolite’s population dropped well below 1,000. By 1920, it was close to zero.”
Another great spot near Furnace Creek is the area known as Artist’s Drive and the main destination there, Artist’s Palette. Artist’s Drive rises up to the top of an alluvial fan fed by a deep canyon cut into the Black Mountains. Artist’s Palette is an area on the face of the Black Mountains noted for a variety of rock colors. These colors are caused by the oxidation of different metals and minerals found in the canyon.
The colors are quite faint and muted during the day, but if you stick around until after sunset, the colors seem to explode in vibrance. Photographing this area from the parking lot and overlook is great, but you can also hike into the canyon and explore to your hearts content.
Another overlook that is well worth a a visit is Dante’s View, which sits atop the Black Mountains and overlooks Badwater Basin from over 5,000 feet above sea level. The from here is spectacular and really gives a good sense of how massive Death Valley is (considering this view contains just a small portion of the park).
I can’t say enough how much I love Death Valley National Park. The opportunities here are virtually endless. I’ve been to the park around 7 times now and there is still a LONG list of places I haven’t been to yet. If you have any questions or comments, be sure to leave them below!
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