This month marked another annual father/son sojourn of sun, sand, and solitude. Our 2018 trip took us far from winter’s gloomy cold grip on the Northeast to a place with blazing sun and delicious 80-degree temperatures: the desert. My son Noah and I traveled from Las Vegas to Death Valley National Park, then made our way to Joshua Tree National Park by way of the Mojave National Preserve. We ended the trip in Los Angeles, partly because of its proximity to Joshua Tree (about 2.5 hours away), but mostly because my traveling companion wanted to experience the food offerings of LA’s Koreatown (good call). Here’s a photo recap of our adventure. (See full gallery here. Note: unless otherwise indicated, all photos were taken with a Nikon D850 and one of the lenses in what’s known as the Nikon “holy trinity”— 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm.)
Death Valley National Park
“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…” (The Little Prince)
In the above passage, writer/poet/journalist/aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry brilliantly captures the feeling of being in a place like Death Valley. To that, I would humbly add that the desert is filled with contradictions. It’s at once desolate and serene, inhospitable and inviting, and dead yet alive in its own way—you do, indeed, sense that “throbbing and gleaming” no matter where you go.
Although I had studied many photos of Death Valley National Park in advance of the trip to get a sense of what we might see and photograph, nothing could prepare me for the experience of actually being there. At first blush, that’s an obvious truism for many destinations. But for me, Death Valley is in a class by itself. First, there’s the matter of scale; unlike the Grand Canyon, where you’re immediately gobsmacked by the spectacular scale, the scope of Death Valley is something you can’t really appreciate until you begin exploring.
Well-paved roads lead to a staggering variety of landforms and terrain. Along the way, there are options to turn down gravel roads (OK for some passenger cars) and rugged roads (4-wheel drive vehicles only). The park is 140 miles long and 5,270 square miles. For vast stretches, you’re on your own if you venture too far from the main roads; there’s often no cell service, and a small number of park rangers are responsible for massive amounts of territory.
Here are some quick facts about Death Valley National Park:
- It actually consists of two major valleys: Death Valley and Panamint Valley (there are adjacent valleys as well).
- It’s the largest national park south of Alaska (Denali).
- It’s the lowest elevation in North America (-282 feet at Badwater Basin), the second lowest in the Western Hemisphere (Laguna del Carbón in Argentina is -344 feet), and the eighth lowest in the world (the Dead Sea is -1360 feet).
- Death Valley is the hottest place in the world (134º F recorded in 1913),
- It’s the driest place in North America (less than 2 inches of rain a year).
- According to the 2016 census, the population was 281 (for zip code 92328).
If you want to dig deeper, click here.
In the few days we spent driving and walking around, I can safely say that we saw a tiny fraction of the park’s wonders. This was confirmed by a photographer I met at the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel (good digs at a reasonable price). Jim Galvin has been visiting Death Valley every year for the past two decades, spending the two months of each trip exploring and photographing. Jim said he could spend another lifetime doing the same, and he’d still only scratch the surface.
A highly talented and accomplished artist, Jim steered me onto some wonderful vantage points for catching the most pleasing light. Speaking of which, there’s a small window in Death Valley when the light is conducive to photography: the “blue” and “golden” hours. (The blue hour occurs just before sunrise and just after sunset. In contrast, the golden hours take place just after sunrise and before sunset.) At all other times, the light in Death Valley is incredibly harsh, blasting the sand and reflecting every which way. Here are my attempts at trying to stay ahead of the rapidly changing light during the blue and golden hours.
Funnily, one of the greatest challenges to photographing the dunes at sunrise isn’t the quality of the light; it’s framing a shot that doesn’t have a photographer in it. Sometimes, you just have to wait or stake out a new position. If you can’t do this, maybe try striking up a conversation with the photographer next to you and ask if you can share the space. Photographers tend to be a friendly lot, and I didn’t meet anyone who was too territorial.
Sunset Aguereberry Point
The park is replete with great places to shoot sunsets, and I wanted to avoid the most crowded spots. February (typically, 80 degrees during the day and 50s at night) is a particularly popular time for photo workshops in the park, and there are lots of tripod-bearing folks hanging out at the most scenic vistas. We hired a guide through Farabee’s Jeep Rentals in Furnace Creek to take us to Aguereberry Point in the Panamint Range by way of the back roads.
Our impressively knowledgeable guide, Jesse James Wehrly, provided a wealth of information about the geology and local history, as well as popular folklore. (Charles Manson was unexpectedly captured in Death Valley—there’s no better place to become invisible unless you raise a flag by stealing cars and vandalizing mining equipment.) It was a pleasure to focus on the scenery and leave the driving to someone who knew where he was going, in a vehicle made to take a pounding.
The idea was to get to the eponymous Aguereberry Point (named in honor of the famous gold prospector Jean Pierre “Pete” Aguereberry) a half hour before sunset so I’d have plenty of time to scope out the setting and plan my shots before the inevitably short window for seizing the golden hour. Aguereberry Point, at an elevation of 6,433 feet, proved to be an excellent place to watch the quality of light change; it offered many unobstructed views and rock formations that made for strong compositions with mid-, fore-, and background elements. At the appointed time, the harsh reflections gave way to more diffused light and inviting tones.
You could see why Pete Aguereberry called the vistas the “Great View” of Death Valley. As I took in the Great View, my eye was attracted to the range of color before me. I loved the transition from the greens and browns in the foreground to the neutral tones of Badwater Basin separating the sun-dappled peaks of the Panamint Mountains in the background.
(Digression: Here’s an interesting fact about Badwater Basin. It’s the starting point of the Badwater Ultramarathon. The event starts in the basin, 282 feet below sea level and culminates 135 miles away at the Mt. Whitney Portal, 8,360 feet above sea level. It is held in mid-July, when temperatures are scorching and the blacktop pavement can exceed 200º F. Read more about the race and the contestants here.)
After photographing the Point, we drove down to what little remains of the Aguereberry Camp mining structures: just a few decaying buildings.
By the time we left the camp, the waning rays of the sunset provided a beautiful splash of color on the horizon.
Mojave National Preserve
Nestled between Death Valley and Joshua Tree, the Mojave Preserve gave us our first encounter with a Joshua tree. Soon, hundreds of them dotted the landscape, like a gathering of Dr. Seuss characters.
Those who work in the Mojave desert have a special fondness for the trees. This passage on the National Park Service site sums it up:
“You may be at ease with pine or hardwood, or find shade under the domesticated trees in your city park, but in the high desert, Joshua is our tree. It is an important part of the Mojave Desert ecosystem, providing habitat for numerous birds, mammals, insects, and lizards. Joshua tree forests tell a story of survival, resilience, and beauty borne through perseverance. They are the silhouette that reminds those of us who live here that we are home. Like the Lorax we speak for the trees, but often the trees speak to us.” (Vegetation Specialist Jane Rodgers)
By the time we’d driven through the preserve, the sun had begun to set, and an amazing light show unfolded before our eyes and provided a thrilling ride to our next destination, Joshua Tree National Park.
Joshua Tree National Park
Spanning 1,235 square miles, Joshua Tree National Park is a delight for hikers, sightseers, and photographers. The infrastructure is made for tourists, with lots of extremely well-maintained rest stops and facilities, and the information center is well staffed with knowledgeable people.
From a photographic perspective, the lighting wasn’t quite as harsh as it was in Death Valley, though daytime photography was still challenging.
Once the golden and blue hours arrived, however, the situation changed dramatically, with wonderful tones from the sky to the ground. The following shot was taken in the Skull Rock area as the sun began its descent on the horizon. My eye was particularly attracted to the highlight on the leftmost rock formation, kind of a wink to the end of the day and the inevitable transition to twilight.
Close Up Shots
I usually don’t lug a macro lens with me, but I was glad I had room for my smallish Micro Nikkor 60mm in my pack. Here’s a sampling of my close up images.
This cross-section of a large tree stump was taken near the 29 Palms Inn where we stayed (another winner and a great restaurant). I liked the visual tension created by the cracks cutting across the swirling patterns of the wood.
The yucca plant in the foreground was a study in contrasts, with the green leaves dominating the hard rock formations in the background. The photo was taken in the Skull Rock area of Joshua Tree National Park.
The following image was taken in the Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley, just before the light became too bright and harsh. My eye was immediately attracted to the pleasing curves of the grain and the twisted limbs.
I didn’t have much time to photograph in LA, given the fact that we rolled in about dinnertime and headed straight for Koreatown. After a long wait, we settled into a sumptuous multi-course meal at Parks BBQ. The next morning, we were a bit pressed for time, but on the way to breakfast (with my Fuji x100T at my side), I did manage to take a photo of one of my favorite urban subjects, the fire hydrant. It’s amazing how varied they can be from one city to the next, and the Los Angeles hydrants win a prize for artistic form.
To see more photos from the desert excursion, click here. Next up, for anyone interested in travel photography gear, an informal review of one product that made this trip easy on the back and another that affords peace of mind.