Hang a Louie for Ubehebe

“Check your travel plans–we’re snowed in. Hopefully the roads will be cleared before you guys get here!”

That call came from my friend, a wonderful photographer, Don Hurzeler. Now if Don had called from Iceland or the Alps that would have been one thing. But he was calling from Stovepipe Wells Village in Death Valley National Park near the California-Nevada border, where the temperature had climbed into the 80s only a couple of weeks earlier and winter was officially done. Don’s call left me wondering if a long-planned trip to Death Valley with my daughter, Audrey, was going to happen.

By the end of the day, things had turned around, and Don reported that the roads were passable. The trip was on! Erring on the side of caution, we packed base layers and down jackets as well as lighter clothing for exploring and hiking during the day.

The next morning, we winged our way from Boston to Las Vegas as scheduled, then made the two-hour drive to the park entrance. I glanced in the rear view mirror and had to pull over to capture the scene behind us. This sunlight illuminating the snow-capped mountains said it all: the journey had begun!

Nikon 70-200mm (Steve)

Our plan was to explore and photograph our way from Death Valley through the Mojave Preserve, then on to Joshua Tree National Park. (If you want to skip the commentary, you can visit the galleries from our trip. Steve’s images: Death Valley, Mojave Preserve, Joshua Tree.  Audrey’s images: click here.)

I toted my usual 20 plus pounds of Nikon bodies and lenses in my camera backpack, following the old photographer’s maxim that the lens you need is the one you left at home. (Nikon 20mm f1.8, Nikon 105mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, and Nikon 70-200mm f/4.0). Unless otherwise specified, all of shots were taken with a Nikon D850. Audrey went light, with her Fuji XT-20 and 50-230mm f/4.5-6.7zoom lens. She also brought a Zeiss 50mm f/2.8 macro to zero in on cacti and other finely detailed subjects. Most important, Audrey packed her stylish new Wallaroo sun hat; someone had to raise the sartorial splendor of the expedition team!

DEATH VALLEY
By the time we reached Zabriskie Point, the sun was low on the horizon and we caught the remains of the day. This was a sweet taste of the sunsets we’d hopefully catch during our stay in the park.

Nikon 24-70mm (Steve)

Ubehebe Crater
Sometimes going left when you should have gone right paves the way to a great photo opportunity. We made that mistake the day after we arrived. We’d planned on visiting Rhyolite, an abandoned mining town in Nevada at the eastern edge of the park. The crumbling structures would likely be interesting photographic subjects. But we missed the turnoff for Rhyolite and were surprised to see signs for Ubehebe Crater. Fifteen minutes later we pulled up to a parking lot near the crater’s rim.

Nikon 20mm (Steve)

A “maar” volcano created by a steam and gas explosion 300 years ago, Ubehebe is the largest crater within a cluster of nearby volcanoes situated in the Cottonwood Mountains in the north end of the park. Cinders from the Ubehebe explosion cover the surrounding landscape, giving it a greyish-black tinge. The reddish-orange/rust-colored layers in the eastern wall resulted when the explosion shattered “fanglomerate,” an alluvial fan of sandstone and conglomerate that had hardened into rock. You can learn more about Ubehebe and maar volcanoes here.

Ubehebe Crater turned out to be the best wrong turn I’ve ever made. The view from the edge of the crater was spectacular, humbling, and awe inspiring. It spans a full half mile across and runs 600 feet deep. The sides are laced with intense organic colors.

 

Fuji XC50-230mm (Audrey)

After admiring Ubehebe, we set out on the trail to explore the area and visit other craters. The trek wasn’t arduous, but the loose footing was a bit unnerving at times, especially with the camera gear on my back. (A strategically placed sign showing a body falling into the crater didn’t increase our comfort level.)

iPhone 10XS Max

The views, however, were definitely worth a bit of “don’t look down” trekking.

Nikon 20mm (Steve)

We would have spent more time checking out the landscape and looking for other craters, but the wind chill was intensifying, and we wanted to head back to Zabriskie Point in time to catch the full sunset.

Zabriskie Point, Sunset,Take 2
We arrived at Zabriskie with plenty of time to stake out a position and wait for the light show. The sun did not disappoint.

Fuji XC50-230mm (Audrey)

 

Nikon 70-200mm (Steve)

The next day, we rose at 4:30 a.m. to return to Zabriskie for sunrise. A small group of people had already assembled in the cold. Some were photographers, others were there just to experience the beautiful drama that was about to unfold. The wait was worth it. Streaks of light soon dappled the iconic rock formations, creating natural studies in contrast that were perfect for black and white treatment.

Zabriskie Point, Sunrise

Nikon 24-70mm (Steve)

 

Fuji XC50-230mm (Audrey)

Titus Canyon
A narrow gorge filled with intricate limestone formations, rare plants, and petroglyphs, Titus Canyon runs 26 miles long. Due to the rains and melting snow, the road through the canyon was closed to car traffic, but open for hiking. We parked at the entrance, then walked for a mile or so in eerie silence, taking in the ever-changing steep canyon walls. With every twist and turn, the textures, patterns, and colors of the walls changed. Here are some samples:

 

Nikon 20mm (Steve)

 

Nikon 24-70mm (Steve)

Rhyolite: Of Abandoned Mining Towns and Abandoned Dreams
From Titus Canyon we headed out again for the town of Rhyolite, Nevada. Rhyolite is typical of the boom and bust towns that sprang up out of nowhere during the Gold Rush and collapsed when the ores were exhausted. In its heyday, Rhyolite’s population soared, with estimates ranging from 5,000 to more than 10,000 residents. Whatever the correct number, the city boasted police and fire departments, a hospital, a school, a train station and railway depot, several banks and a stock exchange. Salons and restaurants flourished, as did an opera house. All was grand until there was no new ore to mine. The last train left Rhyolite in July 1914, and the power company shut off the electricity. (Learn more about Rhyolite’s rise and fall here.)

Today, the skeletal remains of a few buildings are the only evidence of a once-thriving city. Warnings about rattlesnakes gave us pause about walking through the underbrush, so we stuck to the road.

The light was harsh on what was left of the buildings, which actually turned out to be a plus. By metering for the bright light on the front walls, much of the remaining building structures remained in the shadows. During processing, this created an opportunity to create eerie images well suited to a ghost town.

Nikon 70-200 mm (Steve)

 

Fuji XC50-230mm (Audrey)

Mesquite Dunes: Sunset
We timed our exit from Rhyolite so we’d catch the sunset at Mesquite Dunes. The sky turned in a command performance!

Fuji XC50-230mm (Audrey)

 

Nikon 24-70 mm f/2.8 (Steve)

Mesquite Dunes: Sunrise
We returned to the dunes at first light to “bookend” the sunset we’d photographed the day before. When I visited Death Valley a year earlier, the dunes were crawling with photographers and first light seekers. On this morning, there were only a handful of cars in the parking lot, and the dunes felt empty, quiet, and serene. We didn’t have to wait long before the light began awakening the desert.

Nikon 20mm (Steve)

 

Nikon 105mm (Steve)

 

MOJAVE PRESERVE
Kelso Dunes
We could have spent many more days exploring Death Valley on this trip. But it was time to leave and we headed for the Mojave Preserve, one of the most underrated places to visit in this part of the country. The Preserve’s Kelso Dunes are some of the largest dunes in the area, rising 650 feet and covering 45 square miles.

Fuji XC50-230mm (Audrey)

We contemplated climbing to the top to shoot the sunset, but didn’t relish the thought of making our way down to the parking lot in the dark. (Next trip we’ll bring headlamps.) Even without climbing to the top, though, the view of the horizon was stunning.

Nikon 24-70mm (Steve)

The light bursting through the clouds at the tail end of the sunset invited us shoot photos that we could process in black and white as well as in color.

Nikon 24-70mm (Steve)

JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
From the Mojave Preserve we made the 140-mile drive to Twentynine Palms, which would be our base for exploring Joshua Tree National Park. We stayed at the delightful Twentyine Palms Inn, located minutes from Joshua Tree’s Oasis Visitor Center, our first stop in the morning. An incredibly helpful and enthusiastic volunteer at the center mapped out a full day for us. He suggested that we start in an area near the southern entrance to the park where a lovely bloom of spring flowers was in progress, then make our way back to the northern parts.

 

Nikon 24-70mm  (Steve)

 

Cholla Cactus Garden
Wending our way north, we stopped at the Cholla Cactus Garden. “Garden” is a misnomer—no one planted the cacti. There just happens to be a huge, dense cluster of cholla cactus plants (which represent 20 species) in the area.

Zeiss Touit 50 mm f/2.8 (Audrey)

A quarter-mile loop (boardwalk and paths) allows you to safely walk through the garden, away from the “jumping” barbed needles, which are capable of inflicting significant pain. Of course, a number of visitors stepped off the path to get up close and personal with the cacti for their selfie collection. I wonder how many sore backsides that risky maneuver might have caused. Even sticking to the paths, we found plenty of opportunity to use our macro lenses.

Nikon 105mm f2.8 (Steve)

Key’s View
At an elevation of 5,185 feet and nestled into the Little San Bernardino Mountains, Key’s View affords a magnificent opportunity to take in a sweeping view of the Coachella Valley. You’re separated from the distant mountains by the infamous San Andreas Fault, which is clearly visible in the valley below. The panoramic view is magical and Tolkienesque, with bands of clouds and haze on the horizon creating a gauzy layered canvas. We would have stayed to watch the sunset, but the volunteer at the Oasis center had advised against doing so because of the crowds drawn to the scenic view. That was good advice: as we left, the road was already filled up with cars, and visitors were jockeying for the best spots on the overlook. So it was off to Barker Dam.

Fuji XC50-230mm (Audrey)

Barker Dam
Built around 1900 to hold water for mining and raising cattle, the dam now supports wildlife in the northwest part of the park. A one-mile loop trail takes you through a beautiful stretch of Joshua trees and rock formations.

Nikon 24-70mm (Steve)

Once again the clouds rolled in at the right time, making for a wonderful light show. The intense drama played out for 15 minutes before darkness set in.

Nikon 24-70mm (Steve)

 

Fuji XC50-230mm (Audrey)

There was only one thing left on our list: drive into Twentynine Palms for dinner at Mexican Street Tacos , a highly-rated hole-in-the wall restaurant at the back of a bowling alley. The tacos lived up to the rave reviews.

CULTURE SHOCK: LOS ANGELES
We ended our trip in Los Angeles, the most convenient place for us to catch a plane back to Boston. The overnight stay in LA also gave us chance to have dinner with some old friends. LA is quite a jolt after coming from the natural beauty of the desert! Oddly, we didn’t see a single wild creature until we hit the streets of Hollywood.

Fuji X100T (Steve)

And to ensure total culture shock, we took an open air bus tour of the homes of the rich and famous, during which time we learned an astounding amount of trivia relating to length and change of ownership, renovations, and other fascinating details.

Fuji X100T (Steve)

Dinner with our friends at Eataly LA (the polar opposite of Mexican Street Tacos, but a terrific dining experience) capped off the day.

Up next? Plans to return to Death Valley again to visit sites that were inaccessible during this trip. And to spend more time at the various ghost towns and explore the homes of people who only became rich and famous in their dreams.

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