Death Valley National Park
In spite of its name, Death Valley National Park contains a vivid tapestry of diverse landscapes, wildlife, and plant life. Though it’s home to the hottest, driest, and lowest spot in North America, you can also find there colorful badlands, snow-covered peaks, rolling sand dunes, a vast network of canyons, and crumbling salt flats.
Death Valley is a land of extremes, making it the perfect location for any photographer to visit, as there’s always something different and powerful to explore. After all, so much of photography is about contrast -- and Death Valley is full of it.
As a national park, Death Valley offers visitors the opportunity to explore one of the harshest and wildest environments in the world -- and the largest national park in the contiguous United States.
When you visit Death Valley, it’s easy to feel like you are visiting a different planet entirely. For this reason, Death Valley has long attracted not only travelers and sightseers, but artists and photographers looking to delve into this wild environment and all the natural beauty and contrast it offers.
The History of Death Valley
Death Valley was named a national monument in 1933. From 1933 until 1942, Death Valley was exclusively developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, who felt strongly that the area should be preserved and made publicly available. Over the course of that decade, the CCC improved the area by creating trails, buildings, camps, phone, and water service. Much of the infrastructure at the park today is the original infrastructure they built all those years ago, allowing visitors to experience Death Valley for the last eighty years.
Death Valley also has a rich pioneer and mining history. It was mined extensively for materials such as gold, silver, and copper, but mining ceased operation in 2005.
Death Valley has been part of the American landscape for nearly a century, developing from a harsh landscape to be traversed by pioneers and miners to a developed, enthralling tourist destination.
A Land of Extremes
While drought and heat make summer especially brutal in Death Valley, the winter often dusts the peaks with snow. The occasional rainstorm allows wildflowers to bloom and wildlife to find a home. Despite it’s rough reputation, Death Valley still harbors life.
Death Valley National Park covers over 3 million acres of desert terrain ranging from 282 feet below sea level to 11,049 feet above it at the summit of Telescope Peak.
While you might not see much vegetation on the salt flats, the rest of the valley floor has a variety of desert plants which give way to juniper and pine woodlands as the elevation rises. Death Valley receives just enough annual rainfall to allow vegetation to grow -- a small saving grace for this otherwise dry and hot desert environment.
That’s why those who brave this harsh ecosystem are rewarded with some of the most gorgeous photos you can take in North America. The brief and small rainy season provides dynamic cloud cover for the sprawling landscape, while the intense summer season gives every photo a clear, vivid blue backdrop. Lighting is ever changing. Wildlife is always adapting. New plants spring up with every season. And, some of the rocks even move on their own.
The park is also famous for its rare, but spectacular wildflower groves. In years when it rains, they are truly remarkable. But, even in the dry years, small patches continue to grow.
When conditions are right, the hills and valleys of Death Valley are absolutely covered with gold, purple, pink, or white flowers. But, this only happens when the harsh desert has received at least a half inch of rain. So, while superblooms might be fleeting, they truly are a magical occurrence for both wildlife and visitors alike.
Don’t mistake Death Valley as inhospitable; it is very much full of life due to not only its natural contrasts, but its ability to adapt, change, and endure.
Art and Exploration
As one of the only national parks that allows off-trail hiking, Death Valley is the perfect place to explore -- though you’ll want to be cautious, given the harsh environment.
Still, this policy allows photographers to capture not only the famous landmarks and wide landscapes, but individual moments and locations that truly call to them. Death Valley offers the opportunity for up-close and personal images and abstracts, as well as dramatic shots of the entire landscape.
Overall, Death Valley offers a playground for visitors and artists alike to discover beauty in an environment that, upon first glance, appears to be nothing more than harsh and inhospitable, especially given its relatively dreary name.
But, upon closer inspection, Death Valley is not only complex and dangerous, but exhilarating, vivid, and lush in a way that is both dynamic and captivating.
Photography In Death Valley
Every year nature photographers from around the world visit Death Valley during the winter months to both escape the cold and avoid the heat that summer brings. In all my visits to the hottest place on earth I have never felt the temperature above 80 degrees due to typically visiting between December and March. While Death Valley may appear like a barren wasteland to many people, it is full of vast opportunities for unique photography, especially if you enjoy creating abstract imagery as much as I do!
Must See Locations In Death Valley
1. Zabriskie Point
Millions of years prior to the actual sinking and widening of Death Valley and the existence of Lake Manly (see Geology of the Death Valley area), another lake covered a large portion of Death Valley including the area around Zabriskie Point. This ancient lake began forming approximately nine million years ago. During several million years of the lake's existence, sediments were collecting at the bottom in the form of saline muds, gravels from nearby mountains, and ashfalls from the then-active Black Mountain volcanic field. These sediments combined to form what we today call the Furnace Creek Formation.
2. Badwater Basin
The current best understanding of the area's geological history is that the entire region between the Colorado River in the east and Baja California in the southwest (and bordered by various uplifts and mountains around the west-northwest-northern perimeters) has seen numerous cycles since at least the start of the Pleistocene (and perhaps up to 3 Ma) of pluvial lakes of varying size in a complex cycle mainly tied to changing climate patterns (particularly, glaciation during the numerous recent Ice Age cycles), but also influenced by the progressive depositing of alluvial plains and deltas by the Colorado River (cf. Salton Sea), alternating with periodic water body breakthroughs and rearrangements due to erosion and the proximity of the San Andreas Fault.
3. Mesquite Flat Dunes
These dunes are the best known and easiest to visit in the national park. Located in central Death Valley near Stovepipe Wells, access is from Hwy. 190 or from the unpaved Sand Dunes Road. Although the highest dune rises only about 100 feet, the dunes actually cover a vast area. This dune field includes three types of dunes: crescent, linear, and star shaped. Polygon-cracked clay of an ancient lakebed forms the floor. Mesquite trees have created large hummocks that provide stable habitats for wildlife. Sand boarding is permitted on these dunes.
4. Panamint Dunes
Travelers crossing Panamint Valley on Hwy.190 may view these dunes as a distant, pale smudge to the north. Those wanting a closer look must drive 5 miles down the unmarked dirt road leading past Lake Hill, then hike cross-country 3 miles. The other dunes of Death Valley are all situated on flat valley floors, but these are perched on a slope. The view from the summit of these dunes reveals their star shape and an impressive view down the valley.
5. 20 Mule Canyon
Take a drive along this beautiful unpaved road through colorful, eroded badlands. Afternoon and morning light cause the erosion in the hills to become highlighted and shadowed, creating spectacular contrast, and ample photo opportunities.
6. Artist Drive
Tucked behind an unassuming yellow landscape, the rainbow of Artists Palette is the highlight along the Artists Drive Scenic Loop. Here, visitors marvel at an array of colors (red, orange, yellow, blue, pink, and green), splashed across the hills. These colors are from volcanic deposits rich in compounds such as iron oxides and chlorite, which creates a rainbow effect.
Stunning not only at Artists Palette, the Artists Drive loop winds through hills carved by the erosive power of water, and gives vistas of both the rugged Black Mountains and swirling white salt flats. While no maintained trails exist along this loop, several pull outs provide safe parking areas from which to explore this unique landscape on foot.
7. Dante's View
Dante's View provides a panoramic view of the southern Death Valley basin. To the south, the Owlshead Mountains, 30 km (19 mi) away can be seen, and to the north, the Funeral Mountains 50 km (31 mi) distant, are visible beyond Furnace Creek. To the West, across Badwater Basin, the Panamint Range rises dramatically to Telescope Peak. To the east is found the Greenwater Range. On very clear days, the highest and lowest points in the contiguous 48 states of the United States: Mount Whitney 4,421 m (14,505 ft) high and Badwater −86 m (−282 ft) can be seen.
Expect The Unexpected
One thing is for sure, your first visit to Death Valley National Park will surprise you. If you are a nature photographer, like many of us, you will want to return again and again to capture this Californian wonder. You can see all of the fine art nature photography I have created from inside Death Valley National Park here.