Death Valley trip report part I

I recently attended a convention in Las Vegas as part of my full time job. Since I was already going to be out there, I decided to take some vacation and visit one of the local parks. It was a relatively easy decision for me as I have been interested in going back to Death Valley since I visited for 1 day several years ago. After talking it over with my amazing wife, she decided to come along and keep me safe (be the voice of reason in my ear) while I was out in the middle of nowhere for several days. The trip turned out to be an amazing experience that I won’t ever forget. 

The first day we arrived at the Southeast area of the park, which is an area without paved roads and no signage to let you know you are on the park property. Without the aide of a map, you might not even know you are in the park. There isn’t much down on this end of the park except for Ibex Dunes which was high on my list. Ibex is a remote expanse miles off the paved road and was a logical start for us. It was only 90 minutes from Las Vegas. After driving on the dirt road for a bit, the massive dunes came into sight, but they were still several miles away. With the light fading fast we realized we weren’t going to get there in time, so we decided to take a small jaunt onto the low lying area of the Ibex Wash and just explore a bit. We walked across the flat, which was very dry. After about a mile walk, to my surprise we came across some water flowing towards the lowest point in the park. It had rained over the weekend, but I wasn’t sure if any of this part of the park saw any of it. It wasn’t much, but was enough to bring some interest into my images. We spent an hour exploring before heading back to the car in the dark. I was very excited for the days ahead. The landscape is so interesting with all of the nuances of dried crust combined with rock, vegetation and magnificent mountains. In some areas, the dried earth looks like old paint peeling off the wall after years of neglect.

Last light on the cracked playa along the Ibex Wash
Last light on the cracked playa along the Ibex Wash
Texture and sediment along the Ibex Wash
Texture and sediment along the Ibex Wash

That evening we decided to stay at the Tecopa Hot Springs Resort. It was more than adequate and had some great hot tub rooms where they pump the hot spring water right to you. After a little asking around, we decided to eat at a small shack (literally) called Steaks and Beer on the Old Spanish Trail. I was a little skeptical at first but the owner/cook/operator Eric Scott (yes he has two first names) has the best kept secret in all of the west. There is only enough room to seat 7-10 people in this place and after our visit, I left amazed there wasn’t a line out the door. I had the absolute best rib eye steak and margarita I have ever had in my life – no question. If you are ever in the area, you have to stop in and enjoy this place. You won’t be disappointed. We retired back to the resort where we took in the hot springs which is another story in itself, but was a great experience.

The following morning we woke up to some subtle rains and overcast skies, but set out for sunrise in the park regardless. We drove North through and headed into the park via the Jubilee Mountain pass on Rt. 178. At the top of the mountain we found the clouds breaking and winds shifting. The pass elevation is somewhere around 2700′ as you traverse downhill into the basin of the Valley. The lowest point in the park, also the lowest elevation in North America is 282′ below sea level. Amazing to think that you are that far under what the ocean level would be if this place weren’t dry. We took the West Side road (another dirt road) to get a better vantage point for sunrise. We came upon a location that looked promising and made our way out onto the flats just before sunrise. The wind was relentless, even with my camera bag hanging off of my tripod I had a few instances where I needed to grab onto it before it blew over. I was able to get some decent shots this morning of the sun peaking over the mountains and bathing the clouds and mountains in the morning. 

Early morning along basin road
Early morning along basin road
Jubilee Pass looking West into Death Valley
Jubilee Pass looking West into Death Valley

We planned out the rest of the day to continue North in the park, stoping at various spots along the way to take in the amazing landscape. More to follow on the second half of the trip.


Captivated by the sea

The coast of California has long been on my list of places to visit. I had the opportunity to do just that last spring. A family trip took us to San Diego where we were able to see some friends and take in some of the sites. Each evening, we spent some time at one of the many places you could sit and enjoy the setting sun. The experience of the warm light on the landscape, the soothing sound of the crashing waves and the warm breeze of the ocean was truly amazing. There are so many places to see along this coast it is hard to decide where to go first. My favorite of the trip was Sunset Cliffs. The coastline is a harsh volcanic looking rocky environment that has been battered and shaped by the Pacific Ocean. The tide determines how far out you can venture onto the rocky surface. Watching the waves crash back and forth is something I could do for hours seemingly slipping into a trance. When going out onto these rocks, you have to be extremely careful to not get too close to the edge. At any time a large wave could come up and knock you over or sweep you out to sea – a lesson that I learned the hard way on my way back to the stairs at Sunset Cliffs. After the sun has set – don’t pack up your gear right away. Stay a bit and watch the light change. You can continue to shoot and capture an entirely different feel. When shooting images of the coast, a tripod, remote shutter release and a polarizer is a must. I prefer to use an exposure that will help accentuate the movement of the sea. Depending on the strength of the tide, this can be anywhere from 1/15 of a second to several seconds with an aperture of at least F/11. If need be, I will use a Neutral Density filter to help extend my shutter speed.

If you have the opportunity to visit the San Diego area, make sure your agenda includes visiting one of these areas to experience the beauty and power of the sea. Thanks for taking a look and hope you enjoy…

Warm light blankets the coast, Sunset Cliffs Natural Point, San Diego, CA © Rob Loughrey
Warm light blankets the coast, Sunset Cliffs Natural Point, San Diego, CA © Rob Loughrey
Blue hour - Sunset Cliffs Natural Point, San Diego, CA © Rob Loughrey
Blue hour – Sunset Cliffs Natural Point, San Diego, CA © Rob Loughrey

Badwater basin

This was our last stop while in the Death Valley park and the sun was quickly sinking behind the Panamint Range to the West.  We pulled over to the side of the road and I ventured out about 1/2 mile onto the basin, well away from the visitor parking area. Even though there were only a few people out on the basin, I wanted to go to an area that was more likely to be untouched. What I didn’t know is that the salt was so hard that we didn’t even leave footprints ourselves. Regardless, I still enjoyed having to just the few of us. I Couldn’t believe the landscape I was seeing. I had seen images of the area before but none of them did this place justice. There was an area that looked like volcanic rock on the edges, followed by something that looked like boiling water frozen in time. Then as we went out a little farther, we found the hexagonal shapes I had seen in photos before. Some of these areas are large enough for a few people to stand next to each other in, and some of them are a little smaller. There were it appeared something from below was forcing the cracks taller and cracking open. According to the visitor center, a surveyor from the 1800’s was passing through the area and attempted to get his mule to drink from one of the small pools of water. The mule wouldn’t drink the water so he noted in his journal that it had “bad water” which apparently stuck. I spent about an hour exploring the area before we left. Had I been on my own, I would have stayed several hours and let the full moon light the landscape and captured some star trail images as well. Something to plan for the next time I visit…
Badwater Basin Panoramic - Death Valley NP, CA © Rob Loughrey


Hexagonal salt crust, Death Valley NP, CA © Rob Loughrey


Death Valley Sunset

While on the way from the salt flats to Badwater Basin, the last light of day was shining on the mountains to the East. I remembered it was near full moon and that it would be rising as the sun set. Typically 2 days before the full moon, the moon is rising well before the sun sets. This gives you an opportunity to get some great shots of the moon rise while there is still enough light on the landscape from the setting sun. As we were driving south, I kept looking east to see if I could spot the moon. At times it was difficult because the mountains were very close and blocking distant view. Then while driving, I saw it cresting over the mountain tops and pulled over for a few shots. The longest telephoto I own is a 200mm at this point, so I used it to snap a few shots along the way. They turned out quite nice with the warm light of the sun against the mountains.

The moon rises over the Black Mountains, Death Valley NP, CA © Rob Loughrey


Moonrise over Black Mountains, Death Valley NP, CA © Rob Loughrey


Death Valley Part 2

While in the park, I had wanted to go see the dunes at Stovepipe Wells. This is about 30-45 min north on RT 190 in the park. We stopped by the small shops at Furnace creek before heading north. It was very windy most of the day while we were in the area. While we were driving North on the road, I noticed what looked like a wall of sand blowing towards us. With just a few hours of daylight left, I started second guessing where I wanted to go. I thought to myself – if it is really windy and blowing like a sand storm, I am not going to be taking my camera out in that weather. We decided to turn around and head South to Badwater Basin, another location in the park I wanted to visit. This was about 30 min South of were we were. After turning around, we pulled over next to the mountains to the west. There was a giant salt flat area that we saw some people out walking around on. They were quite a distance away as they looked a small as ants out on the flats. We walked across the rocky terrain for about 500 yds before getting to the flats. The wind was absolutely raging. I looked North and sure enough, that wind had one heck of a sand storm going at stove pipe wells. It was probably 20 miles away from us, so we weren’t getting hit with the sand. I took a number of shots out here on the flats while the rest of the family explored. We stayed here for about 45 minutes before moving onto Badwater Basin. If you look closely in the image, you can see the wall of sand off in the distance.
Salt flats - Death Valley National Park, CA © Rob Loughrey

Death Valley National Park

Picking up where I left off on my previous post, there were a few times that I stopped along the way to Death Valley. After we passed through the town of Pahrump, we made our turns onto the road that takes you into the park. We still had a good 35 miles to go, most of it traveling through another valley as we passed through Funeral Mountains near Pyramid Peak. This was a really neat part of the drive with small dust twisters crossing the long stretch of highway. There were not many cars on the road and the landscape was like being on another planet – at least compared to what I’m used to seeing on the east coast. Once we entered into the park, we made a stop along the road and checked out some of the limestone formations. After spending a few minutes checking the area out, we drove a short distance up the road to Zabriskie Point, one of the iconic locations of Death Valley. We spent a good amount of time there with some really strong wind conditions. I had to weigh my tripod down to make sure I was getting a steady shot, not to mention the concern for it blowing over. I could have spent hours here but I will have to save that for my next trip…
Late afternoon from Zabriskie Point - Death Valley National Park, CA © Rob Loughrey