Death Valley Trip Part II

After traveling North in the park, we stayed the night at Stovepipe Wells. I was surprised to find a small cell tower in the parking lot, which provided the opportunity to call home and check in. The tower wasn’t very tall and when you drive a couple of miles away, you promptly loose your signal. It was nice to have the ability to call home at night and check in. We arose early with the promise of a nice sunrise and headed down the road to the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. This trail takes you off the main road West onto the Salt Flats and ends in a small parking area next to the Salt Creek. As we approached the parking area I was surprised to see that there was water in the creek. I know that sounds counter intuitive, but this area is typically very dry. The recent rains to the west setup just the right circumstances for us to have a small amount of flow heading towards the low point in the basin. I picked out a spot along the creek and waited for the sun and clouds to do their morning dance. The air was cold and there was a slight breeze. I had a few moments to enjoy the scene before me as I waited, looking out over the expanse of the basin.  After a few short minutes, the clouds began to light up & we were rewarded with a gorgeous sunrise. 

Daybreak - Salt Creek Interpretive Trail
Daybreak – Salt Creek Interpretive Trail

After the sunrise, we headed over to the dunes at Stovepipe Wells and parked along the road about a mile past the parking area. I wanted to hike out to the dunes into an area that wasn’t littered with hundreds of footprints. While I’m not entirely opposed to having footprints in my images, I prefer to shoot the landscape untouched by man. If I do choose to create an image that has footprints, It will likely be just a single set walking off into the expanse. We explored the area for a couple hours, climbing to the tops of a few of the taller dunes. 

Stovepipe wells sand dunes
Stovepipe wells sand dunes

The rest of the day was planned for visiting the Racetrack Playa, long on my list of places to visit & the location of the fabled sailing stones. The Racetrack is an extremely flat dry lake bed which only has about 1.5″ of elevation change over its 2.8 mile length, sitting at over 3700′ tucked up between two mountain ranges in a very remote area of the park. Short of a helicopter ride, there are two ways to get to the Racetrack: From the North near Ubehebe Crater, or the South near Panamint Springs. The Southern access is via Lippincott pass that is marked on most maps as extremely difficult true back country 4 wheeling with steep grades and very uneven terrain. I wouldn’t attempt it without a high clearance 4WD with heavy duty off road tires. We were already in the North end of the park and were not going to take the chance to see if our rental could make the South pass access, so we decided on the access road from the Ubehebe Crater. This is 27 miles of unmanaged dirt road with numerous washed out areas & sharp rocks. It took us a little over 2 hours to drive the distance mainly because you can’t drive more than 10-12 mph without vibrating your wheels right off of your vehicle. There were several areas where flash floods have washed out part of the path, but it was still passable. If you decide to take this trip, make sure your vehicle has good ground clearance to make sure you don’t end up bottomed out or with a punctured oil pan. There is no cell phone service and help can be 4 hours to days away depending on the weather. During the trip out, we only saw one other vehicle heading back. At about 6 miles away, you will come upon Teakettle Junction, which is where you can take the road due East up into the Cottonwood Mountains. At the junction, there is a sign where past travelers have been leaving their tea kettles hanging – an interesting landmark in a desolate area.  Upon arrival, to our surprise there was a minivan parked on the side of the road, but no one else around. After a short period I went to check it out and found a note in the windshield stating they would be back in a few days. Not sure if they broke down or if they were doing some real back country camping. 
We explored the playa looking for recent evidence of sailing stones but did not have any luck. This phenomenon is seasonal and the conditions need to be right for it to happen. The rains over the summer form a thin sheet of water on the playa turning the hard surface to a soft mud. Any tracks from previous activity are erased as the water evaporates and the soft mud flattens out. The playa will continue to dry where the hexagon shaped cracks will form again. The playa will remain this way until some rains, freezing temps and wind come along to get stones moving again.

Last light on hexagonal patterns on the Racetrack Playa
Last light on hexagonal patterns on the Racetrack Playa
Future sailing stone on Racetrack Playa
Future sailing stone on Racetrack Playa

We planned on camping out at the Racetrack in hopes of taking some images lit by moonlight, but the winds were so strong that there was no way I was going to get the tent setup. With a front moving in, we decided it was better to head back before it got dark, so we began the 2 hour drive back to the main part of the park. After a total of 4 hours of being jarred around in the SUV, we were both exhausted. Jenn’s fitbit logged 30k steps and 180 floors all due to the rough trip.

We stayed the night at the Furnace Creek Inn and planned the last day of the trip, which would include sunrise at Badwater Basin from West Side Road followed by another attempt at Ibex dunes before heading home. I settled on a spot a couple of miles onto West Side road and scoped out the landscape. There were no clouds in the sky facing East, so I decided to shoot away from the sun hoping that we would get some nice color on the Cottonwood Mountains. The area I stopped at had some really large hexagonal crust formations and made for a really interesting foreground. The salt deposits pushed up 6-8 inches, something I hadn’t seen here before. 

Sunrise over the Panamint Range
Sunrise over the Panamint Range

After sunrise, we headed South on our route towards the Southern tip of the park. The first day we visited, we noticed an ATV park called Dumont Dunes, which is outside of the park, but right across the road. Once we got into the area, we decided to check out these dunes to see how they would look compared to Ibex. It was largely empty except for a few campers and riders, and you could drive right up to the edge of the dunes. I decided to shoot here for the afternoon. There is something about the intricate patterns in the windswept dunes that intrigues me. I have been drawn to them since my early days with a camera. The patterns are both chaotic and systematic at the same time. I’m sure Jenn saw her fill of dunes, I could have spent the whole week photographing them.

Dummond dunes in the afternoon light
Dummond dunes in the afternoon light

After a while, the winds started picking up and we experienced our first true sandstorm. The winds were blowing so hard that I could not even get out of the vehicle and visibility was down to about 50 feet. We decided to call it a day and start heading back to Las Vegas to fly out the next morning. I was able to come away with some great shots during our couple of hours in the park. 

The trip was a great experience that I hope to repeat in years to come. I’ve logged plenty of miles and learned the lay of the land very well, which will make future visits much easier.

Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed…

 

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.

 

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