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.

 

Oregon trip – final morning

The final morning of my trip I decided to head up to one of the lakes that surrounded Mount Hood for the morning. After doing a bit of google map recon, I decided on Trillium Lake, which was a short 45 min drive from the hotel. I gave myself plenty of time in the morning to be on-site before twilight which meant an early start for me. I got up at 4am and was on the road a short while later. As I drove on RT. 26 heading toward the park, I could see Mt. Hood in the light of the full moon towering over the landscape. It was an amazing sight in the dark of night with the moon really bright in the cool, crisp & clear Oregon air. As I drove higher into the mountains, the temp was dropping rapidly and finally leveled out at a cool 40 degrees, quite a drop from 75 in Portland. I arrived in the parking area and realized I was there all alone which was both exciting and a little unnerving. I looked around a bit and found a spot to shoot from and took in the amazing scenery before me. The conditions were just right that morning for the cold water to release water vapor in the form of fog. The only noise I could hear was a bald eagle calling as it flew around looking for food. I really can’t explain what an amazing sight this place was. To the West, the full Moon was getting ready to set behind the mountains. To the East just over 4 miles away Mount Hood loomed over the lake at 11,250 feet tall. The side of the mountain still had a fair amount of snow on it from the previous winter, which I assume is the norm. I imagine the air temps up that high are never high enough for it to melt entirely. I spent a couple of hours shooting as the sun came up, changing locations around the lake. After a little while, some campers with fishing rods started to show up and enjoy the pristine wilderness. If you make a trip to Oregon, this area should be at the top of your list to visit and perhaps spend the night. What an amazing place. Here are a couple of shots from the visit. Hope you enjoy…

Moonset over Trillium Lake, MT Hood National Forest, OR © Rob Loughrey
Moonset over Trillium Lake, MT Hood National Forest, OR © Rob Loughrey
Twilight at Trillium Lake, MT Hood National Forest, OR © Rob Loughrey
Twilight at Trillium Lake, MT Hood National Forest, OR © Rob Loughrey
© Rob Loughrey
© Rob Loughrey
The light of dawn, MT Hood National Forest, OR © Rob Loughrey
The light of dawn, MT Hood National Forest, OR © Rob Loughrey

Southwest Sunsets

Hello everyone, 

What makes up your dream sunrise or sunset venue? Is it being at the edge of the ocean, watching the colors change as the sun passes over the horizon? Perhaps at the top of a mountain where you can see for miles on end or maybe a good stretch of farm land riddled with trees and crops? For me, it is anywhere really. As an avid chaser of the light, I often find myself exploring my location for sunrise or sunset opportunities. Recently I spent some time in Arizona where you have wide expanses or flat land that go beyond your imagination. The landscape also has its share of mountains that literally jump out of the plains forming some extremely adverse terrain. One location that I visited while in Arizona was the Saguaro National Park, located just outside of Tucson. This is a unique area of the U.S. which has the distinct pleasure of being one of the sole places on this planet where the Saguaro Cactus grows and thrives. The Saguaro is an amazing plant that towers 20-30 feet up and is able to suck water out of some of the driest soil around. I was truly in awe looking at these marvels of nature. 

The park offers a wide expanse of areas to explore on foot and setup your camera and tripod to witness the light show. When shooting scenes like this, I prefer to shoot a silhouette of the scene rather than blow out the sky. With colors like this, you just can’t go wrong. The only thing that is difficult about getting a shot like this is not running into other Cacti or any of the dozens of reptiles or other occupants of the area. Wear some good hiking shoes, preferably that protect your ankles and take a flashlight to help you find your way in the dark.  There are plenty of places in the park to pull off and explore and in many cases, you have a well traveled trail to follow out into the cactus fields. During my time in the area, I made several trips to the park for sunset. During these visits, I was lucky enough to witness some amazing colors with or without clouds. Hope you enjoy…

Twilight - Saguaro National Park, AZ © Rob Loughrey
Twilight – Saguaro National Park, AZ © Rob Loughrey
Light show over the Saguaro National Park, AZ © Rob Loughrey
Light show over the Saguaro National Park, AZ © Rob Loughrey

Natures color palette - Saguaro National Park, AZ © Rob Loughrey
Natures color palette – Saguaro National Park, AZ © Rob Loughrey

Springtime bliss

The first day of spring? Depending on where you are, it may not have looked too much like spring. Social media exploded with pictures of snow in the Northeast. Although spring is officially upon us, some areas take a bit longer to really feel like spring. I myself am looking forward to the fresh spring air, melting snow and budding trees. A trip to the mountains of central PA will be in order to some of my favorite waterfall locations. The best time for getting amazing shots of these locations is to be there before the sun is up. Crazy I know, but worth every minute. This is really important if you want to get some long exposures and don’t have those expensive neutral density filters. Being on site early allows you to spend time in the forest before the harsh sun gets too high and starts putting hots spots all over the place. High contrast images of waterfalls just don’t work that well in my opinion. If the day is going to be overcast, then you are in luck and can spend even more time getting excellent images. Make sure to bring a sturdy tripod and look at the scene from several different angles. This is a shot from last spring in Ricketts Glen State Park. The sun was just getting to the point where it was a problem. One trick I often use is to position myself so the sun is just behind a tree, branch or just at the top of the  frame.. With just a tiny fraction of the sun showing and a small aperture, the sun turns into a starburst and can give a really nice effect. A little post processing to expand the tonal range and enhance the colors and you have something to hang on the wall in your home. Happy shooting!

Springtime flow, Ricketts Glen State Park, PA © Rob Loughrey
Springtime flow, Ricketts Glen State Park, PA © Rob Loughrey

 

Anne Arundel Morning

There is something about the months of November and December when it comes to morning photography. Quite often, temperature inversion happens and the fields are covered with a blanket of mist and fog. This is a great time to be out getting some sunrise images of the areas around you. One of my favorite haunts is a local farm where I am able to go out and be a part of the days awakening. It’s cold, the snow geese are moving and there is a distinct calm in the air. Scouting an area and knowing where the sun will rise is a great help when you are trying to capture a specific image. I use various apps available for my phone that provide the exact location of the sun throughout the day. It is a tremendous help in getting the shot you envision. Sleeping in on days like this is overrated. Get out there and enjoy the world….

Sunrise – Anne Arundel County, MD © Rob Loughrey

Hatteras dunes – continued

Just wanted to put out a quick post with another shot from my trip to Hatteras Island. For this image, I used a 24mm PC lens, low to the ground and tilted forward. I believe I had about 1 – 1.5 degrees of tilt after finding a focus point in the foreground. When using this lens, I often have to go back and forth between focus and tilt until I am confident that I have both foreground and distant objects in focus. Post processing was done in Adobe Lightroom (minimal), followed by Adobe Photoshop once again using TK luminosity masks. Hope you enjoy…
 

Morning light brings out the details in the sand on Cape Hatteras National Seashore, NC  © Rob Loughrey

Sun, fun and Tony Kuyper Actions

Back in the Outer Banks with my family for a little R&R. We have had a great time here with some excellent weather, both good and bad, but mostly good. I did my best to relax and enjoy the time off this year, only getting up on two occasions to catch the sunrise and venturing out on two other occasions for sunset over the two week period. I paid close attention to the cloud cover and weather reports and was rewarded with an excellent sunrise on this day.   I returned to an area that I had scouted out the day before and was able to catch some great light in an area of dunes on the North end of the Island. I spent a good couple of hours shooting the area with two lenses – a 24mm PC and a 17-35mm zomm. Here is one of the first images I processed, shot with the 24mm lens that I used to create a panoramic shot. I took advantage of the tilt function on this lens giving the image sharp focus from near to far with just a few degrees of tilt. Thanks to Sean Bagshaw for his tips on how to use one of these lenses.  Recently, I began to use a new approach to process my images as well. If you haven’t heard of Tony Kuyper before, be sure to check out his TK actions panel utilizing Luminosity Masking to giving yourself complete control of your image. I found his site through Sean Bagshaw’s site and subsequently purchased the actions panel and videos that were created by Sean. I have to give both Sean and Tony major props for the videos and actions. Without the videos, It would have taken me much longer to understand the concepts behind the actions. Tony is an absolute genius with these actions and the panel, giving you complete control to edit your images beyond your imagination. I have watched the videos several times and am developing my own workflow utilizing the TK Actions panel as a primary source of editing.
Hope you enjoy my first TK Action processed image…

Windswept dunes, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, NC © Rob Loughrey

More from the Smoky Mountains…

On the second day of my trip, we made plans to view the sunrise from Clingmans Dome. We had not been there yet, so we gave ourselves an early wake up call to make sure we were on-site with an hour to spare. We arrived while it was still very dark. There were clouds moving through and the wind was blowing. We were amazed to see the temperature change go from in 60’s in the valley to around 38 degrees up on top of the mountain. We were a little disoriented being on the mountain top – not knowing which was East. We figured it out pretty quickly and setup our tripods to capture the sun cresting over the mountains. Unfortunately for us, there was some heavy cloud cover looking East, so we never actually saw the sun rise. There was a rain storm in the distance blocking our view but filtering the sun. The sky was light up a bright orange with the dark clouds above, making for some great contrast in colors. I set my camera to Tungsten mode to make the clouds and sky a cooler tone.  I used my 80-200mm f/2.8 lens with a 2.0 tele-converter to zoom in tight on the mountains and rain. I shot a number of shots moving from left to right and stitched them together in Photoshop to create this panoramic image. Minimal processing after the image was stitched using On One Software for Tonal Contrast and increasing the saturation slightly. Hope you enjoy…
Daybreak from Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains  © Rob Loughrey

Springtime trip to Tennessee

Just returned from a trip to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee. I visited with a fellow photographer Ian, spending 4 days venturing around the park. On the first night of the trip, we drove straight to the top of the mountain to visit Clingmans Dome at sunset. The day before, a storm had rolled through and dumped 6-8″ of snow on top of the mountain. The temperature change between the valley and peak of the mountain was 30+ degrees. Needless to say we were not expecting such a difference. To make it worse, upon arriving at the access road to the dome, we discovered that the access road was closed until April 1st. We were there 2 days early – unlucky for us. We made the best of the circumstances and visited an overlook a little lower than what we were hoping for and adjusted our plans accordingly. The trip was great and we both brought home some great images to share. We are already planning our next trip – perhaps in the fall.
This first shot is from a few days later at Sunrise. The clouds were thick and blocked the sun as it passed over the horizon. We stayed around for about 45 minutes past sunrise and were presented with this view.

Hope you enjoy…

Early morning atop Clingmans Dome - Great Smoky Mountains National Park  © Rob Loughrey