In my last blog post, I had mentioned it had been an eternity since I had the opportunity to visit Death Valley National Park due to the pandemic. Well, I can start this post by saying I just returned from Death Valley after a much-needed mid-winter escape! Back in January, we decided to travel southwest to not only escape the Denver chill but to get some very welcome nature therapy. The pandemic last year threw us off our regular travel schedule, and we spent a lot of time in Denver. We deemed we could safely travel, and packed up the trailer, and headed to warmer weather. We started in Zion National Park (more on that in the next blog post!) and then headed to Death Valley for three weeks. The pandemic has taught us not to take any moment for granted anymore, including when we travel. We savored every minute in Death Valley, and this trip had more profound meaning because of our new epiphany. Because we didn't have workshops to teach, this was the first time in 4 years that we didn't have a schedule. This provided us with more opportunities to spend most days exploring the Mojave.
Death Valley National Park: Winter 2021
On this trip, we hiked over 80 miles, most of it in the backcountry, away from people where we could enjoy the silence of the Mojave. We explored numerous canyons, hiked out to remote dune fields, and challenged ourselves to different backcountry terrain. Our focus wasn't strictly photography but rather to enjoy the desert and all its treasures. We had primarily blue skies our whole trip, which, if you've followed me for a while, know that I embrace those conditions. I walked away with the most diverse photography ever from a very familiar place because it challenged me to find new subjects to photograph.
A big focus of this trip was to explore some dune fields familiar to us and some remote areas that we hadn't photographed and explored before. We spent time scouting new areas in familiar landscapes and also trekked out to new discoveries. I focused more on the intimate dune scenes and abstracts this time around.
One dune field in particular always seems to yield the most exciting sand patterns I've ever seen. I headed out midday to take advantage of the harsh contrasts for black and white photography, and I continued work on my black and white desert textures collection.
I'm forever intrigued and inspired by the ongoing dance between wind and sand. The sculpting and creation of textures and patterns never cease to interest me. I spent quite a few hours in the dunes during the hot midday sun capturing patterns that caught my eye. The occasional roadrunner would zip by me, throwing me cautious and curious glances as to why I might be out in the hottest part of the day.
I also spent a lot of time hiking and exploring the surrounding playas in the valleys. One of my favorite characteristics of Death Valley is that the landscape is under constant change, whether from flood, erosion, or deposition. I never witness the same features twice, and it's all a bit different each visit. In a way, it's almost like Christmas morning every visit. I wait all year to see what the new gifts of the terrain will be. This winter didn't disappoint, and I photographed vast salt playas with unique formations and newly deposited patterns. I found textures that I had never seen before and enjoyed photographing with my macro lens to look closer.
Some were reminiscent of things I used to look at under the microscope when I worked in veterinary medicine. Some textures reminded me of scales, so light and delicate. I spent hours wandering and looking, and I let my mind get lost in them. Every time I lost the sunlight, I felt like I had only scratched the surface of what was out there, and looked forward to exploring more.
Last year, I picked up a Tamron SP 90 mm lens, and I've fallen in love using it. It's sharp, easy to use, and allows me to get even closer to my salty subjects. I've been thrilled, and I thoroughly enjoy using it, and I'm so glad I added it to my kit.
As I alluded to above, we spent most of our time exploring the parks many canyons. Most required long slogs up alluvial fans, but the return on investment was always worth the sweat and sore feet. I never thought I would find canyons in the Mojave that glowed as much as the more popular southwest canyons, but my mind has since changed. With the run of blue skies that we had, there was no shortage of opportunities to find and follow the glow. The canyons in Death Valley are made up of different varieties of rock types. Some are made of smoother sedimentary rock, some walls are metamorphic rock, and many canyons lead you through mazes of conglomerates.
Along with fun in chasing the glow, I took the time to photograph the more minor details in the canyons. There were plenty of walls to photograph in beautiful soft light and no shortage of interesting rocks to take a closer look and appreciate. We stumbled upon some petroglyphs in our adventures, and that, combined with the remoteness of some of the canyons, really made it feel like we had stepped back in time, and those were special moments that I'll cherish forever. (Please do not ask me where the petroglyphs we encountered were. Due to the rise in graffiti and recent vandalism events, I will not be disclosing them.) There's plenty to be seen for those willing to be adventurous, willing to put the research in and that want to spend time exploring.
We spent a good deal exploring, photographing, and hiking the badlands. Amazingly, I didn't come back with one photo of Zabriskie Point because I made a deal with myself to spend time finding some new territory and areas of badlands to explore. The colors that make up some of the surrounding badlands make you feel like you walked into a fantasy world. The soft colors and pastels create a dreamy feeling, and I couldn't help but be reminded of ice cream, candy, and sherbet. There are many opportunities to photograph and isolate smaller scenes within the colors, layers, and textures. Some of our hikes took us around bends that were so full of these pastel colors, it felt like a whole other planet. We chose to photograph them on a semi-overcast day, as the soft light can enhance the soft colors without being too harsh.
Around the start of our trip, it occurred to me that this is the time of year we welcome back the core of the milky way in the very early morning skies. I don't photograph the night sky too often, but now and then, the desire hits. I thought twice when the alarm went off at 2 am, but stumbled out of bed a few nights and photographed the celestial heavens. There's something about staring up at the night sky and thinking about something larger than yourself. The occasional howl from a coyote would snap me back into reality, but I'm continually amazed by the stars and how many you can see in the park. Death Valley is a designated International Dark Sky Park and has some of the darkest skies; an astrophotographer's dream. We hit the playas one night and the dunes the other. We brought out a Lume Cube mini panel with us to light up a dune, and it worked really well!
We had such a wonderful time in the park, and three weeks went by really quickly. This trip was one of the most meaningful trips that we had experienced in the park. I already cannot wait to head back in the fall, where we'll be teaching a photography workshop with the Death Valley Natural History Association. The photos I produced on this visit represent everything I enjoyed exploring, and more importantly, took the time to connect and experience. When we allow ourselves to wander landscapes like Death Valley, the reward is not only in maximizing your opportunities to photograph, but more importantly, taking the time to connect with an extraordinary and unique landscape.
Next up, our adventures in Zion National Park!