Death Valley November 2013

The Panamints

Overlooking Panamint Valley…


“Don’t think I won’t knock you out right here, skinny boy!”

These angry words broke the predawn stillness as I walked through the Mesquite Dunes near Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley.

“Wait for me and I’ll come over there and knock you out with my tripod!”

I craned my neck to figure out where the yelling was coming from and to whom it was directed. On the top of a sand dune to my right I saw two men against the early morning sky. A 20-something man was walking hastily away from a landscape photographer who was livid that the hiker had inadvertently entered his frame. Neither of them had seen me approach, as I had been walking in the troughs between dunes on my own photographic mission.

“This isn’t your park. It’s everyone’s park.” The hiker cried out as he moved away.

The photographer continued his tirade and I wondered if I might have to intervene.

“You walked right through my composition! At least I have respect for people doing their art! I’ll fucking kick your ass!”

The young hiker kept his cool and did his best to de-escalate as he headed south towards the 190 – while the photographer, near hysterical, was threatening violence at the top of his lungs. His hissy-fit eventually faded into a whimper and he finally disappeared northeast behind the dune just as the sky was lightening up over the Amargosa Range.

Silence again. Wind across the dunes. Welcome to Death Valley.
 

Argus Range over Darwin Canyon

The Argus Range over Darwin Canyon…

24 hours earlier I had been planning to spend Thanksgiving at home with my girlfriend, doing nothing in particular. When she unexpectedly had to fly home at last minute on Thanksgiving morning I was suddenly left with 4 days on my own. An hour and a half after dropping her off at the airport I was packed and on the road to Death Valley for a weekend of camping and photography. Adventure time.
 

Father Crowley Overlook...

Father Crowley Overlook…

The Mighty Panamints

The Mighty Panamints…

It was around 4:30pm as I pulled into the Father Crowley viewpoint on the eastern flank of the Darwin Plateau. The Panamint Range across the valley was as beautiful as ever, it’s peaks dusted with snow, it’s wrinkled bajada bathed in late afternoon light. I’ve always thought the Panamint Valley is more striking than Death Valley itself and after taking in the views and walking around some just north of the Darwin Hills I continued on towards Death Valley.

The sun had set by the time I arrived at Stovepipe Wells and after some dinner and a beer at the Badwater Saloon I simply slept in my truck in the RV park across the way so I could be ready for a pre-dawn hike in the dunes.
 

The Panamint Dunes

The distant Panamint dunes…

Into Panamint Valley
 

The road into Panamint Valley…

Dune Light

 

Mesquite Dawn…

So after a fitful sleep there I found myself, waiting for the sun to rise, enjoying the shapes of the mountains and dunes around me as they stood out against a glowing sky, thinking about the shouting match I had just witnessed.

Dawn progressed into day uneventfully and I enjoyed a fantastic morning in the dunes until it became hot enough to move on.
 

Morning in the Dunes

Morning in the Dunes…

Dune Texture

Dune texture…

Paradise

Desert paradise…

Distant Hiker

A distant hiker tops a dune…

Footprints in the sand...

Footprints in the sand…

Light and Shadow
 

Curves…

Texture
 

Crust…

After breakfast and some coffee at the Tollroad restaurant I gassed up and excitedly headed north to the rutted 4×4 road leading to the Racetrack Playa, a place I had never visited despite years of fascination. I looked forward to photographing the famous moving rocks and perhaps some star trails that evening.
 

To the Racetrack!

To the racetrack!

Companions along the road...

Companions along the road…

I spent the next few hours completely absorbed in the vista unfolding around me as my truck bumped and rattled towards the horizon. As I headed away from Ubehebe Crater and up along the western slope of the Cottonwood Mountains the landscape became covered with melting snow from a previous shower. Every now and then I stopped and got out of the car to enjoy the tranquility.

Soon after some obligatory photos at Teakettle Junction the Playa came into view, and I was a bit surprised to see the famous “Grandstand” rocks surrounded – not by hard-packed sediment – but by snow. Further down the road I found the southern end of the playa covered in about 6 inches of water. I carefully avoided muddy ground around the perimiter of the playa as I surveyed the scene, concious not to leave any footprints. Footprints in the mud can remain for years and ruin the experience for subsequent travelers. It would be impossible to walk out onto the playa, much less photograph on it.

Rest Stop...
 

Rest Stop…

Playa Approach

Approaching the racetrack…

Desert Snow

Snow on the playa…

The other guy out there...

The other guy out there…

I thought back to the scene I had witnessed that morning in the dunes while accepting the reality before me. Sometimes plans change, however carefully laid. Factors beyond our control will inevitably confound our desires. This is especially true when it comes to landscape photography and other outdoor pursuits. We can plot when and where the sun will rise and set, we can forecast the cloud cover, the precipitation, the atmospheric clarity, the peak season for fall color. Even still, the weather does not always cooperate. Other people do not always cooperate. We will always need to make the best of a situation as it presents itself to us – even if it presents itself covered in footprints or submerged in water. Improvisation and acceptance are key, and are part of what draws me outdoors.
 

Breakdown

Passed this stuck SUV awaiting a tow-out…

Titlewhat

Afternoon reflections in Racetrack Valley…

I spent the afternoon photographing around the perimeter of the racetrack. The reflections in the pools of water made for some interesting shots and I thought I might be able to get some reflected star trails at night. I made camp down the road from the southern end of the Racetrack at the dispersed camping area near the Lippincott Mine. That evening a little kit fox made an appearance near my camp and snooped around the sagebrush, his eyes catching my headlamp now and again throughout the night.

Evening Light...

Evening Light…

After photographing a brilliant sky during sunset I set my camera up for star trails and took a preliminary exposure for ambient light. At around 2am I walked out to my camera with the intention of starting the intervalometer for star trails. What I found was a camera that looked as if it had been dunked in water. The body, lens and tripod were so saturated with condensation that they were literally dripping. I didn’t have a lens-warmer with me and the condensation was so great that I decided to call it a night and get some sleep. Maybe next time. (As an aside – here is a fantastic article on dew, frost, condensation and radiation. Interesting reading)
 

Racetrack Sunset
 

Racetrack Sunset…

Gray Morning
 

Gray Morning…

By morning the playa had iced over entirely and the landscape was covered in a layer of frost. I stuck around as the sun rose and watched the ice melt away as the day began to heat up. The variations in temperature in Death Valley never cease to amaze me.

Morning Frost

The playa iced over in the night…

Covered

The car was completely frosted over at dawn…

Saturated

Ice melts on the flooded racetrack playa at dawn…

Sun Up...

The sun reflects off the frosty brush

Before long I was on the road heading back towards civilization, thankful for another quick getaway in an awe-inspiring place. I live for these escapes.

Waterworld

Less snow on the drive out…

The Road Home...

The road out…

Curves Ahead
 

A last look at the Panamints before heading home…

The Other Asses
 

The other asses in the area…



::: Download Trip KML :::

Rating: ★★★★☆
Time Needed: 2-3 Days for just the Mesquite Dunes and a night at the racetrack…
Difficulty: Moderate, depending on your fitness and vehicle.

Special Considerations: In my opinion Death Valley is most lovely in either November or April. Temperatures will vary depending on where you are in the park and at what elevation. You can expect the Death Valley “season” to close by May, when it gets too hot to deal with comfortably. Please, for Gods-sake, do not walk on dry lake beds when they are muddy or wet or otherwise soft. You will leave footprints and ruin the experience of a pristine wilderness for literally YEARS. There are footprints locked in time all over and around the racetrack. Don’t add to them. Tread carefully and be respectful. The Mesquite Dunes are better approached not from the parking lot in front of them but from the western edge about a mile east from Stovepipe wells along the 190. Pull over and walk out on the hard-packed sediment next to the dune and then into them. It saves a lot of slogging through sand.

Photo Tips: There is so much to cover photographically in Death Valley that it really can’t be done in one trip…it takes many to begin to capture all there is on offer. Classic photographic areas include the Mesquite Dunes, Ibex Dunes, Eureka Dunes, Panamint Dunes, the Badwater Basin salt polygons, the many mines of the high country, Zabriskie Point at sunrise, Aguereberry Point, Artists Palette, Racetrack Playa, Dantes View and on and on and on… Generally I would say for vistas bring a tripod and shoot at a high fstop to maximize depth of field. Hyperfocal distance charts for lenses help in this regard too. Sunrise and sunset are fantastic times to shoot in Death Valley, as is the middle of the night for star trails.

Logistics: Heading out to the racetrack isn’t wise without a stocked high-clearance vehicle. Tire punctures are a common occurrence along the road and be prepared for some severe washboarding. Jeeps are available to rent at Furnace Creek although I’m not too sure about the specifics.

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