Story and photographs by Jerry Ginsberg
For those of us old enough to remember, there was once a TV series called “Death Valley Days.” The show used the vast Death Valley National Park as a backdrop for its slice of life vignettes. It greatly romanticized the harsh desert environment made commercially viable by its borax deposits. Twenty mule teams pulled heavy wagons laden with the stuff out of the valley and off to market. Today this valley encompasses the biggest U.S. national park outside of Alaska. With 3.3 million acres, it is half again the size of Yellowstone.
Death Valley received its forbidding name from a stranded group of prospectors who lost their way to the California Gold Rush after the strike of 1849. Ironically, they were rescued, and none of them died there.
At 282 feet below sea level, Death Valley is the very lowest spot in all of North America. As a result, it can get mighty hot, and traveling there in summer is a bad idea. Indeed, the world’s hottest day was a hundred years ago this past July 10, when the temperature went up to 134 degrees F. The most comfortable weather is during January, February and March. After April, temperatures climb.
Most of the park is accessible with a regular passenger vehicle. The most popular shooting spots are the Mesquite Flat Dunes (where no less than Ansel Adams made many dramatic images), Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon, Badwater and Dante’s View.
While the sand dunes can be shot well in early morning or sunset light, mornings are often better, since the winds have had all night to erase the previous day’s footprints. If not, just head into the dunes. The farther you go from the road, the fewer the footprints.
Both very wide and very long lenses will be useful amid these shifting sands. Make sure to shoot quickly, as the best light is often fleeting.
Badwater, with its reflection of Telescope Peak, is a wonderful sunrise location if enough water is present. Best to scout it out the day before.
Zabriskie Point is both a classic view and the jumping off point for the downhill hike through Golden Canyon. If you can arrange for a two-vehicle shuttle at the bottom, you’ll save the trek back uphill.
The drive up to Dante’s View brings you to the best place to take in an overall view of the valley below. It is often windy up here so you’ll want some rocks or a similar weight to steady your tripod. This is one of the few good afternoon spots along the park’s road system.
North past Mesquite Flat, the road brings you to Ubehebe Crater. It’s interesting to stop here for a few minutes, but don’t expect any great photography. If you press on, you will arrive at famed Scotty’s Castle. This lovely mansion set in a lush oasis looks out of place in what is an otherwise harsh and desolate environment. But it is here that Death Valley Scotty built his Shangri-La. Worth a look, but leave your tripod in the car.
By now, most readers will be waiting for the other shoe to drop. I have not yet mentioned the well-known and much-talked-about Racetrack with its mysterious moving rocks. That is because getting there and getting the shot can be a daunting experience. Don’t even think about driving out there unless you have a solid four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance, rugged off-road tires and two full-sized spares. Your AAA card will not help you here. It’s best to get there in the afternoon and spend the night. Racetrack is not your ordinary destination, but if you are well equipped, you can have a lot of fun scratching your head while trying to figure out just what is moving those rocks around. I surely don’t know.
As far as accommodations inside the park, two likely choices are Stovepipe Wells, right near the sand dunes, and Furnace Creek Ranch, about 25 miles south and close to Zabriskie Point and most other good photo spots. Both feature convenient eateries and swimming pools for that welcome mid-day dip. The Furnace Creek Resort is a Four Diamond experience featuring service to match and America’s lowest golf course.
Carry plenty of water, take it easy and enjoy!
Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer and co-founder of Master Image Workshops. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America using medium-format cameras. More of Jerry’s work can be seen at www.MasterImageWorkshops.com