Dan's Outside

I go, I see, I do, I walk, I think, I like…

Trip Report: Spring Break in Death Valley 2007

During the past few years I’ve become addicted to Spring Break Death Valley trips. Two years ago I was there briefly during the historic wildflower display that drew thousands of visitors. Last year I spent a longer time there and managed to get out to the Racetrack. (See Trip Report: Spring Break in Death Valley 2006. This year I left the SF Bay Area for Death Valley and returned four days later, having taken over 500 photographs. (Some of them will appear hear and at my photography web site over the next few weeks.) Here is a brief report on my trip…:

– I departed reasonably early, though not before the crack of dawn. In truth, dawn may have actually cracked a few minutes before I left the garage. I followed I-5 down the San Joaquin Valley, heading east through Bakersfield and climbing over the southern end of the Sierra at Walker Pass. After a stop for lunch in Ridgecrest I headed on up toward the Panamint Valley via Trona, taking a brief side excursion out to the Trona Pinnacles. (Note to self: Return to the Pinnacles with camera equipment very early/late in the day or during interesting weather conditions.) I turned right at Hiway 190 and crossed Towne Pass and descended to Stovepipe Wells. During the drive I had given some thought to heading straight out to the Racetrack (that’s what I did last year) but decided that I would likely arrive to late for late afternoon and evening photography. Instead, I stuck to my original plan and got a campsite at the Texas Springs Camp, the cheaper tent campground near Furnace Creek. After getting my crude camp set up and having some dinner I headed out to try to photograph sunset back near Stovepipe Wells and to try my hand at night photography on the sand dunes.

The dunes were an interesting experience. Although there was a full moon, it was obscured by clouds – so it was pretty dark hiking out the dunes. Fortunately I could see the lights of Stovepipe Wells 90 degrees to my left, and I kept encountering other night hikers. I finally reached the top of one of the dunes, though not the highest one, and stopped to take a few long exposures before heading back to the car and then back to camp.

– The big goal for the day would be getting out to the Racetrack, but there was plenty of time in the morning to do other things. As I do when I’m looking for morning photographs, I got up before the sun rose, ate a snack, and headed over to Zabriskie Point to photograph sunrise. For photographers Zabriskie Point at sunrise is to Death Valley what Wawona Tunnel View at sunset is to Yosemite – basically a very popular place to shoot. It was a wonderful sunrise – better than I expected – but I was surprised that there were few photographers. In fact, I was the only one in the area below the overlook where many photographers wait for the sunlight.

After most of early light opportunities had faded here I went down to Badwater and took some photos there – nothing really astonishing, but I did get out onto the salt flats far enough to photograph the salt formations in soft light under some overcast. On my way back toward Furnace Creek I detoured though Artist Drive, but by now the light was becoming pretty difficult so I didn’t stay long. (This is probably best shot in the late afternoon, but before the sun drops to the top of the Panamints across the valley.)

Finally I arrived back at Texas Spring and quickly broke camp and loaded the car. By now it was definitely time for a real breakfast, so I treated myself to one at Furnace Creek before heading up the Valley toward Scotty’s Castle. I stopped there briefly to check my maps and take care of some final business before heading out to the Racetrack.

The Racetrack is famous for the “moving rocks” that leave tracks across portions of the playa. Although many people drive out there and back in the middle of the day, they are really missing the beautiful light of evening and morning, the best times to photograph the area. My plan was to arrive early enough to begin shooting in the late afternoon, continue with some night photography under the full moon, and then get up early the next morning and shoot the sunrise.

The route begins on the paved road to Ubehebe Crater, but after that a 27 mile gravel road begins. It isn’t the worst road in the world, but it is pretty rough. I’m glad that the Park Service keeps it that way – otherwise the area would probably be overrun in no time. In fact, after driving the horrible washboard surface of the first few miles, I am suspicious that they are happy to let it deteriorate a bit to discourage at least some of the drivers. In any case, after two hours of difficult driving I arrived at the Grandstand, the rock formation at the end of the Playa. I photographed there a bit before driving to the small parking lot at the far end of the Playa near where the largest collection of “moving rocks” is located.

Although there is a “campground” a few miles further, many people simply sleep in their cars at one of the turnouts at the Racetrack. Frankly, the campground is little more than wide spot in the road – it has no water and it adds another 6 miles of driving on the gravel road. I was lucky enough to meet two interesting groups of fellow visitors. One was a group of Death Valley hikers who make a habit out of hiking and backpacking all over the Valley. The second consisted of June and Bob, trombonist and photographer respectively, who parked next to me and we kind enough to share their dinner and their company.

As expected, I spent a few hours photographing on the Playa as late afternoon light faded to darkness. After a short break I returned to the Playa to make a few photographs under the full moon.

– I got up before dawn, grabbed my camera gear and a bottle water and headed back out onto the Playa. The morning light goes through a whole series of interesting phases at the Racetrack. First there is the subtle pre-dawn light. Then, since the sun risen behind a range of peaks to the east, higher peaks to the north and west pick up the sun. Eventually the light starts to shine across the far end of the playa and works its was towards the south end. Finally, in full sun many subtle rock tracks become visible and the Playa takes on a more stark appearance. Then it becomes too bright and too hot to continue.

I headed back to the car, packed up, and made the two hour return drive to Ubehebe Crater and then stopped at Scotty’s Castle to eat lunch on the shaded lawn there. I more or less made a decision to head back to Texas Springs, but having quite a bit of time to get there I made a number of stops on the way. I visited several places I had passed by previously, including the mouth of Titus Canyon and Salt Creek, where the thousands of pupfish were swimming madly in the shallow water. I got my campsite at Texas Spring, ate dinner, and did a brief jaunt down to Artist Drive, getting there just in time to shoot an interesting rock formation before losing the light. I headed back to Furnace Creek and had a chance to see the “American’s Best Idea” photography exhibit, featuring photographs from al 58 national parks. Before going back to Texas Springs I tried to photograph Zabriskie Point under moonlight, though a strong wind made it difficult.

– After getting up early and photographing at Zabriskie Point one more time, I went back and broke camp and started to make my way out of the Valley. I did stop to visit Mosaic Canyon, taking long enough to hike up to the first big bend in the slot canyon and take a few pictures before returning to my car and starting the long drive home. Funny moment: As I was setting up to take a photo looking back down the canyon a woman in a group from American River College started to upbraid me for taking unnecessary risks. I decided that she probably meant well – even though she was way out of line – so I just made a friendly reply and went about my business.

I headed out via Hiway 190 to Owens Valley and Hiway 395. Although I knew already that this has been a poor snow year in the Sierra, I was somewhat stunned by the extremely thin snowpack in the southern part of the range. After a stop in Bishop for my first espresso in several days, I continued north, eventually crossing the Sierra via Monitor and Carson Passes.


April 7, 2007 - Posted by | Trips

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: