Death Valley 2021 Trip Report

By Todd W. Pierce on Jan 05, 2022

There are places on this planet of ours that evoke a palpable sense of wonder—where the forces of nature are revealed in full view. To be honest, I didn’t think Death Valley National Park would be one of those places. Maybe it’s the name that makes it sound dead, boring, barren, and forsaken. Even the headline on the National Park Service website oversimplifies it as the “Hottest, Driest and Lowest National Park”. That doesn’t sound very exciting, does it?
JVO Photo Safaris had last run this trip a decade ago. Now I was co-leading the trip for the first time with Eric Rock who has had lots of trip-leading experience there. Although I did a lot of homework leading up to the tour, I hadn’t experienced it firsthand. To my delight, my lukewarm preconceptions of the place evaporated in the first few hours within this magical desert landscape. So, if you haven’t been there, throw your assumptions out the window. If you have been there, but not with JVO Photo Safaris, throw your previous experience out the window too. Like all JVO Photo Safaris, this tour was tailored from the ground up to see, feel and photograph the park in a whole new light, or in some cases the dark, or someplace in between.

Light shapes the land on an hourly basis here as much as the wind and water has sculpted it over eons. Our best light was often twilight when the palette was both soft yet vivid, or at the intersections of sun and shadow where the features of the landscape became more 3-dimensional. Our first couple days were bestowed with a thin veil of wispy, brushed-stroked high altitude cirrus clouds that provided drama, texture, and color to the expansive sky. On the first day, the clouds were set alight in orange and crimson from the setting sun.
Visiting the park in early winter has several advantages: the low angle of the sun during the course of the day is more favorable to photography, the temperatures are survivable compared to the summer months when you can cook a steak on the salt pans on the valley floor. There’s a better chance for mixed clouds, sporadic rain showers and perhaps even a little snow at the highest elevations. And finally, the short days are conducive to a more humane schedule as well!
If you’re interested in geology, this place is like a candy store. If you’re not that much into geology, you will be by the end of the week. With no vegetation to obscure the artistry of eternal natural forces, it’s so easy to start “geeking out” on rocks, minerals, layers, sediments, erratics, and angles of repose. By the end of it, I felt like wearing a plaid shirt with a pen protector to better suit my rediscovered geologist self.

The adage that “less is more” applies here in spades. In the absence of vegetation and other visual clutter—where earth and sky are the only subjects—the more you look, the more you see. Abstracts, angles, and patterns are prime ingredients for both color and black & white interpretations. And in the chaos of the present era, I found this simplicity —this negative space—very therapeutic.

Ironically, rain plays the largest role in shaping this rocky, sandy, and salty Mars-like environment. Although the mountains exude a dominant permanence with their mass and scale, they seem to crumble easily under the rains of winter. At their base, expansive alluvial fans spread out into the valley floor, containing pebbles and boulders of every size, color, and type representing all the ancient layers above.

We visited many of the park’s highlights during the week, including Badwater Basin, Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point, Artists Palette, and the Mesquite Sand Dunes, but we also discovered many treasures off the beaten path as well.
At Badwater, we walked about a mile out onto the salt pan in search of the iconic hexagonal shapes that form naturally as salt crystals are shifted about during the rainy season. Later that afternoon, we drove up to Dante’s View along the crest of the southern Amargosa Range that has near 360 commanding views of the Greenwater Range to the east, the Panamint Range to the west, and below, the entire stretch of Death Valley itself. The lack of scale became most evident when we looked straight down from the viewpoint onto Badwater Basin over 5600 feet below. The mile we had walked to the salt flat looked like only an inch from that perspective.
Another favorite location was the Mesquite Sand Dunes, where prevailing winds have swept fine sediments together over thousands of years. To make these low-angle, sculptural dunes come to life “on film”, you also need low angle light. And given its one of the more popular locations in the park, you also need to know where to go to get pristine dunes not marred by footsteps that can persist for weeks in the absence of sufficient wind.
To accomplish this, one morning we began our mile-long walk with headlamps, under the stars. As twilight rose from the east, we began to hone in on an area that began to reveal beautiful ripples and patterns. As the sun broke over the horizon, it graced the dunes with golden skim light while bestowing a welcome warmth on the surface of our puffy jackets. Time stood still that morning as we got lost in the creative process, carefully making our way from dune to dune as to not make tracks in the wrong places.
Death Valley is also the kind of place where you need to get out of the car and wander around to discover its hidden treasures. Once on foot, you can find pockets of photogenic possibilities and mesmerizing details you just can’t see through a windshield. One of our favorites was located adjacent to the main paved road—a shallow, side wash that contained beautiful, dried mud patterns, rocky monoliths, and sandy soil as smooth as a parking lot. In this little wash hidden from view off the main highway, we expected the Mars Rover to come rolling around the corner, looking completely at home.

Visions of science fiction movies kept popping up during the week. As we walked up the axis of Golden 
Canyon, it would be easy to imagine the Sand People of the original Star Wars movie peeking out of any one of the side alleys with their glowing eyes. Thankfully, throughout the week, we didn’t encounter any Sand People, nor many people at all. There are always higher concentrations of visitors, but many times we had our locations largely or completely to ourselves.
On the last day as we coasted down the final stretch of highway with Las Vegas emerging in the distance ahead, another famous Star Wars quote came to mind, when Obi-Wan Kenobi was standing on a cliff with Luke Skywalker looking down on Mos Eisley Spaceport and said, "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”
Ironically, I think we all felt the pull of Death Valley’s spell yanking us back.
Although Death Valley National Park feels like a different planet at times, it’s really an unparalleled experience of discovering the beauty and wonder of our own.