March 20-22, 2011 Death Valley Safari

This safari proved a challenge in beating the weather and still coming away with incredible images.  We faced rain in the valley, sleet in the foothills, and snow at the higher elevations of the Panamint Mountains.  The weather would continually cycle through high winds, broken clouds, and occasional sun.  But with the adverse weather came opportunities to shoot many of Death Valley great landscapes with breathtaking cloud formations in the sky.

Mesquite Dunes at Sunset

We were fortunate to get moments of beautiful light, such as the image above taken at sunset on Mesquite Dunes.  The light was intermittent until just the last couple of minutes before the sun dipped below the horizon.  There are always a lot of people hiking around these dunes and finding untraveled ridges is difficult.   While you can remove people from the sand dunes, removing their trails is much more difficult to do – so I tend to try and find more remote dunes without tracks and trails.

Sunset on Mesquite Dunes

The Park Service had recently graded the awful, bone-jarring 28 mile long dirt road out to the Racetrack, a playa lake known for its “skating” rocks.  On our trip out there we passed through the Joshua Tree forest near the pass, and on past Tea Kettle Junction, with its reflective collection of tea kettles.  Unlike the severe clear blue skies on previous trips, this time shooting at the racetrack was enhanced by dark storm clouds and distant lightning.

Skating Rock at the Racetrack.

There is something about those movement patterns on the playa that draws me back to the Racetrack every year.  I don’t know how often the rocks move, though I do know the playa is wet and the weather windy to move them – and I guess I come back each year expecting to find some new and amazing curves.  This year the trails seemed to overlap a lot, though, to be honest, maybe they hadn’t even moved from last year.  But light and position make everything seem new again.

Skating Rocks at the Racetrack. Notice the dust devil at the north end of the playa.

There are other interesting subjects on the playa – from pieces of broken sagebrush to black beetles walking along.  The intricate pattern of the playa and it’s cracked surface is almost mesmerizing – each cell different, yet when looked at as a whole lake, so amazingly similar.  Parts of the playa about a half mile from the parking area are covered in rocks that have tumbled off the nearby cliffs, while the further away you walk the fewer rocks and trails are evident.

Sagebrush on the playa of the Racetrack.

We spent a great deal of time exploring areas I hadn’t shot much in before.  Allen Round and I stumbled into the main mining complex at Skidoo.  We followed a narrow dirt road past the completely run down ghost town of Skidoo.  After photographing an old rusted car we were about to drive away when I saw a sign on a closed gate near where we had parked.  On a whim I walked over to the gate and read the sign pointing out the mining complex just around the curve of the mountain.  We walked a hundred yards and came upon the main Skidoo mining complex ruins blanketed by the recent snow storm.  If I hadn’t stopped to read the sign we would have missed the mining ruins.

One of the Skidoo Mining Buildings.

Rock formations abound in Death Valley.  The Golden Canyon, Panamint Mountains, Black Mountain and the Bad Water area, Mosaic Canyon, Zabriskie Point, and Artist’s Point – and literally hundreds of other spots offer landscape views of geologic history.  We stopped near the Golden Canyon and hiked south, and then east into the foothills.  Golden cap rock had collapsed and fallen into the mushy, ash colored and aerated ancient mud soil.  My deep footprints would be visible until the next rain washed them away.

Erosion near the Golden Canyon.

Our last sunrise shoot was at Zabriskie Point.  Views to the Panamint mountains to the west and their snow covered peaks and ridges were awesome.  But its hard to look past the folded hills of erosion at Zabriskie Point.  From Manly Beacon, a small pointed elevation on the right (northwest) side of Zabriskie Point, to the eroded hills on the left, the light played shadows across the hills – a truly remarkable sight.

Zabriskie Point view at sunrise.

Death Valley was another great shoot this year.  I found a few new locations (like the Skidoo mine site), shot some new flowers and dune landscapes, but had some traditional locations improved by the amazing clouds.

Storm Clouds over Death Valley National Park.

About brentrpaull

Professional Photographer
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