With names of iconic locations like Badwater, Funeral Mountain, the Devil’s Golf Course, and Death right in the name of the parkland, it’s clear that this landscape on the California/Nevada state line was a torment to early visitors. As well prepared travelers, the only torment for us was that we did not have more time to stay and explore it.
Death Valley National Park is a place as full-of-life as one could imagine. Singing sand dunes, salt flats displaying mathematical shapes, colorful badlands, ancient lake-beds with sailing stones, salinic creeks thriving with tiny fish, fields drenched with colorful wildflowers…. runners, bikers, hikers, photographers, stargazers, American-history lovers, birdwatchers, scientists, artists, locals, park rangers, explorers on the open road—it’s all very much alive.
It would be insane to try to describe this park as a whole unit because each iconic site—and there are many that truly earn that distinction—is so different from the next. In that spirit, we decided for this article to focus on what we feel is the Best of, encapsulating both the experience and photographic opportunities. We hope some of our findings will help travelers and photographers in some small way when planning future visits to Death Valley.
The Racetrack at “La Playa” (the beach) is home to the “sailing stones”—large boulders that move with the elements leaving a track on the dried up ancient lake bed. For a very long time, the movement of the rocks was a mystery to scientists. Research has since shown that it is the combination of wind, rain, and other effects that set the rocks into motion.
The rugged road out to the Racetrack from Ubehebe Crater is only 26 miles, but it will take you about two hours to get there. High clearance vehicles are essential, and not one, but two spare tires are recommended. Once you arrive, we recommend driving about one mile beyond the first trailhead where from a short walk toward the mountain will lead you to the highest concentration of stones. This is a bucket-listed shooting destination for many photographers.
At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater is the lowest point in the United States. This fun fact along with its ease of exploring makes it one of the most visited sites in Death Valley. Just steps from the parking lot you can have your photo taken at the ‘lowest point’ sign before venturing out onto a flatland salt flat that lays white on the horizon. If you are lucky, you will see hexagonal shapes in the flat (depicted in the most famous pictures of the area.) These hexagons occur in various places and are a result of rain and intense heat—usually found in the dead of summer (pun intended.) We walked for miles and only found subtle shaping in the landscape. Even without the coveted geometry, there are really cool textured foregrounds to capture and the shimmering white line on the horizon adds yet another layer to an already complex topography.
This high-elevation viewpoint is the most visited site in the park—because of its beauty and because access is easy; just a few miles driving up a well-paved road into a parking lot and you will stand upon what is arguably the best overlook view in the park. Elevation is 5,487 feet and therefor bitter cold and windy, (at least it was when we visited,) but having the ability to capture the sunrise burst on one side of the lot and soft gradient pink and blue skies over the valley on the other, packs a lot of punch in terms of capturing a variety of cool photos in a short amount of time.
Artist’s Drive and Artist’s Palette
This is Stefanie’s favorite place in the park. Artist’s Drive is a 9-mile scenic driving loop winding through mountains that look as though they were painted on canvas with an old brush. Artist’s Palette, about 2/3 of the way through, is a concentrated area of oxidized rock that bursts with colors of gold, purple, green, and red, created by iron, mica, and manganese. Late afternoon, but before the golden hour, is the best time to photograph this spot. Sunset is too late as it casts too many shadows, and sunrise and daytime light washes out the vibrant color. We went around 3pm and the light was perfect. If not after the shot, just strap on your boots and wander into the surreal landscape. It is absolutely surreal what nature can do!
This is Jonathan’s favorite sunrise spot and he sampled them all! Zabriskie Point overlooks dramatic badlands painted in texture and colorful geometrics that seem to twist and illuminate with every shift of the sun. Early morning hikers heading out lend an exceptional perspective of scale bit static and in motion… the whole scene is really fun to photograph. Most people stand and shoot at the dedicated viewpoint, and many photographers get set up at the ridge just below it (see right) for an unobstructed view. This iconic spot is only 7 miles from Furnace Creek lodging and camping and up a small hill, making it easy to get to during those early morning hours.
Devil’s Golf Course
Not far from Badwater is Devil’s Golf Course, a place that makes you feel as though you are on a different planet or on an asteroid or something. It’s very strange to look at, and strange to photograph as well. The rock salt floor is sharp as jagged teeth (even for die hard flip floppers, which we both are, shoes are a must.) This must be one of the roughest landscapes on this planet and as such, is pretty darn mesmerizing. While the bumpy floor provides a really cool foreground for wide landscape shots, you could get lost for hours just pointing your camera straight to the ground and photographing intricate textures on this menacing landscape.
Rhyolite Ghost Town, Nevada
Most of Death Valley is located in California. However, if you hop in the car and drive about an hour to the eastern edge of the park, you’ll find yourself in the Nevada ghost town of Rhyolite. The town rose and fell quickly in population—in a matter of 15 years it grew from zero to several of thousands of people and back down to zero by 1920 when it became a tourist destination as a ghost town. It has also been used as a set for movie productions. Visiting Rhyolite is really cool way to explore a different shade of the park (and another state as well) and there are some epic long highway shots to be found as you make your way back to California’s Death Valley.
The rare “Superbloom”
When we heard that the rare desert superbloom was underway at Death Valley, we scratched our previously planned route and b-lined it to California, where we found the landscape washed in yellow, purple, pink and white wildflowers. The last superbloom in Death Valley was in 2005, so we felt that it was our duty to get there! This spring phenomenon is a result of consistent heavy rainfall occurring the autumn prior. A beautiful, unique add to an already incredible landscape, and a special gift to Jon for his birthday!