It was 2003, I believe, when I first heard of the Eureka Dunes. I was working on my Great Sand Dunes article doing research and I wanted to see how the Eureka looked in height comparison to the Great Sand Dunes here in Colorado, and of course, I wanted to photograph them. All landscape photographers like shooting dunes! Seeing pictures of the area online definitely drew me into other ares of Death Valley as well. It was 2005 when I started getting the bug to really want to visit when all kinds of pictures were popping up after it received record rainfall during the months prior, and then one of those subsequent hundred-year wildflower displays that March. I probably could've packed up on a whim easily enough, but I hadn't researched the area enough by this point to know where all to see on a trip. I knew this was the time of year to go even knowing the flowers weren't going to be as good as 2005. It finally went on my schedule for March, 2008. The main locations I wanted to shoot, and wanted good pictures of, were the salt rings at Badwater, the Mesquite Flat sand dunes at Stovepipe Wells, the Racetrack, and the aforementioned Eureka Dunes. Of course, since I'd be out there, the other must-see was Mt. Whitney. Might as well do Yosemite if I have the time as well. Anything else I would see on the trip would be bonus, but I would allow for multiple sunrise/sunset attempts at some of these locations to get what I was after, so I allotted two weeks.
I left work on a Friday night and camped along the San Rafael Swell in eastern Utah near Green River, about six hours from Denver. This is really the first spot along I-70 that offers a good sunrise opportunity and knocks a chunk of distance off the driving route, so it was ideal. The following morning, I left San Rafael Swell around 7:30, drove through Las Vegas where I filled up my newly acquired fuel cans for this trip, then cut to the northwest before entering the park around 4:15.
Upon entering the park, I took the quick one-way drive through Twenty Mule Team Canyon before dropping into Death Valley proper and to the Furnace Creek visitor center. After a visit inside looking at pictures to gather final inspiration and ideas before my own venture, I had lunch in the parking lot, then took the short drive south to one of the areas I was looking forward to shooting most—Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the country. I walked one mile out to where the picturesque salt rings start to get defined. I find it a pretty neat area and I have never walked on endless level ground like this. It is very different and virtually impossible to gauge distance. It feels like you don't make any progress as you walk along. While I got some pictures I really liked, the skies were clear, so I knew I wanted another sunset opportunity.
I shot sunrise at Badwater again, but the effort was feeble as there was no color, then by the time the sun crests the closer Black Mountains to the east, the light is way too harsh. Since I was going to shoot here again for sunset, I had the day to kill. Time to explore around this southern end of the park. I drove 27 miles south to get onto the West Side Road, which goes on the, you guessed it, west side of the valley and loops back around. To accommodate the explorer in me, I had to take at least one side road, and I decided on Johnson Canyon, mostly hoping that it would provide some up-close views of Telescope Peak towards its end, but it only has a view from the valley. I took the road until it came to a dead end and went back out. I didn't find it that scenic, but still enjoyed the drive all the same. Speaking of Telescope Peak, it was something that I was very interested in seeing prior to the trip as well. It tops out at 11,050 feet, only thirteen miles from Badwater Basin. That is a crazy elevation relief. I was curious how dominating it was going to look in person, especially since in all the pictures I have seen it looks like a standard mountain. Oddly, in person, it looked much the same as it does in pictures; you would never know (at least I wouldn't) that there is an 11,000-foot difference. It looks like it should be about half of that.
I made it back around to the Badwater parking lot and had some colorful clouds this time around for sunset, so I checked this spot off my photo list for the trip. Very cool place (at least not in midday!). After I got back to the parking lot, I drove 45 miles north through the valley to Stovepipe Wells, where I stayed in the area overnight for quick access to its dunes in the morning.
Day 3 & 4
Morning came and I walked a somewhat short distance out onto the dunes. I knew the dunes see a lot of traffic based on their proximity to the road and the settlement that is Stovepipe Wells, and that was confirmed when I saw all kinds of footprints in the sand. It was difficult finding any kind of decent composition without them, including distant telephoto shots of the tallest dunes. It was a bit depressing, but I made do. I'm sure there is less foot traffic the further back you go, but not having had time to scout the area previously and not wanting to walk a great distance this time around, I settled on one of the first major ridges. I wanted to return later in the trip to have another try as well.
After all of the warm light was gone, I started north up the road to head to the Racetrack. Probably within ten miles, my 4Runner started producing a sound that seemed to be coming from the wheels or driveshaft, as it seemed to only occur at one spot in something's rotation. It didn't sound great, and was a bit disconcerting given the area. I wasn't concerned about being able to get help as the highway gets some traffic, but more than anything, I didn't want to be wasting vacation time for a repair. I got out and checked underneath, but didn't see anything abnormal. I drove further at a slow speed with my head out trying to make better sense of where the noise was stemming from. Got out again. Nothing. I drove up to 65 MPH and it eventually faded away never to be heard from again.
I reached the Ubehebe Crater area where the dirt road and washboards start. I had read that this road has washboards, but good grief! These were the king of all washboards, and more like full-grown mountain ranges! And these did not cover just a short stretch of the road; I'm talking pretty much all of the 27-mile duration to the Racetrack! It was almost still painful even on eight pounds of pressure in the tires. I cannot imagine why or how people stand to drive this on street pressure, or how vehicles can take it. The low tire pressure still helped immensely and I was able to cruise along at a rather blistering 30-35 MPH pace. I passed one vehicle at the start that was going about 10 MPH. I arrived at the Racetrack and proceeded to the southern end and looked for a place I could camp for the night. I generally waited around until late afternoon came before I walked a half-mile out on the southern end to where the biggest concentration of rock trails are. Rock trails, you ask? If you've not heard of this place before, that is indeed why this is called the Racetrack Playa—the rocks move and leave trails. A brief explanation is provided on a park sign in the picture portion of this report.
I shot sunrise the following day, hung out doing a lot of nothing, and went out again for sunset. After sunset, I headed down the somewhat steep road immediately southwest out of the Racetrack and into the Saline Valley where I would need to find a suitable campsite in the dark. I ended up using the pullout at the start of the Steel Pass road.
I wake up for sunrise and start up the Steel Pass road which drops right into the Eureka Dunes on the north side and in the northern reaches of the park. The very short rocky canyon section on the north side gives the route its 4WD designation. This section was a little fun, but there wasn't much to it at all. Before long, the dunes come into view. It was very cool to finally arrive at this place that was my first interest in the park. As I knew going into it, they are a narrow 3.5x1-mile strip of sand, and the second-highest dunes in North America behind Colorado's Great Sand Dunes. Eureka's tallest dune reaches 680 feet where Great Sand Dune's Star Dune is 750. Eureka's tallest still didn't look nearly as tall as GSD's High Dune (650 feet) to me, though certainly still impressive. I went up out on the northern end of the dunes for sunset, then camped along the eastern side on a pullout.
The following morning I took this eastern approach in the middle of the dune field for sunrise. After a nice sunrise shoot on the dunes, it was time to go see Mt. Whitney and the Sierra Nevada. I felt I got enough of what I wanted picture-wise from my two attempts on the dunes even though sand dunes provide endless picture possibilities. The Sierras first came into view along Death Valley Road not too far east out of Big Pine. They were snowcapped and quite impressive. They got even more impressive the further down the valley I got as the views expanded to the south along the range. Once out to the highway, I headed south to Lone Pine where I arrived around 3:30. Mt. Whitney and Lone Pine Peak were pretty much like I expected them to be, given the endless online pictures from this area. Still, it was great to finally land in this place to visit for myself. On up Whitney Portal Road, I drove the Alabama Hills road network, which provides a bunch of wonderful free and scenic camping opportunities with all the rock outcroppings. I then drove the rest of the way up Whitney Portal Road until where it was gated for the winter to check the angles up to Whitney. I figured I'd shoot along the portal road for sunrise, then on the second morning from the Alabama Hills.
Sunrise came and I didn't have any clouds over Whitney, but still had tremendous alpenglow. There were, however, tremendously colorful clouds stretching from the northeast to the southeast. Within an hour of sunrise, the light was amazingly harsh and the mountains went from a saturated orange to bleached white just like that. I spent the entire day in the Alabama Hills. I walked a couple of the short trails that lead to arches, but spent most of the day resting and doing a lot of nothing. Sure, I could've gone into Lone Pine and maybe visited some shops, but that's not my style. I usually just keep to myself and keep things quiet, even at the expense of being bored at times. There were some clouds over the peaks come sunset, but they never turned colors. There must've been ones further to the west that prevented the sun from hitting them, but it seemed like it was pretty close to getting lit up.
Another morning with cloudless skies over Whitney came, and although I could've stayed for a third morning, I felt the urge to move on to Yosemite instead of sitting around for another full day. I knew I could always stop back by on my way back around before I headed back into Death Valley. So, I started the big drive. I especially enjoyed the views to the south of Mt. Tom and all the other peaks prior to the Crowley Lake exit on 395 out of Bishop. There were some incredible looking mountains. If and when I ever make it back out this time of year, I would definitely have to reserve some time around this area in the future. I knew the drive around to Yosemite was going to be long, but I didn't anticipate it was going to take as long as it did. I finally arrived in the late afternoon but didn't shoot anything at sunset. I ended up finding a place to pull off the road a little ways outside of the park that would provide close enough access for sunrise.
I didn't take any pictures in the morning and waited for the afternoon. I was waiting around at Tunnel View in the late afternoon when I hopped out of the 4Runner when there was a lull in the crowds, then set up at the main overlook at a plot of land big enough for three people to shoot with the clearest view of the valley where you wouldn't get tree branches in the frame (they've since cut down the offending trees on either side). I took the center spot that allowed for the widest angle. It was not fun being there with all the tourists, but I managed to live somehow. I definitely didn't want to go through that again, though. The skies were painfully clear at sunset and I hoped the next night would be better.
The next morning, I arrived at a parking lot near Yosemite Village perhaps around 6:00, and already the traffic was nuts streaming in. It must have mostly been park employees, but man, there were a lot of them going by heading to the village. After the sunrise shoot of Lower Yosemite Falls, I didn't do much of anything and spent most of the day hanging out at one of the Tunnel View lots again waiting for sunset. As late afternoon arrived, I hiked up the Inspiration Point trail a ways to get away from the crowds at the overlook and to gain an even less obstructed view looking down the valley. I had some decent clouds to play with prior to sunset, but they didn't stay around to turn colors.
I camped where I stayed the previous two nights outside of the park, but never shot anything for sunrise on the third morning as there wasn't a whole lot else to shoot this time of day based on how little was open. With having bare skies again, I just decided to head out. I made the long drive around the southern end of the Sierras through Fresno and Bakersfield and ended up camping a little ways up out of Big Pine to be in position for sunrise.
It was mostly overcast and the sun never lit the Sierras at sunrise. I then drove back into Death Valley past where I previously came out from the Eureka Dunes, cut southeast at Crankshaft Junction and went back into the Racetrack for one more sunset and sunrise attempt. This would mean braving those wonderful washboards again! For sunset, I wanted to shoot a seldom-seen overview of the Racetrack playa that I thought about trying the last time. I walked up a hill to gain elevation to be able to see the whole playa and enjoyed the quiet evening.
After shooting the rocks at sunrise, I headed back out for Stovepipe. Since I had some time to kill, it was time to check another new area out—Aguereberry Point. After I took a few snaps from up there, I headed back down the mountain to Stovepipe where I wanted to shoot the dunes again for sunset. The temperatures were warm during my first tenure in the park, but this day was borderline hot and in the lower to mid-90s, something this mountain man is not used to in March! Combined with the draining temperatures that I never experience on trips and having shot everything I was after, I knew I was done in Death Valley, and made my mind up that I would head out in the morning. I enjoyed the nice evening and sunset out on the dunes, even amongst all the footprints. At least I was prepared for them this time and knew what to expect. After the final colors of the earth's shadow faded, I headed to a side road just past Zabriskie Point for the night, which would put me in good position to shoot there in the morning.
I shot another clear-sky sunrise at Zabriskie Point, a place that wasn't a spot that I really cared to shoot going into the trip. Even though this place is perhaps the most photographed spot in the park, the scene doesn't do a whole lot for me, at least in pictures. Still, since I was here and out of ideas of other places to shoot in cloudless conditions, I figured I'd give it a try. I joined about 15-20 other photographers, but thankfully, we were all spread out pretty good, so that aspect wasn't too bothersome. It was now time to leave and head to Utah, but where exactly I didn't know yet. I definitely enjoyed my first experience in Death Valley. Unfortunately, I only photographed at its iconic spots and did not come away with any unique efforts or anything too compelling. I definitely wanted to try shooting other scenes, but nothing else spoke to me in the cloudless conditions. Maybe it would've been different if I had some clouds to work with. That's okay, I came for what I was after and I can always return easily enough if I choose to. I never did shoot a single flower, though there were very few that were out, and none in locations I came across that I felt was worth shooting. It's nice to be able to say "I've been there" and good to know the lay of the land for future reference.
I made it back in Utah via the same way I came out, and I figured I'd stay in Zion through sunrise. I thought (free) camping was going to be a bit easier to come by, but I ended up parking in a motel parking lot.
I had decided to shoot the Towers of the Virgin the night before from the visitor center porch. Never having really spent much time here, and even after the quick drive through the park the day before, I figured this would provide as good as a scene as any for this time of day. There wasn't a cloud to be had yet again, and my results were just as plain! I headed out of the park and headed for Capitol Reef National Park for the final night.
Until this time, I had only cut through Capitol Reef on the highway and never photographed here. I headed for Cathedral Valley where I would plan to shoot Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon formations on the northern end of the park. By the time I got to the park, the skies were overcast and actually a darker blue-gray immediately to the west, which really looked nice against the red Bentonite Hills. Then, as I got to the overlooks before Hartnet Junction, there were some snow flurries. They were short-lived and disappeared by the time I descended into Cathedral Valley. I was treated to wonderful warm light with gray clouds at sunset as I photographed the two rock formations. I camped here for the night to shoot them again at sunrise. The final morning was total overcast, so I made the drive for home.