On every workshop, Death Valley never fails to reveal something old new again. Whether it’s the shape of the dunes or the light that falls around them. It is always a worthwhile photographic adventure year after year. As for all workshops, I like to arrive about a week early to scout out the locations that might have changed or discover something new. It is why I like to keep the itinerary open for my workshops. Floods can change canyons and even the salt pans below them. Flowers that bloomed last year in a certain place may not bloom this year so one must find this year new bloom location. Only by scouting the park can you find what and where it’s all happening and it’s a big park so it’s impossible to cover it all and put it all into a five day workshop- but I try!
Zabriskie Point has always been the first day’s shoot as it is located just a few miles from base camp at Furnace Creek. Close enough so attendees can sleep relatively late about an hour before sunrise on our first day as the sun rises later in winter than summer- and sets earlier too! A close location also means a real breakfast buffet style back in Furnace Creek before we take off on what might be a long day of shooting. This year the park decided to remodel Zabriskie Point with better access for handicapped people and rest benches, but as most government reconstruction jobs this one’s scheduling ran well past its completion date to sadly overlap our workshop. The closure forced me to scout out another location to photograph the impressive Manly Beacon. I decided on an overlook from the top of the badland ridges high above Twenty Mule Team Canyon that gave us wonderful rounded contours in our foreground to contrast with the famous peak!
|Manly Beacon from Badland's View|
This was a very good year for winter storms as several showered the valley floor with an abundance of moisture not seen in many years. As I scouted several canyon washes, I could see patches of green sprouts carpet the hills, washes and flats. My only hope was that I was not too late or early for the plants to synchronize their bloom with the workshop happening next week. The timing has to be just right. This year it looked like we were going to hit a jackpot. It turned out to be one of the best blooms in many years!
|Desert Sand Verbena|
Badwater, It is a name that conjures up death for which the valley was named. A forbidding Valley that settlers or gold diggers seeking the wealth of California made the lethal mistake of missing the last trail signs directing them away. Once, they traveled down the canyons, they were essentially dead as no potable water would be found to quench the thirst on the long journey out. If by luck they made it to the lowest point on the northern hemisphere here at Badwater they found an abundance of water poisonous enough to kill them and their stock animals. Few escaped once they made it to here in Death Valley! Today, we travel here in air conditioned cars stocked with cold water, beverages and snacks to photograph one of the few places that can reflect the sunset!
When most people think of Death Valley, they imagine a desert land of sand dunes. Actually, sand covers little of the land. Instead of finding it were we imagination wants us to believe, it is found on rising lands near the edges. Where the prevailing winds are funneled into stronger gusts as it moves higher up a slope or through a valley or canyon that narrows and squeezes the wind. The wind's velocity drives the sand and dust until the wind slows as the contours widen dropping it's load. After time, they form dunes from directional changing winds pushing back and forth piling up. Mesquite Dunes is one of those places where the valley rises then widens. It is also an easy dune to access as we can drive right to them. Here we find contours, ripples and crests to compose our great desert sand dune images!
Ubehebe Crater is our first stop on the way to Devil’s Racetrack playa. Its colorful walls of baked clays range from reddish to orange and contrast beautifully against the black ash deposits and blue skies. These were formed not from a lava volcano but from a steam explosion (phreatic eruption) and the area has several craters. Black ash covers the surrounding area for 15 square miles creates a beautiful moon like backdrop.
As we move up in elevation on the road to the racetrack, we see a change in vegetation from the Creosote and Saltbush of the bottom, we begin to see succulents such as Fishhook, Cottontop Barrel, Beavertail cactus and Silver Cholla, and make out way into the strangest forest called the Joshua Tree Zone. Joshua Trees are not true trees nor are they some form of cactus but weirdly related to the Lily Family of plants!
|Joshua Tree Forest|
One of the great oddities of Death Valley is Tea Kettle Junction. No one knows its true history or meaning except that a tea kettle was found at this junction. Some believe it was a sign that water lies nearby but no water can be found in this vicinity. As time went by, backcountry 4x4’er, would leave notes in the pot for friends on their whereabouts. When I first visited this location back in 1989, there was only a few pots on the sign with the original tea pot lying on the ground alone. Year after year, more and more people added their own pot and today there are way too many making it Death Valley’s weirdest sight!
|Tea Kettle Junction|
Devil’s Racetrack was once of a mysterious place where rocks move across the dry lake. No one ever has seen them move! We had only known so because of the tracks they had left behind. Some people hypothesized that strong winds pushed them over slick wet mud but no one could explain why there was no pile of mud pushed up in front of them or that the wind would have had to be upwards of over 80 miles per hour! Today’s theoretical explanations seem more plausible, water from winter rains fill the lake up to several inches, then freeze over it during the night. When strong winds begin to push the ice, as it does on many lakes, such as the great lakes, the ice forms enough force to push objects over the slick playa. As the ice still has water under it, the rocks do not push into the mud but just streaks the surface of it. Some rocks are lifted above the mud to be deposited hundreds of feet away or even land right in the tracks of another rock many times larger thinking that someone must have picked them up and dropped them in the larger track. No matter which theory you subscribe to, the moving rocks of Devil’s Racetrack are a photo phenomenon highlight of the workshop!
Scotty’s Castle was a tourist trap of the 19th Century in the making and we make it a stop on our way back to Furnace Creek from Devils Racetrack. Chicago millionaire, Albert Mussey Johnson built the villa for his wife, it is a beautiful two-story Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival style villa located in the Grapevine Mountains of northern Death Valley in Death Valley National Park, California. "Scotty's Castle" as it became known as, was named for gold prospector called Walter E. Scott also known as Death Valley Scotty. He was a man of tall tales. Much of them was selling holdings in Death Valley. Mussey was taken by this gold mine investor scam artist that he forgave him. Scott never or lived in the castle but in a modest ranch home, also owned by Johnson, just few miles away near Grapevine Spring. Scotty's job was to greet and entertain guests with his tall tales of Death Valley. Today, the Castle is owned and maintained by the national park.
Jubilee Pass is an overlooked area of most workshops as it lies far south of Badwater and requires a long day to include it. It is not every year that I lead a tour into this area. Here lies a wealth of oddly shaped wind erosion arches, caves and hollows that make compelling subject not found in other areas of the park
If you are interested in taking a Death Valley Workshop with me please visit this page and sign up early as it's one of the most popular tours. I'd be happy if you made it to Death Valley along with me!
Death Valley National Park Photography Workshop
Death Valley National Park Photography Workshop