There are places on this planet which are hot. And, there are places where with scorching heat. There are even places that are below sea level. And then there is Death Valley National Park, which is all of these places and more. Along with this harsh environment, however, there are also wonders to be found.
California’s Death Valley National Park is isolated and remote, far from anywhere. Perhaps because of its remoteness, the valley has a certain timelessness to it, and it is easy to forget the modern world while you are there. The valley exists today as it always has, and always will. The landscape is arid and barren, for life is an effort here in one of the harshest environments anywhere. And indeed, its early history is one of struggle and perseverance as the early settlers and 49ers found out as they crossed through here in the mid-1800s.
Vegetation is sparse, at best, leaving a landscape comprised solely of sand and rocks. Winds howl through the valley, further drying it out, and the searing summer heat parches the unwary. The desolation is endless, even as you climb out of the valley and into the surrounding mountains. Although there are some low bushes and shrubs in the hills, and even trees at the higher elevations, you are still in a desert environment. Water remains precious and not easily found, and the summer heat is formidable.
Death Valley possesses the lowest spot in North America, Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level. Being in Badwater Basin doesn’t feel any different than being at sea level, except in the summer when the temperature routinely tops 120 degrees and has a record temperature of 134 degrees. That’s hot! It is the kind of heat that hits you like a blast oven and can easily overwhelm you before you even realize what is happening. The experience of being here, in the lowest place on the continent, is a powerful and moving one.
But yet, beauty is everywhere. Even in this harsh environment, there are soaring landscapes and amazing scenes. From sweeping panoramas to intimate moments, Death Valley is a photographer’s wonderland. Looking up at the surrounding mountains while you are in the valley is spectacular. The mountains meet the valley floor in a sharp line, making a dramatic transition. Although there aren’t any sheer cliffs, the mountainsides are steep and unforgiving, and most of all, imposing. Looking down at the valley from up above is equally inspiring, and we’ll see that view in detail at Zabriskie Point in just a bit.
But first, let’s stop at Artist’s Pallete. This area is renowned for its uniquely colored slopes. The jagged hillside is composed of unusual and unexpected colors and jumbled together. Turquoises and purples, oranges, greens, and blues are everywhere, and it does indeed look like a colossal pallet. Metals have oxidized the soil, creating a very different landscape. Instead of the mounds being a jumble of color as you might expect, each has a unique color, creating the pallet effect when seen from afar.
It was very wild to make my way through the purple sand to the top of a low hill to make this photograph. Every step I took, I kept looking down, wondering if I would see brown beneath my feet. I never did. On the other side of the purple hill was a green one, which I also dutifully scaled. All around me, colors assailed my senses, and Artist’s Pallet has left a long-lasting impression on me. I’ve never seen this to this degree anywhere else.
Badwater Basin is another highlight of Death Valley. Here, there is, amazingly, water. It just isn’t drinkable water. Instead, it is salty and bitter and undrinkable even to the most desperate. What makes this area unique, however, is the massive salt flat, miles upon miles across, completely unbroken almost as far as the eye can see. I made this photograph after walking a mile out on the salt flat. Even at that, it felt as if the far side was no closer than when I started, and the distances began to fool my eye. The more I walked, the farther away the mountains became, and my sense of scale was completely off-kilter the entire time I was out there.
Finally, let’s visit Zabriskie Point, where I spent quite a bit of time and many sunrises. Zabriskie Point is easy to get to, but far harder to leave. You want to linger here for just a moment longer to witness how the display will change. Then, as you get ready to depart, you can’t help but wait a bit more to see what happens next. The timelessness of Death Valley is strong here, and knowing how many people before you have beheld the scene before you is a powerful reminder. Some of the most iconic Death Valley photographs and posters feature this very view.
Zabriskie Point is an overlook into the valley below, which is incredible in and of itself. What makes it truly spectacular, however, are the tortured rocks surrounding you. There isn’t a straight line anywhere, and erosion has created a rock fairyland. The colors, while not as colorful as Artist’s Pallet, are outstanding, especially in the warm glows of the early morning and late afternoon.
Each morning here tells a different story, and each morning presents its unique imagery. This photograph, Zabriskie Point, is my favorite from all the ones I made. Some mornings were full of reds, but this morning the clouds briefly lit up with an ethereal orange glow. Coupled with the oranges and deep yellows of the rocks below, and contrasted by darker ridges and the distant mountains lighting up, I think Zabriskie Point is a classic Southwestern desert photograph. I can feel the drama of the sunrise, yet the tranquility of the desert offsets that. There is tension, and there is a counterpoint of calmness in Zabriskie Point.
You can read more about Zabriskie Point here.
Death Valley is also home to the Racetrack and the Playa, which we’ll cover in detail in the next post. You won’t want to miss that adventure!