Death Valley

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.

David explores Death Valley National Park in California

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.

Death Valley: Artist's Pallet

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.

Death Valley: Badwater Basin

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.

Death Valley: 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!

Poppy Reserve

It was all over the news–California was in the midst of a Super Bloom. The newscaster hadn’t even finished the segment and I was already packed and headed down the highway toward the modern-day flower gold rush. To me, there wasn’t a better place to head toward than the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve . It has low, rolling hills, with each hill covered in beautiful orange poppies. The Super Bloom and I were about to become best of friends.

The drive, at least to me, wasn’t all that long, and it is an easy drive in any event. I had one thing, and only one thing on my mind: make a beeline for the poppy reserve and everything else could wait. If I didn’t have to stop for gas I would have made better time, but, well, that’s just the way it works. Before too long I rolled up at the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, and, as advertised, the hills indeed were full of orange poppies, resplendent in the morning sun.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the size of the reserve. Now, to be fair, I don’t know what I was expected, but I suppose it was something like endless hill after endless hill. Instead, although there were hills, and they were low and rolling, and they were full of poppies. there weren’t many of them. In fact, I could easily see from one end to the other. Luckily, what was in-between was gorgeous.

Poppy Hill
Hill after hill of poppies. More poppies than you can imagine.

Endless Hills

Before you could blink your eye I was in the middle of the poppies and was as happy as I could be. Once you are on the hills, now they seem to stretch on forever and ever, as far as the could see. This was especially true if you were in between hills, because in reality you couldn’t see far. But the illusion was complete. It was exactly as advertised.

Poppies mixing with other flowers

I explored the poppy reserve from end to end, enjoying every moment of it. I wandered up and down each hill, looking in every direction. And every direction was filled with more poppies. Interestingly, though, what caught my eye wasn’t the poppies, per se, but rather the blooms when they are grouped with other flowers. Each hill was nothing but poppies. But, toward the edges, other flowers began to creep in, providing a pleasant contrast of yellow, orange and purples. These groupings help tell the intimate story of the poppy fields.

The further away from the main fields you go, the more the other flowers mix in. From far away you can’t see blending, but up close you can, and when you focus on a small area, as this photograph does, the results are very pleasing indeed.

Another Perspective

Yellow Reserve
Yellow Reserve: Another view of the poppy fields

Along one edge is a large field of yellow flowers, with the main poppy hills behind it. This panorama tells another side of the story of another aspect of the poppy reserve and gives another contrast. Yellow Reserve is one of my favorite photographs from the poppy reserve, even though the poppies are not the main focus.

Oh, the People

This was once private land, but it was donated to the State of California for perpetual preservation. This is awesome, because it protects and preserves the poppies. It also has some side-effects for me, namely, people. The poppy reserve is only open during specific hours. And it is highly publicized. And it is in California, which as we all know, doesn’t have many people. Finally, it is near the ghost town of Los Angeles, which also doesn’t have many people. Oh wait… yeah, you see where I am going. Basically, everyone in Los Angeles, if not the entire state, is here when the poppy reserve opens. All of them crowd into the park at once. All of them wander the trails that wind among the hills. And each and every one of them are in my photographs.

I did not truly anticipate the sheer amount of people. Usually, I am out in the wilderness by myself. Civilization is a distant memory. Not this time. Being just a short drive away from Los Angeles, and heavily publicized on the news, draws a tremendous crowd. It is not impossible to work around the crowds, but it is far more challenging to do so.

Poppy Reserve
The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve

This panorama shows the poppy reserve from end to end. If you step back across the room it looks pristine and perfect. When you peer closely, though, you’ll see all sorts of vehicles, and every hill is topped with a crowd. That’s OK, though, for it is best to enjoy the poppies with people in a protected place than unprotected. The latter ensures that the poppies won’t last because they will be trampled and picked. You can see this outside of the reserve–there, people do exactly what the reserve is there to prevent.

Looking Back

Despite the challenges of the crowds, I’ll be back here for the next Super Bloom. The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is an incredible place, and one of the best to see poppies. It is kept wild and beautiful for all the generations to come. Should you find yourself anywhere near it while the poppies are in bloom, you must make a stop here to enjoy them.

Yosemite’s Treasures

Spring is an incredible, magical time of the year. The trees are waking up from their long winter’s nap and spreading new leaves with vim and vigor. Birds are displaying their best plumage in hopes of attracting the perfect mate. Flowers begin to spring up and bloom, eager to participate in the bright sunny days ahead. And in Yosemite National Park, California, the waterfalls are roaring, full of newfound run-off, echoing and booming throughout the storied valley. Yosemite’s Treasures is a collection of four of my favorite Yosemite photographs to celebrate this famed park.

 

A little further along the valley, just across from El Capitan, one can find the Cathedral Rocks, an impressive grouping of rocks and spires. In spring, small seasonal ponds sometimes form, such as this one, which gives us the equally impressive Cathedral View. As spring turns to summer and the summer wears long, this small pond will quickly dry up, along with some of the waterfalls themselves, and scenes such Cathedral View quietly disappear.

Still further along the valley, well past the towering granite cliffs, we find the setting for Lupine’s Day. The lupine grows throughout the region, and this grouping, coupled with the absolute perfect clouds, combine to make this stunning photograph.

 

Finally, as promised, we return again to the Merced River. Beautiful, sunny days in Yosemite make for fantastic photography, but so do the storms that notoriously roll through the valley. Stormy Valley is one of those moments. I like the contrast of the lush green grass, the flowing river, and Bridalveil Falls against the stormy skies above. There’s something powerful and dramatic about the contrast, and it draws me in time and time again.

Yosemite National Park is full of wonders, small and large, and it was hard for me to settle on just a few images. Rest assured, for more stories await us there!