The Challenge of Death Valley

Devil’s Golf Course

About 2000 years ago, a lake covered the center of the Valley As the lake dried, salt precipitated to a level of about 4 feet thick. Heat, cold, resolution by rains and recrystallization by drying have caused the salt layer to expand and contract leaving a jumbled mass. The older layers are covered with dust blown in from nearby mud flats. The newer layers are white. Touch them and feel the sharpness of the salt crystals.

It’s very dark as you stop your car at the side of a deserted road. You check your gear and double-check your water bottle. You don’t want to get caught without water. It’s very cold, and millions of stars crowd down on you. The heat won’t begin until later. Thankfully, there’s no wind or you couldn’t make the trip. The small beam of your flashlight cuts through the darkness to illuminate the rough ground. It’s time to go. Dawn doesn’t wait for stragglers, and you want to be in just the right spot when the first light appears.

No, we aren’t about to embark on a mysterious journey, but we are going to cross a half-mile of rough desert terrain to venture into Death Valley’s beautiful sand dunes. The trip is a pilgrimage in one of the most desolate but beautiful valleys in the world. As in so many other desert locations, the beauty is subtle, and you need to search diligently to understand its richness. The mountains are naked here and the landscape stark and dry. When spring comes–if there’s been some rain, wildflowers will bloom. But even in the most abundant years, the land may still appear barren to the casual observer. Death Valley is one of my favorite locations precisely because of the stark landscape. For photographers, a journey there is an adventure of pure passion.

As we leave our cars and walk into the desert, we struggle to imagine what we can expect. The desert plants are wide set. We walk over small rocks and areas of desert pavement. (Desert pavement is made when puddles of water dry on a flat desert surface. The muddy ground cracks in the heat and looks like pavement). We sometimes hear scurrying sounds and know that the plants and the soil that they grip with their roots provide ecosystems for many small creatures. Larger critters come to hunt. You see tracks that tell of the lives and struggles of these many creatures in the sandy soil. Desert animals are special, because they’ve adapted to life in this unforgiving environment.

We hurry as we begin to climb along sandy ridges. Eventually, as dawn begins to spread its first light over the land, we can see more. We stop to set up our cameras and wait. I always begin photographing in the gray light. There’s something almost magical to me in the subtle shades. As the sun comes closer and closer to cresting the mountains in the east, the dunes begin to glow with colors. I look now and see shadows where the dune twists or slopes or changes shape from one dune to another in an endless dance of patterns and textures. I switch back and forth from my wide-angle lenses to a long telephoto. How few lines and shadows can I show and still say massive area of sand dunes? Can I add a filter (81A or B) to make the tones richer or will that distract from the image I see in my mind?

The sun comes closer to cresting the mountain, and I’m working at a steady but determined pace. I see so much but have only a few seconds to capture my vision. Suddenly, the sun bursts brilliantly across the face of the dunes. The shadows are hard now. I have only a few minutes more before the white light of day robs the sand dunes of color and they become as hard and unforgiving as the desert landscape around them. Finally, the magic is done. For the moment, I feel exhausted.

On the way back to the car, I stop to check the patterns of desert pavement and the shadows of the ripples in the dunes. I realize that my time here in Death Valley is going to be spent observing and appreciating the shapes and textures of a land that has been tortured as it came into being and that is continually sculpted and changed by the forces of nature. 

Let me introduce you to the Death Valley I know well and to some of my favorite locations within the valley. These locations aren’t all there is to see, but they tell the story of the land and people who came here. A word or two of caution before we begin: Death Valley is very, very dry. Even when the weather is cold, it’s easy to become dehydrated. Be sure to drink lots of water and limit your intake of sodas or soft drinks. Also, use sunscreen and a hat. The sun is strong; you can burn easily. Staying healthy is important to good images.


Early morning light comes in strong. There was a thick cloud cover with just a small chance for the sun to sneak underneath the clouds. Using a long telephoto lens, I try to limit the amount I want to show in the photograph. Can I use a limited area to illustrate the feeling of vast acres of sand dunes?

I like to divide Death Valley into three main sections: First, there’s the northern section. One of the most outstanding natural features is Ubehebe Crater. Death Valley has had its share of earthquakes and flash floods, but Ubehebe Crater is the result of a massive and explosive eruption several thousand years ago. This crater is a half-mile wide and about six hundred feet deep. The colors change about a hundred fifty feet down from the rim, because molten rock rose along fractures and mingled with water in the alluvial fan deposits. The result was superheated water that flashed to steam and blew out alluvial fan rocks and cinders. The color change represents the place where the cinder material was dumped. The cinders dropped over a six-square-mile area. The patterns and colors in the crater make wonderful photographs.

Also at the northern end of the valley is Scotty’s Castle. Scotty was a showman who took up prospecting. However, his favorite game was finding wealthy backers for a “secret gold mine” in Death Valley. Albert Johnson, a Chicago millionaire, became one of Scotty’s backers. He wanted to get a look at this gold mine in person. So, he came to the valley, and Scotty put him on a mule to show him around the valley. Mr. Johnson soon realized that the mine was an illusion, but he liked the valley and Scotty. He decided to build a vacation home in the desert. Mrs. Johnson wasn’t inclined to roughing it, so the castle soon evolved into a livable mansion. Tours are available and interesting.

Scotty’s Castle

Unexpected snow storms occasionally happen in the mountains surrounding the Valley and at Scotty’s Castle. This Moorish style castle was built by Albert Johnson during the 1920’s. Scotty was a showman who wooed backers for his Death Valley gold mine. An interesting place with fascinating tours.

As you leave Scotty’s Castle and Ubehebe Crater, I like to take the road that goes to Titus Canyon. Titus Canyon is a one-way, narrow four-wheel-drive road that begins near Rhyolite and ends in the valley. The last part of the canyon offers tall walls of lovely rock. You would never want to find yourself there in a rainstorm or flash flood, but when it’s dry, it’s wonderful. Take the dirt road (it’s a two-way road to the canyon entrance) and park at the parking area you’ll find just inside the canyon. Walk in from there. The cooling walls are most welcome when the temperatures are warm. You can see the results of water erosion as it has swept down to carve and polish the rock.

The middle section of the valley has the sand dunes, Mosaic Canyon near Furnace Creek Wells store and resort, the Keene Wonder Mine (for those with four-wheel drive and a spirit of adventure), and Salt Creek. Mosaic Canyon is one of my favorites. The most interesting part is only several hundred feet long but spectacular. You drive up an alluvial fan near Furnace Creek Wells. This road is two miles of graded rock, and you don’t want to drive it too fast. (I once side-cut a tire here. That wasn’t much fun.) A few hundred feet into the canyon, the walls begin to close in, and you notice that they are composite chunks of marble that have been polished smooth by water erosion. As the canyon narrows to the width of a person, you can reach out and run your fingers along the walls. They’re cool and smooth, even in the hottest temperatures. It’s possible to hike up the canyon, but after a sharp right turn, it widens and the belt of marble seems to disappear.

Another preferred area in the middle section of the park is Salt Creek. This is a year-round trickle of a stream in which boardwalks have been built over a salt marsh, the home and breeding ground for the desert pupfish. These strange little guppy-sized fish are relics of the fish that once swam in Lake Manly when it occupied most of the valley. During the spring, they mate and dash about. I think the best viewing point during this time is from the boardwalk. This is also a nice place to shoot at sunset, because the backlighting on the reeds may be glowing.

The more adventurous, might choose to take the Beatty Cutoff road just south of Salt Canyon and go north for about five miles. There will be a marked dirt road on your right that goes to the Keane Wonder Mill. (Check with park rangers for road conditions before traveling this road. The first time I did, it was definitely a four-wheel-drive road. On another trip, the rangers had worked on the road, and it was much easier). There isn’t too much left at the mill site, but you can still see where the ore came down from the mine by cable to the mill where it was processed. From the parking area, walk up a short hill and look for the buildings and cables. Also, notice the walls of the canyon where water has once again cut through and polished the rock. 

The southern part of the section shows off the rock formations and magnificent colors in the valley to best advantage. Badwater in this section is the lowest spot in the United States–some two hundred eighty feet below sea level. A shallow pond fairly close to the parking lot is fed by water that seeps up along the eastern boundary fault. This water is saltier than the ocean, although it still feeds life. Small clumps of pickle weed and insects survive on it. Death Valley is the hottest spot in North America, and this is the hottest part of the valley! In 1913, Furnace Creek recorded a temperature of 134°F, and it’s suspected that the temperature at Badwater reached 135.° Telescope Peak (11,049 feet) on the west rim of the valley sets the backdrop for some terrific wide-angle shots with the pond and salt flats in the foreground. Walk out onto the salt flats. Feel the heat and the emptiness. Even at high noon on a very warm day, there are images to be taken. I never pass up the opportunity to illustrate what I feel there.

Salt Crystals

Salt Crystals – as salt dissolves and recrystallizes in Death Valley’s vast areas of salt pans, take the time to really look at the crystals. Here in one briny patch of water, salt crystals form. Use a macro lens here to study and understand the structure of salt.

Between Furnace Creek Ranch and Badwater, there are several stops that are interesting. To find a different perspective of the canyons of Death Valley, take the time to stop at Natural Bridge. From the parking lot, it’s a short walk into a canyon that is dominated by an impressive rock bridge. Also, one of the terrific short side drives is Artists Palette. I like to go there in the afternoon, because the late light makes the colorful walls shimmer with color. Take the time to stop at several locations along the way in addition to the main small side parking area that looks down on Artists Palette.

Another wonderful location is the Devil’s Golf Course. These rough salt/mud flats whisper of the difficulty pioneers must have had crossing the valley. Go just a bit farther in your examination of the land. Get a feeling for the scope, the size, and the isolation of the valley from this location. You can also take the West Side Road for about a mile from the main highway for another vision of desolation. Unless you’ve checked with the rangers and have a four-wheel drive, don’t go farther than a mile along this road. The interesting thing here is that, unlike the Devils Golf Course where the salt flats are churned up and chunky, the salt flats tend to be large, flat plates that are more delicate in appearance. Again, I turn to my wide-angle lens to give my image the feeling of the expanse of a land as endless as time. I also use my macro lens to examine individual salt crystals as they form along the edges of brine seeps.

Death Valley has two additional spots that I like. At dawn, go up to Zabriskie Point where you’ll get an overview of a part of the valley floor, the rough rocks and canyons in the glow of early light. Because the early light is sidelight to some of the vista, you get the full impact of the contour of the land. You might want to start with a wide-angle lens and work through to long telephoto lenses. It’s always good to see if you can capture the minimum in line or shape and have that represent the whole vista. If you can arrange a car shuttle, hike down the trail to come out through Golden Canyon. In the afternoon sun, Golden Canyon’s brilliantly gold-colored rocks shimmer against bright blue skies. 

After Zabriskie, you might want to consider going up to Dante’s View. The road always seems longer than it is, and the last part is a long steep grade. Watch your car gauges carefully, because it’s easy for your engine to overheat when you’re going up. Also, be sure to watch your speed and brakes on the way down. When you reach Dantes View, you’re almost directly above Badwater. The view is spectacular but be prepared for wind and, sometimes, bitter cold. I have yet to be up there without wondering if I would fly off the edge on a gust of wind.

Death Valley is a place in which it’s almost impossible to grasp the subtleties of the land in one trip. I come to Death Valley about once a year or at least once every other year. There’s so much more that I need to see. I need to understand how life works in such climate extremes and harsh land. How do the mammals such as the coyote survive and actually thrive in those conditions? How much rainfall and heat does it take to make blossoms cover the land? And how does that affect the little creatures that live in the small ecosystems? I have so many questions. Finding the answers and translating those questions and answers into impact-provoking images is the challenge of Death Valley.


  1. Treat yourself well and avoid heat exhaustion and dehydration.

  2. Drink lots of water.

  3. Protect your skin with sunscreen and/or a hat.

  4. The desert is very fragile. Don’t pick, don’t move things, and watch where you walk.

  5. Always check with park rangers for the up-to-the-minute weather and road conditions–especially if you’re going to go into the more remote areas of the park. Tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to return.

  6. Check your car fluids and tires. Carry spares and extra supplies. (Your car can save your life, so treat it well.)

  7. Try using a variety of lenses–from macro to wide-angle to long telephotos.

  8. Use a polarizer, 81A or B or a half-neutral density filter to compensate for the amount of light that reflects off barren surfaces.

  9. During hot weather, if you don’t have an ice chest, wrap your film in a wool sweater or blanket. (Wool is a great insulator in heat as well as cold.)

  10. Protect your camera and lenses from dirt, dust, and blowing sand. On the sand dunes, the sand may be moving–even if you don’t notice a wind. Don’t set your camera bag down on the dunes. Use plastic bags for protection. Be extremely careful when changing your film.

by Noella Ballenger

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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