Discovering Death Valley

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending some time in Death Valley National Park. Unlike a typical lengthy road trip with Fred and George, this was a quickie solo blast out-and-back involving planes, rental cars, and the general travel mayhem I try to avoid. Those necessary evils were well-worth the effort though.

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Sunrise at Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes
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The sunrise light on the downed wood in the dunes was entrancing.

The backstory

This trip started with the desire to attend one of David Middleton’s workshops. I discovered the joys of his photography and storytelling a few years ago when he visited Georgia for the Georgia Nature Photographers Association’s annual Expo. I was instantly hooked by his curmudgeonly sense of humor and his talent. When I saw he was heading to Death Valley, I knew I had to be there too.

But I got to thinking about all the effort and expense of making this trip for the 5-day workshop. As often happens with my planning process, I figure if I’m going to go all the way out there I might as well get a little more bang for my buck. Logistically I could only swing a few extra days but I was determined to get what time I could scrape together. Unfortunately, flying meant the inability to bring much beyond my clothes and camera gear. And being the type of traveler I am, I wanted to be able to explore away from the main Death Valley tourist hotspot at Furnace Creek.

That’s where groovy dirtbag friends come into the story. Thanks to ATQA-host-extraordinaire J. Brandon’s (AKA American Sahara) willingness to play tour guide, a mini-ATQA tweetup came to life since Wilderness Dave wanted to explore Death Valley for the first time. I myself had only been once before, so briefly I’m not sure it counts.

Since I had the challenge of getting there by plane, J. and Dave took care of gear, food, and all that jazz so I had to do nothing but show up. Let me tell you, it’s a pretty sweet deal if you can get it.

American Sahara taking a break from toting me & Dave around Death Valley.
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The glowing sunset on the rock faces at Dante’s View.

The Park

At over 5,000 square miles, the Death Valley National Park is astoundingly huge, especially for an east-coast girl. It’s the largest in the Lower 48 and it’s size means there’s no shortage of adventures to be had, from casual road-side points-of-interest to 4-wheel-drive backcountry exploration. If you’re a fan of inexplicable landscapes and nature, you’ll be as awed by the extremes here as I was. Extreme temperatures, extreme elevations, extreme landscapes that house extreme plants and animals, etc. It seems Death Valley doesn’t know how to do anything half-way.

You can get the info on all the details that make this place a treasure from the Death Valley National Park website so no need to regurgitate it here…

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Racetrack rocks in Infrared.
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Shadow and light in Badwater Basin.

The experience

The first few days I was treated to adventures based out of the Mesquite Spring campground at the north end of the park. As far as the camping goes, Mesquite Spring was quite cozy and if you like to get away from the throngs, this is a great choice. The campers here were a much quieter breed than the ones I found at Furnace Creek early last year. Plus, Mesquite Spring is a great starting point to reach more northern, car-accessible locations of the park like Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, Mosaic Canyon, and Ubehebe Crater as well as harder-earned destinations such as the famed Racetrack and Teakettle Junction. We were fortunate enough to reach those thanks to our personal tour guide with a big truck.

After three glorious days exploring and cut off from the world, we had a farewell lunch at the Corkscrew Saloon at Furnace Creek. At that point I had to switch gears into workshop mode, get serious, and brace myself for the early mornings ahead. The workshop was the original purpose of the trip and I was looking forward to it but I have to admit I so relaxed after my time camping that I wasn’t sure I could summon any photography mojo. I needn’t have worried though. It turns out that David Middleton and Brenda Berry are extremely motivating instructors, even to lazy wanna-be photographers such as myself.

Headquartered out of the Furnace Creek Resort for the duration of the workshop, hoteling this portion of the trip was yet another necessary evil. A good bed and electricity were in order for the long days and the need to process images. We stuck to standard-issue stops such as Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View, and the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, but the ease of reaching those locations meant we could concentrate on photography skills, not backcountry navigation. And those locations are popular because they’re iconic and stunning regardless of the crowds that you may share them with.

beetle tracks - val in real life
Even the smallest details of Death Valley are filled with texture and intrigue.
We may have stuck to well-visited spots during the workshop but that didn’t mean we had to stick to the standard shots. Here’s Darin Reed living on the edge.

In a nutshell

Being from the southeast, it’s always a treat to be able to experience the raw geology of the west. Death Valley in particular is fascinating and I was woefully unprepared to understand everything going on in terms of the geologic history here. I will say it was easily the grooviest place I’ve visited in terms of hard-rock geology… and that includes the Grand Canyon.

There I said it. I know that my seem like blasphemy but the sheer variety of rock types, the history of folding and crustal extension, and the complexity of formations and landscapes is mind-boggling. It makes the Grand Canyon look like geologic child’s play. In fact, I spent much of the time in Death Valley rendered speechless… much to the relief of my camp-mates I’m sure.

Even a few weeks later, it’s still hard to absorb the enormity and bad-assery of Death Valley. I spent a full week there and I’ve only scratched the surface as you can imagine. Dave & I were newbies in American Sahara’s playground and I know we’re both ready for the next round… and I will be ready to unleash some geo-nerd on them next time.

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Wilderness Dave checks out the view at Mosaic Canyon.
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So much of Death Valley screamed for infrared treatment.

Play it smart

For pete’s sake, don’t underestimate this place. Yes, there are developed places in a few areas that may give you a false sense of security but make no mistake this is wilderness and you can get yourself into trouble quickly with no help on the horizon. Cell signal is non-existent through the majority of the park and even GPS maps are known to be unreliable for the less-established roadways.

For more images from this adventure, head on over to my Death Valley Gallery on Photoshelter… Enjoy!

mesquite sand dunes death valley - val in real life
Death Valley has cemented itself as one of my favorite places.



  1. Sounds like an awesome trip! I can’t wait to go to Death Valley myself!

    1. Get thee to Death Valley my friend! Hopefully there will be another ATQA tweetup you can jump in on. 🙂

  2. Wow! You covered some big ground there, girl! Love, love, love the sunrise image from Mesquite dunes. The sand is alive in that image. Nice work! And the IR shots are great, too. 😉 By the looks of the sky, you must have had some nice night skies, too.

    I’m going to try to get out there in January. I’ve now been inspired. Thanks!

    1. Hahaha, you know I get around Steve! Thanks for the props on the image. That’s a huge compliment coming from you.

      I’m really enjoying the IR work. The night skies were meh. Moon was out in full force and it was hazy. Some workshop folks tried some twilight stuff but didn’t get much out of it.

      Can’t wait to see what you come away with on your next trip. Winter, Death Valley, Night Photography = all kinds of groovy!

  3. Great report and photos! Thanks for bringing me back (virtually) to DV through your enthusiasm, which mirrors my own feelings. I agree too that the geology is mind-boggling in its many forms in the park. I think that was one thing I definitely was not prepared for. The family and I really enjoyed our visit there and I’m eager to get back and see more of it.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hopefully you can jump in the next time there’s an #ATQA tweetup! I’m really looking forward to getting back there again soon.

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