bette ann | Death Valley National Park Travel/Photo Journal

Death Valley National Park Travel/Photo Journal

April 03, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Death Valley National Park – A Photo-Travel Journal

March 27.

8:00 am

Steven, our good friends Suzan and Allan, and I pack up our car – filled to the gills with all manner of hiking gear, snacks, water, wine, Gatorade, a few duffels of clothing, and some serious photography gear.  We're headed to Death Valley National Park – a trip that has been excitedly in the planning for months.

The GroupThe Group

Suzan made the hotel reservations months ago.  (Furnace Inn – pricey, but fortunately they have a senior rate for standard rooms, no mountain view. Jumping ahead of the story – if you plan on spending any time in your room your might ask for a higher floor or pay for the mountain view. We were right off the lobby in rooms that faced the parking lot, but it is a historic, solid building so we heard nothing, slept soundly, had a fridge for our snack storage, coffee maker in the room, free wifi, gorgeous views on the front lobby deck, and everything is spotlessly clean.)

I had spent some serious time researching to plan the daily agenda, based on photographer workshop outlines and input from my friend Justine who is a tour guide and had just returned from leading a tour in Death Valley.  Allan reviewed other photo journals for more input.  Steven got the car ready.

Finally – we're on the road. Maps on laps. Descriptions in hand. Historic stories to read along the way. All to no avail -- Suzan goes to sleep. Allan's not far behind.  Steven and I share driving and quietly hum some "travelin' tunes."

11:00 First Stop – The Mad Greek Café

We actually didn't eat here until the drive back but, in either direction, it's a MUST STOP. Good eats.

Mad Greek CafeMad Greek CafeMaybe not the best Greek food you've ever had but a fun place to stop, food is way above average, and it's jammed with people coming to/from CA-NV.


12:15 Next Stop – Shoshone Village

I'll let the photo of the sign speak for why to stop and spend a little time here.


Shoshone VillageShoshone Village

Shoshone Village -2Shoshone Village -2


Shoshone Village - 3Shoshone Village - 3


12:45 Third Stop – Amargosa Opera House

Here's the short version of the story, from their web site:

A once in a lifetime experience awaits you in a tiny town known as Death Valley Junction, for this is the home of the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel. For more than 40 years, Marta Becket has lived and shared her art and dreams with those fortunate enough to find this wonderful and magical place. Located a few miles west of the California-Nevada border, near Death Valley National Park, no journey to this part of the world would be complete without a visit to this unique and inspiring destination.

HOWEVER – to see the inside of the Opera House (with a wrap around mural of people so Marta Becket could dance perform to a full house even if ne'er a visitor showed up) – you have to pay $5 per person for a tour. We took a pass on that.

INSTEAD – we found a small building next to the hotel where some guys formed a club and have been spending years creating a room-sized diorama  in minute detail and historic correctness of the railroads that serviced this area and the mines. They were delighted to spend time chatting with us, showing us their workshop, talking about the railroads, etc – and were just delighted that we dropped $5 into their donation jar. Best deal in town.

Amargosa Railroad GuysAmargosa Railroad Guys



1:45 we arrive at Death Valley National Park, pull into the Furnace Inn, register, then head off to the Visitor's Center to watch an orientation movie (well worth the 30-minutes), walk through the photo museum of the history of the area, and grab some brochures and maps.

Then we are off to the Harmony Borax Works, complete with the wagon of "20 Mule-Team Borax" fame.  I started reliving my childhood, since Death Valley Days, sponsored by 20-Mule Team Borax, was my favorite TV-Show as a kid (Trivia – Ronald Regan was in some episodes, his last acting gig before getting into politics).  Check it out:


20 Mule Team Wagon20 Mule Team WagonHarmony Borax Works ghost town exhibit

Part of a mine

Back to the Furnace Inn. Unpack. Sip some wine. Head off to the Furnace Ranch area for pizza and beer at the Saloon. 

Death Valley - Furnace InnDeath Valley - Furnace Inn

March 28

6:45 am.

Allan and Suzan were up for the sunrise photo-shoot at Zabriski Point. Steven – not.

This is the iconic sunrise event at Death Valley. Photographers with all manner of cameras, lenses, tripods, gear-chatter and advice were all over the place. Allan and I set up near some guy with a ga-ziliion mm lens and a good sense of humor. Suzan wandered off and perched on a ledge amongst the professional photographers, undaunted by her little handheld.

It is impossible to explain the excitement of photographing a sunrise across an inexplicably beautiful landscape.  All the chatter stops. The only sound(s) you hear are shutters, and an occasional intake of breath. It is just stunning, and for almost an hour there are changes in light, textures, shadows, and saturations. Turn to the left or right, there's some different perspectives. Sit down, lie down, look up. 

Allan Setting Up At Zabriski PtAllan Setting Up At Zabriski PtThe sun was just starting to come from behind us. The first shadows starting.

Zabriski Point At Sunrise-2Zabriski Point At Sunrise-2

Zabriski Point At Sunrise-3Zabriski Point At Sunrise-3

Zabriski Point At SunriseZabriski Point At Sunrise

Afterwards, we grab breakfast and head out for a full day of adventure, south of the Furnace Inn.

3 mile drive to Golden Canyon – an Interpretive Trail and an outstanding hike, with endless shifts in geology, colors, irresistible off-shoots into slots, and ending at the Red Cathedral. (2.25 miles RT hike)

Suzan Entering Golden CanyonSuzan Entering Golden Canyon


Red CathedralRed CathedralAt the end of the Golden Canyon hike, Steven is taking a shot of the Red Cathedral. We hiked pretty far up from the wash to the edge of this structure, but it gets scaggy fairly quickly so we did not try to climb it.

9 mile drive to Devil's Golf Course – a large salt pan on the floor of Death Valley.  According to an article on Wikipedia," the area was named after a line in the 1934 National Park Service guide book which said, "Only the devil could play golf" on its surface.' " These are gigantic halite salt crystal formations that go to a depth of 9,000 + feet – the dark part being mud that is covering sizzling white salt.  It goes on forever – as far as you can see up to the Panamint Mountain Range.  Suzan provides a context of size and scope.


Suzan On The Devil's Golf CourseSuzan On The Devil's Golf Course

8 mile drive to Badwater Basin – the lowest point in the continental US (-282 feet) and one of the world's hottest places. The salt flats is another one of those iconic photographer locations. My favorite, however, were the shots we got of salt feathering like spun sugar because of the wind as moisture evaporates. You can walk out onto the salt bed forever (200 square miles). We stopped after ½ hour as the sun glare is very strong. Again, what you are looking at is all salt, the dark being mud/sand covering the salt. 

Badwater Salt FlatsBadwater Salt Flats

Badwater - Salt SpinningBadwater - Salt Spinning

3 miles back to the Natural Bridge. A 2 mile RT hike.  This was probably the least exciting of everything we did in Death Valley though Suzan and Allan tried to add some excitement by attempting to climb a bit of a Billy Goat scramble without breaking their legs on the way down.  Our goal in stopping here was to kill a little time because we were way too early to do the Artists' Drive around sunset to grab the best colors.

Tough Climb -End of Natural Bridge Hike TrailTough Climb -End of Natural Bridge Hike Trail


5 miles back to Artist's Drive/Artist's Palette.

10 miles on Artist's Drive. Some pull outs and a few quite steep climbs to view points . We were just a touch early, so while we got some good shots, next time we will make a point of getting here closer to sunset.


Artist Palette -2Artist Palette -2


2 miles back to the Inn.

End of Day 2.


Today we head north of the Furnace Inn.

6:45 am

Sunrise at Salt Creek (13 miles north of Furnace Inn). No one thought I was serious. No one really wanted to get up early again and join me for a sunrise photo-shoot. But, I shamed them into it. "How can you leave Death Valley and not see the pupfish!" I cajoled.  ("Duh" was pretty much the spontaneous expression I got from each of them.).  Well, here you go – the pupfish is the only fish that has been able to survive the extreme salt and temperature conditions of this lake.

The salt level in the creek can reach up to 8 times that of the ocean, and the creek is so shallow that the fish make ripples on the surface as they swim.  The temperature ranges from near freezing to over 100-deg.  The pupfish are about the size of a tiny "inch worm", maybe. But their ecological importance, according to our guide book, is that "they might hold the biochemical secret to rapid adaptation."

Well, once we got there, everyone was in awe. The sunrise was spectacular. The pupfish, clearly visible in large schools, would be impossible to see in flatter lighting.  The provided boardwalk made for a delightful early morning 1 mile walk. My creds were immediately improved!

Salt Creek At SunriseSalt Creek At Sunrise

Pupfish At Salt CreekPupfish At Salt Creek

To top it off, some footprints in the wet sand added a little extra excitement. Mountain Lion, maybe? 


Salt Creek Tracks-2Salt Creek Tracks-2maybe this is a mountain lion track?



Off to breakfast.  And then --- starting again from Furnace Inn--

23 miles to the Sand Dunes.  I roamed off to get some shots of dunes without footprints.  Allan, Suzan and Steven went for a different experience – heading off to climb the highest dune. Problem – they had on shoes and socks and were just weighted down the more they walked.  Me, I was in my Teva sandals and could walk forever in the yummy warm sand.


The Sand DunesThe Sand Dunes

A few miles further and we arrive at Stovepipe Village.  We came back here later in the day for a picnic bench and lunch.

But for now, we are off to hike Mosaic Canyon which wins the unanimous vote for the most stunning part of our journey. I had in mind that "mosaic" would mean tiles of colors. No-- it means a mosaic of so many different geological formations that it is hard to imagine how so many different events could have happened in this one place. And just when you figured you had seen all there was to see, we'd turn a corner and a totally new array of geology presented itself. The hike, not even 4 miles, took us close to 2 hours because we stopped so often to sit and ponder.

Mosaic CanyonMosaic Canyon

Mosaic Canyon -2Mosaic Canyon -2 Mosaic Canyon -3Mosaic Canyon -3 Mosaic Canyon-4Mosaic Canyon-4

A snack stop, and then we are off to our final site for the day, the Ubehebe Crater

65 miles from the Furnace Inn, this is a ½ mile wide, 700 foot deep crater. Steven who has been driving all day says, "This better be a wow for all this driving."  Just to say, it qualifies as a triple wow!  The crater itself is jaw-dropping. The area all around is like from another world – according to the info book, 6 square miles of cinder fields interrupted by the occasional creosote. We had really strong sustaining winds (30+ mph) but persisted in climbing the ½ mile up a 10+ % grade to get better views of the main crater and to get a look at the Little Hebe crater. We did take a pass on doing the entire Rim Trail because of the winds.


Ubehebe CraterUbehebe Crater Steven Hiking To Little Hebe CraterSteven Hiking To Little Hebe Crater

Little Hebe CraterLittle Hebe Crater

Our final stop for the day was really just a drive by to Scotty's Castle. It was already getting late, the winds were very strong, and we had 60+ miles to drive back to the hotel. We decided a tour of Scott's Castle would be part of our next visit here.

The good news about a cloudy, windy afternoon is the chance to grab some powerful photos of clouds. 


Awesome CloudsAwesome Clouds

Amazing Scenery EverywhereAmazing Scenery Everywhere SunsetSunset




Plan A was to get up very early to again get to Zabriski Point at sunrise, this time with Steven in tow, and then do the hike there.  We executed Plan B which was to pack, have breakfast, and head over to Zabriski Point just so Steven could see it, skipping sunrise because there was none to speak of (very cloudy and still very windy). I love this shot, even though cloudy, to convey the magnitude of this site.

Zabriski Point In CloudsZabriski Point In Clouds

Next and final stop – Dante's View. This is a solid 27 miles from the Furnace Inn.  The drive itself is steep and full of tight switch-backs. The view from the top at 5,475 is, as we have come to expect, over the top. The entire valley floor is visible, 5 miles across. Badwater and the salt flats are directly below (-280) from the view point.  21 miles away you can see Telescope Peak (11,049) in the Panamint Range.

Suzan and I did a fairly good hike here. Steven and Allan took lots of photos and hung around the main view point.

Suzan Heading Up Dante's TrailSuzan Heading Up Dante's Trail Dante's ViewDante's View

Time to head home, and we already started planning what we will do on our next visit here.

'Til Next Time'Til Next Time







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