I visited Death Valley National Park with colleagues in early December 2018 to make photographs. This was my second visit since my first in February 2014. In my experience winter in the valley has mild temperatures in the 50-75 degree Fahrenheit range (10-24 C) throughout the day. It’s cool enough during the day to explore parts of the park on foot and warm enough at night to enjoy a starry sky. Maybe I’m missing out on truly appreciating the worst of the conditions that make the park so unique–extreme heat and extreme drought–but I’ll settle. It even rained during the first day of our visit this year. If you ever get a chance to go–do it! The park is only about a two hour drive from Las Vegas.
Twenty Mule Team Canyon
Not far from the Highway 190 entrance to the park is the one-way dirt road through Twenty Mule Team Canyon. Like a lot of the park, it’s a landscape with almost no visible life, animal or vegetable–at least no life I know how to find. You see clearly how, directly exposed to the elements, the inexorable forces of erosion shape, scar and rend the raw surface of the earth. Most of it looks like great mounds of tan dust and brown sugar. Under the soft light of an overcast sky you see an infinite progression of mid-tones, and as you try to make sense of it all waves and veins and blotches of mineral colors appear. This landscape confuses my sense of scale. What’s near and what is far away? I’m used to seeing a familiar plant here or there, but here, without any reference, my eyes and imagination struggle to make sense of macro and micro textures that appear, dissolve, repeat and reform as my perspective changes.
After wandering up a narrow ravine I found one sign of life, an area with a few small, purple cacti the same color as some of the rocks.
A light rain had started to fall as we got near the end of the drive. It would be exciting to see a violent flash flood, but I would not want to get caught out in these hills and ravines during any substantial precipitation.
Compared to the subtle, muted tones in Twenty Mule Team Canyon, at Artist Palette color appears to be bleeding out of the crust of the earth.
Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes
We woke up before dawn, put on our headlamps (the power was out at our hotel so, literally, the headlamps went on immediately after waking), drove to Mesquite Flats and wandered out into the sand dunes to see the sun come up.
Walk out a mile from the parking lot at Badwater Basin and you eventually find yourself and your friends alone in a vast, un-trampled, crystalline landscape, 86 meters below sealevel.
West Side Road
Also deep in the valley are taller, stranger salt structures along the West Side road. We visited these the next morning.
Changes Since 2014
We visited the same spot back in February 2014, and I was astonished how much the appearance of the structures has changed.
Above on the left a photograph from 2104 and on the right the same general vicinity in 2018.
The edges of the formations appear to be cleaving apart and a lot of dirt seems to have arrived, filling the interiors of the hexagons. Did the wind blow it there? Did the little rain that falls dissolve some of the salt back into the mud again? Both? I wonder how much the structures change month to month and year to year.
We had a new moon during our visit. Photographing the stars was a lot of fun, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I kept using longer and longer exposures (up to about four minutes), drawing longer star trails. I suppose what folks want to see is either no star trails or really long star trails. Next time. The short trails I captured seem to have the strange (to me) effect of making the photos look out of focus, but if you zoom in you’ll see the trails are all sharp.