Death Valley Journal, Part 1

Our Pauls Photo DV adventure was slated to begin at lunch on Thursday, so I arrived a day early. I usually start one of these commercial photo tour by arriving a day or two ahead. I use these things as a quick overview to a park, landscape location scouting being a side benie of the detailed site exploration you get on these photo tours. Then, after it’s over, I explore some of those sites more deeply or reach out to spots that never got covered.

With Death Valley, I decided to take one extra day before and one after, giving me an extra evening and morning shoot to check out the location on my own. So on Wed. at 9AM I found myself heading north on the 110 … to Barstow, Baker and beyond….

Heading Out

From LA, Death Valley is kinda on the way to Vegas. You jump on Interstate 15 up around San Berdo, continue on it past Barstow (stopping at the Starbucks that’s just of the road), drive on till Baker. Then off the freeway heading north/west for another couple hours (without forgetting to stop at the Greek in Baker for a filo-and-honey pastry).

On that Wed., I had lunch at the Mad Greek and got my honey and pistachio to go. The Greek place is just on the other side of the highway exit and underpass — right across from the World’s Tallest Thermometer.

Baker is not a stop I ever make on the Vegas trip, the Mad Greek being the only lure. The place exists because the Death Valley Road starts there. But Baker has a bit of a Route 66 feel to it, like a 50s desert town encased in amber. The facade of the Greek restaurant takes that 50s desert attitude and pumps in a dollop of bad Hellenistic statuary — so it’s great fun and the food’s better than most of these road stops. The Greek founders seem long gone (anyone know) but the Latino staff carries on the ancient tradition with style. In fact, they do the food fairly well, considering the eclectic menu. So it’s a fun stop, better than what you usually get restaurants in the desert.

Going north you get a long and straight shot north on Rt. 127, an hour’s drive if you’re a lead-foot. Once you get to Amargosa (and the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel), you have a slower hour on Rt. 190, the park road, that takes you to Furnace Creek.

…………………….

Furnace Creek is a town I guess. It has a post office, two large national park resorts (both being majorly renovated), the NP Visitors Center, a seriously overpriced gas station, a jeep rental and about 20 actual residents.

I looked the town over and stopped in at the Visitors Center to study the possibilities for an early Thurs. shoot spot. The rangers started things off with the National Park fees. I’d mislaid my Lifetime Pass and they don’t have a database of pass members (time to join the 20th Century maybe) so I got to purchase a new park pass. I wandered back up Rt 190 to shoot Zabriskie Point in the late afternoon light.

…………………….

That night I got to experience the cuisine available at The Ranch for the first time. It turned out that the usual restaurant choices were in renovation process so Xantera go their sandwiches and burgers made at an unnamed location, rendering my chicken piece cold and tasteless. Luckily Xantera continued to charge NP restaurant prices for their work. I began to wish my motel room had a microwave.

As Mark Comon, long-time leader of the Pauls Photo Death Valley trips points out, you don’t go to DV for the culinary experience.

……………………..

The Promise of Death Valley

So why do landscape photographers go to DV? Why is there the particular fondness?

Locations. Certainly the locations are a lot of it. Badwater, Zabriskie, Scottys Castle, Mesquite Wells Sand Dunes, Dantes View, Rhyolite (just off the park), and a bunch of road pull-off shots. It has some great locations.

Mystique. Hottest spot on the continent, mining, Wild West, desert live at it’s most forbidding.

Landscape. Landscape, geology, is the foundation of what we do. And without the annoying vegetation, DV manages to show geology in its barest, most stripped down form.

Color. There’s something abut the colors of the place, the pastel colors you get at Zabriskie, the softest creams in the sand at Mesquite. A far different palette than you find up at Zion or Arches. And that allows your work to get at the subtleties.

Death Valley is unique.

Next, finding the point of Zabriskie

Death Valley Overview

I recently did a photo tour to Death Valley put on by Pauls Photo in Torrance. Some random notes:

Death Valley is the largest National Park outside Alaska at 3.4 million acres. That makes it larger than several states and one and a half times larger than Yellowstone.

Central Death Valley

Where to Photograph. With this much land area, the park is full of locations that are popular with photographers, Dantes View, Zabriskie Point, Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, Badwater, Darwin Falls, Golden Canyon, Scotty’s Castle (currently closed for renovation). There are also lots of neat photo spots that are just pull-offs from the road. The Devil’s Golf Course, Artist’s Drive, Harmony Borax Works are of less interest for enthusiasts (OK, the park lists them as “must see”) but they’re all close to the center park area if you have time.

Dante's View

Dantes View offers a great view of the Valley but is currently closed. 

There’s also good photo locations just outside the park boundaries. Just east of the park, the Rhyolite Ghost Town has some cool sights. Going northwest, you can stop at the Alabama Hills area (by Lone Pine) and Mt Whitney.

Rhyolite Ghost Town

Rhyolite Ghost Town

When to Go. There’s a reason no one in their right mind goes to Death Valley in summer, heat. The temperature’s been clocked at 134 degrees. That’s not healthy for humans or for cars. Quoting the park web site, “Outside activity is not recommended at that time of year.” Aside from being able to fry an egg on the hood of your car, what’s the point? Getting your picture taken with a big thermometer at the Visitors Center?

Photographers should plan to visit in winter or early spring. During winter the nights and early morning can be cold. On our late January trip, the temps were almost freezing on a couple of mornings. And at 4,000+ ft and high winds, Dantes View was painfully cold. So bring your long johns and a warm windproof jacket. But things do get warm in midday so layer.

Where We Stayed. Like all National Parks, Death Valley accommodations and restaurant choices are limited by design. That keeps the locations pristine (and the prices high). The facilities within the park have little motel fridges but no microwave. You can find accommodations at Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Springs — or you can stay outside the park at Beatty, Pahrump, Lone Pine, etc., and drive a very long way.

Furnace Creek is the obvious place to stay at if your a photographer. It’s the closest location for Dantes View, Badwater, Zabriskie Point, and the other stuff in the central valley. Stovepipe Wells is right next to the Mesquite Sand Dunes.

But this year, The Inn at Furnace Creek is closed for remodeling. The Ranch is also at Furnace and is open but it’s also undergoing major remodeling and as a result the restaurant situation in that area is dismal. They didn’t have a fully operational kitchen so the food they did have was mostly salads, burgers and chicken sandwiches — that had been cooked earlier and were served cold. Pizza was the only meal that was edible.

That situation didn’t stop XANTERRA, the parent company, from charging fancy restaurant prices though, ($15 for a chicken sandwich that Macdonalds does better for $4). Things were so bad we drove the half hour to Stovepipe Wells each night to get a decent (but overpriced) meal. So call ahead if you’re planning on staying at Furnace Creek and think about bringing your own food.

That’s it for now.

%d bloggers like this: