Death Valley National Park is one of those rare places on this planet that does not cease to amaze every time you visit it. Thanks to its unusually dry weather conditions, cold winters and extremely hot summers, the park goes through a number of transformations throughout the year. And such changes can be observed in many of its rich and diverse landscapes, especially if you pay a visit at the right time of the year. I have visited Death Valley as early as January and as late as April (you certainly do not want to be there past May, as the temperatures in late spring and summer can soar as high as 130F!) and I have also been there once in the fall. Each time I visited, I saw something unique that I had previously never seen before, especially once I started exploring the park a bit more than just the main roads. In this article, I would like to hopefully show just some of the beauty of the stunning and the ever-surprising Death Valley National Park and show you some of my most favorite parts of the park I like to visit.
If you enter the park from its southeastern entrance (Death Valley Junction, state road 190), the first spot you can stop by is the legendary Zabriskie Point. Without a doubt, Zabriskie Point is one of the most popular spots in Death Valley, thanks to the unusual beauty and the glorious views it offers. You can park your car right by the observation area – the walk is very short and you don’t need to plan in advance to find a good spot. That is, if you are planning to photograph from the common area that everyone else will be visiting. While the observation area definitely gives a beautiful view of the colorful landscape, if you want to capture the Manly Beacon from a better vantage point, you can try hiking the trail to the right of the parking lot and get an amazing view of both the Manly Beacon and the Badwater Basin in the distance:
DSC-RX100M4 + 24-70mm F1.8-2.8 @ 23.53mm, ISO 125, 1/200, f/5.6
However, I must warn you that this is a very treacherous hike and you should only try doing this if you are not afraid of heights and you have the right hiking shoes, along with a solid health condition. The ground is very slippery and if it rains or snows, you should never even attempt to go there. I have been on this trail a number of times and I once managed to fall on the side of the trail (my shoes slipped on the side gravel) – it was extremely difficult to climb back up, especially with my backpack full of camera gear. I would not recommend to hike this trail alone, especially if you visit the park during off-season times, as you might not get any help for a while! I have had people who had a very hard time climbing back down from this trail, as in some areas it is pretty slippery and downright scary.
Still, if you are a brave soul and you know what you are doing, it is worth checking out Zabriskie Point from a completely different angle. Here is one of my most favorite images that I was able to capture from this trail, after being there unsuccessfully many, many times:
PENTAX 645Z + smc PENTAX-FA645 45-85mm F4.5 @ 65mm, ISO 100, 1/2, f/11.0
A really cool place to check out on your way to Badwater Basin is the Artists Drive. With so many beautiful colors on display, you will quickly realize why it carries such a name. While this spot might not be ideal for photographing sunrises and sunsets, you might want to check it out during storms, early mornings and late afternoons. Lots of opportunities here, especially if you equip yourself with a telephoto lens. Something like the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G or the smaller and lighter 70-200mm f/4G VR would be ideal here.
NIKON D750 + 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 200mm, ISO 110, 1/200, f/8.0
Badwater Basin is another spot that you cannot miss, especially in the winter and early spring when the basin gets flooded with some water. I visit Badwater every time I visit the park, because there is always something interesting to see. In the winter months, you might be lucky to see small ponds filled with water. Combined with the heavy deposits of salt, you might witness stunning formations that will give you practically limitless photographic opportunities. In the beginning of this year, I was lucky to see such a phenomenon – water filled up a lot of the basin due to heavy snow and rain, which created many beautiful ponds like this:
DSC-RX100M4 + 24-70mm F1.8-2.8 @ 10.42mm, ISO 200, 1/8, f/8.0
To take advantage of this opportunity, I practically visited Badwater every morning during my visit and even got lucky a couple of times to capture some color both in the sky and the reflections:
DSC-RX100M4 + 24-70mm F1.8-2.8 @ 16.17mm, ISO 125, 1/160, f/5.6
Summertime and late fall are not the best times of the year to visit Badwater, since the water dries up and the salt formations are not nearly as beautiful. If the winter season is dry, you might need to walk for miles to find something interesting and worth photographing. Make sure to take lots of water with you, as it gets incredibly dry and hot. If it gets sunny, make sure to apply sunscreen, or you will burn very quickly!
Towards Salt Creek
As you drive from the Furnace Creek area towards Salt Creek, pay a close attention to your surroundings – you might find some great opportunities on the way. Thanks to all the rain that flooded much of the Badwater Basin area, there were plenty of opportunities to photograph small ponds and reflections this year. I captured the below reflection in late afternoon while hiking:
DSC-RX100M4 + 24-70mm F1.8-2.8 @ 20.81mm, ISO 125, 1/200, f/5.6
And my good buddy Tunc Yildirim found the below formations further down the road, which were really cool to see and photograph:
NIKON D810 + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 52mm, ISO 64, 2/1, f/11.0
Mesquite Sand Dunes
Mesquite Sand Dunes is another prime spot for photography and for a good reason – the beautiful sand formations, along with the surreal mountain rangers surrounding the dunes give a lot of different photographic opportunities. You can literally photograph there from every angle! Another reason why I love Mesquite Sand Dunes, is because it is an excellent place to put your composition skills in practice. Since the dunes change shape and form each year, there is a high chance that you will end up with unique, self-inspired photographs. Here is one of my most favorite photographs from this location, which I captured in 2015:
NIKON D5500 + 16-28mm f/2.8 @ 16mm, ISO 100, 1/4, f/11.0
The amazing thing about Mesquite Sand Dunes, is that once the colors start to change, you can take a number of amazing images – all you have to do is quickly move from one spot to another in order to find different angles:
NIKON D5500 + 16-28mm f/2.8 @ 16mm, ISO 100, 1/3, f/11.0
And if you don’t mind a long hike, you can get better vantage points to see the distant mountain ranges:
ILCE-7R + FE 35mm F2.8 ZA @ 35mm, ISO 200, 1/25, f/8.0
If the colors aren’t there, you can even do some great black and white work, or even infrared. Here is an image I captured with my infrared-converted Nikon D800E:
NIKON D800E + 16-28mm f/2.8 @ 21mm, ISO 800, 1/80, f/5.6
My recommendation would be to park your car before you get to the main parking area. If you don’t do that, you will have to walk a lot longer to get to footprint-free areas. Since Mesquite is one of the hotspots in the park, there will be lots of tourists hiking from the parking lot in all directions. Make sure to take plenty of water with you and if it is windy, I would highly recommend to be properly equipped – you do not want to be inhaling all that dust and sand, and you definitely do not want all that ending up in your eyes.
Another important note is on your camera gear. Make sure to use protective filters and keep your camera gear in your backpack until you are ready to shoot. Remember, sand will easily scratch glass and it can seriously damage your camera gear if you are not careful. If you shoot in sand dunes, always make sure to clean your camera gear with a light brush afterwards. I personally do my best to clean up my camera gear after each visit, since my trip might get too costly!
Wildlife in the desert? Heck yeah! If you think Death Valley is only good for your wide angle lenses, you are totally wrong. Aside from snakes and lizards, Death Valley has an abundance of all kinds of wildlife – from different bird species to foxes and coyotes. If you have one of those nice super telephoto lenses, don’t forget it at home – you might be surprised by what you might see just driving along the main roads. Here an image of a coyote that decided to hide behind the bushes when I was taking its portrait:
NIKON D750 + 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 100, 1/320, f/5.6
And here is a large lizard that I found while hiking close to the Artists Drive area:
NIKON D750 + 300mm f/4 @ 300mm, ISO 100, 1/1600, f/4.0
I have seen foxes, huge cottontails, deer, bighorn sheep and all kinds of species of birds, especially near the Scotty’s Castle.
Speaking of, Scotty’s Castle is another place I would certainly recommend checking out for some great photographic opportunities. Not only is the castle itself beautiful, but thanks to the large trees and bushes surrounding the castle, this is the place to visit if you want to see local and migrating birds. I would recommend to take a guided tour of the castle, since there is so much to discover here! I love this area of the park. Sadly, Scotty’s castle was closed during my January visit this year due to floods, so I could not pay a visit this time.
NIKON D800E + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 52mm, ISO 200, 1/50, f/8.0
If you have the time, I would definitely encourage exploring the western side of the park. It is quite a drive from Furnace Creek, but in my opinion, well worth the visit. If you drive towards Wildrose campground, make sure to visit the really cool Charcoal Kilns. I have only seen them once, but I would definitely love to return there in the future, since I really loved photographing them. Since the area is at much higher elevation, you might not want to drive there in the winter – it was rather difficult to drive all the way to the kilns due to the snow and ice on the road. Still, it was worth the drive! Here is an image I captured on a pretty cold January afternoon:
DSC-RX100M4 + 24-70mm F1.8-2.8 @ 14.1mm, ISO 125, 1/400, f/5.6
I can only imagine how cool this would look with some color in the sky!
Another pretty far, but worthwhile drive is towards the northern side of the park. As you drive on road 190, you can take the Big Pine Road (4×4 recommended) towards Eureka Valley. The highlight here is Eureka Dunes – huge dunes when compared to Mesquite Dunes that offer stunning views and some incredible hiking opportunities. It is a pretty long drive, since you have to drive north, then drive south towards the dunes, but in my opinion, well worth the effort. You can capture the dunes from the road, as I have done in the below photograph:
NIKON D810 + 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 200mm, ISO 100, 1/400, f/8.0
Or you can hike the dunes and take close-up shots like this:
DSC-RX100M4 + 24-70mm F1.8-2.8 @ 8.8mm, ISO 125, 1/200, f/8.0
Although I have driven past Eureka Dunes, I would not recommend doing it unless you have a very good 4×4 setup and you know what you are doing.
Want to see a playa with strange rocks and traces of their movements? Enter the Racetrack. This place had all kinds of legends about rock movements – from stories of evil spirits and ghosts doing the work, all the way to aliens! Gladly, it was all debunked after proper research was carried out, which proved that the rocks are moved by the forces of ice, water and wind. What an incredible place to visit – I have been at the Racetrack only twice and I would love to go there again, since there are so many great opportunities there. Here is one of my most favorite images from the Racetrack, which I captured at sunrise:
ILCE-7R + FE 16-35mm F4 ZA OSS @ 21mm, ISO 100, 16/10, f/16.0
The Racetrack is one of the most difficult places to get to in the park, since road conditions can get bad rather quickly. You will need big fat tires if you want to go faster than 5-10 miles per hour, since there are plenty of very sharp rocks that can severely damage your tires. It will take a few hours to get there, so if you plan on visiting the Racetrack, I would start driving early. There is a campground all the way at the end of the road, but there are no facilities or water. Plus, it can get pretty cold and windy at night, so you will need to be properly equipped to camp there.
ILCE-7R + FE 16-35mm F4 ZA OSS @ 16mm, ISO 100, 6/10, f/16.0
I hope you enjoyed this article, along with the photographs of Death Valley. If you have a chance to visit the park, I hope you can use this article as a guide to help you find some amazing locations. Please keep in mind that I kept the list rather short – there is far more to explore in the park than presented here. And that’s the beauty of visiting Death Valley!
Please share your photographs and your stories related to Death Valley in the comments section below.
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