As an adjunct to David King’s class (http://ndktravels.wordpress.com/) my friend Mike Uriell and I went to Death Valley. Mike had never been there before so it was a first time adventure, for him and it turned out to be complicated too.nex
The drive to Baker California was easy since we left at O Dark 30 (3am) to get to Silver lake for sunrise. There we encountered huge truck rumbling down a dirt road coming form the mine in the distant hills. The wind was blowing the the dust they stirred up covered my car with a quarter inch of dirt. I was parked down wind from them. We hopped to the up wind side of the road to take picture and get out of the dust. Later I drove a 110 miles and hour to blow off the dirt.
We ducked in at Dumont Dunes which is a favorite off road vehicle play ground. The dunes are lit well in the early morning sun but covered with vehicle tracks. The BLM charges $30.00 to see it. If you are going to photograph sand dunes save your money and go somewhere else. We drove north from there to Shoshone a small village in Inyo county with one tiny hotel and one restaurant for breakfast. There used to be some old cars and mining junk there to photograph but they cleaned it out so we settled for pancakes.
On the road again I was looking forward to Death Valley junction where I had stopped many times to spend an hour or two photographing it’s features and funkiness. Not this time. Fences were up trees were gone and the only thing left was the home of Marta Becket’s Alamogordo Opera House built in 1899. Peter Lik has a new small building across the road with his big landscape prints displayed in the windows. It was a big let down from prior visits there.
Next stop was to the ghost town of Rhyolite on the way into Death Valley. Rhyolite was a popular mining town and the home of Tom Kelly’s Bottle House. Most of the site is in ruins but a great place to photograph and especially at night when you can light paint the ruins. It seems the BLM has struck again. Now there are chain link fences around the buildings and they have cleaned out a lot of the junk to beautify the landscape. The bottle house has an 8 foot fence around it and they removed the old sand cast windows and installed new Anderson windows. It is no longer photographer friendly.
So far this trip has not lived up to what it should be. Driving down into the Valley we drove through the Twenty Mule Team Canyon and I was glade to see that nothing had changed there. The wind was blowing some dust and the high thin clouds filtered the sun softening the shadows giving the contours and shapes of the hills an erie ghost like appearance. My car was covers again with another layer of dust.
Further down the road we pulled up to Zabriskie Point on the east side of the valley. It is a very popular stop of photographers and tourist. There is a maze of wildly eroded and colored hills and valleys and one of the most photographed features in the park. From the parking lot there is a shot up hill walk to the lookout area. About one third of the look out is now bordered with a 6 foot chain link fence blocking any photographing opportunity there. You can side step the fens to the north and still get good photos. The best lighting is at sunrise.
Mike and I pushed on down to the bottom of the valley and pulled in at the Devils Golf Course. Huge halite salt crystals cover the area and carpet it with a texture worth photographing. The thick high clouds flattened the contrast but it was still good for photographing. The heat radiating off the valley floor was registering 103 degrees. The salt bed is said to be several thousand feet thick in some places.
We left that cool place and drove to Furnace Creek and living up to that name is was stifling hot there. Were were waiting for the rest of the group to show up there and to not waste our time we spent some effort to photograph the old Borax mining wagons there. They have a lot of great texture and graphic design. The wind was drying us out rapidly and when the rest of the group arrived we quickly dashed into the restaurant there for lunch and a lot of cold water. The food was good. Gas prices at the Chevron station was toping out at $5.99 per gallon. In Beaty Nevada where we stayed at the Motel 8 fuel was only $3.65 per gallon. You can guess where we filled up.
The wind created an atmospheric haze along with the diffusion from the high cloud layer which together reduced contrast and color and any long range landscape photography. Not what you want for good imaging in Death Valley. We spent the rest of the day mostly in the air conditioned car and looking for things to do.
Friday the wind and clouds were still an issue but we made the best of it. Six am sunrise at Zabriskie Point lasted for 10 minutes and was enough to get some stunning images there.
Heavy clouds stayed with us most of the day but it was cooler, only 98 degree. My mood changed to anger with the park service at Bad Water where I used to get great images of the Panamint Mountains reflected in the pond of water there. For the tourist they have constructed a modern concrete parking platform with a fence to prevent you from even getting to the ponds and added a constructed a wooden walking platform to walk on out into the salt flat that is on every picture you take there. WTF!
Then Mike and I went to the King Mine. A favorite place to get some good images. Sorry the road is closed! You can’t go there because you might get some lead particle on your shoes or inhale bad fumes. Not that the 30 mile and hour winds blowing through the valley and hills would ever stir up any bad stuff and expose you to it. Maybe they will close the whole park when the wind makes a little aerial dust. What about the cars that stir up mining dust and minerals on the dirt roads? When the wind blows in Owens Valley they issue arsenic alerts in Lone Pine. I can see the Parks next move will be to issue such an alert and close the park so someone won’t sue them for the toxic dust in the air. OK. So I am in a bad mood and upset with the situation. I need to put this aside and make the best of it.
We rode up the dusty road to Mosaic Canyon and hiked in. At first glance it looks like any other rocky canyon but a bout 1/4 mile in it changes. The marble like walls are polished by sand and water and geological changes for millions of years are now polished dolomite and marble and layered metamorphic rock. The floor of the canyon is grey gravel and the walls a polished. When the gravel disappears the walking becomes like slick ice. Falling on your ass is easy as Mike discovered.
When we left there about 8am the hoards of visitors were descending on the dunes. By the time we got to the road and looked back the dunes were covered with people. We pushed onward to the west leaving Death Valley behind as we gained elevation at 4000 feet the wild flowers were covering the landscape. Westward down the steep decent we crossed the Panamint valley floor where military aircraft can be seen using it for low altitude runs. The ATCAA used by Nellis AFB, Edwards AFB, China Lake NAWS and Lemoore NAS blast through there at altitudes below 1500 feet.
We passed the Panamint Spring resort only slowing down enough to read their gas sign offering fuel at $7.65 per gallon. I don’t think they hear, “Filler up” very much.
Our next stop was Keeler. Keeler is located on the east shore of Owens Lake 11.5 miles south-southeast of New York Butte, at an elevation of 3602 feet. It is a lived in Ghost town where the Carson and Colorado Railroad train Depot remains neglected and abandoned. The silver mine in Cerro Gordo high in the mountain above Keeler kept it alive until the late 1800’s but mining tricked in until the 1950’s. The City of Los Angeles plunged the death blow by taking all the water from the Owens Lake and Keeler all but disappeared. Still a small number of residents live there. With all the wind, dust and smell of a dead lake I don’t know why they live there. For photographers it is a wonderful place to wander through exploring some of the past relics. We did and had a great time.
Spent the night in Lone Pine and got up before sunrise and went to the Alabama Hills and are a “range of hills” and rock formations near the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the Owens Valley. Hundreds of major movies and commercials have been filmed there and as early as the 1920’s film crews set up their cameras and let the film roll. Unfortunately in my opinion, the BLM management plans are being considered that will eventually include a scenic trail system that people may walk this geologic phenomena at a leisurely pace completely ignoring the adventure of their own discovery. They altered the old names for many of the unique sites in the hills. Nirvana arch is now named Mobius Arch. I have been photographing it since 1964 and it was photographer Galen Rowel’s signature places.
Of course sunrise n the Mount Whitney peak is always offering it’s unique ambience to amy photographer’s portfolio. We did just that before heading south on HYW 395 down to the Fossil Falls area where the Coso Volcanic Field brought flows from the north east and later Red Hill, which can be viewed from Fossil Falls, released the younger lava in red and black colors. It is best photographed in the morning with the eastern light enhancing the colors. It is also has an ancient Indian history where the Coso people lived some 20,000 years ago. At some time later the tribes evolved into the current Shoshone tribe. The BLM also has it hand in this and now have a parking lot, restrooms and marked tails. I expect to see the chain like fences arriving soon.
The image I have posted here is just a smattering from our trip. The rest can be seen here:peterson.jalbum.net
Please leave a comment so I know if this is of any value to you. Thank you. I have 50 years of experience traveling the Owens Valley and surrounding areas and if you have any questions I will try to answer them.