Brett and I recently got back from our second epic Californian road trip. Our most recent adventure was a photography trip along California’s scenic Highway 395. Sitting down to start blogging about the trip has been somewhat daunting, made particularly challenging by having to narrow down the 3,249 digital photos we took!
I thought the easiest way to start was at the beginning…so here we are. This is the first of four posts about our trip, focusing on one of the main highlights – our three days in Death Valley! Fair warning...this is a long blog post. Feel free to skip through and just look at the pictures, they're what I'm most proud of anyways!
When Brett was invited to be a groomsman in the wedding of a close friend in California in early November, we thought it could be a good opportunity for a trip to the desert. In the past, I have only visited the US in the summer, when the scorching temperatures make it (virtually) impossible to visit the desert. An autumn trip would provide the cool temperatures that make this kind of trip more pleasant. When we saw that the week after the wedding was a new moon, I was convinced. Mild weather and starry skies – what more could you want?
We started planning our road trip in June 2023, brainstorming the things we wanted to do during our week in Death Valley. Mother Nature, however, had other plans. In August 2023, Hurricane Hilary hit California, dropping about a year's worth of rain for Death Valley in just one day, making it the rainiest day in the park's history! Extensive flood damage completely shut the park and we weren't sure we would get to visit at all! We were, therefore, relieved to learn that part of the park was reopening in mid-October. Knowing that many of the places we’d wanted to see in Death Valley were still inaccessible, we made a new itinerary of places to visit along Highway 395.
Day 1 // San Diego to Lone Pine
On Wednesday morning, we finished packing up the car, said goodbye to Brett's parents, and set off after morning traffic. Leaving San Diego, we followed Highway 15 north, stopping on the way to pick up maps and a California Road & Recreation Atlas (which ended up being one of the best purchases of the trip!). Leaving the urban sprawl around Los Angeles, the landscape opened up to reveal sweeping vistas. Highway 395 stretched far into the distance, mountains stretching up on either side of the valley. As we drove, we looked for license plates from around the country. By the end of my time in California, we had spotted 47 of the 50 states, many of which we saw on the drive to Lone Pine.
On the recommendation of an employee at the photography store in San Diego, we pulled off Highway 395 to visit Fossil Falls – a large field of volcanic rock formations. Although Brett had driven this highway countless times, it was his first time visiting Fossil Falls. We enjoyed wandering down the dried riverbed, admiring the interesting rock formations. Although there was more to see, we were hoping to get to Alabama Hills before sunset, so we didn't spend long exploring.
A few minutes after getting back on the highway, we heard a loud *bang* which sounded like something hitting the roof of the car. At first, we thought perhaps Brett had left something on top of the car (it's happened before), but then we started hearing an odd thudding sound. Brett quickly pulled the car over into the median, which – thankfully – was flat, sandy, and huge. Safely away from the highway, we got out of the car to inspect the situation. One of the back tires was completely flat, thanks to a one-inch tear in the rubber, origin unknown.
By the time the tow truck arrived three hours later, the sun had set, and we were resigned to the fact that we might have to pay over $500 to have the car towed 70 miles to Lone Pine. While I was feeling pretty anxious, Brett, as always, remained remarkably calm. I don't know how he does it, but I'm always impressed.
Thankfully, we didn’t need to be towed as the mechanic was able to remove the hubcap and put on our spare tire, after inflating it. (Lesson learnt: make sure you have all the tools (and the know-how) to change out a spare and that your spare tire is fully inflated!).
We limped along to Lone Pine at under 50 miles per hour, our hazard lights blinking in the dark. Our slow pace was painfully obvious when we were overtaken by 18-wheeler trucks! Every bump made me nervous, so I was relieved when we finally pulled into the sleepy town of Lone Pine at 19:15. We had planned on camping in Alabama Hills that night, but there was no way we were going to attempt dirt roads on a spare tire! Instead we opted for a room at the Whitney Portal Hostel & Hotel (which was delightfully warm compared to the crisp evening air). After dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant, we returned to the hotel and fell asleep almost immediately, worn out from the stress of the evening.
Day 2 // Lone Pine to Death Valley
A morning in Lone Pine
Even though we weren't camping, we weren't going to miss the first sunrise of our trip! We got up at 6:00, pulled on our extra layers, and walked across the road to watch as the mountains turned from pink to gold. Mount Whitney was visible in the distance – the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet (4,421 metres).
Brett demonstrated his dedication to getting the perfect shot.
We walked back to the hotel, packed up our stuff, and drove out to the garage so we wouldn’t have to wait long to be seen by the mechanic. The tire replacement was expensive, but was finished in about 20 minutes. We felt lucky that the garage had the tire we needed in stock – we overheard someone else who would be stuck in Lone Pine while waiting for a replacement. I was still feeling nervous about going to Death Valley, knowing how expensive it would be to get towed if we got another flat tire! Luckily, this was the only major car mishap we encountered on the trip and we never had to get towed.
Before setting off, we stopped for breakfast at the Alabama Hills Café & Bakery, which was equal parts charming and incredibly expensive. We stocked up on some extra camping food and then drove out to the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center, where we bought a Tom Harrison Death Valley map. I was in awe of the vibrant autumn colours around Lone Pine, so we pulled the car over a few times to take pictures. As Brett reminded me, we were on a photography trip, after all.
Driving into Death Valley
It was finally time to enter Death Valley! As of our trip in mid-November, road repairs along the western entrance were still ongoing, so there were two single-lane sections where we had to wait to be escorted by a pilot car. Luckily neither wait was too long.
We stopped in Panamint Valley to take some photos on the dry lakebed. The valley floor was remarkably green, and I was particularly surprised to see flowers!
After going over another set of mountains, we reached Stovepipe Wells, where we bought an annual National Parks Pass and claimed a pitch at the campground. While we had hoped to wild camp on our trip, most of the areas where wild camping is permitted were inaccessible due to closed roads.
Sunset at Mesquite Dunes
One of the main reasons I had wanted to visit Death Valley was to photograph the sand dunes. While originally planning our trip, we had planned to spend a few days near Ibex Dunes, in the southern part of Death Valley, but the hurricane damage meant that particular dune field was inaccessible during our trip.
Instead, we visited Mesquite Dunes – the most busy and popular dunes in the national park. When we arrived, we agreed to avoid the tallest dunes, and instead turned right, heading out towards a series of smaller dunes. It was definitely the right decision, because after just a few minutes, we found dunes with few footprints, the sand seemingly untouched. I quickly fell in love with the dunes: the shapes and colours, and the joy of running around barefoot taking photos and jumping down the sandy banks.
As the sun went down, the light turned golden, casting the dunes in a soft warm light. The temperatures dipped with the sun, and we began to make our way back through the dunes to the parking lot.
Back at the campsite, the stars were already coming out. Jupiter was bright, hanging above the horizon. We pitched the tent, then warmed up with some tea while playing a game of chess by the light of our headtorches. It was our first night in our new 2-person bug shelter from YAMA Mountain Gear and I loved it. The roof is a fine mesh, which didn't help keep us warm, but did let us look up at the stars from the comfort of our sleeping bags. Every time I woke up during the night, I was comforted by the sight of the starry sky stretching out overhead.
Day 3 // Death Valley photography day
Sunrise in the dunes
At 4:45, our alarm went off and we quietly made our way to the car and set off towards the dunes. When we arrived, we strapped on our headtorches and set off in search of interesting dunes to photograph. The sky was a pastel pink and the landscape was cast in a soft purple light. I remember thinking: 'This is so amazing, the lighting can't get better than this!'
The first rays of sunlight, however, quickly proved me wrong. The purple light changed immediately golden, highlighting the incredible patterns carved into the sand by the wind. In the distance, the mountain tops were tinged with gold. We spent a few hours exploring the dunes, jumping in the sand, and taking an incredible number of photos. It was still pretty cold out, so my portrait shoots were short and sweet.
As the sky brightened, we continued further into the dunes, seeking out patterns and interesting shapes. For the most part, we were completely alone. The only other people we encountered were other photographers, seeking out the dune’s desolate beauty. Every direction we looked offered a new, unique view.
Although we both would have enjoyed exploring further, the sun was getting high, so we eventually agreed to turn around and make our way back towards the parking lot. Taking a different route back, we were shocked to see a small pond in the dunes! New surprises awaited us around every corner.
The view of the dunes on the drive back to Stovepipe Wells was worth stopping for.
Back at the campsite, we ate oatmeal for breakfast (the first of many oatmeal breakfasts) before packing down our tent. While camping at an established campground wasn't exactly what we'd originally hoped for, it did come with some perks – including having a table to prepare our meals and not having to dig a hole every time we needed to use the toilet!
From Stovepipe Wells, we drove past Furnace Creek to our next campsite at Texas Springs. We drove around the campground multiple times before choosing a pitch near the edge of the campsite, where the rocks climbed up into an almost-alien landscape. Can you spot me in the valley?
While stopped at the Furnace Creek Visitor Centre, we realised most of our cooking equipment was missing. So back we went to Stovepipe Wells! Luckily it was right where we'd left it, drying near the sinks.
Badwater Basin & Lake Manly
Back on the road, it was finally time to drive to Badwater Basin. Typically an extensive dry lakebed, Badwater Basin was flooded during the summer's hurricane, transforming it into Lake Manly. The ephemeral lake is a rare sight in the United State's lowest and hottest point, so we felt very lucky our trip had aligned to give us the opportunity to see it. Usually it appears every few years, but only for a few days. This time, it was here for over three months!
From the main carpark, we walked down onto Badwater Basin, the salt crunchy beneath our feet. After a few minutes of walking, we approached the edge of the lake, crowded with people. The afternoon was very still, which made for some incredible reflections in the shallow water. I wasted no time – I put on my red dress and made my way, barefoot, out to a small spit of salt. We communicated using Brett's radios as he captured these photos from the main lakeshore.
These photos do a good job of making it look like we had the whole place to ourselves, but in reality, there were lots of people clustered around the edge of the lake. We moved around the lake to find other viewpoints with fewer people, trying our best to walk only where others had walked before us. As the shadows climbed up the mountainside, we were joined by a number of other photographers capturing sunset.
As the sun was setting, we agreed we would stay until it was dark to take some photos of the night sky over Lake Manly. We walked back to the car, where we prepared rehydrated camping meals. By the time we’d finished dinner, it was completely dark. We grabbed our folding chairs and navigated back out to the same spot we'd watched sunset. Brett set up both his film cameras to shoot star trails, while I shot with the digital camera. Sat just metres from the water's edge, we admired the dark skies, clear reflections, and numerous shooting stars. After running around all day, it was remarkably peaceful to just sit in one place, the quiet punctuated only by some other photographers laughing occassionally in the distance. We were surprised at how warm it was, but after an hour, a cold wind started. Feeling chilly and with the reflections disturbed by the wind, we packed up our cameras and made our way back to the car. Even after all the amazing adventures we had on our trip, this day of photography in Death Valley – sunrise in the dunes and stargazing at Lake Manly – was definitely our highlight of the trip.
We drove back to the Texas Springs campsite, where we met up with Siena and Zach, who had arrived in the park that evening. The cold wind was still blowing, so we pitched the tarp over our tent to help keep us warm. After making a provisional plan for the following day, it was time for bed.
Day 4 // Death Valley highlights day
Brett and I started with another early morning. We were up at 4:30, ready to drive 40 minutes to Dante's View – a popular viewpoint of Death Valley. As the road climbed in elevation, an alarm on the car warned us that the temperature outside had dropped below 39 °F (4 °C). We arrived before sunrise, the intense colours and rising moon making for some dramatic shots.
Looking off the other side of the viewpoint, we could see Lake Manly spread out 5,575 feet (1,699 metres) below us. The sky filled with pastel colours before the first rays of light hit the mountains on the far side of the valley. We thought it would be pretty crowded, but there weren’t too many people – maybe not everyone is crazy enough to get up that early for sunrise!
Bundled up in all our layers, we managed to stay warm while shooting sunrise.
On our drive back to the campsite, we stopped briefly at Zabriske Point. We were shocked to have the whole place to ourselves! We took some pictures from the viewpoint, but didn't have time to wander down into the badlands. If we go back to Death Valley again in the future, this is definitely somewhere I'd be keen to explore more!
Back at the campsite, we met up with Siena and Zach, cooked breakfast, and then packed up. There was a festival going on in the park that weekend, so we got the chance to look at the sun through special telescopes, which allow you to see solar flares and sunspots!
Badwater Basin (again)
We drove back down to Badwater Basin so that Siena and Zach could see it. We were surprised to see someone kayaking in the shallow water!
The next stop on our whirlwind Death Valley highlights tour was to see the Natural Bridge. The hike weaves through an impressive canyon, with dried waterfalls carved into the canyon walls. After going under the natural bridge, the number of people dropped. We climbed up a dried waterfall, sat in the shade and ate our lunch.
Devil's Golf Course
The salt here has been sculpted into large crystal formations, but the highlight was seeing a saline pool. We couldn't see the bottom of the pool, so we have no idea how deep the green water was – it was easy to imagine a sea monster living in its depths, circling somewhere below our feet.
On the way back to Furnace Creek, we took Artist's Drive – a one-way, winding road through the badlands. The highlight of the drive is Artist's Palette, a hillside featuring colours from volcanic deposits. Like at Zabriske Point, I would have loved to take longer to explore the many trails in the area, but we wanted to get to the dunes for sunset, so unfortunately, we ran out of time.
Sunset in the dunes (again)
Siena and Zach were keen to see the dunes, so we drove back to Mesquite Dunes for sunset. We briefly joined a guided tour, where we learnt about the abundance of life that manages to live in the dunes despite the harsh conditions. We learnt how to identify the footprints of animals that live in the dunes, and spotted lizard, kangaroo mice, and beetle tracks. There were clouds in the sky, which made for a colourful sunset. But for once, Brett and I weren't running around madly trying to capture it all on multiple cameras. Instead, we just sat and enjoyed watching the sun dip down behind the mountains.
As it grew dark, we left the dunes and drove back to the shop at Stovepipe Wells to get a snack to hold us over until dinner. Sitting on the rocking chairs, the others ate their ice creams, while I ate a giant pickle. The dream.
Wild camping in Panamint Valley
Brett and I decided that we had seen most of what was open in the park, so we would exit the park on Sunday morning. We really wanted to have at least one night of wild camping in Death Valley, so we agreed to try camping in Panamint Valley. Brett and Siena had camped here in 2020 and it was one of the few dirt roads open in the national park.
The drive to Panamint Valley from Stovepipe Wells was not my favourite, as I'm not particularly a fan of winding mountain roads in the dark. Safely on the other side of the mountains, we turned right off the highway and began following the dirt road. Siena and Zach were driving a low clearance vehicle, so parked off the side of the road while Brett and I continued slowly along the bumpy road. Around a mile off the highway, we spotted a perfect camping spot. We unloaded most of our stuff and then Brett drove away, into the darkness, to pick up Siena and Zach. We stayed in touch using our radios and I took pictures of the stars to distract myself from the quiet and darkness. When the others arrived, we set up camp and cooked our dinners, before walking out to explore the dry lake bed. After camping at busy established campsites it was fun to finally wild camp – to feel so close to Nature.
Day 5 // Leaving Death Valley
Sunrise in Panamint Valley
Up early (again), Brett and I stopped our star trails and walked back out to the dried lake bed for sunrise. We had a leisurely morning with Siena and Zach, chatting over breakfast as the light crept towards us along the valley floor.
And back onto Highway 395...
After driving back out to the main road and saying goodbye to Siena and Zach, we began the drive out of Death Valley. And that's where we're going to leave this blog post! Thanks so much for reading, I'm impressed you've made it this far! Stay tuned for posts about the rest of our trip, including a night in Alabama Hills (and the most dramatic sunrise of the trip), a 10-mile hike in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and a trip to see some of the oldest trees in the world! Make sure you subscribe below so you don't miss the next post!