Eastern California Road Trip: The Desert
Updated: Sep 3, 2021
Date: 1 - 4 December, 2020
Location: Panamint Valley, Mesquite Dunes, Badwater Basin, Ibex Dunes
Highlights: Clear blue skies, orange sunsets, solitude
Summary: Beautiful desert scenery such as sand dunes and hexagonal salt flats. We had good light and mild conditions.
I travelled home to the US before Christmas and needed a place to self-quarantine that wasn’t at home with my parents. My sister, Siena, and I decided to do a weeklong trip in Eastern California in self-isolation. This is part 2 of our adventures, recounting our time in the deserts.
The sun was setting and the mountains were orange and purple as we entered Death Valley National Park. On our first night we camped in Panamint Valley, a dry lake bed, devoid of vegetation and wildlife – or so we thought. As we set up camp and cooked dinner, we were greeted by a bold kangaroo mouse that had no trouble approaching humans if it meant getting some of our Mac and Cheese!
Further into the night, we explored the lake bed, fully illuminated by the moon. The ground was tiled into different cracks in the dried mud. The difference in texture was the only distinguishing feature of the valley floor, we were surrounded by nothing, save for the mountains in the distance and the stars above. I decided there was no harm in setting up my film camera to record the star trails throughout the night. We left it there for 9 hours and I retrieved it an hour before sunrise. I was completely alone, a kilometre from Siena and kilometres further from the nearest road. There was no wind and the only thing to disturb the silence was my walk across the lake bed. It was surreal. I found I wasn’t afraid of the solitude and darkness, but entranced by it.
Later that morning, we drove over the next range of mountains and descended into Death Valley, the namesake of Death Valley National Park. During our descent we could see the Mesquite dunes, our first location of the day. These dunes are readily accessible by car and are, therefore, covered in footprints from other travellers. The dunes are great for most people, but for those looking for an even more immersive experience, read on about our experience in the Ibex Dunes.
For the rest of the day, we put on our (metaphorical) mining hats and spent hours looking searching and picking apart rocks. Our second night ended with us camping to the west of Badwater Basin, amidst volcanic-looking rocks. We were greatly troubled to see 20 lights blinking in unison across the sky – it was days before we learned we had seen Space X’s Starlink!
Our third day, we woke before sunrise to drive to Badwater Basin, 282 metres (282 ft) below sea level, where salt crystals have formed into hexagons a metre in diameter. In the dawn light, the white crystals reflected the blue sky and gave off a blue appearance. We patiently waited for the sun to rise. As the sun peaked over the surrounding mountains, the cool blue light gave way to more brilliant orange and yellow light. It was during this time of transition that I took this picture, a new favourite of mine.
With the picture taken, I was satisfied I had done the best landscape photography I’ve ever done. Even though I shot this on film, and therefore had no idea what the shot would look like, I had put hours of research to finding good locations to photograph before the trip. Once in Death Valley, I learned how the geography of the valley produced the beautiful lighting shown above. Taking the picture was the easy part: the hard part was being in the right place at the right time.
From here, Siena and I meandered our way throughout the park, eventually reaching its southern border after a 2 hour drive. We managed to find a large spring where miners would stop on their journey to and from Death Valley in the 1800s. While it was a pleasant surprise to come across so much water in an otherwise dry desert, our goal for the day was travelling to our final location: the Ibex Dunes.
The Ibex Dunes are tucked into a remote corner of the park. You get off the highway, go on a dirt road, take it to another dirt road, and after being on this dirt road for 15 minutes, the Ibex Dunes reveal themselves, nestled behind a small set of mountains. Even then, you have to hike a couple of kilometres to access them from the dirt road. Perhaps it is no surprise there were no footprints. We had the whole place to ourselves!
On our final night, I left my camera for a 12-hour exposure to record the trails of starlight, hoping to align the North Star with the peak of the dune. For a shot like this, you frame it when there is still light, you guess the correct settings based on how bright the moon is expected to be and how long it remains in the sky. Then you wait for night to fall, cross your fingers, and start the exposure. There was nothing left to do but head back to camp in the dark, alone. As I walked back, I did my best to quash any thoughts related to potentially coming across a mountain-lion. I did not succeed and ran back to our campsite as fast as I could!
In the hour before sunrise, I made the two kilometre walk back to the camera, this time more confident I would not come across any predators. I ended the exposure and hoped for the best. This is the photo I came away with:
With all the effort required to get to the dunes, I stayed for sunrise to enjoy the dramatic game of light and shadows that came with the low angled light.
After this morning session, I returned to camp and Siena and I departed for San Diego. On our way back, both of us took a rapid Covid test and we both tested negative. After an 8-hour journey, we made it home, our trip had been a success! After over 10 months away from home, I could finally see my parents again!
Detailed topographic map: https://tomharrisonmaps.com/shop/death-valley-natl-park/
Guide for Landscape Photography: https://www.naturephotoguides.com/e-books/death-valley
Current highway conditions: https://roads.dot.ca.gov/