Photographing Death Valley – Part 1

This material concerning Death Valley is unavailable while revisions are underway. Thanks for your understanding. In the meantime, I will respond to comments left on this page.

(Update 3/22/13: The planned update to this article has been long-delayed, and for that I apologize. It turns out that the way I want to approach the subject in the revised version is a bit more complicated than I expected. I had anticipated completing an update in early 2013, but I decided to wait until after this year’s shoot in Death Valley so that I would write with that experience fresh in my mind.)

Also, more (but not all!) of my Death Valley photography is found here:

(Note: After a conversation with a friend who is a retired Yosemite ranger, in which he articulately explained why he has concerns about sharing overly specific information about sensitive and fragile places too widely, I have decided to revise this article about photographing Death Valley. The goal is to remove some of the unnecessarily specific details about places that don’t need a lot more publicity, and to let photographers who are new this wonderful park learn about it the way I did and continue to do – by slowly exploring and adding to my knowledge and experience of the place rather than looking for a quick list of the “great shots.” I hope you’ll understand.

© Copyright 2013 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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26 thoughts on “Photographing Death Valley – Part 1”

    1. Rosemary, you can read the draft of part II already – look for a link near the beginning of this piece. I keep hoping to finish it but other tasks have interfered. Mainly I need to add photographs to part 2… and split out some parts that I’m not quite ready to complete and turn them into a “draft part 3.”

      I may never finish this! :-)


  1. Dan,

    You sure know how to do it right and keep the natural feel to the place. Having been there I find them all too easy to relate to and connect with the reality of the place.


  2. Susan, if I don’t go in two weeks (still haven’t decided) I’ll likely be there on almost exactly your dates. Keep in touch – who knows, we might run into one another at the Racetrack! If we get some dry and hot weather before that time I’m optimistic about the wildflowers and not giving up on the Racetrack.

    David, I think you are right. Those atypical scenes are often some of the best ones. I have distinct recollections of many specific days and locations in DeVa, and almost every one is associated with some unusual weather: snow (!) at Scotty’s Castle; snow falling in the hills above me the first time I went to Tea Kettle Junction, only to be run out of the place by high winds; a tremendous dust storm at Stovepipe Wells; the supposedly once-in-a-century wildflower bloom after a rainy season…

    The place is so huge that there is always more to see than you can possibly visit.


  3. Dan… I think we (Sam and I) are coming to the conclusion that whether it has been raining or not, Death Valley is still going to be a remarkable experience. In fact, the conditions might just produce sights and scenes that are atypical for most visitors to the park – making it all the more important that we stick to the plan. It would obviously be disappointing if we could not visit some of the more remote places, but anyway you look at it – it is Death Valley after all, one awesome and unforgettable landscape.

  4. I’ve just booked the end of March (25-29) – can’t wait! I hope the conditions are good for the Racetrack – fingers crossed (and for the wildflowers)…

  5. David – I’m going to keep that in mind. One of the two time frames under consideration for my next DeVa visit is, in fact, Feb 11-15 or so. If that works out I will email, and we can try to meet up while we’re there.

    My alternative date is roughly the very end of March. I’m currently going back and forth on which dates to schedule. On one hand, it may be that the recent heavy rains will have created some conditions that aren’t seen that often in DeVa, including some pooling and shallow lakes. The weather also is likely to still be quite a bit cooler at this time of year. On the other hand, there is some chance of a better-than-usual wildflower bloom following this rain, and that would more likely be at its peak closer to the late March dates. And the water that I mentioned above also has its downsides – for example, it might not be wise or appropriate to visit the Racetrack if the playa is wet or flooded.

    Still pondering…


  6. David, do let me know when you’ll be there. It is possible, though not yet certain, that I’ll be there around February 11-15 or so. If it works out it might be fun to meet up.

    Susan, glad you enjoyed the post. The place does draw you back, doesn’t it? If you can only visit one of the two locations, I’d recommend Titus Canyon unless you can do an overnight at the Racetrack. In my opinion, the Titus Canyon road less difficult to drive – unless you are bothered more by its steepness in a few spots and I am by the constant washboard surface of the road to the Racetrack.


  7. Thanks for your informative post. My husband and I went there in October and can’t wait to go back. I look forward to reading your posts about some of the places we didn’t get to visit but definitely want to (Racetrack and Titus Canyon for starters).

  8. Dan… as someone who is very excitedly preparing to return to Death Valley again in a few weeks, I was thrilled to read your post. I appreciate you sharing your knowledge and expertise, and I am eager to put much of the information into action. I am looking forward to sharing the beauty of Death Valley with my son, and your guidance is hugely appreciated. Looking forward to Part 2 also…

  9. Thanks for dropping by, Edie and Ernie. (Edie has been in Death Valley recently – follow the link you her blog to see more of her photographs of the place.)

    I have been to a few of the mining sites, though the only one I’ve photographed extensive (on multiple occasions) is the ghost town of Rhyolite near Beatty, east of the park. It is on my list for inclusion in part 2 of this coverage. I have been through Titus Canyon (also for part 2…) and I’ve stopped at the mining (or so they claimed… ;-) site of Leadville along that spectacular drive. And, of course, if you get out and about in the park you eventually run into lot of other unexpected bits of evidence of mining. I’ve seen some out in the area of the Racetrack, and while I haven’t really spent time at them yet they are on my list for future visits.

    I’ve seen some of the petroglyphs, including those in Titus Canyon. In addition, I recall very well my first encounter with the evidence of the people who lived here long ago. It was a complete surprise and a powerful moment. I was camping with a group at Mesquite Spring and in the morning I decided to wander across the wash and up onto a higher bluff at the base of the fan spreading from the nearby mountains. At the top of the bluff I decided to find a rock to sit on and just take in the view. As I sat down an oddly shaped stone on the ground caught my eye – it had to have been “manufactured” by someone. I recognized it as a stone knife, picked it up, and began thinking about and imagining the lives of the people who must have lived here and used the knife – it was a powerful moment of experiencing the reality of these people. After a few moments I replaced the stone where I found it and left.

    Ernie is, indeed, a wildlife magnet. I’ve seen his wildlife attracting powers in person! I’m afraid that I haven’t had many significant wildlife encounters there, however. I have, though, experienced the rain – both while it falls (I am a rain magnet, apparently) in both liquid and frozen form and the after-effects during the famous “100 year wildflower bloom” that occurred a few years back. That year portions of the Valley were apparently so wet that a temporary lake formed, though I’m afraid that I didn’t get out to it.


  10. I love Death Valley! You describe it very well! I’m looking forwards to your next section(s) also.

    Have you been to any of the mining sites in Death Valley or the surrounding areas? I know Leadville seemed like a great place for some photos when I went through Titus Canyon. I’ve seen some of your Rhyolite photos which are fantastic.

    The park also has some neat petroglyphs in different areas if you like that ancient art.

    What about all the wildlife? Okay, so maybe I’m an animal magnet, but I’ve always seen lots of animals in Death Valley, which initially seemed quite surprising.

    I was lucky enough to go to Death Valley one year after there was quite a bit of rain – I kid about seeing Death Valley Lake – it was an amazing change to the way everything looked.

  11. Dan,

    I am really looking forward to part 2 of this excellent series! Death Valley has become a favorite place for me, and I plan to return there before the heat gets too intense.

    Thank you also for your kind mention, as well. It’s appreciated!

    All the best,

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