A dust storm rages above sand dunes at the end of the day, Death Valley National Park
This was a wild evening, featuring an apocalyptic combination of tremendously strong winds, huge clouds of blowing sand and dust, periodic downpours of rain, and light that changed constantly from ominous and dark to luminous clouds backlit by sun to threads of virgo, and more. I had never seen quite this combination of conditions in Death Valley at one time.
Photography was quite challenging. Because sunset was approaching (and I continued to photograph into the dusk), it was often quite dark. The screaming winds made it virtually impossible to shoot from the tripod, so I was mostly reduced to bracing my camera against the window frame of my vehicle and working with the camera handheld. In the rough conditions I was forced to work from a distance with a long lens, since photographing inside the windblown clouds of dust and sand was not a good idea. Here the clouds and the dust above the sand dunes momentarily thinned, creating a backlit glow from the low angle sun about to drop behind mountains to the west.
Evening rain clouds and dust storm above the Panamint Mountains, Death Valley National Park
This was a wild evening in Death Valley. While the clouds were generally moving toward clearing, we first saw extreme weather of several types. Down close to the ground there were big, billowing clouds of sand and dust being lofted above the Valley floor. High above that wildness huge weather front clouds built above desert mountains.
In the evening I decided to go our for one more photographic chase, even though the weather hardly seemed conducive to photography. In this case I resorted to an approach that I’ve used before in storms like this one, namely to put on the long focal length lens and shoot into the maelstrom from a distance. It this case, two storms were present at once: While high winds whipped up the sand and dust storm closer to the ground, overhead the monumental clouds of a rain storm towered over the desert mountains.
Cloud-filled sky at first light above desert mountains and canyon, Death Valley National Park
As I post this photograph on the summer solstice, this location is perhaps not a place you would want to be right now. I understand that temperatures in Death Valley National Park have been in the 120 degree range already this summer. But back on this March morning the scene was a lot different — clouds from a passing Pacific weather front obscured the dawn light, and there was a pleasantly cool wind at this location high in the Panamint range as the morning light arrived.
This view looks down through one of the many gigantic canyons of the Panamint Range, a sight that reminds us of just how important the flow of water has been in the creation of this remarkable landscape. In the middle distance the salt flats of Death Valley are visible at the base of the Black Mountains, and above that the demarcations between mountains and clouds and sky and light are hard to see, and the terrain of the rugged Death Valley landscape almost merges with the ephemeral terrain of this sky.
Sand dunes and desert mountains in twilight, Death Valley National Park
Arriving in Death Valley earlier in the day, we had visited some canyon country that is a bit off the beaten path and then headed back to our home base in the park for the next few days. We got settled in, had some dinner, and headed out to make some photographs, deciding that it would be best on this first evening to photograph nearby.
We made it to an area along the periphery of the dunes before sunset and then continued to photograph during the evening light transition from warm pre-sunset color to the post-sunset blue hour light. Here there was still a bit of a glow from the west, but the sun had already dropped below the Cottonwood mountains, and the light was soft as we finished photographing in the evening stillness.
On a late spring day of wind and sand storms in Death Valley National Park — and after several days of such conditions — we retreated to one of the deep and narrow desert canyons for an afternoon. After a short walk across the upper edges of a giant alluvial fan, we dropped into the lower reaches of the canyon and headed uphill. Soon the path entered the base of the range and the walls began to narrow, and the wide open world of the desert floor was invisible to us.
The canyons of Death Valley are in some ways similar to the more famous slot canyons of the Southwest. Both are formed by water coursing down narrow canyons, sometimes at high rates that rearrange the geography of the canyons significantly. But there are differences. Here the canyons are most often dry — a year round water supply in such Death Valley places is not typical. And the rock is not the familiar red sandstone of the Southwest, but here a more contorted and broken and often less colorful rock. But sections are very beautiful, and there is something very magical about this section of this canyon, as it narrows and passed between inward curving walls.
Sand dune shapes in soft light, Death Valley National Park
There are still a few more photographs to share from this year’s spring visit to Death Valley National Park back at the end of March. To answer the inevitable question, we arrived after the peak of the “super bloom” — but there were still flowers and there are always plenty of other things to see. We visited some familiar sites and sights, and we also investigated some areas that were new to us. (It is a big park — even though I’ve been going regularly for over 15 years there is still plenty of new thing stuff to see.)
On the last morning of our trip, after days featuring wind and dust storms and even rain, it appeared to be calm. I got up well before dawn — what else is new? — and headed to a nearby area of dunes. Rather than going to the “usual spot,” I drove on to a location that I had been thinking of for a while, parked, loaded up my pack full of camera gear, grabbed my tripod, and headed out the pre-dawn light across a playa, heading toward some low dunes. Twenty or thirty minutes later I arrived, still before sunrise, and I had some time to photograph in the beautiful soft pre-dawn light.
Photographer Patricia Emerson Mitchell at work in a Death Valley canyon
Photographer Patricia Emerson Mitchell paying attention to the small things along a narrow canyon in Death Valley National Park. On a cloudy day with dust storms out in the valley we headed up this canyon in the afternoon and found quiet conditions following this narrow canyon as it twisted and turned its way up into the mountains along the east side of the valley.
We started our hike at the top of a monumental alluvial fan build of rocks washed down from the mountains through this canyon. We dropped over the edge into the main wash and headed uphill, with the canyon walls soon closing in around us. In many places the canyon walls are almost vertical and only feet apart. These are places of deep quiet and stillness, mostly cut off from the surrounding terrain, protected from the wind, and with only a narrow band of blue sky straight overhead.