Category Archives: Photographs: Death Valley

A Photograph Exposed: Two Rocks, Morning, Racetrack Playa

(“A Photograph Exposed” is a series of posts looking more closely at the background of some of my photographs.)

Two Rocks, Morning, Racetrack Playa - Black and white photograph of two "moving rocks" on the Racetrack Playa at Death Valley National Park. Morning light with unusual clouds, and the Grandstand in the distance.
Black and white photograph of two “moving rocks” on the Racetrack Playa at Death Valley National Park. Morning light with unusual clouds, and the Grandstand in the distance.

Two Rocks, Morning, Racetrack Playa. Death Valley National Park, California. April 3, 2006. © Copyright 2006. G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Moving rocks, lenticular clouds — morning on the Racetrack Playa.

This photograph from Death Valley’s Racetrack Playa is one of the first I made when I began photographing this landscape seriously, and it may still be my favorite photograph from the park — yet it also carries a flaw that I’ll mention below.

My first visit to Death Valley National Park had been perhaps seven years earlier at the very end of the previous millennium, when I was one of several adults accompanying a group of middle school and high school students on a visit that was to include a short backpack trip in the Cottonwood Canyon area. The story of that trip deserves its own article. That article would describe snow, near-hypothermia, winds that blew down tents, a retreat from the pack trip, an attempt to hike down the upper portion of Death Valley, water shortages, a dust storm, a dangerous situation with a bus, and more.

I’ll never forget my first view of this great valley. We had arrived in the park after dark, stopping between Towne Pass and Stovepipe Wells at a small campground a few thousand feet above the valley floor, where we set up in the darkness and went to sleep. Having never seen the Valley before, the next morning I unzipped my tent and stepped outside to see the stupendous “oh wow!” landscape of the valley and the mountains on the far side in the beautiful morning light. I was hooked, and I’ve been going back annually for more than fifteen years.  Continue reading A Photograph Exposed: Two Rocks, Morning, Racetrack Playa

Death Valley, Evening

Death Valley, Evening
Evening light on the playa of Death Valley, with lower slopes of the Panamint Mountains rising beyond

Death Valley, Evening. Death Valley National Park, California. March 30, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Evening light on the playa of Death Valley, with lower slopes of the Panamint Mountains rising beyond

Since I’ve been traveling to and around Death Valley National Park for more than 15 years now, I’ve seen a lot of the park — but I most certainly have not see all of it, nor have I completely learned how to see everything in it. This is a huge place, varying greatly by location, terrain, season, weather and more. Frankly, the experience of coming to know such a place over time is one of the things I value most about such locations. While I love to “discover” a place that is completely new to me (and Death Valley was that place in the late 1990s for me), the longer process of learning the place and its rhythms more deeply is also, I think, more rewarding. It is wonderful to see a desert gully in evening light for the first time, but it may be even more beautiful to come back to it and recognize an old and familiar friend.

Along these lines, a few years ago, as I continued to push out my own boundaries of experience and knowledge in Death Valley, I began to think more about how to make photographs of things that I might have not thought worthy of a photograph before. I realized that many of these things that don’t scream “photograph me!” are otherwise a core part of the experience of this place: a vast and quiet “empty” landscape, midday sun, haze obscuring great distances, the edge between the last vegetation and a barren playa, a beam of light slanting across an alluvial fan. And if they are central to the sense of the place, it seems that there must be a way to photograph them. And that is a new challenge for me in my Death Valley photography.


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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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Panamint Range, Reflection

Panamint Range, Reflection
The east face of the Panamint Range is reflected in the surface of a desert pool

Panamint Range, Reflection. Death Valley National Park, California. April 31, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

The east face of the Panamint Range is reflected in the surface of a desert pool

This is a photograph of one of those surprising features of Death Valley — water in the middle of a place that is astonishingly arid. This location is one of the lowest, hottest, and driest places in the Valley, and beyond this pool is a terrain that is particularly inhospitable, the famous salt flats. It is not pleasant to venture out there on a hot and sunny day, when not only is the heat oppressive but the light is so intense on the white playa surface that it is almost impossible to look.

I went here quite early one morning, in time for the sunrise light across the Valley on the mountains of the Panamint Range. In many ways this was not a hugely promising morning. I would have preferred some interesting clouds, though the thing high clouds are not completely uninteresting. It might have been nice to have white salt flats, but the playa had apparently gone so long without rain and had experience enough wind that the sometimes-white salt was quite gray. This little pool, at the edge of the Valley and the base of the tall and rugged hills, mirrored the early morning sky and a bit of the dawn color on the mountains.


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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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Dunes and Mountains

Dunes and Mountains
Low dunes and the base of Tucki Mountain in evening light

Dunes and Mountains. Death Valley National Park, California. March 31, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Low dunes and the base of Tucki Mountain in evening light

This is a different interpretation of a photograph that I have previously posted. Here I have simply tried a different crop, one that eliminates some areas of from the top and bottom of the earlier photograph in order to focus more on the horizontal sweep of the shallow dunes and the more distant wash sloping up to the base of gigantic Tucki Mountain, here in nearly the last light of the evening.

I think that when we are in this place, one of the most iconic in Death Valley National Park, our attention is more likely to be drawn to the tallest dunes, which are located more or less behind me at this camera position. But there is much else to see here, ranging from the intimate landscape of ripple sand and small plants to the rugged slopes of Tucki Mountain just to the south, and including the many long views across the huge spaces of the valley. Here I had been mostly photographing an expanse of dunes leading off toward the northeast, when I turned around to see this view of the edge of the sand, with low dunes curving toward the sparse plant life at their edge.


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.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email

Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Dust Storm, Dunes

Dust Storm, Dunes
An afternoon desert dust storm obscures sand dunes

Dust Storm, Dunes. Death Valley National Park, California. April 1, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

An afternoon desert dust storm obscures sand dunes

Where there are dunes, there will be sand storms and dust storms. The dunes are largely the result of geography that interrupts prevailing winds and causes them to drop their load. When unusually high winds blow through these areas and through dry playas, they inevitably pick up the loose sand and dust and it becomes airborne once again. The immediate effects on a visitor to such places at these times are several. There is dust and sand everywhere — you simply cannot escape it. The night before the wind and sand came through my camp. Fortunately I use a very strong mountaineering when I visit Death Valley since I’ve seen these winds and what they can do. So I used every stake I had, attached stabilizing lines to the tie-out points on the fly, and zipped everything up tightly. I heard the wind and the sand, but my tent was snug and secure. Others were not so lucky (or so prepared?) and all night I heard people outside in the campground trying to tie down flapping tents, recover blowing gear, pound in more tent stakes… or giving up and crawling into their cars. As tight as my tent is, in the morning there was a thin coat of dust everywhere inside.

The next day I headed up into the mountains where I figured it might be less windy. I spent a lot of the time in a deep canyon, and I did escape the wind. In fact, I was pretty much cut off from the outside world — and, therefore, a bit surprised to emerge from the bottom of the canyon into Death Valley to find that the dust was still blowing like crazy. The air was so thick that mountains on the far side of the valley were almost completely obscured, and as I drove south down the valley there were strong cross-winds and blowing sand. I stopped at this slightly elevated spot off to the side of some dunes, put on a long lens (in the relatively dust-free confines of my vehicle) and photographed the dunes, aiming the camera straight into the blowing dust. Yes, this is what a sand storm looks like. (And, yes, I’ve seen worse. Much worse.)


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.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email

Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Hikers in the Badlands

Hikers in the Badlands
A group of hikers is dwarfed by arid badlands terrain near Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

Hikers in the Badlands. Death Valley National Park, California. April 4, 2007. © Copyright 2007 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A group of hikers is dwarfed by arid badlands terrain near Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

In the midst of all the recent Death Valley photographs, with this photograph I reached back into the archives to pull up an older image that had not previously made it out of the collection of raw files. Various things impel me to dig back into the older photographs to see what I’ve missed, and in this case it was a random visit to my website that I noted in my server log — someone had linked in to a photograph of some photographers in Death Valley from this 2007 trip. When I saw that I thought to go back and look at that particular photograph and update it just a bit, and then I got side-tracked and wandered off into that raw file collection.

I recall this photograph rather clearly. For some reason I had stopped at Zabriskie point on a morning that I probably expected to produce an exceptional sunrise — at least that’s my guess based on the kind of clouds in the photograph. If I recall correctly, the morning did produce some interesting soft light, but not the stunner that I thought might happen. (I rarely stop at Zabriskie, but I make an exception if the conditions look like they might produce something unexpected — but you never know until you actually go there before dawn and see what happens.) I remember looking down toward Gower Gulch and the trail to Golden Canyon and spotting this string of five hikers. It isn’t that unusual to see people on this trail, but they stuck close together as the wound along its twisting route, and I thought that this might produce some interesting photographs and reveal the scale of this landscape.


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.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email

Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Two Photographers, Zabriskie Point

Two Photographers, Zabriskie Point
Two photographers sit behind a camera and tripod at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

Two Photographers, Zabriskie Point. Death Valley National Park, California. © Copyright 2007 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Two photographers sit behind a camera and tripod at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

In the midst of sharing many photographs from my most recent Death Valley visit near the end of March and the start of April this year, I happened to be looking at website logs when I saw a link to this photograph from way back in 2007. I hadn’t thought about it for a while, so it was fun to get the reminder — and to have an excuse to rework it just a little bit and share it once again.

I had ended up at Zabriskie on this early April morning, and it turned out to be a morning of lovely light, though nothing far out of the ordinary, as I recall. My recollection is that as I waited to see if something more interesting would happen I thought about switching my focus to the other people who were there, and I ended up photographing quite a few of them — solitary figures silhouetted on the ridge above me, rows of photographers lined up at the edge of the drop-off, and a few individuals and small groups here and there. These two people were part of a slightly larger group, and they also seemed to be awaiting the hoped-for special light. I was intrigued by their patience and by the way they leaned in towards one another, and by the visual contrast between her light-colored jacket and his much darker clothing. In order to let the focus be on them rather than on the landscape, I exposed to let the distant subjects become quite light and then decided to render the image in black and white.


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.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email

Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.