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.
Evening on Death Valley sand dunes with desert mountains in the distance
It was the first evening in Death Valley this season, and we had arrived after a lazy drive in from the Ridgecrest area. Having plenty of time, we stopped at Trona Pinnacles before reaching the park and after entering we took a long side trip out on a gravel road to a couple of somewhat remote canyons. We got settled in and it was time to head out for some evening photography — and since dunes were nearby they seemed like a good first evening destination.
The sand dunes go quickly through some remarkable transitions of light and color at the end of the day. In the full sunlight the tones of the sand can seem a bit flat and washed out, but the low angle light begins to highlight the textures — large textures of the dunes themselves, plus the finer textures of small patterns of windblown sand. The the color of the light begins to warm and the contrast drops and shadows fill with a soft light. At the moment I made this photograph the sun was still above the ridge to our west, but it had passed behind high, thin clouds that momentarily muted the light even more.
First dawn light descends the eastern face of the Cottonwood Mountains and touches the desert floor
A morning like this on the desert flats, surrounded by arid and rugged mountains, waiting for the sun to rise, is very special. We arrived in the dim, pre-dawn light and set out across the flats toward the edge of dunes, passing across scrubby desert plants and over rocky and sandy ground, listening to the steady crunching of footsteps in the silent landscape. We probably should have started a bit earlier, but we lingered a bit too long over coffee, and as we approached the edge of the dunes the sun began to move down the face of the mountains to the west.
The light on the mountains was set off against a sky darkened by the clouds of a passing weather front, and thin clouds intermittently shadowed the dawn light. It worked its way down from the ridges to the base of the mountains and then it very quickly began to light the terrain around us, first with gently cloud filtered light and soon more intensely. We quickly stopped walking and looked around for any nearby subject that might serve as a canvas for this light — I found a few long plants nearby growing in sand and moved to position them in front of the mountains as the soft light touched them.
Contorted geologic formations along a narrow desert canyon
Almost inevitably, one’s first impression of Death Valley National Park is that of huge open desert spaces, with salt flats, occasional dunes, and vast alluvial fans surrounded by rugged and arid mountain ranges. These things are impressive — that scale of the landscape reminds me of visits to The Yukon and Alaska — and the fact that roads run though and past them helps make them seem central. But with time to explore a bit more, it becomes clear that there is more to the landscape than first meets the eye. Among these features are the uncounted canyons that thread their way into the mountain ranges.
We visited a few of them during this year’s spring visit to the park, including this one that we hiked into one afternoon. The terrain of these canyons is remarkable variable, ranging from shallow and open to very narrow with vertical walls. This spot fits somewhere in the middle — the walls here are indeed very high, but they tilt back a bit from the vertical and allow a bit more light down to the gravel wash at the bottom. This particular section especially impressed me with the wildly contorted layers revealed in the cliff above. This spot is near the bottom of one of the ranges in the “basin and range” geology of the area, and the old strata are twisted and folded in all directions.
We (Patty and I) spent some good time in Death Valley earlier this spring, hiking and photographing in many interesting places in Death Valley. This trip brought some, uh, “special” weather on almost every day: huge dust storms, strong winds, rain, you name it. On a couple of days we escaped into narrow desert canyons, where the steep walls cut off most of the wind and produce the stillness and quiet that are so special in these places.
The hike into this canyon began along the upper edge of one of the giant alluvial fans that spread out into the valley from the lower ends of almost all canyons at the base of the desert mountain ranges. We hiked across to a wash, dropped in, and headed up into the canyon, replacing the expansive views of the giant valley with the constrained and intimate views of the interior of the canyon. In a few spots this canyon became quite narrow — never close to a squeeze, but narrow enough that we could not see beyond the next bend.
These remarkable pinnacles stand just off to the side of a route I often use to get to Death Valley National Park, and that’s where I was reading on this day back in March. The pinnacles are just outside of their namesake town of Trona, a rather isolated and seemingly decaying old town whose main business seems to be extracting minerals from the playa holding Searles Lake. A drive through the town reveals that it is still alive, but that it is suffering the malady of so many isolated desert towns depending on extraction industries, namely an eventual decline. There are many buildings that have clearly just been abandoned.
The pinnacles are visible a few miles away from Trona, out in the valley just south of the lack. They appear as a long row of huge, tooth-like formations. I understand that they are ancient tufa formations, related to but much larger than the similar formations in some other well-known California locations. I have been contemplating photographing them for years, and from time to time I stop and drive out there. The main challenge has always been the lighting, and every time I’ve been there the light has been the stark, clear sky light of desert day, which is not always conducive to photography. This time that light was softened a bit but a few high clouds and some haze, and as we explored the pinnacles I saw this juxtaposition of near and far towers.
Morning light on sand dunes and rugged mountains, Death Valley National Park
On our final morning in Death Valley this past March I got up before dawn one more time, loaded some gear in the car, and drove a short distance to a place from which I had decided I wanted to access sand dunes. I had been in the same area a few days earlier, and on that visit I spotted a likely looking area not far away — and that was my target this time as I walked alone across the quiet playa in pre-dawn light.
Out here the light arrives with surprising suddenness, despite the hints that it is coming, seen in light on peaks to the west and far up the valley. Silently the first light skims across dune tops, and within seconds the soft light is replaced by brighter highlights and darker shadows. Here I looked east across low dunes toward mountains along the eastern side of the valley at the base of the Amargosa Range. The morning haze and shadows on the mountains muted the their details. I photographed here for a few more minutes before packing and walking back to my vehicle, and within an hour we were on our way out of the park.