A curving diagonal of rock across sand dunes, Death Valley National Park
The sand dunes of Death Valley are more complex things than they might appear to be. For example, I have read that beneath their surface they actually hold quite a bit of moisture — quite a contradiction to our intuition about their dryness. (That intuition is based on fact — they can be hot and dry places, and the surface layer of the dunes is quite dry.) At the right times of day and of season they can be cool places, and they support plant and animal life.
These dunes also appear to stand on top of quite un-dune-like features. Around their edges you can find hints. You cross flat playa surface to get to them, and this surface holds abundant evidence of the work of water. In places you can even find areas that mimic perfectly the surfaces of contemporary playas, with their sedimentary formations covered with cracks. Here the edge of what must be a rather old example of this cuts diagonally across the landscape and still manages to poke its edge through the sand.
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.
Filtered sunlight on granite slabs, Yosemite National Park
While many may associate waterfalls with Yosemite, especially if their experience is mainly with Yosemite Valley, it is simply granite that comes to mind first for me. Yes, there are beautiful forests, and many wonderful lake, and rivers, and wildlife, and more — but all of those play out against the backdrop of the ubiquitous Yosemite granite. It comes as cliffs, shattered rock on mountaintops, domes, and beautiful slabs.
I spent a week photographing around a backcountry lake in early September 2015, during the time of awful wildfires and a lot of smoke — in fact, that smoke was partially responsible for the filtered light on the day I made this photograph. Within a few minutes of our campsite, huge slabs of granite rose up from near the shore of the lake and climbed many hundreds of feet up toward sharp granite ridges high above. This section, glaciated in the past and then fractured by ice and water, was sculpted into beautiful shapes.
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.