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.
One more photograph from my May Day quick visit to the Big Sur Coast and the lower Monterey Peninsula. I visited fairly early in the morning — not as early as dawn, but certainly before most of the tourists showed up along this popular coast on this weekend day.
I started with a plan to visit Point Lobos — and I did later end up there — but I was distracted by the formation of thing fog right along the waterline. More typically I would expect to see thick fog in the early morning, left over from the night before, with murky conditions until some clearing happens later on. But on this morning the pattern seemed reversed. It started out clear and then as the morning wore on the weather changed and a beautiful misty quality appeared along the coast, in places leading to the formation of fog.
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.
Surf, a steep bluff, and sea stacks lead toward a foggy horizon, Big Sur Coast
I sometimes forget how long this coast has been a part of my consciousness, but a visit or two quickly remind me. I have lived in the San Francisco Bay area since I was four-years-old. Weekend and summer visits to the Monterey Bay beaches and the tide pools of Point Lobos were regular events, and the effect of those visits remains all these years later — and all it takes is a quick visit to remind me of what it means to live this close to the Pacific Ocean.
On this first day of May I made a morning visit to the upper Big Sur coast, getting to some of the best parts before the inevitable weekend crowds arrived. It was a beautiful day, at first looking like it might turn out to be “yet another blue sky day,” but soon becoming more interesting, at least from the photographic point of view, as thin fog began to form just about the meeting of the ocean and land. When I made this photograph looking south down the coastline, it was still early enough that the bluffs and coastal mountains cast shadows along the surf line.
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.
Rugged cliffs drop into Pacific Ocean surf along the foggy Big Sur coastline
In some ways, cliffs like these are a “dime a dozen” along the California coast — and isn’t that wonderful!? From the north to the south, with the exception of places where the land drops right down to the ocean, spectacular headlands are almost the rule. If you don’t see them where you are at the moment, a reasonable drive north or south should find some.
This set of headland bluffs, dropping abruptly to the edge of the great Pacific Ocean, is located on the upper Big Sur coast along the Pacific Coast Highway south of Monterey. I’m fortunate to live a short drive away, and this time I had headed down that direction in the morning, initially planning to visit a particular spot but spontaneously modifying my plans when I saw the combination of surf and fog forming along the cliffs. Since I know this spot well, I only stopped briefly, but I knew I wanted a photograph of this morning-shadowed terrain marching off to the south.
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.