Death Valley

I wanted to escape the dreary northwest winter. Though a lot can be said for sticking with the situation you’re in and making the best of it, there would still be weeks and weeks of winter when we returned. I would have ample opportunity to build my moral character and strengthen that stiff upper lip by bearing down amidst the endless parade of damp, gray days that characterizes the Pacific northwest winter (yes, and maybe spring too…and OK, maybe fall).

So we flew to Las Vegas in January with the idea of visiting three desert parks. One was Death Valley, one of the hottest places in the world in summer. In the winter though, it’s quite tolerable, with the proper precautions. What I found was a landscape that, unlike the wet temperate forests where I live, does not invite you in. In fact, the close-up view at Death Valley tends to be off-putting; salt-encrusted soil and jagged rocks don’t really make you feel like luxuriating in their presence. The wider view – those grand vistas that Death Valley is famous for – does invite “Oh’s” and “Ah’s” but it is still a very harsh and unforgiving landscape.

Visitors walk the salt flats at Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

A few quick facts about Death Valley, California, USA: this National Park was created in 1933.  3,000 square miles (7,800 km2) of it (or 91%) is designated as wilderness. The park is huge and isolated; services are few and far between. It’s a place of extremes: the highest temperature recorded on earth happened here on July 10, 1913, when the air temperature at Furnace Creek was 134° F (56.7°C). The area receives less than 2 1/2 inches of rain a year, but there are over 160 springs and ponds. The tallest point is Telescope Peak, at 11,043 feet high (3,366 m) and the lowest point in the park, Badwater Basin, is the lowest point in North America, at 282 feet (86 m) below sea level. The valley was named “Death Valley” in the mid 1800’s, by people known as the “Lost 49ers” who, with great difficulty, crossed this inhospitable land to reach California gold fields.

Driving west towards Death Valley from Las Vegas, we passed through red rock country:

A view from Rt. 160 as it cuts through Red Rock Canyon

Death Valley has a number of extraordinary sights but they are too spread out to visit in one day. We planned on two days, knowing we still would barely scratch the surface. However, it had not rained in about 117 days, and rain was finally on the way. After hearing the weather report, and thinking about a day spent driving through vast expanses of desert in a cold rain, we decided to scrap our second Death Valley day and go back towards Las Vegas. We thought we might get ahead of the storm, which was coming from the west. Heavy rain closed some roads in Death Valley the day after we were there, so I think we did the right thing.


We spent time at three points of interest: Salt Creek, a meandering desert creek that supports the rare little Death Valley pupfish, Zabriskie Point, a scenic overlook where part of Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point was made, and Badwater Basin. We tried for Artist’s Palette, a scenic loop with beautiful rock formations, but the sun was setting by the time we got there.

Salt Creek, Death Valley, where life is adapted to high salinity and harsh temperatures.



The endangered Death Valley pupfish lives in this creek, and a curious, salt-tolerant succulent called Pickleweed (Allenrolfea occidentalis) grows around it.


The view across Death Valley with the Panamint Range in the background


Another view across Death Valley, approaching Badwater Basin


At Badwater, a spring-fed pool in the salt-encrusted valley floor reflects the foothills of the Amargosa Range. A similar image in color is here.


Looking north across the salt flats at Badwater



A colorful rock formation caught my eye between Badwater and Artist’s Palette


The sinking sun heightens subtle desert colors.


Earlier in the day at Zabriskie Point, we admired the pale contours of Manly Peak against the soft purples of the Panamint Range.


Zabriskie Point’s mountain contours. These badlands are the remains of an ancient, eroded lake.


Another view from dramatic Zabriskie Point


The land itself seems to flow at Zabriskie Point.


Increasing clouds made for a quiet, but beautiful sunset as we drove out of the park.

If you compare these scenes with the lush, dripping greens in my previous post, you’ll understand how this rocky, spare landscape is diametrically opposed to the look and feel of northwest forests. That’s the draw for me, but the lack of plants at Death Valley was so ubiquitous that it put me off. For my taste, Red Rock Canyon was more appealing. I like at least a side dish of plant matter with my main landscape course!

Another location we explored on this trip was Valley of Fire State Park, a scenic red sandstone area about an hour northeast of Las Vegas. We also visited Eldorado Mine, an old gold mine full of odd memorabilia and junked vehicles near the Colorado River. More about those locations later!



  1. You’ve really captured the harsh, unforgiving inhospitable nothingness here….I would have nightmares about being left stranded in this wilderness!

  2. What a moonlike landscape! Somehow fascinating with all the different structures and colours. Probably there are a few more nonvisible plants and animals “living” in this extreme area – amazing enough. It must be exciting for a visit, but as you mentioned it, there is too less green! I could not stand it very long either. Your pictures are wonderful, especially the ones with the interesting clouds and I love the smaller ones with plants and structures. And there couldn’t be a stronger contrast as to your former post – well chosen! Thank you for taking us on this journey!!

    • You’re right, there are animals and plants that aren’t so obvious, and I didn’t have time to seek them out. Animals tend to come out at night more, of course. I suppose the advancing rain was responsible for interesting clouds, so that was a benefit. Thanks for your enthusiastic comments, they are good to hear, Almuth!

  3. Very beautiful in its way, lovely photos. You’re not kidding about diametrically opposed to the NW woods. I read a bit about Pickleweed, these lifeforms that can hack it in such extreme environments, like those hydrothermal vents in the ocean, or the salt in this area, are impressive and interesting. I know scientists look at such plants, while they’re working on salt-resistant rice, etc. as sometimes our irrigated fields start to resemble this valley

    • Interesting! I guess if you think about it, there are quite a few areas where the salinity is pretty high, and if we’re heading for more unstable weather, which means more droughts, increasing salinity could be an issue.

      • On a tiny scale, I got an idea of how this works, building up salt in the soil, when I had houseplants in clay pots, and the local water was full of lime and minerals – – the minerals would wick up to the edge of the pot, and by the end of a year, any leaves touching the crusted-over rim would turn brown. Someone told me if I wanted to stick with unglazed pots, I had to cover the rim with aluminum foil. This was a pretty good article.
        That Pickleweed is pretty interesting, sending the salt into quarantined cells (“None of that salty language here, mister! Go to your room!”)

  4. What a stunning series of landscapes and I love that you showed us some close-ups of the ground.
    There’s a surprising amount of colour in the mountains and rock faces as seen in the image near Badwater.

    • I didn’t take many close-ups that day, and struggled to find a few that were good enough to include, so I’m glad you appreciated them. It does help one to get a feel fro the place. It’s a subtle color palette, and no less beautiful for that. Thanks for commenting, Vicki!

    • Oh Lisa, you’re too kind, as usual. 🙂 It’s quite a landscape, and couldn’t be much different from where you are now. You know, I haven’t read any of Coeho’s books, and seeing the review of the one you mention, I think it’s time! I love a good travel/adventure story, and I know he has a great reputation. Thank you, amiga! Enjoy the birds and don’t get too wet!

  5. I must say that you manage to make the place look almost inviting. The last time I was there, it happened to be a holiday and the park was overflowing with humans. Trying to do the tour through Artist’s Drive was almost like being in commuter traffic. Ugh! We opted to hurry on through ASAP. Your images very nearly make me regret that! 🙂

    • Oh, that’s funny about your experience on Artist’s Drive – we get So annoyed with tailgaters, or even anyone behind us. We came up with a chant that I won’t write down on this trip, having to do with our feelings about the issue. 🙂 I think there’s a lot of beauty to be found all over the park – I’ sorry I didn’t get to see the dunes and some other areas – but it isn’t an easy place to be.

  6. I love the patterns you have found on the rock surfaces and also in some of the shots I had to look at really carefully to see if the scale was a close up of sand ridges or a vast mountain range. Brilliant.

  7. Ever since I saw the movie (years ago) I’ve wanted to visit Zabriskie Point. I don’t have a bucket list but this would be a treat (as are these images). Nice work, Lynn!

    • It would be fun, and a flight to Vegas wouldn’t be too hard to manage, right? Then you have a good two hour drive, but there are places you can stay that are closer to the park. It’s quite impressive, but, like I said, not exactly inviting. Zabriskie Point is quick stroll up a short, steep hill, and it’s supposed to be fabulous if you can get there in the early morning.

  8. Dramatic landscape, this Zabriskie Point. Beautiful to look at, but impossible to live there for sure. After vrry short time, I would sure be missing some green. Your photos are really great again, Lynn.

    • We didn’t completely escape, but I think it would have been unpleasant. We were in Red Rock Canyon, dealing with light rain there, but in a sheltered, prettier spot. And then when we left the next day, every single flight out of Vegas was delayed because of the rain, which by that day was heavy. It would be nothing to a New Yorker, but the land being so dry, and I think, psychologically, the residents being so used to dry weather, it became too much.

  9. It may be uninviting, but it sure was a wonderful place to make photographs!
    Lynn, these are absolutely gorgeous!
    I especially love the one of Salt Creek (#3). The colors in this are just magnificent.
    Thank you for taking us along with you!

    • Thanks a lot, Lisa….it’s true, almost any direction you look in, there’s an impressive landscape photo to be made. Salt Creek was so interesting, running even after almost 3 months with no rain, amidst the rocky landscape.

  10. These are fascinating photos Lynn. I’m particularly stunned, not only by the scale but by the varied sculpting of the land forms (especially at Zabriskie Point) and the colour palette of the landscape. Your commentary is also most helpful.

    • The scale is hard to convey, but it sounds like you have an idea of it. The colors bear longer study – one day isn’t even a drop in the bucket. I’m pleased that you enjoyed this – I think I’ll have one more desert post, maybe in a week or two.

  11. I am envious. I’ve always liked Death Valley and the surrounding area. Red rock canyon looks gorgeous. I really hope to get out there someday soon. With the harsh winter we have had here in Michigan, it would be a welcome change.

    • It would be a welcome change as long as you go in winter! Otherwise, maybe too harsh in the other direction. 😉
      Winter’s been tough this year in the east and midwest, so if I can bring a little respite with images to gaze at, that’s good. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I do hope you can jump on a plane and get down to that part of the world at some point – it’s spectacular.

  12. Now here we differ, my friend, because I don’t share the view that this country is uninviting. Maybe because of my time in Arabian and Kenyan deserts, these landscapes certainly draw me – what a spectacular place! And being below sea level – well the Somerset Levels JUST manage that! 🙂 What spectacular images! And, geologist that I am, I especially like the cracked mud with the imprints of raindrops! I envy you these deserts! A 🙂

    • I will say that Death Valley is the first desert I’ve felt that way about. I guess it went a little too far for me, in the direction of all rocks and no plants, and temperature extremes. I agree about it being spectacular, and Like I mentioned to Lisa above, in most any direction there’s an impressive landscape photo to be made. So glad you noticed the raindrop imprints on the mud, and they said it had not rained in 117 days, so just think about how perfectly they were preserved. It was a very cool detail, the way the mud broke and curled, too. Salt Creek in general was fascinating, and we did spot the tiny desert pupfish.

    • It’s good to hear you approve, Scott! 😉 I guess those clouds were the harbinger of the rainstorm that came the following day. I have maybe one more post from this trip, of photos from the Valley of Fire.

  13. Somehow those dramatic cloudscapes fit with that arid land, but I suspect you may have been lucky to see them if they only get a couple inches of rain a year. It looks pretty intense one way or the other.

    • As I was saying somewhere above, you can almost point your camera in any direction and find an interesting image. That’s the beauty of the US West – lots of interesting land forms and plenty of room. Thanks, Otto!

  14. I visited Death Valley about five years ago or so. The terrain was so foreign to me that it really took me a day or two to be able to start to ‘see’ things in a photographic way. Your images are beautiful and certainly transmit the Death Valley feel!

    • Thank you, Howard. I know that phenomenon you speak about well. I even planned this trip with Death Valley in the middle, following a day at another desert park, so I could get used to the desert again. If I went to the arctic, Iceland or a tropical rain forest, I’d really need to wipe my mind clean of everything else and take (at least) a day to acclimate.

  15. Amazing images, Lynn. I remember that we passed a signpost to Death Valley on one of our road trips many years ago. We weren’t tempted to do a detour there as it was just before dark and we had a few miles to go to our next hotel. It does look like it’s worth a visit.

    • Not only Death Valley, but several other desert parks in the area are very worthwhile, but not if you’re in a rush! Like your neck of the woods, it reveals itself in stages. Lots to see!

    • Unforgiving is exactly what it is, but certainly worth seeing – and there are other equally interesting, and different, desert parks nearby. I know, kind of a long trip for you! 😉

    • Ah, those regrets….well, maybe you’ll visit the next time you travel to the southwest. Just think how much more you can do now photographically than you might have done with this landscape 35 years ago.

  16. Magnificent images, Lynn, and I learned a lot from your post. The landscapes have a harsh beauty much like the Badlands. Your black and white is captivating- great composition. The colors, shapes and shadows in your others are beautiful. I love how you include detail shots in your posts.

    • Harsh beauty does sum it up. It’s funny, I’ve always loved very close details and the big picture, just like I’ve always loved wilderness and big cities. Opposites. At Death Valley that day I didn’t take many close-ups, and I worked harder to find enough of them to fill this post out. I do think seeing details helps bring the viewer in to the scene. Death Valley was more a place of huge vistas. Had I spent more time there, I’m sure I could have found more interesting details. Thanks for your comments, Jane, I always enjoy them.

  17. Really Desolated place. Interestingly you are witnessing all those places about which I have second hand information from Discovery and National Geographic TV channels… It is so much interesting to get the first hand experience about any thing. Really great images. I was thinking which pictures show more loneliness. Perhaps its difficult to mark only a few. Last images depict a very harsh environment. But I can say with certainty that this region of earth is really very beautiful.

    • I know what you mean about seeing a “regular person’s” view along with the Nat Geo images. It makes it more accessible, I think. It’s a good place to work on seeing the land in your own way. Thanks for your thoughts!

  18. I visited Death Valley in July four years ago. Seeing your wonderful photos now, I think I would like to go back there in February-March which is supposed to be the high season for it. One of these days…

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