A Weekend in Death Valley: Our 4th Trip

Mesquite Dunes
Mesquite Dunes

We have been to Death Valley, now, four times.  Because of wind and rain, weather and erosion, it always looks the same and it always looks different.  We were there the week after Christmas and it was cold with clear skies until our last morning.  Here is what we saw:

By staying at Furnace Creek, you can make it to the major attractions in about 30 minutes in one direction or another.  I think you can be flexible in where you go for sunrise and sunset, but several rules of thumb have served us well over the years.


The best place for sunset is Badwater Basin.  It is a 30 minute drive south.  Specifically, park about a quarter mile south of the Badwater Basin parking lot and walk straight out onto the salt pan.  It will be less crowded and you will be able to shoot in three directions.  There was not a cloud in the sky the day were were there, so this is the best I could do without a nice cloudy sky.

Badwater sunset
Badwater sunset

While scouting the area the next day, mid day.  I did walk down to the very edge of the wooden platform near the parking lot to get the best reflection photo I could get given the conditions.

Badwater Basin
Badwater Basin


One of the best sunrise locations in the entire national park system, and the best in Death Valley, is Zabriskie Point.  It is only a 10 min drive from Furnace Creek and an easy 5 min walk.  The best place to stand is on the wide flat spot below the viewing platform.  In late December the sun will rise over your left shoulder touching the Panamint Mountains and work its way down the valley until it hits Manly Beacon.

Zabriskie Point Sunrise
Zabriskie Point Sunrise

We had one clear morning and one cloudy one.  When it is clear and cold you can clearly see the purple and blue earth’s shadow, popularly called the Belt of Venus.

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Stand here

On the day we left, the clouds finally rolled in and we got a classic Zabriskie Point morning with a beautiful pink cloud.

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Zabrieski Point, Death Valley
Red Cathedral

When it is not cloudy, the best thing to do for sunrise is go to Mesquite Dunes.  You need a low angle of sunlight to hit the dunes and throw a dark shadow that has a lot of contrast.  This good light may only last an hour, so you want to be ready to go as soon as the sun comes up.  Again, Mequite Dunes are about 30 minutes north of Furnace Creek and five minutes from Stovepipe Wells.  Distances can be deceiving, and the walk will be farther than it looks.

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The other benefit of low light shooting is the dunes will have a nice orange glow rather than a whiter color as the sun rises.

Another option for late afternoon shooting and a sunset spot is Artist Palette.  The sun will be setting behind you and before it goes below the Panamint Mountains, it will light up this area in a warm color that accentuates the different colors in the hillside.  However, once the sun is down, the show is over.  The best place to stand is up and to your right from the small parking lot.

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We checked out two new places on this trip – the Devil’s Golf Course and Cottonball Basin (marsh).  Again, because we had such clear skies, we opted to just do mid-day shooting and use both color and infrared cameras.

The Devil’s Golf Course could be a good alternative for sunset as it has the same orientation of Badwater.  The formations are pretty large, some as big as knee deep.

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Cottonball Basin was a treat as it had some water due to recent rains.  Though it was not as flooded as it could have been, we still found a way to make a few interesting photos.  Again, with a dramatic sky, this area would be a good candidate for sunrise or sunset.

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One of the benefits of late winter photography is that the sun rises late and sets early leaving plenty of time for breakfast and nice dinners.  The trade off is it can be cold and windy.

If you do get a chance to stay at Furnace Creek, Mary and I do recommend the dinning room.  It is one of the better ones in the national parks and has a great view of the valley.  Good place for happy hour, too, if you are not out photographing.

Here is our most popular blog about seeing Death Valley.  We have quite a few others – just type Death Valley in the search box at the top of the page.

To see (and buy) our photographs, please go to www.pamphotography.com


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