Posted by: kerryl29 | July 25, 2022

Return to the Desert: An Introduction

In early February of this year–it seems like a lifetime ago as I write these words–battling a Midwest winter storm that significantly impacted my flight, I flew to Las Vegas, the jumping off point for a week-long photo trip to Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona and Death Valley National Park in California. My friend Jason Templin, with whom I had photographed in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the fall of 2020 and in the Arizona and Utah deserts in the spring of 2021, dealt with a winter storm of his own (in the Rockies) and drove from his home in Colorado to meet me in Kanab, Utah, where our adventure would begin.

Second Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Dry Streambed Black & White, Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California

This trip was originally planned for the same time period the previous year, but was postponed due to the state of the pandemic.

Most of the trip was spent camping, which proved quite challenging right out of the shoot. The first two full days of photography were spent in different parts of Vermillion Cliffs, and to say that it was cold at night would be an understatement. I’ll get into specifics in a future post, but for now, let’s just say we experienced low temperatures that dipped roughly 20 degrees (F) below freezing.

One of the goals of this trip was to visit “The Wave,” an iconic area in the Coyote Buttes North section of the monument. Visiting this location requires a permit and obtaining one is not an easy feat. It’s theoretically possible, but practically (virtually) impossible to secure a permit well in advance of visiting. We attempted to do this but, as expected, were unsuccessful. But the Bureau of Land Management holds a daily lottery for permits–it’s not quite daily year-round, but I’ll get into that in a later post–and we showed up at Kanab with the hopes of lucking out and winning a permit. (Spoiler alert: we were successful!) We did have a backup plan in case we failed, but in the end, we spent two days at Vermillion Cliffs (one visiting The Wave, the other in the Cottonwood Cove section of Coyote Buttes South). We then made the drive to Death Valley and spent the duration of the trip–parts of five days–there.

Earthshadow, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
The Wave Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Jason had visited both parts of Vermillion Cliffs and Death Valley (briefly) before, but it was my first visit to literally all of the places we went on this trip. As a result, I largely left the itinerary planning to Jason, though I did weigh in on daily decisions from time to time once we were on the ground. With limited time at Vermillion Cliffs–permits were necessary for both locations we visited and those permits were valid for only one specific day each–we had to make the most of our time. There was, obviously, little opportunity to scout locations with the intention of returning later. And while there is a route to reach The Wave from a designated parking area (the hike to/from the Wave is approximately seven miles round trip), there are no trails in Cottonwood Cove, which is formally designated as a wilderness area. So we were quite careful about marking our camping area on my handheld GPS and retaining a sense of how we got from one location to the next. The topography of the area can make moving from point to point challenging (or impossible, in some instances), so care is the order of the day.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Shadowland Black & White, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California

Death Valley was a different story. No permits were required to visit any particular location and we were on the ground long enough to be able to return to certain areas multiple times. We visited Mesquite Flat Dunes, which was just down the road from our campsite at Stovepipe Wells, four different times, for instance. We also photographed twice at Zabriskie Point. And we had ample time to scout during the “bad light” periods of the day.

Additionally, the weather while we were at Death Valley was quite pleasant. After freezing our behinds off at Vermillion Cliffs, the warmth of Death Valley was a nice change. It never became unbearably hot while we were there (though the temperatures during much of our visit were as much as 10 degrees (F) above the seasonal norms (typical highs for that time of the year would be in the mid-70s) and overnight lows during our stay were in the upper 50s to low 60s. As I said, very pleasant.

Rainbow Cove, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Light & Shadow Black & White, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

The photographic experience was very interesting. I spent more time thinking “abstract” and “black and white” (and sometimes both at the same time) than I ever have on any previous photo excursion, and by a wide margin at at that. The Vermillion Cliffs locations positively screamed “abstract” at virtually every turn. There were some notable exceptions, but they were plainly exceptions; the rule was undeniably abstract subject matter. (The few examples included in the imagery accompanying this post provide decent examples.)

Death Valley was a bit different. There certainly was subject matter that directly inspired abstract imagery. But the feeling I got from Death Valley, pretty much from the moment I first set eyes on it, was “graphic,” at least as much as “abstract.” So a large percentage of the images I made while in Death Valley were done with monochrome conversion very much in mind at the time. That’s not to say that I wasn’t thinking “color” at all while in Death Valley, but I’ve never photographed anywhere over a multi-day period where I was explicitly thinking about black and white renderings as frequently as I did in this park.

Shadow Line, Golden Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Mud Cracks Black & White, Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California
Morning Calm, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California

I’ll flesh out these concepts more fully in future installments. I still haven’t decided if I’m going to chronicle this trip using my typical chronological day-by-day approach or if I’m going to organize things using a different theme. Regardless, a thorough revealing of the experience will be undertaken, one way or another. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Slot Intimate, Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Sunset, Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California


  1. Looking forward to sharing your adventures! I’m sure either chronological or thematic posts will be interesting.

  2. […] my previous installment in this series, I provided a broad introduction to this past winter’s trip to Vermillion […]

  3. […] the first full day of this trip, I was aroused by the alarm on my phone in the freezing cold of our rented SUV’s interior. It […]

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