Posted by: kerryl29 | September 19, 2022

Return to the Desert: A Dip Into Death Valley

After consecutive nights of freezing our nunnies off, following our day at The Wave, we gave ourselves a break with an evening in a Kanab hotel.  We slept in—another cloudless day was forecast, so we made no effort to get up for sunrise—and after we checked out, we took our time making the roughly five-hour drive to Death Valley.  I drove our rented vehicle; Jason drove his own car.  It was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived at Death Valley’s southern entrance.  We stopped to discuss our options.  Our plan was to camp at Stovepipe Wells, in an actual campground, which meant, among other things, access to running water and plumbing, something we hadn’t had the luxury of either of the nights at Vermillion Cliffs.  It was also—and this was important—much warmer at Death Valley.  We would spend five nights, and the temperature never dropped below 50 degrees (F); in fact, it rarely dropped below 60.  (It also never got truly hot.  The peak temperature during daylight hours while we were there was approximately 85 F.)  So once we pitched the tent—which happened in the dark of the first evening we were in the park—we simply left the tent in place and returned each evening when we had finished photographing.  It was, relatively speaking, luxurious.  (Everything’s relative, you know.)

But when we stopped just inside the park entrance on that first day, we had to decide what we wanted to do that evening.  I deferred to Jason, who had, after all, been to the park once before.  (As he reminded me repeatedly, his experience consisted of parts of two days.) 

Distances at Death Valley can be vast; it’s the largest national park in the continental United States.  And we would experience the significance of these substantial distances throughout our stay.  Jason rattled off some possibilities, but ultimately we decided to head to a location known as Artist Palette.  It would take at least an hour to get there, but that would be enough, he assured me, to look around a bit and set up.  We’d be shooting rock formations in soft light, so even if we extended past sunset it shouldn’t matter much.  So, off we went, with Jason in the lead, since he knew where we were going.

Let’s talk about Death Valley a bit, from a visual perspective.  If most of the areas of Vermillion Cliffs conjure up the word “abstract” in one’s thoughts, Death Valley caused “graphic” to come to the forefront of my mind, more or less immediately upon the descent into it.  That’s what I kept thinking as we drove along, and this notion would be repeated, virtually non-stop, throughout our time in the park.  This notion had come to mind previously when I visited White Sands (then) National Monument in New Mexico in 2007.  But White Sands is essentially sand dunes, with a few other elements sprinkled here and there.  While there are multiple dunes fields in Death Valley, the overwhelming majority of the park is not made up of sand dunes.  And yet, the place screams “graphic,” almost everywhere you look.  “Stark” is another word that comes to mind, more or less non-stop.

Those were my thoughts as we pulled off the main road and began the sidetrack to Artist Palette.  Eventually, we pulled into a parking area, and from there I had a glimpse of the spot’s attraction.  At a distance, an utterly barren but remarkably colorful series of rock formations climbed the mountainside.  Clearly, different minerals made up the formations, accounting for the different hues.  We looked around and spotted an overlook, of sorts, that appeared to be a pretty good spot from which to capture what we saw, so I grabbed my things and climbed an incline, which provided a much better view than had been available from the parking area.  Unofficial trails led into the colorful rocks, but I sensed that close proximity would be less interesting, at least photographically, than the perspective available from this more distant viewpoint.  (I would later prove this to myself by wandering into the rock formations and never removing the camera from my bag.  Sometimes first impressions are correct.) 

The subject matter here spoke to me as a mélange of abstract and graphic; there was a combination of colors, shapes, textures and patterns that’s difficult to describe in words, so I’ll let the images speak for themselves. 

Before I began photographing the colorful formations on the mountainside, I glanced to my right, and saw the contours of a dry streambed, snaking into a canyon.  This area had none of the color striations that were so evident dead ahead of me; there was little color variation at all, in fact.  But there was something about this scene that I found compelling, so before I went to work on the mountainside, I turned my attention to the canyon.  With full intention of converting anything I liked to monochrome, I, began by moving my tripod to capture a more pleasing angle, then fine-tuned a horizontal and vertical composition with a mid-range focal length.

Dry Creek Bed Black & White, Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Dry Creek Bed Black & White, Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California

Once I was done with this spot, I moved back more or less to the spot I had been previously and began picking out parts of the scene in front of me, using the long end of my 24-70 mm lens.  Eventually, when I wanted a tighter perspective, I switched to the 100-400 (mostly using the shorter end).  Some of the ensuing frames required a focus stack to obtain sharpness from front to back in the frame.

Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California

At some point during the session, all of which was conducted in the soft light of open shade, I spotted an interesting looking sunset(ish) scene to my left, looking out over the mountains that ring Death Valey.  There were, as was the norm on this trip, no clouds in the sky, so this was another concession to the naturally graphic nature of the location.

Sunset, Death Valley National Park, California

It was at this time that I descended from my perch and began the process of wandering into the Artist Palette rock formations but, as I alluded to above, I didn’t find anything that I found nearly as interesting as had been revealed from the overlook.  Before long, the light was disappearing, and I returned to the parking lot to catch up with Jason.

We made our way to Stovepipe Wells to set up camp; it was still pretty early in the evening, and we took advantage of our proximity to the campground’s restrooms before discussing what we should do the following morning.  The decision was made to photograph sunrise at Zabriskie Point and then see what caught our fancy thereafter.



  1. The pastels are nice. I do like the final image. I probably like it better than any of the others. I have always like those layered compositions.

    • Thanks, Andy. Always interesting to find out what appeals to others and what doesn’t.

  2. Kerry, very nice layers of pastels at Artist Palette, and I really like the dry creek bed vertical. We enjoyed our visit to Death Valley a few years ago. My only frustration was that I never was able to find a good location for the “cracked mud” foreground which is so iconic in Death Valley. Can’t wait to see the next installment.

    • Thanks, Steve. We spent a fair amount of time looking for mud crack locations. The drier it’s been, the better the chances of finding these elements. We ultimately found some decent spots, and I’ll include some of that imagery in later posts in this series.

  3. Wow, really amazing colors in that park. Great shots.

    • Thanks very much!

  4. Unbelievable colors great photos.

    • Thanks very much!

  5. […] back home early in the first week of October and should be able to return to the chronicling of the Death Valley experience the following […]

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