A visit to Death Valley National Park is as much about when you visit as it is about what you see when you get there. Visiting in the spring allows you to see bursts of spring wildflowers with warm, but not blazing hot weather. This Death Valley photography tour will show you the cool light and ethereal beauty of the park in spring. But it isn’t just about the time of year. To see the must see of Death Valley is also about going out at the right time of day. And the loveliest time of day is at dawn or dusk.
History of Death Valley
Death Valley began as a borax mining boom-town in the 1880’s. In the ’20s the Pacific Coast Borax Company began lobbying the National Park Service and the general public. They were advocating for national park status and they ran a campaign calling attention to the natural beauty of the area. It was a rare and generous act of corporate philanthropy for Pacific Coast Borax to advocate turning their cash cow into a conservation area. Fortunately they succeeded and the area was designated a National Monument in 1933. Mining continued in the area until the region received official National Park designation in 1994.
There is something so beautiful about the desert. At first glance it’s beige and bleak. But upon closer inspection, the beauty reveals itself. It’s ironic, but with an expansive landscape like Death Valley, the charm is often in the little details. The topography of the area includes a vast salt lake bed which, at -282 ft is the lowest spot in the US. In stark contrast, the lake bed is dwarfed by the 11,000 ft Telegraph Peak. There are eroding sandstone cliffs, canyons, volcanic craters and cliffs “painted” with mineral deposits. All of this variety means that the best things to see in Death Valley are primarily landscapes. So keep your eyes open on this photography tour because beige and bleak will soon become green and pink and yellow and chiseled and craggy and awe-inspiring.
The following shot is of the Ubehebe Crater in the northern area of the park. It’s a great example of the park’s complex landscape.
Death Valley Photography Tour at Dawn
One of the best ways to get your awe inspired is to get up and out before dawn. Yes I know, it’s HARD. In fact, according to my “Contrarians Guide to Great Travel Photography“, I even advise the late-riser to skip dawn and take shots at other times of the day. But I recommend making an exception for Death Valley in the spring. The rewards are worth the pre-dawn alarm and dismal motel room coffee. It also helps if you travel with a group, as I did. That way someone else sets the punishing itinerary and you just scramble to keep up.
Mesquite Dunes at Dawn
You don’t have to travel to the Sahara to see great sand dunes. You can get to these dunes with a fairly easy 15 minute drive and then a 30 minute hike from the parking lot. The warm morning light against the orange sand is a beautiful wake-up call.
The Mesquite Dunes are downright sexy with their curves and shapes.
Looking up into the dunes is stunning enough, but sometimes you need to look down as well. The rising sun cast beautiful shadows in this arroyo and it spotlighted the sharp detail in the waves of sand and small animal tracks. It’s with this sort of landscape that those desert details begin to reveal themselves.
Check out these other sand dunes in the American West.
Zabriskie Point at Dawn
Zabriskie Point at dawn is a must see for Death Valley. The point overlooks Badwater Basin, the lowest spot in the United States. Dawn is pretty enough with the morning sun lighting up the Panamint mountains in pink…..
…but things get really interesting about 20 minutes later when the sun rises a bit more and starts throwing shadows onto the sandstone canyon below.
Death Valley Photography Tour at Dusk
The Badwater area is a vast salt basin. Imagine the disappointment of lost “49ers” as they struggled to reach the California Gold rush only to get lost in this long hot valley with no forage and “bad water”. Today water toting tourists and nature lovers, walk out onto the old lake bed and to get a small taste of what it was like for those early California immigrants.
Badwater at dusk.
This overview of Badwater from Dante’s View gives you a sense of the vastness of the valley. Those tiny little ants down there are people.
Visit Death Valley in Spring to See the Wildflowers.
Timing a Death Valley visit in order to see the wildflowers is a tricky business. During some drought years, they may not bloom at all. March and April will always be the best months for desert wildflower blooming. Keep an eye on the Park’s website for a wildflower watch.
These Desert Gold flowers were carpeting the road up to Dante’s View.
What Else to See in Death Valley
Well, you got up at dawn. So you may as well stay awake and go check out some of the other things to do in Death Valley.
The Rhyolite ghost town had a brief 15 year life as a mining town between 1905 and 1920. It’s astonishing how quickly this town has just settled back into the dust.
If you like abandoned places, check out this visual tour of the abandoned military buildings at San Francisco’s Angel Island.
Dantes View overlooks the Panamint range and the Badwater Basin. I was feeling brave up there on the top of the world so I broke my usual rule and indulged in a selfie.
Tips for Visiting
There are 6 campgrounds in the park. Furnace creek is the most popular, and also has the most shade. There are three lodges within the park. None are inexpensive but they do provide a range of offering from basic motel (Stovepipe Wells), cabins and standard hotel rooms (The Ranch at Furnace Creek), and a fancy historic inn (The Inn at Furnace Creek).
There are restaurants of various price points between Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. All of the rooms have refrigerators and I advise you to take your own lunch supplies. Driving distances between the sites can be far in Death Valley and you’ll find that you want to have lunch on the road (or while hiking).
Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek each have a gas station, general store and gift shop.
- Be prepared
Bring plenty of water in your car. Death Valley in spring will be hotter and drier than you think. Mind the road signs and don’t go off-road unless you have a vehicle that can handle it.
- Visitors Center
You pay your park fee using the honor system at various kiosks located throughout the park. The main visitors center is located near Furnace Creek and is a good place to stop for a wildflower update, maps and to get a schedule for various ranger-led activities.
- Tools for your Death Valley photography tour
If you are shooting at dawn or dusk, you’ll get the crispest shots by using a tripod. Bring a zoom for the Mesquite Dunes and Zabriskie point. But a wide-angle will be nice for broader landscapes and flowers. It’s dusty in the park, so be sure to bring cleaning cloths and lens cleaners. Bring a spare batter or a car charger. And don’t forget an extra storage card.
Your Parting Shot
“If you don’t die of thirst, there are blessings in the desert. You can be pulled into limitlessness, which we all yearn for, or you can do the beauty of minutiae, the scrimshaw of tiny and precise. The sky is your ocean, and the crystal silence will uplift you like great gospel music, or Neil Young”
More of Mesquite Dunes.
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