Welcome to Photogeo Galleries : Death Valley.
Our relationship with the Valley is a long one, but no matter how many times we visit, or how long we stay, we are always moved afresh by a landscape for which linguistic superlatives seem truly and completely inadequate. There is so much here. The mountains that flank it on all sides of course, the Badwater Basin that draws sight-seers from around the globe, yes indeed, but there is so much more. Badlands, dune fields, volcanoes, deep shaded canyons, open wind-swept playas and bajadas, hundreds of miles of near empty dirt roads, gold mines, salt mines, bauxite mines and an abundance of multi-colored and multi-textured rocks unlike any place else we know. And every few years, the rains come and suddenly the barren desert floor is ablaze with colored wildflowers: yellows, oranges, blues, purples.
But the air - and the light - unique!
Death Valley is a land, if nothing else, of extreme contrasts, whether these be from place to place, season to season, day to day or even moment to moment. In the following images we try to reflect a small sample of these contrasts and at the same time, shows off the contrasting styles of our photographic vision, both moody and vivid.
We open with two winter storm scenes, first, where the skies close in, lashing the parched ground with sheets of water. Not at all what you might expect of a photographic essay of the well known driest, hottest, deepest location in North America! But this makes our point, Death Valley can surprise you - in a big way. On this dark afternoon, the wind roared across a land entirely devoid of fences, houses or any other manifestation of human presence. There was no sight or sound other than Mother Earth made it.
After we packed up the camera gear in the back of the truck, we sat on the ground with the truck wheel at our back and felt the push, tug and cry of the wind, rising and falling as gusts came and went by us. Together with the spatter of rain drops on our hoods, we felt like Mother Earth was communing with us. Actually showing off for us: "Look what I can do...!" We took note....
By the time we took the second shot the worst of the storm had passed and the sun began to show itself through the hurtling clouds. And before us stretched a vista over which almost every element could be seen: earth, sky, wind, rain and beams of sunlight streaming through the cloud canopy, turning on and off and arcing over rise and fall like a searchlight in the hand of a drunken controller.
So if you have a stout enough vehicle, a couple of spare tires, plenty of water and fuel, you might take off down Racetrack Road in search of the mysterious sliding rocks. The good news is you are unlikely to get held up in traffic on this trip, the not so good news - depending on how you look at it - your ride will be rough and tiring. Corrugations that don't give up.... boulders that can be sharp, its just a slow, long slog, a test for both you and your vehicle. And help, should you need it, could be hours or even days away. But the destination is a reward! Depending on your route, your navigation may take you to "Tea Kettle Junction" a marker well along the Racetrack road. Definitely a place to stop, turn off the truck's engine, gaze all around you, and then just listen. The silence as they say, is deafening. Only the wind and an occasional screech of a hawk or even an eagle. And in the distance, a mile or two away, a lonely playa with a strange island in the middle. That playa is your goal.
An absolute explanation for the phenomenon of rocks sitting on the playa surface with clear con trails in the playa surface (i.e. "sliding" rocks) still eludes the scientific community, at least in terms of actual film showing these rocks moving. Having said this, it is broadly accepted that in winter, during heavy rain, snow and ice conditions, the fine clays of the playa surface do become extremely slick, and the prevailing winds are indeed able to push the rocks along. When you visit and walk over to the hillside where these rocks originate (to the left in both these images) it is clear that certain ones of these rocks have traveled quite significant distances, and in some cases in zig-zag paths.
One of our favorite things to do during our winter visits to the Valley, is to visit the Tucki sand dunes before dawn. Commonly they have been groomed clean of footprints by the overnight wind and the sidelight can give the dunes a spectacular glow. When the dawn shadows are longest, the dunes themselves are an abundance of textures and patterns that we can spend hours inspecting through our lenses (more of these in our Trees, Flowers and Textures gallery), but also the contrast between the dunes and the backdrop of dark red mountains and deep blue skies gets us every time.
Once the sun gets too high for artful photography and the dunes loose their shadows, a really fun thing to do is find a quiet dune slope on the opposite side to the road and lie down! At this time of day the sand just below the surface is still super cool and the dune itself completely damps out the road noise. Take a deep breath and just listen. The sand spilling over the dune edges has a quiet little hum, but other than that the only noise is the wind, while before you lies a scene of such staggering, raw beauty. We like to spend half an hour meditating this way before we head off for a well earned breakfast and piping hot coffee!
After breakfast we like to explore the "badlands" of the basin where the "young" Pliocene age (2-4 million years ago) Furnace Creek Formation lays bare and totally exposed to modern day elements of wind and water.
This interaction between the relatively soft, diatomaceous earth of the Furnace Creek Formation and the ravages of often violent seasonal rains creates an amazing landscape where ridge after ridge separates one "v" shaped groove after another. Hiking these ridges is a dusty affair when they are dry and impossibly slick on the rare occasions when they are wet.
This particular image (DV-017) is total geological indulgence! Here we see the buff colored Furnace Creek Formation in the foreground - aged ~2-4 million years old, but behind it, looms the dark, brooding, massive and complex mass of the Pre-Cambrian gneiss's of the Black Mountains, an age difference of over 1.0 billion years. We'll save the explanation of their juxtaposition for the book version!
The highlight of most people's visits to Death Valley is the Badwater Basin shown here in overview in DV-019. From Dante's View, the vision before you of the entire valley is breathtaking. This shot looks north west towards the Panamint Range of mountains that border the valley's western margin. The tallest peak in the range, Telescope Peak, reaches 11,049 feet (also seen in the middle distance of DV-022). All along the base of the mountains is a geological feature called a "bajada" where individual gravel fans that form at the point where deep canyon gashes in the mountain flanks meet the relatively flat valley floor, coalesce into a single apron that skirts the entire base of the mountain range for many miles. Adjacent to the bajada and filling the center of the valley floor, is the famous Death Valley Badwater Basin salt pan, an area of over 200 square miles that lies as low as some 282 feet below sea level. What most people don't realize about the salt pan here, is that it is not sourced by salty water, quite the contrary, the water that fills the basin from nearby springs and during heavy rainfall is entirely fresh. The salts in the basin occur by a process of progressive evaporation of the fresh water which concentrates carbonates, sulfates and eventually chloride salts in the center of the basin.