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Mar '07

Death Valley National Park 1 / 2

You may think this picture is from somewhere in the desert of Northern Africa. In fact, it was taken here in the beautiful golden state.

Besides high living standards, constant traffic jam and tough car emission regulation, I am very lucky to live in the great state of California. The place is a collection of many different types of terrains around the world. Like a plate appetizers sampler, we get a little bit of all the goodies, from the alpine mountains that filled with snow for the adventurous cross country skiers to the endless sand dunes in the barren Mojave desert for the serious off road racers to test their high-octane burning monsters. From the underwater forest in the Catalina island where the divers come to explore the weightless world to the high Sierra forest where you can stay in the wooden cabin surround by pine trees and snow that looks exactly like something you see in the 12-month calendar of the Alps. No wonder it is so hard for us Californians to resist the temptation of acquiring equipment to explore the great outdoor. This also explains the oning shortage of our garage space.

Back to the photos, it was taken during our visit to the Death Valley National Park. I always wanted to visit the park ever since I heard about it. I finally did in early 2007! As an information junkie, there is one thing about me when it comes to traveling – we always spend time to research our destinations. We are not talking about tourist attractions here! I want to know the in-depth information. I want to know the history, the terrain, the weather and the wildlife. This information is not only making my trips more interesting, but it also prepared me for the gears that I need – both outdoor and photography gears.

My photo gear for this trip

  • Canon Rebel XT
  • Canon 100mm Macro
  • Canon 50mm 1.8 Mk1 (The Granddaddy)
  • Sigma 18-125mm 3.5-5.6 (non-OS)
  • Sigma 135-400mm 4-5.6
  • Canon 580ex
  • Canon 420ex
  • Manfrotto Bogen CR322 ballhead
  • Manfroto Tripod 1031

Don’t let the name scare you away, it was named after its extreme weather condition and rugged terrain. The origin of the name went way back in the 1849 during the CA gold rush when group of travelers tried to pass and ended up lost in the area. No, no body died and no body ended up eating each other. But it was such a tough journey and someone decided to call this place death valley. So that’s how it got its fearsome name. The earliest history of human habitation of native American was traced back to 10,000 years ago. I wonder if the place was much better back then because it was a huge lake during the last ice age. Maybe it was called “Green Valley” by the natives? This park is one of the largest national park with the size of 3 million acres and sitting over 4 counties. It is ranked #5 among the the US national parks for its size. There are only two main roads that connects the 4 corners of the park and there are over 1000 miles of dirt roads. The main road will only take you to the main tourist spot like the Bad Water Basin, Mesquite Dune Flat, Zabriske Pt. Scotty’s Castle, etc. The dirt road will lead you to true adventures but it does come with a price. 🙂

Zabriske Pt.

Almost there

We flew down to Burbank on Friday afternoon and got our rental at the airport. Since all the midsize sedans were out, they upgraded us to an SUV, Chrysler Aspen. With my company discount, I got the thing for $18 / day out of the door. Not a bad deal! After having lunch with my friend, Eric, we headed to the supermarket to get food and water. We embarked the gas guzzler for a 3 hour drive to the park. On the way to the park, we took a detour to test the vehicle’s offroad capability. Instead of taking the main entrance, we used the Wild Rose Road to enter the park. This uneven dirty road is fun to drive but we have to travel at slower speed or it will feel like riding a mechanical bull. This made our drive longer than we expected.

By the time we got to the hotel around sunset, we were welcome by a majestic view of the sand dunes, Mesquite Dune Flat. This desert gems sits right in front of our hotel, Stove Pipe Wells. The suset painted the sand red and lighting was perfect for me to grab some shots of the dunes. We were immediately drawn to it and started finding ways to get on top the highest dune, Star Dune. Did I mention that we got there around sunset? Yea? I proposed to gear up for a night hike on the way back. It was a full moon night and we should get plenty of the ambient light and with our flashlights and Tikka head lamps, we should have plenty of coverage. In addition, the light from the hotel will be our landmark. It should be a piece of cake.

Cora immediately opposed the idea of night hike. Her argument was that we are inexperience in night hike. Not to mentioned that we are totally new to the desert environment. We finally came up to agree to just explore the outer perimeter of the dunes and leave the Star dune for tomorrow morning. Well, thank god that I listened to her!

After the sun was set, the twilight took over the blue sky and turned it into a canvas painted with orange and blue.  The diminishing orange color from the receding sun light engaging one of its final battle at the end of the day but it is slowing losing it to the cool blue color of the sky. If you have seen the work from famous landscape and travel photographer, Galen Rowell, you will noticed that most of portfolio work was collected during this time. This is the magical moment of landscape photography and unfortunately, it will only last for a few minutes and then it will all fade away. Being on the outskirt of the dunes, far away from my main subject, I realized that I was not able to grab the shots that I want. I stopped what I was doing and just sit on the sand to enjoy the magical moment with my love.

The night moved in and veiled our surrounding slowly with darkness as the remaining of twilight started to fade. The blue and orange sky start to dim and we started to pack once the sky was completely in dark. We were probably half mile away from the parking lot. At this time, we were in pitch black. Besides what we could illuminate with our flash lights and headlamps, the only landmark that we could see is the indistinct silhouette of the distant mountains. The full moon on the rise provided very little light. This is far different than what I have in mind for a “full moon” hike. We were in a pitch black desert with a full moon and some flash lights and it is impossible to use the landmark to find our direction. Even at the outer perimeter, we are still surrounded by hundreds of little sand dunes that are 10-15 ft high. We were constantly going up and down these dunes. The little sand dunes make direction finding even harder – like sitting in the maze of sand. We had to constantly climb to the top of a dune to check our direction and it made our hike 10 times longer than that we spent on the way in.

When we got back to the hotel, it was around 8pm. We quickly called it a day. We had to get up early the next day.

I set my alarm around 4:30am and immediately jumped off the bed when the alarm was off. Cora had a hard time struggling to get out of the bed. She was still recovering from the late adventure. When I see the distant sky glowing in orange, I know that I am about to miss the golden hour to get my photo. This is something about landscape photographers that I always try to figure out. Since we have such early and odd schedule, do you guys usually drag your spouse / significant others to go with you during the golden hour? I wonder if this why I saw a lot of photographer shooting by themselves in the field. The ones that I met in the field usually left their spouse in the campground / hotel and bring back breakfast on the way back. 🙂 I guess landscape photogs are usually the workhorse in the family since we got up early and goes bed late. There is always something to shoot in the field 24/7.

Sleepy Cora on the sand dunes @ sun rise

So Cora finally got off the bed and we head straight to the Star Dune. The time was around 5am and we still have a good hour from the sun rise. Thanks to the surrounding mountains, we have plenty of time to hike there and we again underestimated the desert. Hiking on such massive amount of sand is very different than on a trail. The soft sand is like a sponge that absorb your energy. Every step on make on the sand is like 5 steps on a solid ground trail. We tried to get to the front of the Star Dunes for the photo. We also bring a piece of card board with us which we planned to use it for sand sledging.


4 comments to “Death Valley National Park 1 / 2”

  1. Portable Grill Says:

    Thank you for another great article. Where else could anyone get that kind of information in such a perfect way of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am on the look for such information.

  2. Stephen Says:

    Which wide angle lens were you using for these shots? They are amazing pictures. Thanks for sharing. Also, were you shooting with your 40d or a FF?

  3. Administrator Says:

    Hi Stephen: You’re welcome and thanks for your compliment. These photos were taken with a Sigma 18-125mm f3.5-5.6 DC. I didn’t have my 40D back then. I took these with a Rebel XT.

    have a good one and thanks for visiting my blog


  4. Tweets that mention Rain and cold in the bay area remind me the winter trips to the dunes in so cal. Man I missed the desert! #deathvalley -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Anton Huo, Anton Huo. Anton Huo said: Rain and cold in the bay area remind me the winter trips to the dunes in so cal. Man I missed the desert! http://j.mp/eKrxo1 #deathvalley […]

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