Top 5 Locations to Explore and Photograph Death Valley National Park

When and where to shoot the best locations in Death Valley National Park, California.

By: Greg Harlow + Save to a List

I have to admit, driving into Death Valley had me a bit discouraged. The long flat roads and the barren desert along the I-90 seemed boring on the way in, and I couldn't imagine it would get much better. Trust me, that all changed once I finally entered the park.

The lowest point in the western hemisphere (Death Valley -282' below sea level ) and highest point in the western hemisphere (Mt. Whitney 14,504' above sea level) are only about an hour drive away from each other. Let that be the precursor to how violently dramatic and unique the land is here. Erosion patterns on scales that, for me, cannot be comprehended.

The first point of interest is Zabriskie Point. No, not the 1970's counter-culture teen film...(above)

This location is famously best for sunrise, but sunset is notably great as well. It is composed of sediments from Furnace Creek Lake, which dried up 5 million years ago—long before Death Valley came into existence. A massive panoramic view, that brings you into the east side Death Valley. This location is featured prominently on the cover of U2's album The Joshua Tree.

Moving on, you will find yourself at a crossroads. Either go south on Badwater Road, or enter Furnace Creek. Furnace Creek is the oasis and heart of the park where campgrounds, a lodge, and even a golf course reside. A single gas station with 2 pumps, and the "market" is the Pro Shop of the Golf Course. So...PLAN AHEAD.

I headed south on Badwater Road towards the salt flats of Badwater Basin. You will see signs that entice you on Artist's Drive. A one-way, rollercoaster-like, 9-mile loop (no RV's) that takes you to our next point of interest: Artist's Palette.

Death Valley has the highest recorded temperature on earth at over 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Luckily, Artist’s Palette is not far from the parking the area and the saving grace of air conditioning in your vehicle.

You overlook Badwater Basin to the west, a gorgeous valley for sunset colors, and I definitely suggest exploring Artist’s Palette around sunset, as it is tucked on the east side of the mountains, and you will see golden light reflecting off the multi-colored dunes.

There are no trails or limits as to where you may want to wander.

This unique erosion pattern is called an alluvial fan. It is a cone-shaped deposit of sediment built up by Death Valleys volcanic period 5-20 million years ago, and has since been victim to the elements, weathering away 5000 feet of debris. 

The incredible palette of colors is caused by the oxidation of the different metal and mineral deposits revealed by the violent erosive combinations of heat, wind, and rain.

Iron, Mica, and Manganese are the main culprits creating a diverse color scheme of blue, green, purple, pink yellow and red. Manganese is the most magnificent contributor to Artist’s Palette, as it takes on a turquoise green tint.

West of Furnace Creek is the park's most popular attraction. The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

Sunrise or sunset will offer an experience that takes you to another world, feeling as though you are not in the United States anymore. Sunrise is absolutely incredible as the dunes appear to glow in the low light, creating lines and patterns that a modern artist dreams of. Shadows grow tall and make for awesome images of people walking the dunes. You will definitely end up taking a selfie of your own shadow...

Near the parking lot, if the winds didn't wash them away, many of the dunes are covered in footprints and "sled marks", but if you continue to hike further, you will find many opportunities to find modern lines for abstract photographs, which are just begging to be your desktop wallpaper. Most people don't trek into the heart of the dunes, so the patterns in the sand will be clean and beautiful.  

This is one my favorite images...ever...

 You will definitely find your shot as the dunes go on for miles...

Another awesome thing about wandering the desert is that every trace of life leaves behind evidence. Jackrabbits, snakes, lizards, roadrunners, all desert wildlife come alive at night to hunt and/or forage for food and sources of water. I really enjoyed seeing the underground network of holes in the sand, and the footprints and trails left behind. You will find yourself channeling Sherlock Holmes, trying to revisit the events that took place. Even the beetles leave behind hints in the sand. 

Here, a sidewinder worked his way along the dunes.

...and a zebra tailed lizard drags his tail

Currently, until 2020, the road to Scotty's Castle is closed for restoration. I was unable to visit, but the story is fascinating. 1920's con man Walter Scott, also known as “Death Valley Scotty,” convinced Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson to invest in his "fraudulent" gold mine in the Death Valley area. He was convinced to also buy 1,500 acres of the desert, which turned out to be government land. The incredibly elaborate castle (complete with a quarter mile of underground tunnels, underground pool, and a 1,121 pipe theatre organ) was inevitably donated to the state park after Johnson had passed. It is like a desert Sistine Chapel full of detail and art. Google it because I wasn't able to photograph it...

Moving onward, you will reach Teakettle Junction, where adventurers leave by teakettles with stories, notes, and photographs inside them. A cool little personality trait of Death Valley, and it's fun to look inside the teakettles for awhile. I may or may not have left a Greg Harlow Media Balloon sticker....shhh....

Most people turn around at this juncture. A serious, high clearance, 4x4 vehicle is required as the trail is notorious for popping tires, and stranding people in the desert, and yes, it was rough. There is a jeep rental service in Furnace Creek for those serious about heading to the famed Racetrack Playa.

The Racetrack Playa, home to the "Sailing Stones." A six mile stretch that is so flat, that over 6 miles, elevation changes only 1/4 of an inch. The Sailing Stones are rocks and boulders that appear to be coming to life and crawling across the playa, leaving behind a deep trail of their movement and no witnesses for explanation. This puzzled scientists until 2014, when some Scripps researches found that during the winter,  as the strong desert winds tunnel through this valley, large sheets of ice act as sails catching the wind, and pushing enough forces to slide the rocks through the leathery thick desert mud.  

I still have my doubts that this is the only raw explanation. Exploring the Playa, there are some trails that have rocks on either end of their mud though a boulder split down the middle and parted ways. My mind wandered and wondered if lightning has something to do with it. Who knows. Either way, this is one of the coolest and naturally mysterious things I have ever seen.  

Furthermore, please take off your shoes and walk on the Playa. This lizard skin desert surface looks as though it would be dry and rough, but feels like soft leather! It was one of my favorite parts of the trip, and fits the theme of Death Valley..."unexpected."

 We had a small camping family of 6 that night, met some great people and cooked together as we traded each others stories. A couple of awesome 4x4 enthusiasts from Ojai, California, a badass traveling nurse from the east coast, and a U.K. couple known as "The Two Wheeled Nomads" who have been living out of their motorcycles for 4 years traveling America. We wandered the Playa with our headlamps, and had a great night together. These are the reasons people fall in love with camping.  

Up at 5:30 to shoot sunrise on the Playa, made coffee, and stuck together as we all off-roaded together out the back way towards Panamint Springs, and was the craziest road I have ever been on in my life. The Ojai guys had insane off-roading setups, and got us all jacked to travel this road as a caravan. I now want an off-roading vehicle because this was so much fun. 

Hidden along this road is a rarely seen Joshua Tree Forest. The trees are evenly spaced out by their root systems for collecting maximum amounts of moisture in order to survive. And they go as far as the eyes can see. Another unexpected gem on this journey.

Once you reach Panamint Springs,  the next point of interest is The Panamint Dunes.  

A gigantic wind tunnel is created between the mountain ranges and at the end of the tunnel, huge mountains of sand collect, creating the dunes. These dunes are rarely visited because they require an 8 mile hike, with no trail through the desert.  

Along the hike we came across some old broken down vehicles...

A horned lizard displaying his amazing camouflage...

We planned our hike, (fellow photographer @BlakeDebock and I,) to arrive at sunset, with an hour to explore to frame up our shots. These were the most beautiful, clean, unaltered sand dunes with a view to the south that is indescribably grandiose. I read that the Panamint Dunes are a particular favorite of photographers because of the scenic shadows cast by late afternoon light. That article was right...

Panamint Dunes Sunset...

Glowing patterns in the sand...

More patterns in the sand...

As the sun dipped over the mountain range, strange bursts of strong winds started powering through the valley, whipping sand over the dunes. Keep your camera gear protected during these times because SAND GETS EVERYWHERE  and can really damage your equipment. So we packed up, got out our light sources and began the long night desert walk when this firecracker of a sunset appeared.

This shows the incredible valley view to the south, those "small mountains" in the distant valley are about 6 miles away. You can also see Telescope Peak(top left of this image) which still has snow on it! ...even in 95 degree April days.

What an experience Death Valley is. I strongly suggest spring or fall visits, as the summer will be uncomfortably warm, averaging temps around 115 degrees all summer long. There is a special energy to be felt in this one-of-a-kind, ever-changing place on earth. Be overly hydrated, prepare with extra water, and have a great time photographing this amazing national park!

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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