Death Valley Comes to Life

Desert, Geology, Hiking, Photography, Wildflowers

Underneath all of this heat and rock is life, just waiting for a chance.

The irony, of course, is that Death Valley is full of life. Whether or not you see it depends on when you arrive.

In the heat of summer most of what lives shelters into the earth in burrows or dens, or under a thin layer of rocks and soil; anywhere that’s out of the glare of that merciless sun, which traveled through space and a thin layer of crystal clear desert air, arriving ready to extract the life out of anything or anyone that fails to show respect.

Every now and then though, given just the right circumstance of winter rains, temperature and sunlight, that life rises to the surface to remind the world that “we’re still here!”

And so it was when I arrived in March of 2016 to witness… the Superbloom.

I’ve got this thing about shooting wildflowers. I think it’s something about filling the viewfinder with the vivid colors and symmetry that can be a little elusive, all while outside in the fresh air that makes it a pleasing, heartfelt pursuit.

And witnessing the display in the most unlikely of places makes it all the more intriguing.

I packed up the camera gear and drove over to Ridgecrest, California for the night so I could get an early start the next morning and head into Death Valley National Park.

I got on the road before first light and headed through Searles Valley which is a pretty classic ‘wide open highway’ drive through a desert valley. Classic enough to pass a film crew out shooting a car commercial at daybreak complete with a camera car and the CHP getting ready to block the road.

Not knowing exactly where I should go, on a tip I headed over to Titus Canyon area, taking in the landscape along the way.

I chose to hike along the nearby Fall Canyon Trail, which is a loosely marked path in a dry arroyo that has been cutting itself through the bedrock for a few million years, shear walls of stone framing the intense blue sky above.

And at my feet? A delicate, scattered, yet just as colorful display of wildflowers breaking through the rubble, looking for sunlight.

By early afternoon, I was glad I had a decent hat on and I had some nice shots, but not what I was looking for. Back in the parking lot another hiker asked ‘if I got any good shots..’ and I said I did OK, but I was looking for the fields of flowers I saw in the article. He said, ‘Oh, you need to head over to the Badwater Road area for that. The flowers over there are crazy.’

Damn. Badwater Road was about an hour away and it was already about 2:30 PM.  I took off.

He was right:

Acres and acres of daisy-like yellow flowers called Desert Gold. I started shooting my fill, and although my clear blue morning had turned overcast, I managed to get a decent Superbloom fix. Had I done my homework a little better, I would have caught the display in the morning light, but I’ll take what I have nonetheless.

And while the acres and acres of nature’s yellow glory is indeed something to behold, I get a particular joy out of pausing along the trail just about anywhere and discovering the delicate smattering of life just at your feet. Look closely. Tiny petals of color, almost microscopic in form, have somehow managed to return to the light, after hiding in the rocky soil from the blistering Mojave sun for the better part of the year.

I came to Death Valley for a specific limited-run natural event. But the whole park, at anytime, is a natural event. Macro and micro. Macro mountains that soar to 12,000 feet above where you stand in the salt flats at 200 feet below sea level. 

Temperatures that can kill the unprepared both in the daytime and the night. Rocks and rock formations that expose a cross-section of geologic time like the rings on a tree and have the added benefit of helping put a little perspective on those annoying issues and to-do lists you have rolling around in your head.

And the micro. The flowers of red, yellow and purple that are a living testament to the persistence of nature, proving themselves each season with a display of elegant beauty that is simply irresistible to see in my viewfinder.

Kid Factor: (+) An interesting place for the older kids. Start by visiting the Park Service website and plan your trip keeping the heat and time of day in mind. (-) Take the warnings about the heat and water very seriously.

Fitness Factor:  The sun is exceptionally bright here, and you’ll feel it on your exposed head even in early March like I did (broke out the hat at 9:30 AM). Know your limits and listen to your body. With the exceptionally low, almost non-existent humidity you don’t sweat like you would elsewhere so you get fooled into thinking you’re not needing as much water. If you’re thirsty you’re already dehydrated. Drink up the fluids. If you’re thirsty and running out of something to drink, you probably should have turned back an hour ago. People die out here every year because they simply don’t take this harsh environment seriously.

Photo Factor: With regards to shooting wildflowers, a tripod with a macro lens is pretty fundamental. A set of close-up lenses that mount on the front of your conventional lenses is a less expensive alternative. I also brought something to diffuse the harsh light, although just having someone stand there and put the flowers in the shade moderates the brights and shadows to a produce a more pleasing image. You also might want to bring something to block the wind while you make an exposure. Know something about depth of field.

You should try and time your shooting broad landscapes for the early morning and very late afternoon when the sun casts more dramatic light across the rock faces, and use the midday light for the small, close-up stuff.