On the morning of Sunday, October 18, 2015, Sarah, our two cats, our shiny silver trailer and I were at Area 51.
We were not seeking aliens, or, to our knowledge, being sought by them. Other than our cats throwing up, there was very little evidence of any medical experimentation of any kind.
We honestly had no idea we were on the Extra Terrestrial Highway until we saw the road sign. We were doing what we often are doing, driving, leaving the beautiful Cathedral Gorge State Park in Nevada and heading to Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierra. The ET highway was just the fastest route (though extremely remote, with over 150 miles between gas stations).
During the previous night and morning at the Cathedral Gorge campground, our Airstream trailer was pounded by torrential rain. Washes that were dry and dusty the evening before were running high and fast with water in the morning. Fortunately for us, there was a brief respite from the rain at sunrise and we were able to photograph before the rain restarted in earnest.
The heavy rainfall also meant I had to do something I really don’t like doing: pay attention while driving. There were several portions of the road that were washed out and covered with debris that we had to maneuver around at low speed. How am I supposed to get a decent nap if I’m driving down a two-lane obstacle course in heavy rain?
Once we passed the secret government compound that everyone knows about, we saw even worse weather to the south. Continual lightning and rain was pummeling the mountains. Shortly before arriving at Tonopah, Nevada for gas, we drove through several inches of fresh hail.
This was one hell of a storm!
The intense rain about 80 miles to our south was right over Death Valley National Park. In just over five hours, 2.7 inches of rain fell in the area of Grapevine Canyon near Scotty’s Castle, more rain than falls in a typical year. By all accounts this was a 1,000-year flood event. Scotty’s Castle and the road to it sustained the brunt of the damage. It will take over a year and tens of millions of dollars to repair.
As any self-respecting landscape photographer should get excited when they hear terms like “1,000 year flood” when referencing a desert landscape – as it means there could be unique (alien?) conditions for photography. There was no loss of human life during this flood, so our excitement was mostly guilt-free, and would be completely guilt free if not for the fact that the already cash and resource strapped National Park Service now has an expensive time-consuming problem to contend with.
For Death Valley this flood meant two things: that Badwater Basin could be filled with water, and that there is the potential for a spectacular wildflower year a few months later in spring.
Badwater Basin is already a fantastic photography location without flooding. It is the lowest point in North America at 279 feet below sea level, with surreal salty hexagonal patterns surrounded by large mountains to the east and west. 11,000 years ago, there was a lake here, Lake Manly, which temporarily re-forms during major rain events such as this one only to evaporate soon after.
Lake Manly did in fact reappear after this storm, but the road to Badwater was closed due to mudflows. As Badwater is 17 miles from the main highway, access would be difficult until the road reopened.
Sarah and I intended to head to Zion National Park after photographing the Eastern Sierra and Yosemite until we found out that the road to Badwater was now open, about three weeks after the storm hit and earlier than we anticipated. We left Yosemite a few days early and headed directly to Death Valley to see it for ourselves. Sarah saw some sections of Badwater with water in 2011, but it has, to our knowledge, remained dry since.
Badwater (or rather, Lake Manly) was everything we hoped it would be and more. There was a lot of variety in patterns and reflections just within a few hundred yards of walking once we reached the wet sections of the playa. We also took advantage of the newly formed mudflows and photographed cracked mud patterns.
We really do not “chase the light” anymore, as we feel that we can make photos in any kind of light (some of our favorite Badwater photos were taken with clear skies), but we will always chase interesting conditions, whether they be fall colors, spring or summer wildflowers, or 1,000 year floods that cause tens of millions of dollars in damage.
Note for those planning a trip to Death Valley: There is currently still water in Badwater, but it is evaporating quickly. Our favorite spots were about 1-2 miles north of the main Badwater parking area, and about 0.5 to 1 mile west from Badwater road. Normal hiking boots will be destroyed by the super salty water, so wear something you don’t care about ruining or perhaps rubber boots (leather will not do well). Even if you miss out on water in Badwater Basin, the recent flood has reset and smoothed out some of the gnarlier salt patterns. There is great cracked mud between Zabriskie Point and the (now closed) road to Twenty Mule Team Canyon, as well as between the north exit and south entrance to Artist’s Drive along Badwater Road. Wildflowers typically peak between February and April (lower elevations peaking before higher elevations, check the Desert USA site for updates on conditions).
If you would like to learn more about photographing Death Valley, check out our e-book on photographing the park: Desert Paradise: The Landscape Photographer's Guide to Death Valley National Park. Desert Paradise is currently available as part of the InFocus Deal (10 top-quality photo education resources for landscape photographers for only $49, available until Wednesday, December 2, 2015).