For many nature photographers in the United States, winter is the slow season. Trails and roads that were accessible are now closed or covered in snow. Days are shorter, temperatures are colder, and the vibrant foliage and flowers of earlier seasons have all but disappeared.
Don't despair! Winter is also the best time to photograph many places in the US, including one of our favorites tucked into the Great Basin in California: Death Valley National Park. So dig your shorts and hiking boots out of the closest, book your flight to Las Vegas, and read these five tips for making the most out of your visit to Death Valley National Park.
1 -Visit at the best time of year (November - March)
Death Valley National Park is beautiful all year, but for most photographers, the months of November through March offer the most opportunities. Summer temperatures in Death Valley National Park, especially at the lower elevations (including popular photography locations like Badwater and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes) are extremely hot. The park gets so hot in the late spring and summer that heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and dehydration are real possibilities.
Beyond the more comfortable temperatures, winter in Death Valley is also the "rainy" season, a term that is relative since the park only receives about 2 inches of rain a year. The rainy season means more storms, more clouds, virga (rainfall that does not reach the ground), and the possibility of ephemeral conditions like rainbows and water in the desert landscape. As you can see in the first photo above, an intense rainstorm left large pools of water to the Badwater Basin salt flats, creating unique conditions for photography.
Though the temperatures in the lower elevations of Death Valley National Park are usually comfortable in the winter, high winds can and do make an appearance, and higher elevation locations (such as the Eureka Dunes and Racetrack) can easily reach below freezing temperatures. The peaks in the Panamint Range that can be seen from Badwater Basin are often covered in snow. Even spots that are typically accessible, like Dante's View, are sometimes closed due to snowy conditions. So, pack appropriately for all weather, especially if you plan to visit higher elevation locations.
2 - Embrace Clear Skies
So you plan your trip to Death Valley in the rainy season and you have clear skies the entire time... We know from a lot of personal experience that this can and often does happen when visiting Death Valley. Although you might prefer colorful clouds, there are many subjects and photography locations that can work well under clear skies, including:
Badlands - The badlands, such as those near Zabriskie Point and Twenty Mule Team Canyon, can glow at dawn or dusk on a clear sky day (point your camera at badlands located opposite the direction of the rising and setting sun to photograph the best glow before sunrise or after sunset).
Sand Dunes - Sand dunes are a very versatile photography subject because they can be photographed in a variety of conditions. With clear skies, more intimate photographs of the dunes, highlighting the interplay between light and shadow and showing texture, are possible. These types of photographs often require a mid to long telephoto lens, so be sure to bring this kind of lens along if you have one. When the winds are high, the blowing sand coupled with clear skies can produce dramatic photographs, as well. Just be sure to protect your gear as blowing sand can and will get everywhere.
Canyons - Death Valley has many canyons (Mosaic Canyon is the most accessible, with many more options for those who want to venture off the beaten path). These canyons often do not receive direct light except for a few hours during the middle of the day and thus can be photographed in even light through much of the day. Just like the sandstone canyons of Arizona, some of Death Valley's canyons can display a range of colors due to reflected light and shadows at certain times of day.
Mud - Cracked mud is everywhere in Death Valley National Park and like badlands, this mud can glow at dusk. It can also be photographed with low angled light to show textures and patterns, as well. The Racetrack is Death Valley's most well-known playa but visitors can also find cracked mud in many places throughout the park, including in washes, playas, and even in between sand dunes in some spots.
Grand Scenics - While this may be an unconventional opinion, clear skies can also be good for wide angle grand scenic landscapes, specifically when photographing the blue/purple band of the earth shadow opposite the rising or setting sun. White salt flats like those in Badwater Basin are very reflective and pick up and complement the subtle hues of twilight.
It is also worth noting that we have seen seemingly clear skies at dawn turn into a blazing sunrise shortly after. Take the photo at the top of this post. The sky was clear when we left our campsite to photograph sunrise and about 45 minutes later, the sky as full of pink and orange clouds. Since weather can develop quickly in Death Valley, it is almost always worth getting up for sunrise if you have limited time in the park.
3 - Stay Updated on Current Conditions
For Death Valley National Park, there are several ephemeral events that are worth staying informed about to make a last minute trip:
Desert Wildflowers. Death Valley wildflowers are prolific only a few times per decade, but they are an experience not to be missed when they do happen. 2016 was a great year and 2005 was even better. Wildflowers usually bloom in late January and February at lower elevations and throughout spring at higher elevations. Although you can always find some isolated patches of flowers in off years, "superbloom" years are spectacular to witness and photograph. The Desert USA website is a great resource for staying informed about wildflower conditions in the park.
Flooding in Badwater Basin. Significant rains can sometimes cause flooding the Badwater Basin, filling the salt polygons with water and creating exciting photo opportunities. In October 2015, a massive flood event left Badwater Basin flooded for almost a month (though the road to it was closed for much of that time). A lesser weather event happened in January 2016 that left parts of it flooded for about 10 days as well. So, if you are in the park during a long, heavy rainstorm, you may want to visit Badwater Basin to see if it has experienced flooding.
You can view Badwater Basin from an elevated position along the road to the Natural Bridge trailhead, which can make identifying flooded sections easier. Badwater Basin is very large and finding flooded sections after a rainstorm can require a lot of scouting. Also, heavy rains do not consistently result in flooding, so do not get your hopes up until you actually see flooded polygons.
4 - Get Off the Beaten Path and Consider Visiting Remote Parts of the Park
The popular photography locations around Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells offer many excellent opportunities but comprise only a small sliver of Death Valley National Park. There are other valleys in Death Valley National Park besides Death Valley itself (the Panamint Valley, the Saline Valley, and the Eureka Valley to name three), and many other remote locations that are excellent for photography. There are dune fields, expansive views, mud playas, Joshua Trees, canyons and more. The Racetrack, featured in the photo above, is an example of a place that requires backcountry travel to access.
While visiting off the beaten path locations requires more effort, time, and scouting, one major reward is the opportunity to discover unique opportunities for photography. Unlike many national parks, off-trail hiking is permitted in Death Valley as long as you are not causing any damage to the natural resources (never drive off-road in the park - it is both illegal and highly destructive). So, if you see something interesting, you are free to explore on foot. Some of our favorite photos from the park have resulted from this kind of exploration. You can also access more remote locations via the park's network of backcountry roads. Desert Paradise, our ebook on Death Valley, hiking books, and backcountry road guides are a good place to start your research.
While some remote locations can be visited with a standard passenger car, some require a 4WD or high clearance vehicle, supplies, and a lot of experience with backcountry travel. Always make sure you are fully prepared before heading out on any dirt road in Death Valley National Park, as the terrain and weather can be very hazardous or even deadly for the ill-prepared. Be sure to stop by the visitor center to get the latest road/weather conditions, never venture out in hot weather, and bring a detailed map, water, and extra supplies.
The Death Valley Road Conditions Facebook page is a good resource to follow, as park staff share alerts on primary and backcountry roads in the park. The conditions of some roads, such as those into the Racetrack or some of the more remote sand dunes in the park can vary significantly based on recent events (even major roads are occasionally closed so don't be caught off guard). The main Death Valley Facebook page is also a good resource to follow for updates on park conditions.
5 - Do Not Neglect Intimates and Abstracts
While the "big" locations in Death Valley get a lot of well-deserved attention, there are just as many opportunities for smaller scenes and abstracts. Salt crystals, isolated patches of flowers, mud cracks, cactus, plants, rock patterns, reflected canyon light, badlands and mountains - there are great subjects everywhere in the park that can be photographed in all types of light.
Telephoto and macro lenses can greatly expand your opportunities for creative photographs, so we highly recommend bringing them along on any photography trip to Death Valley National Park.
Winter does not have to be cold and miserable! Instead, this is our favorite time to photograph Death Valley National Park and other nearby deserts in California and Arizona. We hope these tips will help you on your first (or next) trip to Death Valley National Park.
If you are planning a photography trip to Death Valley National Park, you might find our ebook Desert Paradise: The Landscape Photographer's Guide to Death Valley National Park to be a helpful resource. Desert Paradise includes many of our favorite locations in the park, as well as photography tips and trip planning resources. You can use the discount code DV2016 and save 15%.