La Muerte & El Fuego


Broadcaster, formerly "ashergrey"
May 5, 2012
The tale of two valleys: death and fire.



Like a million other gullible tourists, I perked up to the talk of a superbloom this spring in Death Valley National Park.



The park started promoting the wildflower situation with a video that made the rounds in February. Then every news site in the country seemingly posted a version of the story. The gist: this hasn't happened in a decade and you don't want to miss it.


With a siren song like that, crowds were inevitable. So call me a sucker, but I decided to go too.

Vehicle repairs and work commitments kept me occupied though until the second weekend of March. By that time, wind and heat had conspired to reap some of the thickest fields. Still, some color remained in pockets.

Rolling in midday on Thursday, I immediately turned off the pavement and headed up Echo Canyon.


Usually sere desert scenery looks good with a splash of yellow.


Afternoon heat felt good on my winter-paled skin as I walked around the Inyo Mine.







The sun started to sink low and it seemed as if a stunning sunset might be on the way.


With that in mind, I rushed back down the canyon.


It was obvious moving down canyon that a lot of people were staking out campsites. While I was willing to brave crowds, I wasn't about to try and manage the madness of the established campgrounds.

Just down of the mouth of the canyon, I turned off the road and claimed some space.

The color started to light up the landscape as the sun, exhausted from its effort searing the landscape, relaxed below the western horizon.




Blue hour dwindled and the stars started to wink, emerging like the rest of the desert creatures once the sun retired for the day.


I set out my bedroll in the back of the wagon, rolled down the windows and opened the sunroof. A mild breeze fluttered through the car as I read a book to the light of the headlamp.

Four a.m. came too soon. In the still-dark predawn I came awake, dressed and broke camp. Bumping my way down the rocky path to the highway, I passed car after car. My headlights and the rumbling boxer engine were, I'm sure, annoyances. Under my breath, I muttered unheard apologies.

Gaining elevation while heading south, I felt the air begin to grow chill. By the time I rolled to a stop at Dante's View, it had become downright frigid. The mild, swishing wind of the night had grown into something fierce. Stepping out of the car in shorts and a t-shirt, I immediately felt assaulted and retreated back to the comfort of insulation and heater vents.

Two other cars were there, but neither showed any signs of life. The sky looked flat and gray as the light of dawn began to soften the night's hard edges.


When the sun finally crested the horizon, it had just a few moments to shine before disappearing into the murk of the overcast sky.



As soon as the color was there, it was gone again. Ten or 20 minutes afterward, a procession of cars came up the steep road to the overlook. They'd all missed it.

Wind remained constant. Photographing wildflower fields had been the plan for Friday, but it wasn't going to happen. So for the rest of the day I did mostly tourist stuff...



_MG_5070.jpg Twenty Mule Team...




...Natural Bridge...


...Artists Palette...


...and Golden Canyon.

At the top of Golden, looking west out across the valley below, it became evident something sinister was coming. Clouds heavy with virga were pushing up from the south, obscuring the Panamints.


It felt so good though to stretch stiff legs after so much seat time in the car. Rather than scurrying back for cover from the approaching storm, I detoured up past Manly Beacon to Gower Gulch.



The wind had not let up even as the frontal boundary approached.




On the final stretch of the hike I could see clearly the slow-moving low pressure system was about to roll right over the heart of Death Valley. Up north, a sandstorm was rising into the air over the dunes.


Question was, would a hole open up behind it in time to allow for a potentially incredible (I hoped) sunset? With this in mind, I rolled out to Zabriskie Point.

It became immediately clear that, nope, the sun wouldn't be putting on a show. Rain fell sideways, drops turning into bullets. People scattered from the overlook like cockroaches, diving into their cars to get away from the weather.


I read awhile, waiting to see if conditions would improve. The forecast called for high winds for at least another 12 hours. It wasn't looking good, and chances were Friday night wouldn't have the same sublimity as had Thursday night.

Screw it. Time to abandon the superbloom and seek some solitude. Cruising up and east, I drove through more frigid rain on the way to Vegas.


When preparing for the trip, I'd pinned an interesting spot on Google Maps in the Nevada desert. It required some dirt road driving, for which I had no good beta. But I risked it in the dark. The rocky two-track mandated some slow, careful driving. Thankfully, there were no unexpected obstructions or cutbanks blocking the way.

When I finally found the spot, well after sunset, my body screamed for rest.

Passing through Sin City, I'd moved ahead of the storm front. Stars were shining at the campsite, but by the time I'd stretched out in the back of the car, they were gone again. The rain caught up, along with the wind. I didn't care. Road weary, I slept sound.

Beads of rainwater remained on the windshield glass when I woke, but the storm was over. Time to go explore my secret little spot.





I'd found very few shots of this place online, so I'm now hesitant to say too much about where exactly it sits. The empty beer cans scattered about proved it has seen some less than appreciative attention before, but plenty of other evidence suggested very light visitation. For one, all of these fascinating little rocks were still there, having not yet been pilfered.


This one, in particular, fascinated me. I'd never seen anything quite like it.


I lingered for hours, snapping and sitting, enjoying the sounds of spring in the desert.


From a distant cliff, I heard what sounded like a peregrine's call. With the long lens in hand, I went to take a look.

It was no peregrine at all, but a very annoyed prairie falcon. Like me, he didn't appreciate sharing such an amazing spot.


A pair of fighters from Nellis roared overhead, cruising low to the north and east, showing both the falcon and myself who really holds sway over the barren wastes.

The valley of death was in the rearview. Ahead beckoned the valley of fire.


Valley of Fire is such an odd little park. It has the goods, visually speaking, but they're somewhat trapped. The established trails don't do the landscape justice. Sunrise and sunset photography have the potential to be fantastic, but park regulations shut down access during nighttime hours.

Hungry to push back against the idiocy, I did a little off-trail wandering down Kaolin Wash. Within a few minutes, the noise of folks huffing downhill to the Fire Wave fell to the near-silence of wind against the walls and swirling sand underfoot.


There wasn't a destination, nor any particular points of interest. I simply felt a hunger to wander away from established trails. The more time I spend out of doors, the less I feel satisfied by the signed and manicured frontcountry of any particular park.

Up a short, unnamed side canyon I came across the scattered remains of a young bighorn.


The skull, it turned out, was conspicuously absent. I have only my own theories about where it went.

While hunting for bones, movement caught by eye among the rocks. A little red spotted toad had made a potentially fatal mistake by moving within sight of an alpha predator.


Lucky for him, I wasn't too hungry. The tiny toad was perhaps an inch long, if that. But boy, could he move.


He released a wet spot while fleeing and I paused to wonder if that was from fright or some sort of instinctual protective response.

Then, a sense of guilt came over me for costing the amphibian much-needed, and hard-earned, moisture. It might seem odd, but I feel more keenly aware of creatures in the desert than those in areas where life flourishes more easily.

Another tributary spur revealed a couple fetid potholes containing water, the first I'd seen.


While it was a long journey for the little toad, seeing water provided me a sense that perhaps I hadn't killed him, after all.

Afternoon was stretching on and time came to turn around, in order to make it back to the car by curfew.



Thankfully, Valley of Fire lived up to its name as the sun set red rock smoldering on its way below the rim of the Earth once again.

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Disappointed, passed over.
Jan 17, 2012
Damn, you created many excellent photos there. And you captured well the feelings associated with solo wandering in the desert.


May 18, 2012
Amazing pictures. What's your technique for getting those great starry bursts of sunlight without the rest of the photo looking dark?


Feb 7, 2015
I once had the teenie tiniest of Horned Lizards frantically running away from me on a scalding day. I fretted about that poor guy for quite awhile afterwards. I think I was in Death Valley the day before you arrived there. Yes their was a crowd but I never felt crowded. I characterized it as a highly personal shared experience. Funny to see so many quietly wandering around staring at the ground and squatting trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Praying that the wind would hold off for 1/125th of a second. Those flowers were incredible.


Broadcaster, formerly "ashergrey"
May 5, 2012
What's your technique for getting those great starry bursts of sunlight without the rest of the photo looking dark?

Narrow aperture (think f/22), some sort of obstruction (horizon, for example), and some shadow boosting in Lightroom. With such a high-contrast situation it's a balancing act. Occasionally I'll bracket two stops either direction and merge or pick the best exposure.


Jul 5, 2014
Great report Dave. That's some dedication to get yourself in the right spot at the right time for that beautiful sunrise.


Desert Rat-Weekend Warrior
Jun 7, 2012
very nice! I still haven't made it to Death Valley yet, need to get there sometime.


Broadcaster, formerly "ashergrey"
May 5, 2012
very nice! I still haven't made it to Death Valley yet, need to get there sometime.

I'd never been either. While I can see why some people love it, I think my own desert tastes are far more attuned to the Colorado Plateau.


I walk
Jun 25, 2012
Ha! This would be a 3 star TR just for the title alone. And of course, the beauty.. captured very well Asher...


I walk
Jun 25, 2012
Great storytelling Daveeee...

And I love, love, love the Purple Mountain's Majesty shot from Dante's View shot at sunrise.

On your being keenly aware of creatures in the desert I too have become more and more keenly aware of the wonder of creatures of all kinds - desert, high alpine tundra and even my back yard. Wild animals and plant rule! Thanks for sharing.


I walk
Jun 25, 2012
Why do you think the prairie falcon was angry?

One time, climbing up a high cliff, with ropes, in the west desert we were districted by a prairie falcon on this point perch screaming at seemingly nothing. Over the course of our hour long ascent we watched, climbing slowly by it perhaps 200' away and watched its mother come swooping by it. Over, next to, towards and away. She was luring it to jump off to its first or second flight. Fledging a fledgling. Coaxing her youngster to leap off, with faith, to join her in the release from gravity we call flight but which is surely much, much more.

Falco Mexicanus - another brilliant flier in the animal kingdom.

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