I had been wanting to visit Death Valley National Park for the last couple of years and finally got the chance to do so this past winter. Visiting the park in the winter held a couple of incentives for me; first, the climate was pleasant during the day, and second, the temperatures were sufficiently low (in the 30s) during the night, to allow me to photograph star trails with little image noise during the long exposures. I hoped to leave Los Angeles around 4 AM- the keyword being 'hoped'! Sleeping late and getting up early don't really mix well together, and after hitting the 'snooze' button on my alarm clock a few times, I finally managed to leave my apartment around 5 AM. A quick stop at the local gas station for a cup of joe, and I was cruising along CA-134.
I decided to take CA-134 to the I-15 N, before finally taking CA-127 at Barstow. The journey time from LA to Death Valley is approximately 5 hours. I arrived at Death Valley around 10 AM and after checking in at the visitor center, I headed to my campsite located in the Furnace Creek campground. The campground is well laid out with RV campsites in the middle and the tent sites circling the RV ones. If camping in a tent, it's advisable to book tent specific sites, as they have a softer ground (for the stakes). I made the mistake of booking one night in the RV site and could not for the life of me, hammer half of my stakes into the hard ground. I then decided to just hammer the stakes in at a 45 degree angle and set some stones on top of the stakes. As luck would have it, it was horribly windy that night and I was just hoping that the stakes/ stones combo, would keep the tent in place (which they did).
I basically wanted to photograph a few specific places in Death Valley. I knew that I definitely had to shoot the sunrise from Badwater as well as Dante's View, and the sunset at Ubehebe Crater (which is a few miles from Scotty's Castle and quite a distance from Furnace Creek). The drive to the crater is very scenic (with some great views). I recommend going to see the crater if you visit Scotty's Castle. The crater is also en-route to the Racetrack (which I have never been to, as one requires a 4WD high-clearance vehicle to get there). Besides these photos, I wanted a couple of panoramas and star trails (specifically from Zabriskie Point and Dante's View). I tend to shoot star trails around 2 AM or so, and was thus apprehensive about heading off to these remote areas alone at that time. I especially remember the trip to Dante's View (for those of you that have never been to Death Valley, Dante's View is a very scenic point at around 5000 feet above the valley below and is a good distance from civilization)- images of myself being stalked by an Axe-murderer kept flashing as I was driving up the solitary road towards my destination.
If you do decide to go to Dante's View for night photography (I highly recommend it), then try and go with a friend (and don't forget to load your thermos up with some hot coffee the previous night). One of the great things about Death Valley is that they have a couple of restaurants and a grocery store very close to the visitor center. One of the most photographed locations in Death Valley is 'Zabriskie Point' which happens to be close to the visitor center. The view from this point is great and the light early morning and late evening is spectacular. This point has a lot of tourists for the sunset, but not too many show up for the sunrise (they tend to show up after the sun has risen). I shot an hour long star trail at this point (around 2AM or so) and it turned out well. I had planned my two visits to Death Valley so that I got the chance to photograph the valley, both during the new moon as well as the full moon.
A few weeks ago, I decided to go to Death Valley once again as I wanted to capture shots for a panorama at Badwater. At 282 feet below sea-level, Badwater is the lowest point in Death Valley (and also the USA). One of the cool things at the parking lot is a sign up on the mountain by the parking lot, that says 'Sea Level'. The location is very scenic and can provide some great photo opportunities. The panorama below is composed of around 13 shots stitched together (representing approximately 270 degrees of view). I got lucky that day as there were clouds and the panorama turned out quite dramatic. If you can go to Death Valley during a rainstorm, I think you will be well rewarded with some great photo opportunities.
To see the panorama below in all its glory, click on the photo and once it opens, use the scrollbar at the bottom to scroll to the right to see the full picture.
Death Valley should definitely be on your list of must-see attractions. It's a great place to relax, shoot photos and just have a good time.