Home »

Helter Skelter in Death Valley, December 2013

On the weekend before Christmas week, I decided to head out to Death Valley.  The only thing feeling more haphazard, disorderly and confused than me on this trip was the weather.  I felt scatter brained from the start.  It seemed like I was constantly fumbling with gear I couldn’t find, or forgot altogether.  Not only could I not decide on what to do and where to go, I would ultimately fail to reach the destinations I finally picked.  Still, I enjoyed riding the whirlwind, which ultimately purged me of my stresses and scatter-brained tensions, allowing me to relax into the next two and a half weeks I had off.

For one of the sunniest places on Earth, the skies and lighting could not have been more dismal over Death Valley.  But, the sun would not give up, momentarily breaking through the gloom now and then.  Likewise, with the stars.  I tried to take photographic advantage of each moment.  Rain clouds tried to form, dropping a few drops and the occasional odd thunder peel could be heard on the horizon on the first day.  After a sunny hike in the morning on the second day, I drove through a snow squall on the way back home over Towne Pass and all around Darwin.

On the drive there, I saw some wild Burros along the 190.  They were quite the jittery pair, so they ran pretty far once they spotted me.  I thought maybe they were the same jittery guys I saw a couple months back along the beginning of the nearby Saline Valley Road, but with one of their companions now missing.  Anyhow, add the distance to the dismal lighting and I didn’t get the best photo.  Still, I always love a wildlife sighting.

As I already hinted at, I didn’t know where to go when I first arrived.  The crappy weather had me all thrown off.  I ended up parking by Corkscrew Peak and just wandering aimlessly in the desert.  An interesting peak eventually caught my eye that I figured must be Little Corkscrew Peak.  I decided to give it a go, or more correctly, I was pulled inexorably in its direction like sailors were towards the sirens in the old Greek legends.  Perhaps, not an altogether bad comparison, either.  Although, I was not crashed to death up against rocks, I was repeatedly cliffed out trying to get to the top, as I “corkscrewed” around the West side of the Little Corkscrew Peak several times.  I finally realized what side I needed to be on.  With the heavy pack full of my photography gear and my ankle acting up a bit, I decided to save it for another time.  I wandered over to a nearby easier peak by following big horn sheep trails which were occasionally littered with their droppings.  Since the peak did not have a register, nor was it named on the map, I took the liberty of unofficially naming it Sheep Poop Peak.  The next picture shows Little Corkscrew Peak above the wash I used on approach to the saddle found on the west side of the peak.

Afterwards, I headed up to Dante’s View where I decided to spend the night in my car, taking pictures of the night sky before going to bed and hoping for some sunrise shots in the morning.  Neither quite worked out as planned – cloudy skies at night, which somehow amazingly cleared right before sunrise.  Still, I managed to get a few fun images. The first is a 30 sec exposure which caught a sunset afterglow no longer visible to the naked eye, as well as adding a cool effect by smearing out the clouds.  Just wish the stars were in better focus.  The next image shows the Milky Way and Venus momentarily popping out from behind the clouds.  The third is from a failed timelapse of the moon, but I still managed to grab that image out of it.

I also tried my telephoto lens out for the first time on the moon.  I was pleasantly surprised by how much detail it caught.  The following is a crop of a 300mm focal length shot.  I am excited to try more moonshots, with either something interesting in the foreground, or during a moonrise in the east while the moon is buried in the pastel colors shortly after a sunset.

Since the sunset fizzled the following morning, I ended up taking more pictures of the moon as it set into an ocean of clouds above the Panamint Range.  I was surprised by the wide range of camera settings (shutter and aperture) needed to properly expose the moon in different conditions.  Get it wrong and no details of its surface show up.  I definitely still need some practice.

For day 2, I decided to try and find the “secret” Kaleidoscope Canyon, since it was supposed to be a great spot for photography.  The canyon walls are apparently covered in rocks of various colors similar to Artists Pallet.   Since the sun managed to peak out during the morning, I figured conditions might even be good for capturing the colors.

On the way to the Canyon, I came across the Time Traveling Gypsy Mobile at Death Valley Junction.  I seriously thought about trading in the 4Runner for this thing.

Kaleidoscope Canyon is called “secret” because guidebook authors have left it out of their books for now and folks who have managed to find it have, so far, stayed mum on the location.  I gathered a few vague hints on where it might be, studied the map, picked a potential canyon and loaded it into my GPS.  After hiking up the initial wash for two miles, I was about to turn into the canyon (then, still out of sight) I suspected was the correct spot.  As I turned the corner, I found …. nothing!  I was a bit shocked I had guessed wrong, so I guess my over-confidence was a bit unwarranted.  I decided to try the right branch to this canyon, as well, but as I came around each turn I was greeted with another view that looked nothing like the impressive Kaleidoscope was supposed to look.  I felt like I was getting sucked further and further back into the mountains as they kept showing me something around the next corner that tantalizingly looked like it might be the location of Kaleidoscope canyon but, in reality, was not.  I decided to stop playing the mountains games and I eventually gave up and turned around.  Besides, it was supposed to be found much closer to the road than I was at that point.  It was still a great hike in a pretty area with lots of solitude, though.  I’m cautiously optimistic I know where the canyon is for next time! 

I ran into this cute little guy on the way back to the car.  He also wouldn’t let me photograph his little “secret” – the vibrantly colored topside of his wings.  Apparently, when threatened these butterflies pinch their wings together, revealing only the bottom sides, which blend perfectly into the surrounding rocks.  Seems like the desert often tries to hide its colors, but it can be quite a beautiful sight when it finally reveals them.  You just have to be lucky enough to be there with your camera in the right place at the right time.  I hope I have a little more luck on the next trip!

I could tell I was a little out of shape, because the hike sure made me tired, but it felt great to get the needed exercise. After relaxing by the car and enjoying a beer, I started to drive back up towards Bad Water along the southern end of the park.  Near Jubilee Pass the sun struggled to break through the clouds again, finally succeeding as I got down to the valley floor. 

I saw several coyotes one other time while coming through here. On the off chance that I would see them again, I grabbed my telephoto lens and got it ready.  Sure enough a couple coyotes were hanging out along side the road in what seemed like the same spot as last time, or at least very close to it.  One of the coyotes was not very shy and would get fairly close to my car.  His companion was more shy and hung out by the bushes some distance a way.  It was pretty obvious they were looking for food handouts, which I resisted giving them.

Once again, the weather couldn’t make up its mind and the drive home over Towne Pass and the next pass to the West near Darwin had me driving in the snow.  I got out to take a quick picture at Towne Pass and discovered that the temperate had sure plummeted, brrrrrr.

A great trip, overall.  Check out the rest of my photos on SmugMug.