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Death Valley: August

Joshua Tree at Lee Flat

[photos: flickr – Death Valley]

[bonus video: Death Valley hyperlapse hwy 190 to Furnace creek]

Last weekend was a new moon and it happened to coincide with the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. I thought “great! an excuse to go out to Death Valley and take photos of it!”

The trip turned out to be a dud as far as photography went, but at least I explored some new territory. I had planned to go out to Furnace Creek or Stovepipe Wells and frame some of my shots with some of the local landmarks, but nature had different ideas. Driving in from the west over the Panamint Range, the sky was clear and stars were easily seen. As I got closer to Emigrant I noticed I couldn’t see any stars anymore and wondered if it was clouds or smoke from all the wildfires. Finally when I got into Stovepipe Wells I realized what was going on: a dust storm. There was strong winds whipping up dust everywhere, and despite being midnight it was still 104 F there. I bailed and headed back up to Panamint and spent the night at Father Crowley Vista Point.

Poor man’s manual shutter switch

I wasn’t the only one in the parking lot in the dark, there was another group next to me with their lawn chairs out doing some stargazing. It wasn’t a clear night, there were still some scattered clouds all around. I was miffed that I had forgotten to bring the manual shutter release for my second camera body for the long exposures, so I wound up improvising by lashing a wad of tissue over the shutter button with a length of paracord.  I set up one camera pointed at the Milky Way and the other camera toward Perseus and waited. The meteors came every 5-10 minutes, but I didn’t get any interesting photos out of it.

Sunday morning I drove down to Panamint Springs Resort to grab some breakfast and mull over plans. I went to Darwin Falls, which is right next to Panamint Springs and hiked the mile or so up to the waterfall. Surprisingly even in August there was a lot of running water here which gradually disappeared into the creek bed. There was also a 4″ pipeline that ran all the way from the falls, along the canyon wall, out to the highway, and presumably providing drinking water to Panamint Springs.

Next I drove up Saline Valley Alternative Road, which skirts the west edge of the park from highway 190. This led me through BLM land and then up inside the park again at Lee Flat, where there was a large swath of Joshua Trees. I tried to continue north toward Hunter Mountain but gave up several miles out because the road was starting to get rougher.

115 F at Furnace Creek

Later that afternoon I made a quick trip over to Furnace Creek to see how things were. At 4:30 PM it was “only” 116 F at the visitors center. Along the way I threw a tripod in my front seat, mounted up my iPhone and used the Instagram Hyperlapse app to make a super long hyperlapse video of the drive in. I didn’t hang around in Furnace Creek very long, I returned to Father Crowley for another attempt at night photography.

As the sun went down I decided to go back out on Saline Valley road to find a place to camp and set up. I found a freshly graded road, followed it for a couple of miles even further in the middle of nowhere. This time the sky was perfectly clear and I was in pitch darkness. I had set up one camera for a Milky Way timelapse starting at dusk, which started out great, then I thought about how it was going to track to the west and I should’ve aimed the camera differently. So I had the big idea to move the tripod and ruin my timelapse. The other camera I started using later on to get star trails around Polaris. That kind of worked out until I got home and couldn’t retrieve anything off the CF card. sigh.


Defeated I was ready to leave. Another breakfast at Panamint Springs I stopped by Father Crowley one last time, wondering if there would be any jets flying through Rainbow Canyon this time of day. As soon as I pulled in my question was answered as a F/A 18 came flying up through the canyon. I hung around at the viewpoint for a couple of hours. Aside from myself, there was one family out there, we had the whole place to ourselves. In the time I was there I saw 6-7 passes through the canyon and one very loud flyover. The 1.4x teleconverter I bought worked out pretty well here, giving me effectively 280mm of zoom. The jet that flew directly over, I didn’t even have to crop, it nearly filled frame! By noon I was starting to cook and decided to come home.

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