The hottest, dryest and lowest… Death Valley holds quite a few records when it comes to National Parks in the US and it certainly did its name justice during our visit. Driving into the park, we recorded a 20 F increase over 12 minutes, so we knew we were in for some toasty days. Before we explored the park, though, we picked up Chris, a friend of Derek’s, who joined us for this stop along our road trip.
After settling into our motel outside the park (even we are not crazy enough to go camping in the park during this time of year…), we set out to drive to our first location: the racetrack. 3 hours of driving, over half of it off-roading, took us to the vast and dry playa, famous for the “sailing stones” – rocks that leave tracks behind them in the playa as they move as if by magic. Naturally, the scientific explanation takes away some of the mystery surrounding their travels, so I won’t spoil it for you. Anyways, we ended up photographing quite a few of those stones with the Milky Way as a backdrop.
Thoroughly enjoying the experience, we were a little surprised that it was “only” around 30 °C at night – we had expected worse. If only we knew. The following day saw us sleeping in as we had only gotten back to the motel past 3 am. Derek and Chris went off-roading a little more while I stayed behind, avoiding the heat and catching up on some photo-sorting and blog-writing. After sunset, we headed back into the park to photograph some sand dunes. Fully expecting the night to be as pleasant as the first one, reality hit us hard with 44 °C as soon as we got out of the car. Bear in mind, that is the temperature at midnight we are talking about. The shoot that followed easily ranks in my top three toughest shoots ever, right up with a blizzard about two years ago (I did find me wishing part of me would be back in the snow…). After about an hour, we had to call it a night: we were physically exhausted, stumbling across sand and rock-hard dirt, navigating the bushes in the dark and trying to stay focused in the incredible heat. In addition to that, my camera was reaching the limit of its operating conditions – another hour and I am sure it would have turned itself off – giving me green and red blotches in my images due to the heat.
Back at the motel, we embraced the AC in our room and quickly went off to sleep. I was the only one getting up at 4.30 am for the sunrise shoot. Fully prepared for another shock of heat, I started scrambling though some larger dunes to get some desert-feeling shots in. I was treated to some pristine dunes, without any tracks of previous visitors, a nice sunrise and lots of subjects to shoot. The heat didn’t wait long, though, and I left the dunes just as the first visitors started arriving. After 10 minutes of getting sand out of my boots, I headed back to the motel and joined the two sleepyheads for another hour of napping, before we headed out for some breakfast.
Chris was leaving again that day, so we said our goodbyes and headed back into the park in the late afternoon. Not even in my wildest dreams could I have imagined what was expecting us in there: we barely managed to have a look at the badwater basin – the lowest point in the US at 88.5 m below sea level – the searing 50 °C chasing us back into the car pretty soon. Our next stop saw us hike to a natural bridge – a stone arch – in even worse 51 °C. Emptying an entire litre of water in just 20 minutes, we hiked in the shade of the canyon and enjoyed the moment, despite the heat, before we made our way to our sunset location – Zabriskie point. Ready for the heat we reached the overlook just in time and immediately got busy shooting. Soon enough, our cameras were hot to the touch again and our eyes felt like they were drying out. It didn’t get any better once the sun set behind the mountains, and neither did the breeze help – it just blew in more incredibly warm air at around 45 °C.
Exhausted and nearly suffocated by the heat, we left shortly before midnight and left Death Valley behind us. Looking back, the experience was something very special: I now know what 51 °C feels like, where the breaking point of my camera is and why the park put up signs saying: hiking after 10 am not recommended. Despite the amazing landscapes that Death Valley has to offer, I am looking forward to a change in scenery (and temperature. Mainly temperature.) in our next stop in Utah: Zion National Park.