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View of the badlands and Red Cathedral from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park, California

Red Cathedral

1/160 sec, f/11, ISO 250

Promise of gold and riches had initially drawn people to the stretch of desert on the California-Nevada border known as Death Valley. The valley is home to the hottest place on Earth and the driest place on the North American continent. Once the most feared and mysterious place in America, today it is visited for its abundance of scenic beauty - mountains, sand dunes, colourful badlands, and endless salt flats.

We came out here during the much cooler and more pleasant winter season to be able to spend plenty of time outdoors and explore the wonders of this unique part of America.

At the gateway to this infamous valley, a grandiose structure known as the Red Cathedral towers above the badlands of the Mojave Desert. This iconic Death Valley vista, Zabriskie Point, was our first destination. Prospectors and gold seekers of the 19th century came through a narrow, rocky pathway here known as Furnace Creek Wash, to enter what eventually became known as Death Valley. A pioneer of the time, Willian Lewis Manly, described it as "the most wonderful picture of grand desolation one could ever see."

Manly Peak seen from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park, California

Desert Beacon

1/10 sec, f/11, ISO 64

This is the peak named after him, seen from Zabriskie Point at dawn.

We revisited this location multiple times, eventually catching some gorgeous morning light on the hills of the badlands and mountainous desert slopes behind it. In the distance behind the colourful peaks, you can see sprawling salt flats in the valley below.

Sunrise over the badlands and desert at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park, California

Promise of Gold

1/30 sec, f/11, ISO 64

These hills have been shaped over centuries by the powerful forces of nature. Their patterns and textures made for countless unique compositions in every direction.

View of the badlands and "Elephant's Feet" from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park, California

Badlands of Mojave

1/5 sec, f/11, ISO 64

Not far from Furnace Creek, a few miles drive down a rocky and hilly road, was hidden another incredible natural wonder known as Artist's Palette. The rocks here have been coloured by elements formed millions of years ago in volcanic activity.

We followed the winding path in and spent some time wandering among the coloured hills.

Colourful hills of Artist's Palette in Death Valley National Park, California

Artist's Palette

1/200 sec, f/11, ISO 320

It was nearing sunset and the light was low which brought out the texture and colours that were somewhat washed out in the daylight sun. Though it all looked amazing to the eye, I found it difficult to find a photo composition that would capture the beauty and wide colour palette of this place. After taking some time to walk the slopes, I captured this image.

Another mandatory stop on our tour of Death Valley was Stovepipe Wells and the nearby sand dunes. Across sandy hills and dry mud plains we ventured deep into the desert. I was impressed by the juxtaposition of sand dunes and mountains here. If you look closely, you'll spot two hikers in the distance towards the right of the photograph, making their way towards the desert's edge. Thankfully, the temperatures were relatively mild this winter afternoon - I can't imagine spending much time out here at the peak of summer heat.

Mesquite Flat sand dunes and mountains near Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley National Park, California

Dunes and Mountains

1/250 sec, f/11, ISO 160

On another occasion wandering the Mesquite Flat sands, I stumbled upon what I thought resembled scales of a dragon. If willing to roam for a while, the desert offers plenty quaint little finds like this one. We didn't encounter any rattlesnakes or scorpions, but apparently they are something to watch out for here, especially in the early and late hours of the day.

Sand formations in the Mojave Desert in Death Valley National Park, California

Dragon Scales

1/125 sec, f/14, ISO 250

Finally, we made it over to Death Valley's famous salt flats. Badwater Basin sits at 282 feet below sea level and is the lowest point in North America. I was excited to finally see some of the amazing polygon-shaped salt formations at the bottom of the valley, in place of what was once Lake Manly. As we got out of the car and started walking out onto the salt pan, we were surprised to see a mirror reflection of the distant mountains. As it turned out, the several miles long ancient lake had re-emerged in the wake of Hurricane Hilary this past summer. As I learned later from the locals, this was a once-in-a-decade occurrence.

Flooded salt flats at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, California

Flooded Flats

1/160 sec, f/11, ISO 100

The water was shallow and much of it had already evaporated, so it won't be much longer before this rare wonder disappears again. We walked the crunchy salt path right up to the edge of the water to admire the perfect reflection, and take in this fleeting moment.

Our last stop was a ghost town called Rhyolite - once a booming mining outpost - just outside the park on the Nevada side. As you'd expect, large vegetation is not in abundance in and around Death Valley, so we were surprised to spot several Joshua trees just off the gravel road. With its sprawling branches and evergreen leaves, this one stood out against the otherwise dull surrounding scenery. I treaded carefuly among the bushes on the rocky ground as I composed the photo, to avoid spooking any lurking desert wildlife.

Joshua Tree near Rhyolite ghost town in Death Valley National Park, Nevada

Desert Dweller

1/250 sec, f/10, ISO 400

In just a few short winter days spent in this California-Nevada desert, I was thoroughly impressed by everything Death Valley had to offer - fascinating landscapes and intriguing history. I can't wait to be back here to explore and photograph more of this beautiful region!


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