Death Valley. What a name for a national park. As I child I always imagined a wasteland of sand and bones bleaching in searing sun. On my first visit I had no idea what to expect. Having just finished a spring backcountry ski decent of nearby Mount Whitney, I decided to soak up some warm desert air before heading home. One night I camped in snow at 13,000 feet and the next I cooked dinner in shorts while enjoying a gentle, eighty-degree breeze at the lowest point in the western hemisphere.
Entering the park intending to stay only a couple of nights, I left a week later with a long list of places to explore on my next visit. Amazingly, Death Valley is so big that it contains four distinct mountain ranges each filled with colorful canyons and jaw-dropping vistas. In spring desert wildflowers add saturated colors to the marbled earth tones of this wide-open national park. For photographers Death Valley provides a never-ending playground of dramatic light and landscape.
In the years since that first visit, I have returned to Death Valley many times and always found something new and different to explore. Even favorite landscapes that draw me back time and again seem reformed by their bare exposure to the ever-changing heat, wind and rain.
Among my favorite landscape subjects in the park are the dunes just outside Stovepipe Wells. If you hike out into the heart of these dunes and climb to one of their higher ridges, you will see that they stretch far towards the horizon like a sea of sand waves driven by the wind. Sand dunes’ strong lines and changing patterns always inspire me. Each windstorm changes them, erasing footprints, creating new patterns and shapes. What is special about this dune sea is not just its size, but the dizzying array of dramatic skies and landscape backdrops Death Valley provides in every direction.
I created the two images selected to accompany this story nearly a decade apart. The first image was taken when I was just transitioning to digital from medium format film. I entered the dunes at dawn after a strong windstorm had just reformed them the night before. The surreal clouds on the southern horizon and strong shadows on the dunes were just what I wished for as I tossed and turned in my noisy, flapping tent the night before. For the second image I found the dunes covered in hikers footprints and no wind in the forecast. The solution? Pack a headlamp and extra water and hike further than the others. I left late in the day, found a south-facing composition to catch sidelight from the west and waited for the light and clouds to cooperate just long enough to create this image of this dune sea.