Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Circling the Sierra Nevada: Death Valley's Eureka Dunes

Our dawn shot on this day would be on the Eureka Dunes, onbe of my favorite places to shoot in Death Valley National Park. The shots are far more compelling if you hike up in the dunes, preferably to the top. Even better if you hike with someone and have a subject to shoot, and they can shoot you as well. The surface is actually quite hard, not like beach dunes at all, so wear solid hiking boots that you can occasionally use to kick a foothold into a steep, firm surface. We took 4-5 hours to do the hike including plenty of time for photography. We started hiking with headlamps before the theoretical (level horizon) sunrise time of 6:45 or so, and got to the top of the dunes just after the sun cleared the mountains (about 9?). Ideally I'd want to have 2 mornings here. This time of year the occasional rains and wind can keep the dunes pretty well clean of hiker tracks, enhancing the photographic opportunities.

Less than 30 seconds after I took this picture a jet from China Lake Naval Air Station came screaming around the dunes, on his side in a hard turn, at only a slightly higher elevation than I was standing (about 200-300 feet off the valley floor). I had turned off the camera, so I only caught him departing without much of the dunes in the shot. It would have been great to catch him, close and large, in this image!

Wind moves sand from eroded mountains surrounding the Eureka Valley in Death Valley National Park, piling it up into the Eureka Dunes. Sometimes in the shifting winds the grains sort themselves out by density, creating patterns of dark and light.

Approaching the top of the 700-800 foot tall dunes. Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado may have duens that cover a larger area, but Eureka Dunes rivals Great Sand Dunes in height. Even the National Park Service does not highlight this dune field however, no doubt due to its remote location and the 4WD/high clearance recommendation on its access roads.

On a previous visit I tried driving behind the dunes in my SUV and nearly got stuck, crossing several pits where others had gotten bogged down in the sand and had scattered sticks and rocks in an attempt to get some traction. I turned back as soon as it was practical, stopping along the way to pull out a rear wheel drive pickup that had sunk up to its axle in sand.

I think the dunes make a great backdrop for outdoor portraits. Sometimes fill flash can be helpful if you're close to the subject, but at others you may be able to get some fill light coming off of the sunlit dune faces.

I don't yet have dates nailed down to offer a Death Valley workshop this year, but if you're interested in going, contact me and we can probably work something out. At a minimum, I'd like to visit again in March when wildflowers will add color to the park's incredible landscapes. Most photography tours to Death Valley don't visit the Eureka Dunes or The Racetrack, arguably the two best sites in the park. I can't imagine visiting the park without them!