I wanted to visit Death Valley National Park for many reasons, but, mainly, for astrophotography. It is certainly one of the top choices for many aspiring and professional photographers. Particularly for the Milky Way. The new Moon nights and the best nights for the Eta Aquariids Meteor Shower that would almost fall on the weekend sounded perfect to me. I packed up and loaded my stuff in the car and hit the pavement.
HOW TO GET TO DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
To get to Death Valley National Park, if you are coming from the Greater Los Angeles area, you’d likely take CA-14 N and then get on CA-395 N. Stay on it till you meet CA-190 and turn right to get to the park.
If you’re already on US-395 because you take I-15 N, then just stay on it till you meet CA-178 or CA-190, depending on where you’re headed.
If you’re coming from the part of I-15 close to the CA/NV border, then get on CA-127 and drive till you hit Death Valley Junction where you can get on CA-190.
If you’re coming from Nevada, you would eventually want to get on NV-373 or NV-374, depending on which point of interest in the park you’re headed to.
NOTE: In terms of what to do in the park, you would want to refer to Plan Your Visit first.
WHEN TO GO TO DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
To enjoy Death Valley National Park to the fullest, I’d say that fall, winter and spring are the season to go. You may go in summer, but as the temperature hovers over 100°F, it is crucial to stay alert in terms of heat and hydration.
NOTE: It’s always good to tune in at their Facebook page for any concerns or ideas to plan your trip.
ITEMS YOU MUST BRING
- Plenty of water
- Fuel (frequent stops at gas stations in the park)
MY ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY AT DEATH VALLEY NP
Death Valley National Park was one of the places where I drove by many times whenever I hiked in the Sierra Nevada, in the past. But somehow I had never visited. For all this time that I lived in SoCal, I had not.
But I knew that Death Valley National Park was one of the perfect places in America to take advantage of little to no light pollution for astrophotography even before delving into landscape/adventure photography wholeheartedly. So, when I decided to pay the national park a visit, I naturally started looking for points of interest for three main objective in mind.
- The Milky Way – most important objective on this trip
On my recent Joshua Tree NP trip or Anza-Borrego Desert SP trip, I could not capture the Milky Way shots that I wanted. So, besides, all the perfect new Moon nights and Eta Aquariids Meteor Shower scheduled to happen, clear night skies were also important to capture the Milky Way. So, I had been following the weather conditions in Death Valley National Park for the past few weeks, and it was time to see that the forecast of clear night skies over the weekend was true.
I drove on the usual CA-14 N and US-395 N to get on CA-190. I say the usual CA-14 N and US-395 N because these were the highways that I took a lot to go hiking or backpacking in the Sierra Nevada in the past couple of years. Of course, Mt. Whitney, Mt. Langley, Ansel Adams Wilderness and John Muir Trail are many hikers’ favorite destinations.
So, I was very excited about the Death Valley National Park trip and was very looking forward to astrophotography opportunities for at least a couple of nights, thanks to the new Moon nights and the anticipation of the Eta Aquariids Meteor Shower.
Once I turned onto CA-190, the vast view of the Owens Valley pulled me over. It wasn’t the first time seeing the expansive view of the valley. In fact, many times while driving on US-395 in the past. But seeing it while driving on CA-190 for the first time gave me a slightly different perspective. It was like when I saw Mt. San Jacinto from Keys View in Joshua Tree NP as opposed to whiling driving down or up I-10, CA-111 or CA-74. What a view!
And then the sheer drop wall of Olancha Peak drew me in instantly.
While planning my Death Valley National Park trip, I also considered hiking Olancha Peak, but my lack of proper snow gear at the moment persuaded not to. I just told myself that I could wait.
My plan for the first day was to reach Racetrack Playa by late afternoon. Unfortunately, the road that I took was a lot rockier than my Civic could handle once I reached the hilly side, let alone all the 4WD vehicle recommended dirt roads. So, I had to make a quick decision as to where I would be headed next, once I returned to CA-190.
While still headed to Racetrack Playa on Saline Rd, I noticed there were so many Joshua Trees in this part of the park.
I thought Mojave Preserve had a lot of Joshua Trees, outside of Joshua Tree National Park.
This definitely proved that this part of Death Valley National Park is the perfect place for them to grow.
After driving up and down the crazy dirt road that led me into the gradual hilly part of the park, this came into view as I turned a corner. This extensive view of the Panamint Valley showcased the entire west side of the Panamint Range, whose tallest peaks is Telescope Peak.
From left to right, Rogers Peak, Bennett Peak, Telescope Peak, Sentinel Peak, Porter Peak and Manly Peak of the Panamint Range were visible in the distance. CA-190 ran east to west across the valley in the middle ground. At the middle right corner Panamint Springs was highlighted.
After enjoying the view with the blistery winds almost blowing me off the the hillside, I got back into the car and kept driving. The dirt Saline Rd was very windy and soon took me the parts of the hillside where I could see nothing but the dirt road. No other scenery. Just the dry dirt road that my Civic was able to run up and down on.
Then, this view appeared. In the far distance, Waucoba Wash was barely visible in the Saline Valley. And supposedly this Saline Rd would take me over a mountain range and down to the other side where Racetrack Playa was located.
Regrettably, my Civic was not either 4WD or had high clearance, so while trying to drive up the very rocky, dirt road, I realized that it was not safe to continue. Besides, there was no help (nor cell signal) within the range of 20-30 miles.
I saw this old sign of Death Valley National Monument, which probably had been installed back in 1933, while driving up the road. I had to turn around at a point which was not too far up the road from this sign.
As I was going down the hill, basically retracing the road that I had taken just a half hour ago, the sun was hanging quite low over Inyo Mountains. So, I decided to spend a bit of time there to catch the sunset. Otherwise, I would not get anything while driving through the other hilly part of the range where I would see nothing.
I could see the bright yellow reflection of the sunset fallen on Salt Lake and Waucoba Wash. It was quite magical, I would say. Especially, the rain clouds that were chasing me the whole time never materialized, and soon they flew past over me, adding more dramatic effects to the magic hour moment as the sun was falling over the mountain line.
There was a plenty of Cotton Top Cactus in this part of Death Valley National Park, which was also commonly seen in Joshua Tree National Park as well as Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Once the sun disappeared over the Inyo Mountain range, it was time for me to decide on where to head next in Death Valley National Park. And based on the distance from where I was and the wide open view of the Milky Way later that night and the sunrise next morning that I was hoping to capture, I settled on Salt Creek Interpretive Trail, which was one of the points of interest that I had on my list.
It got completely dark even before reaching back CA-190. The stars all came out and decorated the dark night sky. And it was the same at Salt Creek. As many stars as my naked eye could see.
In spite of the fact that there was a bit of light pollution coming from Furnace Creek, it was not as bad as I thought it was going to be.
I waited till a half hour past midnight and started pressing the shutter button with my camera pointed at the Milky Way. As forecast, it was a clear night sky. Perfect.
While shooting the Milky Way, I also tried on shooting star trails because Polaris and Big Dipper were clearly visible with no clouds, right above my head.
The more I take photos of the sunrise, sunset and the starts at night, the more I appreciate that the Earth never stops rotating. Even less than a half minute makes a hug difference.
Although it wasn’t a celebratory meteor shower, I caught five Eta Aquariids meteors. As always, they disappeared in an instance once I spotted them.
Once I had enough shots of the Milky Way, I looked at the time – 2:30 am.
I only had about just over three hours of sleep before the sunrise. As much as I wanted to wait and see the Milky Way rise vertically (the azimuth of up to 190°), I didn’t want to miss the sunrise. So, I packed up my gear and headed back to my car.
Another night meant that another morning was just around the corner. Time to say good night and look forward to an exciting sunrise to witness.
Have you been to Saline Valley in Death Valley National Park? Have you spent a night at Salt Creek to watch the Milky Way? If so, what was it like? Where is your favorite spot to catch the sunrise and/or sunset in Death Valley National Park?
Thanks for reading.