Death Valley Wildflowers 2017

Desert Gold 2017
I’ve photographed over two dozen wildflower species in Death Valley National Park so far this month.  April should bring even more acreage and species on line, to deliver a well above average year in the park for wildflowers.

TBDThe quantity and diversity of wildflowers may not be the most interesting aspect however.  Last year’s superbloom delivered a bumper crop of seeds, which multiplied the rodent population, and that has resulted in more sidewinder rattlesnakes than I’ve seen in the park before.  I followed a couple of the tracks, but was not able to catch up with any of the snakes.

If you visit the park this spring, watch where you step!

 See more of my wildflower photos from Death Valley in my Album 3/21/17.

Death Valley Wildflowers 2017

Star Trails Over Desert Sunflowers

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More Photos from Death Valley in April

Natural Bridge

You may have noticed that I’m obsessed with death. Death Valley National Park, that is! I grew up in New England, just about as far from the desert as you can get in America, so in my current quest to explore the largest national park in the Lower 48 States, I must be making up for lost time.

Windy Day on Mesquite Flat DunesFortunately, currently living in the nearby Eastern Sierra region, I’m only 3-4 hours from a couple of park entrances, so I can indulge in my desert yearnings frequently. I usually visit once or twice in the Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day time period, then again in February and March as the wildflowers start to bloom. But as spring continues and Death Valley starts to really warm up, I like looking for storms and bouts of cooler weather, in case I can slip one or two more visits in before it gets too hot.

In April 2016 I could see a storm front approaching in the weather forecast. Daytime high temperatures would drop into the 80s.  I’m currently working on a detailed photographer’s travel guide to the park to be offered in the +SNAPP Guides app, so I threw my camera and camping gear into the car, and headed to the park with a list of the sites I wanted to explore or revisit next.

I hiked to a natural bridge, and enjoyed great views with sunlight streaming through clouds. I explored stone-walled buildings at an old mining town site, and found wildflowers thriving at higher elevations than on past visits this year.

I met a Subaru coming out the wrong way from Titus Canyon, apparently deciding that “high clearance” meant higher then they had. The worst part of the road is about halfway through the 24-mile loop, so drivers that wait that long have a lot of wrong-way driving to do. Sometimes they’re in a hurry to get out, so they come flying around blind turns!

On the edge of a canyon, two jets saw me with my camera, so they took two passes each direction up the canyon, turning and shooting up sharply right in front of me, so I was able to get some great shots. They were very fast, very close, and very loud!

In Salt Creek, the water was slightly higher than normal, so the pupfish were exploring down to the parking lot, feeding in the flooded margins before low water forced them back into their normal cramped habitat space. Normally they’re a little skittish, but their quest for food prevailed, so when I held my iPhone out over the water, one came over and posed for a portrait.

On one evening, I caught a sandstorm over Mesquite Flat Dunes, back-lit with golden sunlight by the setting sun.

On the way home, sunset light was lighting up rain showers at Mono Lake. It was an eventful and productive trip. I can’t wait to return!  In the meantime, I’ve uploaded the latest batch of photos to the Death Valley 2016 photo album on my +Death Valley Workshops page on Google+.

If you might like to join me in Death Valley sometime, my spring 2016 workshops are done for the season, but I can add a session in mid-December if there’s sufficient interest: Death Valley Photography Workshops.

Jellyfish Cloud
Sunset rain showers over Mono Lake

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Photograph Jets Close in Death Valley

High Speed Selfie
Water vapor condenses on the wing of an F-15C from the 144th Fighter Wing of the +Air National Guard in Fresno

I’ve encountered jets in this canyon in Death Valley by coincidence a few times over the years, so I mentioned them on page 130 of my “Photographing California – South” guidebook. But I’ve only recently sat around and waited for them to arrive. The first time, I showed up at 4:30 pm and waited for a couple of hours, and was skunked. I later talked to someone who had arrived at 3:30 pm, and saw three passes in 45 minutes before leaving at 4:15 pm.

The second time I waited from dawn, nothing happened until a single plane went through at 9:50 am. Nothing happened for another hour, then a pair of F-15C jets from the California +Air National Guard went through it in each direction, twice! They seemed to spot the camera on the first run, then on the next three runs the lead plane pulled up sharply right at my location partway down the canyon, to be pulling a lot of Gs and turning up out of the canyon sharply directly next to me. The pilot appears to be looking at the camera each time, and I can’t think of many reasons to end a run up the canyon early, in both directions, so it sure seemed like he was setting up selfies.

Having heard that photographers fly over from Europe to spend a week sitting all day waiting for the jets, and they report 7 to 9 per day, I had my 9 and figured that I had done well. For some reason, Mondays were considered to be less promising, so I might not see any more planes that day. I picked up my tripods and started moving towards the car, and more planes came! It was like that until I had to leave by noon. I’d throw the tripod over my shoulder and another jet would come.

A couple of guys from the adjacent campsite in the Stovepipe Wells campground the night before showed up and saw a jet go through. A few random people watched one go by from time to time. A busload of children on a field trip showed up, their wait was no more than 10 minutes, then a jet went by and they left. It sure seemed as if perhaps they came from a town nearby and had been able to coordinate with the pilot, perhaps a parent of one of the children?

Dropping Into the CanyonWhen these jets was turning the hardest, smoke-like trails formed behind the wingtips, and smoke-like misting formed on top of the wings as well. It turns out that this is water condensing, not uncommon when pulling the most Gs:

“Condensation of water vapor in wing tip vortices is most common on aircraft flying at high angles of attack, such as fighter aircraft in high g maneuvers, or airliners taking off and landing on humid days.”

Having been skunked on a prior visit then rewarded with a flurry of activity after a few hours of uneventful watching the second time, I can’t make generalizations yet about your odds of catching jets flying up canyons in Death Valley, but apparently if you are persistent enough, the jets may eventually come. That’s when you’ll find success, when preparation meets opportunity.

What Aircraft Use This Space?

The Panamint, Saline and Eureka Valleys in Death Valley National Park are part of the R-2508 Complex, jointly administered by the Edwards Air Force Base, China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station and Fort Irwin (Army). NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center (Named Dryden Flight Research Center until 2014) is located at Edwards AFB. The 144th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard, based in Fresno, came through while I was waiting.  Apparently jets from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada come over on exercises, and one of the jets that passed me had a UFO logo on its tail, so it might have been out of Groom Lake (Area 51) on Nellis. 

Although R-2508 stretches 140 miles north and south and 110 miles across, each dimension is only a few minutes across at 500 MPH.  So it’s not all that large from the perspective of the pilots using it, and sub-sections include bombing and artillery ranges, so pilots have to navigate around closed sections on any given day.  Nevertheless, it’s the largest overland Special Use Airspace (SUA) in the United States, so it’s a scarce and valuable resource for the armed services to have.

Why is the military using National Park airspace at all?  This has been a topic of discussion for some time, and in 1977 it was agreed that the jets would stay above 3000 feet over Sequoia, Kings Canyon National Parks and Death Valley, a national monument at the time. The areas the jets used for low level flying were mostly administered by the BLM, and were in use by the military before the Death Valley National Monument became a national park via the California Desert Protection Act on October 31, 1994. That was also when it was expanded from 2 million acres to 3.4 million acres, adding the valleys being used by military aircraft. 

Why Do Military Aircraft Fly Low?

An information sheet that I picked up at the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest states: 

“Today,one way a military pilot can survive in combat is to fly as close as possible to the ground to avoid detection by enemy radar systems. This skill is developed by flying at very low elevations over a variety of terrain.”

“Not only do the pilots fly very low in combat, but also very fast.  This low and fast flying requires many hours of training time for pilots.  They must train in a gradual step-by-step process down to a minimum low level of flight to gain the confidence and experience needed and then regularly practice this skill to make second nature the necessary split-second decisions.”  

“In general, military flights can occur in the complex as low as 200 feet with several exceptions.”

A discussion of civilian use of the airspace appears here: Navigating “The Complex”.

F-18 Showing Off
Water vapor condenses at the wingtips and over the wings of an F-18 in a high-G turn

#Air National Guard

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Death Valley Photography Workshop During Wildflower Season, March 13 – 16, 2013

Desert sunflowers in Death Valley
Desert Sunflowers in Death Valley (2010)

Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at Sunset

Join me for a photography tour of the hottest, driest place in the United States, in its friendly and approachable season!  Death Valley National Park features some of the country’s most exotic landscapes: massive sand dunes, colorful and deeply eroded hills, salt flats, sinuous canyons carved through solid rock.  On this trip we can visit all of the iconic Death Valley sites during their best light: Zabriskie Point, Badwater, Mesquite Flat Dunes,  Artist’s Palette, Devil’s Golf Course, Dante’s View, perhaps Agueberry Point and Mosaic Canyon if the roads are in good shape.  

October 2007, a hiker on sand dunes in Death Valley National ParkBeyond the classic views, we can visit many lesser-known sites as well.  Death Valley is America’s largest park in the Lower 48 states, nearly 3.4 million acres, so our opportunities are endless.  I live about 3 hours from the park, so I’ve been visiting it multiple times per year for many years, always expanding my photographic coverage and geographic knowledge of the park.  You’ll be in good hands to see more than you could on your own, or guided by someone with limited or infrequent experience in the park.

Out timing will be excellent to include the added element of wildflowers in many of the unique and dramatic landscapes of Death Valley.  The park only received 1.9 inches of rain in a year, so the wildflower bloom in the park tends to be sporadic and spread out among areas which received just the right amount of rain from showers.  Fortunately I’ve already been to the park this year to scout out where they’re growing best.

Light painting under the Milky Way, November 2011

Spring is also the time when nights get a little warmer, perfect for playing around with a little night photography, including light painting and star trails.  if you’d like to try converting a sequence of images into a time-lapse movie, I can show you how to do that as well. 

So how much ground could we cover in 3 days, 4 nights?  Here’s a link to an album showing some of the places I visited on an extended weekend trip last November:

Death Valley National Park, California

Zabriskie Point Sunrise, November 2011

We practice “leave no trace” guiding, which includes not encouraging hordes of people to show up in large quantities at the less trampled places we may be visiting, so other than those well-known locations the park’s 1 million visitors commonly visit (Zabriskie, Badwater, and the other sites mentioned above), we request that participants not name the locations we shoot in when you share photos from the trip online.  There are enough heavily-trampled places in California already and the problem of crowds of photographers only gets worse over time.  No need to worsen that situation; let’s respect our investment of time and effort to find unique locations by keeping them anonymous.  My kids call our favorite locations “Valdemort” (“the one who must not be named” from the Harry Potter series).  In Death Valley we have Valdemort dunes, Valdemort mine, Valdemort slot canyon and many other sites we’re committed to protect.

Death Valley National Park, California

Water on the salt flats in February, 2011.

If this March trip sounds like fun, there’s a reservation and payment link in the right column of this blog, or contact me for details on either of my upcoming Death Valley trips.  I’d love to show you around one of my favorite local parks!

About your instructors: I have a deep knowledge of digital imaging, and became involved in the industry in 1984 as an applications engineer at the Graphic Printing and Imaging Division of Tektronix (the world’s leading color printing company at the time).  I have owned at least nine digital cameras since 2001.  I currently shoot with two Canon full frame DSLRs, and I owned four APS-C models before that.  My co-leader for this trip will be Lori Hibbett, who shoots with both full frame and DX format Nikons, so we have all the major bases covered.  Depth of field varies from full frame to crop sensors, so it’s important that your instructors have years of experience with both to adequately meet the needs of a diverse group.  We’ve taught people with other brands such as Sony and Pentax DSLRs as well.

December 2008, salt flats in Death Valley National ParkThe typical price for my workshops of this length is $695, but I announced this on short notice so I’m discounting it to $595.  Limit 8 participants, book early to secure your place.  Registration fee is 90% refundable greater than 30 days from meeting date; no refunds within 30 days.

This trip will be convenient for participants arriving through Las Vegas.  We can try to help you connect with other participants to share a rental car.  (Lodging, transportation, food, and park entrance are not included.)

This will be a lodging-based trip (in contrast to a more remote and adventurous itinerary we may pursue on other visits during the year).  AWD or 4WD vehicles aren’t required, but 2/3 of the park’s roads are unpaved, so we may be able to reach a few of the park’s more interesting sites if we have a few vehicles with clearance to carpool in.  Upon booking I’ll forward you suggestions for camera accessories and free software applications you may wish to consider, as well as notes on appropriate clothing and outdoor gear.

Last but not least, some competing workshops tout their Wilderness First Responder class training in first aid as if that’s some sort of unique benefit.  Not only have I passed that class five times, I practiced treating scores of injured people for five years volunteering for the American Red Cross.  Lori brought literally thousands of people on wilderness survival trips she offered for 10 years through U.C.L.A., and with that volume of people, she has had to coordinate emergency medical evacuations from backcountry locations (rarely).  No one has been injured on our photography trips, and with each of us having started backcountry guidingover 30+ years ago, we’re extremely qualified to keep it that way.  Our wilderness experience will also provide you with excellent interpretive information.

Helping a snake avoid becoming roadkill

Lori has an in-depth knowledge of native plants and their uses; I love all animals and nearly every year I have the privilege of rescuing rattlesnakes off of roads so they won’t get hurt.  We’ve faced everything from black bears and coyotes to cougars and grizzly bears and we love them all… you’ll be in good hands!   (There are no grizzly bears in California fortunately, but ask me about the one who thought I was trying to challenge him for a berry bush in Montana!).

Note: PayPal buttons don’t work at the moment from inside my blog posts, so until I get that working, the registration buttons are in the right column of my blog’s front page:


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Light Painting Photo Featured on Flickr’s Blog

This light painting was featured on Flickr’s blog along with several others to celebrate the best photos of 2010.  Welcome Flickr blog readers, and thank you Flickr!

This image was created on the Badwater salt flats in Death Valley National Park. I had a flashlight with three colors of LED light. During this single 30 second exposure I lit each color for close to 10 seconds while waving my arm around up and down (which traces a sphere, like a pumpkin).

The Badwater salt flats are particularly good for light painting, since there’s minimal light pollution and the white surface reflects light well.

Death Valley offers a number of interesting landscapes for light painting… go explore!

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In A Sea Of Dunes

In A Sea Of Dunes, originally uploaded by Jeff Sullivan.

Another day, another playground made of sand. A playground for kids (young and old), a playground for photographers. Let the play begin!

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Mesquite Flat Dunes

Mesquite Flat Dunes, originally uploaded by Jeff Sullivan.

The extensive dune field near Stovepipe Wells is by far the most heavily visited sand dune complex within Death Valley National Park, but even here you can find great views within a few short steps of the parking lot.

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Return to Death Valley

Walking The Ridgeline, originally uploaded by Jeff Sullivan.

The last time I took my kids to Death Valley, we had a list of places we wanted to visit, so although we had a blast on the Eureka Dunes, we had to leave before we reached the top so we could make it to The Racetrack in time for sunset.

This time we had no such agenda, so we took our sweet time wherever we went, and thoroughly enjoyed each stop. I’ve been to the Eureka Dunes several times, and I’ve captured some nice landscape images, but I really like capturing people on the dunes. We’re really small in comparison, and even our footprints are nothing more than temporary intrusions. The dunes themselves often take on sinuous shapes, and the lighting of the sun can enhance our perception of the subtle curves.

The forgiving nature of the soft sand also invites playful interaction via rolling, jumping, rolling and sliding across it. The Eureka Dunes are closed to skiing and sand boarding due to several endangered species that exist only on this one dune field, but I’ll definitely consider taking old ski gear with me to the other dunes in Death Valley. Life too short to avoid playing with gravity!

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Quick Stop in Death Valley

Zig Zag, originally uploaded by Jeff Sullivan.

One of the things I like about traveling to Utah is that I get to pass through the Eastern Sierra and Death Valley on my way out and/or back! In this case I visited a few spots to re-take some old shots with my new camera.

Dune fields in particular can be exciting to re-shoot. Not only do the dunes themselves change, but the light changes literally from minute to minute, so not only are your shots new compared to the last visit, but you’ll get entirely different results at different times of day.

It’s particularly rewarding to shoot dunes in Death Valley, where a little sweat equity will get you to remote sands untouched by human footprints. Just make sure that you visit at a time of year when the weather will be mild, and that you bring survival supplies, particularly plenty of water. They don’t call it “Death Valley’ for nothing!

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Return to Death Valley

There are at least 7 sand dune complexes in the Death Valley area, and only the Mesquite Flat dunes at Stovepipe Wells is overrun with photographers and other visitors. Ironically, the dunes at Stovepipe Wells are also probably the smallest (only about 200 feet tall) and take the most effort to reach (a 2 mile walk over sand, probably with high heat to cope with on at least one direction).

I have a new favorite dune shooting location… it’s remote and it takes a bit of a walk, but there wasn’t a single footprint on this entire dune complex. I won’t broadcast the location on the Internet, but join one of my workshops to the area and I’ll take you there!

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