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The Best of Death Valley National Park

With names of iconic locations like Badwater, Funeral Mountain, the Devil's Golf Course, andright in the name of the parkland, it's clear that this landscape on the California/Nevada state line was a torment to early visitors.
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Friends share a moment atop the Mesquite Dunes at Death Valley. Credit: Jonathan Irish

With names of iconic locations like Badwater, Funeral Mountain, the Devil's Golf Course, and Death right in the name of the parkland, it's clear that this landscape on the California/Nevada state line was a torment to early visitors. As well prepared travelers, the only torment for us was that we did not have more time explore it. Death Valley National Park is a place as full-of-life as one could imagine. Singing sand dunes, salt flats displaying mathematical shapes, colorful badlands, ancient lake-beds with sailing stones, salinic creeks thriving with tiny fish, fields drenched with colorful wildflowers, runners, bikers, hikers, photographers, stargazers, American-history lovers, birdwatchers, scientists, artists, locals, park rangers, explorers on the open road -- it's all very much alive.

It would be insane to try to describe this park as a whole unit because each iconic site -- and there are many that truly earn that distinction -- is so different from the next. In that spirit, we decided to focus on what we feel is the Best of, encapsulating both the experience and photographic opportunities. In terms of photography, we found that we learned just as much through trial and error as we did by what was searchable online. We hope some of our findings will help travelers and photographers in some way when planning future visits to Death Valley.

The Racetrack

The Racetrack, at "La Playa" (the beach) is home to the "sailing stones" -- large boulders that move with the elements leaving a track on the dried up ancient lake bed. For a very long time, the movement of the rocks was a mystery to scientists. Research has since shown that it is the combination of wind, rain, and other effects that set the rocks into motion.

The rugged road out to the Racetrack from Ubehebe Crater is only 26 miles, but will take you about two hours to get there. High clearance vehicles are essential, and not one, but two spare tires are recommended. Once you arrive, we recommend driving about one mile beyond the first trailhead where from a short walk toward the mountain will lead you to the highest concentration of stones. This is a bucket-listed shooting destination for many photographers, particularly, those who come to capture the stones with a Milky Way backdrop that shows brilliantly overhead on dark nights.

A "sailing stone" at the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. Credit: Jonathan Irish

Badwater Basin

At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater is the lowest point in the United States. This fun fact along with its ease of exploring makes it one of the most visited sites in Death Valley. Just steps from the parking lot you can have your photo taken at the 'lowest point' sign before venturing out onto a flatland salt flat that lays white on the horizon. If you are lucky, you will see hexagonal shapes in the flat that are depicted in the most famous pictures of this area. These hexagons occur in various places and are a result of rain and intense heat -- usually found in the dead of summer (pun intended.) We walked for miles and only found subtle shaping in the landscape. Even without the coveted geometry, there are really cool textured foregrounds to capture and the shimmering white line on the horizon adds yet another layer to a complex topography.

Adventurers blaze their own path at Badwater Basin. Credit: Jonathan Irish

Dante's View

This high-elevation viewpoint is the most visited site in the park, because of its beauty and because access is easy -- just a few miles driving up a well-paved road into a parking lot and you will stand upon what is arguably the best overlook view in the park. Elevation is 5,487 feet making it is bitter cold and windy up there, (at least it was when we visited,) but having the ability to capture the sunrise burst on one side of the lot and soft gradient pink and blues over the valley and the Black Mountains on the other, packs a lot of punch in terms of capturing a variety of cool photos in a short amount of time.

Dante's View at sunrise. Credit Jonathan Irish

Artist's Drive and Artist's Palette

This is Stefanie's favorite place in the park. Artist's Drive is a 9-mile scenic driving route winding through mountains that honestly look as though they were painted on canvas. Artist's Palette, about 2/3 of the way through, is a concentrated area of oxidized rock that bursts with colors of gold, purple, green, and red, created by iron, mica, and manganese. It is absolutely surreal what nature can do. Late afternoon, but before the golden hour, is the best time to photograph this spot. Sunset is too late as it casts too many shadows, and sunrise and daytime light washes out the vibrant color. We went around 3 p.m. and the light was perfect.

Artist's Palette found on Artist's Drive is proof that nature is the greatest artist! Credit: Jonathan Irish

Zabriskie Point

This is Jonathan's favorite sunrise spot and he sampled them all. Zabriskie Point overlooks dramatic badlands painted in texture and colorful geometrics that seem to illuminate with every shift of the sun. Early morning hikers heading out lend an exceptional perspective of scale... the whole scene is really fun to photograph. Most people stand and shoot at the dedicated viewpoint but many photographers get set up at the ridge just below it (you can't miss it) for an unobstructed view. This is iconic spot is only seven miles from Furnace Creek lodging and camping and up a small hill, making it easy to get to during those early morning hours.

Incredible scale is shown at Zabriskie Point, one of the best sunrise photography spots at Death Valley. Credit: Stefanie Payne

Devil's Golf Course

Not far from Badwater is Devil's Golf Course, where you feel a little like you are on a different planet or an asteroid or something. It's very strange to look at, and strange to photograph as well. The rock salt floor is sharp as jagged teeth (even for die-hard flip floppers, which we both are, shoes are a must). It has to be one of the roughest landscapes on the planet. While the bumpy floor provides a really cool foreground for landscape shots, you could get lost for hours just pointing your camera straight to the ground to photograph the intricate textures of this menacing landscape.

An otherworldly site, Devil's Golf Course feels and looks like a different planet. Credit Jonathan Irish

Rhyolite Ghost Town, Nevada

Most of Death Valley is located in California. However, if you hop in the car and drive about an hour to the eastern edge of the park, you'll find yourself in the Nevada ghost town of Rhyolite. The town rose and fell quickly, in population -- in a matter of 15 years it grew from zero to several of thousands and back down to zero by 1920 when it became a tourist destination as a ghost town. It has also been used as a set for movie productions. It's a really cool way to explore a different side of the park (and another state as well) and there are some epic long highway shots to be found as you make your way back to California's Death Valley.

The Rhyolite Ghost Town in Nevada is a worthy historic stop and has amazing long-road photo ops on the way to and from the California side of the park. Credit: Jonathan Irish

The rare "Super Bloom"

When we heard that the rare desert Super Bloom was underway at Death Valley, we scratched our previously planned route and b-lined it to California, where we found the landscape washed in yellow, purple, pink and white wildflowers, a result of consistent heavy rainfall in autumn of 2015. A beautiful, unique add to an already incredible landscape and a special gift to Jon for his birthday!

The rare Super Bloom sprawls across Death Valley National Park in March, 2016. Credit: Jonathan Irish

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Hiking stick medallions from Death Valley National Park in California and Nevada. Credit: Stefanie Payne

14 parks down, 45 to go! Credit: Stefanie Payne