In the heart of Death Valley National Park are the Mesquite Flat Dunes, located in southeastern California, with a small portion of the park extending into Nevada. The park is located 133 miles from Bakersfield, California, and 110 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada. Among the many dunes in the park, the Mesquite Flat Dunes are the best known and the easiest to visit. The dunes are viewable right off Highway 190, about two miles east of Stovepipe Wells, where you can RV or car camp, or stay in a hotel for base camp. There’s a large day-use parking area and bathrooms, and many of the park’s other best attractions are each about an hour away in all directions. The park is open year-round, day and night, and a good place to start is the Furnace Creek Visitor Center & Museum.
As Death Valley is one of the hottest places in North America, you’re best off visiting during the winter/spring months of November through April. Daytime temperatures at this time of year are usually a cool 80º instead of 110º-plus in the summer months. Watching the weather and planning your trip just after a windstorm will ensure the dunes are clean, with few signs of past visitors.
With many acres of dunes and no set trail system, you can wander and explore to your heart’s content. You can easily hike a few miles as you wander up, down and around the dunes. A light camera bag and good sandals are highly recommended, and always pack extra food and water, along with a good shade hat.
When shooting with my Nikon D810 DSLR, a wide zoom and zoom-tele are my lenses of choice, the NIKKOR 17-35mm ƒ/2.8 and 70-200mm ƒ/2.8. For this image, I used a Hasselblad 503CW, 150mm lens at ¼ sec. and ƒ/11, Fujichrome Velvia 100F, a Gitzo Traveler 1 tripod and a LEE 0.6 soft-edge grad ND filter. After sunrise and before sunset can often provide the best images, when the shadows are long and the black-and-white/texture images are everywhere. If the wind is still blowing, having each lens mounted on a camera will help reduce sand and dirt getting inside this sometimes-harsh shooting environment. The farther you hike, the more you’ll find. It’s sometimes important to bring a GPS and mark the trailhead, and it also helps to mark dunes and locations you want to return to in the dark. Note that all of the dunes in Death Valley are protected as wilderness, and off-road vehicles aren’t permitted anywhere in the park.
My favorite time to visit is in the winter months of December and January. The temps are usually the coolest and the sun is at its lowest in the horizon, providing the best and longest sidelight of the year. This is also the busiest time of year, so plan ahead with campground or hotel reservations. The early predawn light can be amazing. Scouting the day before and marking a few spots on your GPS really go a long way when you’re trying to find your location in the dark (think needle in a haystack).
Even during the cooler months, staying hydrated in this arid environment is essential. Consider using a photo backpack with an integrated hydration solution like the Lowepro Photo Sport BP 200 AW II, which has a dedicated pocket for a 2-liter reservoir (not included). The lightweight bag is sized for day trips and can accommodate a mirrorless system or smaller DSLR. List Price: $169. Contact: Lowepro, lowepro.com.