Badwater Basin, the lowest point in Death Valley National Park in terms of elevation, is typically what everyone thinks of when they think of Death Valley. However, the salt areas of the valley extend quite a ways north of Badwater Basin, and there is a stretch of salt a few miles north of Furnace Creek where mineral-laden water seeping out of the foothills of the Amargosa Mountains form streams that seem to appear from loose rocks and soft ground to meander their way across the salt. “Death Valley Surnise” shows one such stream on a cold winter’s morning.
The location of these mineral water streams changes over time, so each time I visit Death Valley, I make a point to drive along Route 190 between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells looking out over the salt pan, watching for the streams and looking for good candidates for photographs.
What am I looking for as I’m making my way along the road? Shapes, mostly. Are there any s-curves, branches or other interesting shapes to the streams? I also consider the direction the camera would be facing to capture the most interesting parts of the streams’ forms. If the shape is best viewed from the west, as in the image featured here, that calls for a sunrise image. Best viewed from the north or south? That might call for a late-afternoon to sunset shot. And of course, a west-facing view certainly calls for sunset.
To approach these mineral streams, some care needs to be taken. A wide expanse of rough ground separates the salt flat from the road. This area is covered in rocks that span the size from pebbles to basket balls and the ground is very soft. The chances of a stumble or a twisted ankle are quite high. Trying to capture a sunrise image such as this one means arriving in the dark well before dawn and doing your best not to break a leg or any camera equipment before you can get to the salt.
Once on the salt, step gently: the water streams have been known to create pockets under the salt crust and taking a wrong step can result in cracking though the crust and finding oneself in a knee-deep hole in the salt pan. Consideration also needs to be given in how to approach the area you wish to photograph. Nothing is worse than finding a good composition only to realize that you ruined it by putting a footprint in the salt right in the middle of your shot. I’ve found it best to give any potential compositions a wide berth while walking around to find the best location for the camera.
I was attracted the Lambda shape of this particular stream with a bit of an s-curve at the top. I wasn’t sure if there was actually going to be any color in the sunrise on this morning, as it seemed pretty cloudy. But my effort and patience were rewarded as a soft pink glow appeared over the mountains to the east. I had hoped to capture the reflection of any sky color in the mineral stream and had chosen a composition to maximize my chances of this.