Archive for the Travel Reports Category

Travel Report – Silver Salmon Creek Lodge

Posted in Travel Reports with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2010 by macdanzig

Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska:  A photography trip report.


© Mac Danzig


In July of 2009, I traveled to Alaska for an unforgettable photography excursion.    Wildlife photography has been a branch of the art that always kept itself just past arm’s-reach.   It is designated to those photographers who have time, patience, money, and the ability to venture into areas where truly elusive wild animals can be seen.  After an excellent trip to Yellowstone National Park in 2008,  I was left with the urge to capture more true wildlife photos.   Grizzly Bears were one of the few indigenous species of wildlife in Yellowstone that I never got a glimpse of during my short 1-week stay, and although the trip was a huge success in many ways, I became increasingly jealous of some of my friends on and their amazing Brown Bear photos…   A trip was in order.

I researched the possibilities thoroughly, and with the help of other NSN members, including Bill Lockhart, I finally made the decision to book a trip to Silver Salmon Creek Lodge in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska.  Phil Colla had published a detailed travel report from the lodge, as had Bill Lockhart.  One of the other options when hunting for Bear photos in Alaska was to visit the Brook’s camp in Katmai, but the thoughts of standing on a cramped viewing platform next to hordes of other photographers to get shots of Bears Salmon fishing didn’t sound as appealing as what SSCL had to offer.   I had heard the reports of standing within 20 feet of the Bears, watching them interact in their natural habitat with no outside humanly distractions.  This seemed like the place for me.

So I booked it.  5 months in advance.  I only had a short window of time to actually take the trip,  and because bookings can fill up rapidly, the advanced time was necessary.    This isn’t exactly a bargain photography trip and is the most expensive one I’ve taken to date, but you get what you pay for.  Really, you do.  I had originally justified it as a once-in-a-lifetime trip but after one day in the field, I knew I would have to find a way to return again…

The owner of SSCL, David Coray was extremely helpful in assisting me with the booking and planning process.  In the end I decided on flying into Kenai, AK via Anchorage and spending a night at one of David’s rental properties in the area.  In the morning, his assistant drove me to the Soldotna Airport and I took a bush plane across the Kenai Peninsula, directly to Lake Clark National Park.  There are only two ways to get to the area; by boat or by air and since there is no airport, only small craft like bush planes and float planes can land.  This makes for a truly remote location that is still untouched by development.  (Let’s hope it stays that way.)   Bill Lockhart had told me about the flight and it definitely lived up to expectations… Truly unforgettable.  We landed directly on the beach, just a few hundred yards from the lodge property where I was greeted by Jenny, my assigned Bear Guide.

The guides a SSCL are top-notch and have a true respect and understanding of the wildlife in the National Park.   They also understand a great deal about photography and will always help position you in the best area for good lighting.  These guides often do not carry guns and one of the main reasons for this place being bear-friendly is because of the relationship the owners and guides of SSCL have with them.  The bears are left alone for the most part and treated with the utmost respect in terms of territory and comfortable viewing distance.   Trash and food scraps are not left out, so the bears are not enticed into scavenging on lodge property.   Large numbers of non-educated people never find their way onto this part of Lake Clark National Park, because SSCL (and their neighbors – Alaska Homestead Lodge) keep the reservation numbers to a minimum and deter the “zoo” atmosphere by educating the few visitors they do have and only hire guides who keep the bear’s safety in mind just as strongly as their clients.  The land being on a National Park mean no hunting is allowed, and bears are only approached by the guides in wide open areas, such as grass fields they graze in, as well as shorelines and river outlets.


© Mac Danzig


The lodge area is located just a few hundred yards from the shore, so after tossing my luggage in my cabin and getting a quick briefing on the lodge and bear-viewing etiquette, I was out in the field with Jenny in under 20 minutes and standing within 50 feet of a mother bear and her three first-year cubs.  She nursed her cubs right in front of us, and afterward, two of the cubs engaged in a friendly wrestling match…


© Mac Danzig



© Mac Danzig


I had to take a minute, stop looking through the viewfinder, and just absorb the scene…  This place really is as magical as the people who went there before me had professed.   Jenny went out of her way at every location to position us where the light was optimal for photography and guiding me to approach slowly to get those great close-up shots, at the same time always giving the wildlife their space.


© Mac Danzig


Throughout that first day, the light was (for the most part) excellent.  We were able to catch shots three different Bear groups in three different areas before heading back to the lodge for dinner.  (we skipped lunch that day and stayed in the field shooting.)  I was fortunate enough to have Jenny all to myself during most of my stay and she was great company and extremely accommodating.    We would see the other guests (a photo workshop group run by David Cardinal and guided by Drew – SSCL’s best guide) from time to time in the field, but there was so much room and so many photo opportunities for different bears throughout the area, that we never found ourselves crossing wires.


© Mac Danzig


Transportation from the lodge to the bears (depending on where they are at the time) is either by ATV or on foot.  The majority of the time, I would ride in a trailer with my gear, towed by Jenny’s ATV and she would scout out photo ops as she drove.  The staff at SSCL stays on radio with each other at all times which helps avoid the possibility of driving into an area where other photographers may be quietly and cautiously working on shooting…

My favorite shots from the first day came from an adult sow who was taking her time, looking for fish that were stranded between a sand-bar and the shore during low tide…


© Mac Danzig



© Mac Danzig


The bears in the Lake Clark National Park area are Coastal Brown Bears.   One of the reasons why they are larger than their Grizzly counterparts is because of their easy access to large quantities of salmon who come in from the ocean inlet to spawn in the freshwater in the peninsula’s rivers.  Most of the early spring and summer however, they spend a great deal of their time grazing on sedge grass in the meadows just in from the coastline.


© Mac Danzig


On day two we lost the good light, but an amazing adventure that day definitely changed things for the better.  As luck would have it, I happened to be the only solo visitor to the lodge at that particular time…  The other 6 photographers there were part of a workshop being conducted by David Cardinal.   Part of their itinerary included a 90-minute boat ride to Chisik Island and Duck Island, located in the Tuxedni National Wildlife Refuge area.  Since there was extra room and only one of me, I was graciously invited to come along on this journey, which ended up being unforgettable.

As we left the coast on David’s boat, we crossed over a strongly-defined line of change in water color.  This is from the volcanic ash deposits that flow freely from Mt. Redoubt and is cast out directly into the saltwater peninsula…  After about 30 mins of rough, choppy waves that bounced us all over, the water calmed and we headed toward the cliffs of Chisik island, where thousands of Kittiwakes nest.  As we floated closer, there was a cacophony of fleeing bird calls that became almost deafening.


© Mac Danzig



"Seagull Tenament" © Mac Danzig


After a few moments, I realized that there was a large Bald Eagle soaring close by the nests and as soon as I put my telephoto lens on, he began to attack.   Some of the Kittiwakes attempted to attack the Eagle, while others flew for their lives in a scattered, unorganized panic.   Unfortunately, 300mm was not a long enough reach to capture the action of this Eagle’s failed attempts at hunting on this afternoon, but luckily I was able to at least obtain some documentation to help me remember this amazing moment.


© Mac Danzig



© Mac Danzig


Traveling on to Duck Island, just north of Chisik, we dropped anchor and spent a few hours photographing Horned Puffins.  These birds have been one of my favorite species since I was a young child, so getting the opportunity to photograph them was worth the trip to Alaska alone.


© Mac Danzig



© Mac Danzig


The third and fourth days were mostly a wash-out, but my guide Jenny and I still went out in the rain and did our best to photograph the Bears within a few square miles of the lodge.  I also took the opportunity to spend some time socializing with the group taking David Cardinal’s workshop (who happened to be all wonderful and intelligent people) and eating the amazing food that they prepared for us…  I was incredibly lucky to have Dorian (David Coray’s daughter) there in addition to the resident chefs.  Dorian was incredibly knowledgeable about the Vegan diet and went out of her way to make me the most amazing vegan dishes and deserts.  I am not kidding, it was like Thanksgiving Dinner for breakfast, lunch and dinner – every day.  I have never eaten that much good food in my life.


© Mac Danzig


On my last day, I was scheduled to leave around 1pm, so Jenny and I headed out at dawn to photograph the bears digging for clams at low tide…  Experiencing low tide is rather surreal, considering there is all of the sudden, a huge expanse (up to a mile) of barren shoreline (almost like a wet desert plain) where just a day before, there was deep ocean water and breaking waves…


© Mac Danzig


As luck would have it, nature gave us a gift and the Mother of the three first-year cubs took them out onto the low-tide flats for what looked like possibly the first time.  I was able to capture two photos that both ended up being contest-winners eventually.  One is of the three bear cubs hesitating curiously as their mother ventured out into the shore.   The other is of the same mother sharing a brief intimate moment with one of the cubs…


© Mac Danzig


All in all, it was a hugely successful trip.  Not only from the photographic point of view, but also from the ‘life-experience’ perspective.  I try not to over-indulge in life, but I think I’d be cheating myself if I didn’t go back again soon…

I am already thinking about summer 2011!

thanks for reading



© Mac Danzig


The End.


Photography Excursion – White Pocket, Arizona

Posted in Travel Reports with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2010 by macdanzig

Photo Trip Report of ‘White Pocket’ located in the Paria Canyon – Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness area.


I believe that in order for person to find their true calling, (no matter what that calling is) they must first set out on the path that separates ego from the equation.  There are a many ways of creating this phenomena, but the main goal should be the complete removal of the stain of current human culture.  This is not a modern dilemma.  This is what man must deal with as he continues to draw himself farther away from the natural world he emerged from.  For my own body, in particular, putting myself in the atmosphere of a timeless place, untouched by human manipulation, is the best ticket there is…


Remote locations that few people venture to here in the Southwest seem to have a magnetic quality for me.  Add to that a beautiful, bizarre and other-worldly landscape, and I’m planning the trip already.

The area known simply as ‘the White Pocket’ in northern Arizona fits that bill perfectly.    Just 6 miles east of Coyote Buttes South, (another gorgeous and remote location itself) White Pocket contains some of the most astonishing geology you will ever find anywhere on earth.  Like Coyote Buttes South, most of the formations are layered sandstone, made from different generations of sand dunes deposited hundreds of millions of years ago during the Jurassic period.  Geologists say that every time a new layer of dunes was blown onto an existing layer, the ones beneath it were compressed and hardened by groundwater minerals.   These crossbeds often have different colors because the mineral deposits in the groundwater (sometimes rich in iron) varied from generation to generation…  The formations at the White Pocket are distinctly different from the ones you’ll see at Coyote Buttes because much of the top layer is as the name states: ‘white’.   This is because the last generation of sand that solidified over the white pocket area was rich in silt.

All of that gives a fair idea of the basis behind how these formations came to be, but the truth is, nobody really knows exactly how the formations here came to take on such a chaotic appearance.  There are abundant signs of soft-sediment deformation, but in ways that aren’t normal.  I am obviously not a geologist, but I’ve heard theories of earthquakes, floods and volcanic action during the sedimentation process…  If any of that means anything to you, that’s great.  If not, that’s ok too, because visual stimulation is something anyone should be able to enjoy, regardless of your interest in geology.  Although I’d have to admit that this landscape may be too chaotic and random for some people’s taste.

Supposedly the area was named by cowboys and ranchers who settled the land in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  ‘Pockets’ generally referred to areas of hard rock in the desert where rainwater would collect.  Cattle still roam somewhat freely in the Pariah Canyon wilderness and the white pocket is still used as a water source by many animals traveling the sands from Autumn to Spring.   In the middle of the formations there is still the remnants of an old dam wall built by ranchers to help keep more water contained.

The formations here lack the perfect symmetry that has made “the Wave” in North Coyote Buttes so famous.  And because of that, it is much harder to photograph.  You can spend days here (trust me I know firsthand) and not even come close to capturing the pure cacophony of swirling rock the way your eye saw it.    I would need a week here to even begin to do this place justice photographically, and as I write this I am realizing that words do very little to explain the feeling you get when standing in the midst of these ancient monsters.

To me, there is something very special about desert areas with aesthetic appeal that also see very few human visitors.  The silence is deafening.  The environment unpredictable and inhospitable.  That is what attracts me to places like this rather than the better-known parks.  Take for example Zion National Park:  It is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but unless you’re there during winter, you’ll be constantly rubbing elbows with fellow photographers, hikers, old ladies with disposable cameras (flashes on all the time), soccer moms, baseball dads, nature nuts, confused city folks, tourists of all kinds, bikers, and whining children who just want to go home and play Xbox (among others).   Now don’t get me wrong, I like the company of other people as much as the next misanthrope, but you have to admit there’s something stripped away from the feeling of a wilderness area when it’s been turned into an outdoor mall…  You’ll get none of that in White Pocket or Coyote Buttes South.   There are no main roads that join landmarks together, no overlooks and no nearby lodging.   This is why I seek these sorts of places out.  And unfortunately that’s why they are becoming more and more popular every year.  I shouldn’t complain since I am part of the problem: photographing the place and blogging about it.  But in the tradition of being an American citizen, I’ll go ahead and complain anyway.

Getting there isn’t easy.  In fact, it can be completely impossible if you don’t have a vehicle with high clearance and a good 4wd or Awd system.  The closest towns to this area are Page, Arizona to the east and Kanab, Utah to the west.  Both of these “cities” could be considered “in the middle of nowhere” to many people as it is, but then there’s the venture from one of those towns (take Page for example) to the White Pocket itself which includes 35 miles on a 2 lane highway, followed by 20 miles on a rutted-out one lane dirt road and finishing up with a 15-mile plow through the driest, deepest sandy back roads you’ll probably ever encounter.    I won’t publish directions, but as the old saying goes -‘seek and ye shall find’.  There are plenty of detailed directions to the White Pocket if you’re willing to do a web search.

Another thing that’s a plus about White Pocket is the fact that you don’t need a permit to legally go there, unlike Coyote Buttes North and South.  This makes planning your trip a little bit easier.  Those wishing to legally obtain a permit for Coyote Buttes (North especially) have to jump through a series of hoops which is honestly a good thing in my opinion, because it keeps the hordes of tourists away.  With White Pocket, the last 10 miles of “road” are the hoops you have to jump through and that itself will discourage a lot of people.  Still, on my last visit, there were two other parties camping there besides mine, and an average of 3 to 4 vehicles a day came through for day-hikes.   The good thing is that most likely anyone you run into out there is going to be a decent person.  Most people visiting are serious photographers or nature enthusiasts/adventurists.     There is a feeling that the BLM may have to start issuing a permit system for the White Pocket in the future.  Only time will tell.

If you’re going to visit the White Pocket or Coyote Buttes South, you are going to be driving through some very deep sand.  Don’t even bother trying to get there in a passenger car.  You can get to the Coyote Buttes North trailhead in a small car, but you won’t make it to White Pocket.  I suggest bringing an air compressor and deflating your tires to around 18-20 psi.  This will help your vehicle glide over the sand a little better.  Use the air compressor to bring your tires back to normal psi when you return from the sandy roads.   A shovel is a must in case you get stuck.   The most difficult thing about these deep sand roads is that there are abrupt patches of extremely sharp, uneven rock here and there throughout the trip.  In order to get through the deep sand you need to keep up your momentum because without traction, you will get stuck in the sand if your vehicle stops. – But in order to get through the rocky parts of the road without blowing a tire (like I did this last trip) or bottoming out and damaging something crucial underneath, you have to slow to a crawl…  This means you have to keep your eyes open at all times and be ready to quickly slow down when the sand turns to a stairway of sharp rock.  This can be very nerve-racking (or very fun, depending on how you look at it.)   I drive an 09 Subaru Forester which is an underrated and very capable off-road machine.  It has gotten me there and back twice now, but I have seen more than a couple pictures of American 4×4 trucks stuck in the deep Paria Sand.

Another thing to consider is bringing some extra floor mats or strips of old carpet in case you do get stuck…  These can be tied to your rear forks so that you can keep going through the deep sand once you get going again, without having to stop to pick them up and risk getting stuck again.   The hardest part of the drive is coming back from the White Pocket, about 2 miles from it-  A steep winding hill that you will go down in order to get there.  The main difficulty is that at the bottom of this hill, there’s an old dry creek rut that makes gaining momentum for the hill impossible.  But chances are that if you got there, you will make it back- no problem.  Obviously, there’s no cell phone service out there, so keep that in mind when planning.

As stated before, photographing this place is not easy.  There are so many twists, turns, peaks, valleys, and utterly strange shapes here that it’s hard to make a traditional landscape or abstract composition work.  This forces you to think outside the box photographically.  Like most landscapes, early morning and evening offer the best light.   If you go between October and March, you may be lucky enough to have pools of water to photograph as well.   On my most recent visit, I spent my time in the hard mid-day light exploring the surrounding area.   This was an excellent exercise which only left me yearning for more exploration.   I was able to hike up to the highest point in the general area – just east of the White Pocket, and take This Panorama of the landscape from atop a huge sandstone cliff.  Although not a technically great shot, it’s unique and pretty interesting as it shows a seldom-seen view of this location, looking down onto the White Pocket from above.   I have made some ‘snapshots’ that work with the interface of the Gigapan site so that you can get a better idea of how the landscape is spread out.

When you look at the broad landscape from any high vantage point in the White Pocket, you will see Coyote Buttes North, Buckskin Gulch, and countless unnamed and largely unphotographed rock formations tossed throughout the Paria Plateau.  This scene makes me want to spend a few weeks backpacking in the area, simply exploring – photography being secondary.    One thing to remember is how extremely delicate the terrain here is.  Please be careful where you tread.  A misplaced foot can crumble a formation that took millions of years to form.

White Pocket is one of those places that leaves you wanting more…  When the light was poor, I found myself simply enjoying the scenery and the immortal feeling of this remote place.  So much time (hundreds of millions of years) has gone into creating this place and it’s a privilege to be able to enjoy it in this relatively untainted state without the rush of a highway buzzing in the distance or any other man-made distractions.   Places like this still exist in the United States and I suggest going there and experiencing it for yourself if you’re anything like me.  Just don’t forget your camera and plenty of water…   As for me, I’m already scheming on when I can steal away and get back out there…

Thanks for reading



Here are a few related links you may find worthwhile:

The original Synnatschke blog post from ’05 that still contains some of the best info on this place.

Photographing Arizona blog entry on White Pocket and Coyote Buttes South.

A Panorama I took from high on a eastern cliff of the White Pockets and surrounding area.

A Panorama taken at sunrise from the atop White Pocket itself, of the Paria Canyon wilderness area (including Coyote Buttes)

Photography Excursion – The Canadian Rockies

Posted in Travel Reports with tags , , , , , , on February 22, 2010 by macdanzig

Photographing the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, Canada

© Mac Danzig

Well, I haven’t been keeping up with the blog as usual and I suppose this is where most bloggers throw out some hollow apology, followed by a personal excuse for their absence, as if the world were to completely halt without their ramblings…  Well, you’ll get neither from me.  I know how much impact my web log has on the world and I’m not delusional about it…  Recently have been working and also doing what I love, and that’s taking photos and exploring the outdoors.  This time, it has been in an extraordinary location: The Canadian Rockies.

A few photography friends and I spent a week up there, during which time we also attended a 3-day photo tour run by Darwin Wiggett.   Darwin knows the terrain up there like no one else and showed us some of the best locations for great photographs.  Since my time is limited at the moment, the following is simply a quick summary of the trip with a few accompanying photos I took…

© Mac Danzig

After a night in Canmore, we made our way north, up through Banff and Lake Louise, finally arriving at the Aurum Lodge which is just 40 kilometers east of Banff National Park.    The lodge is run by Alan Ernst and his wife Madeleine.  If anyone knows the area as well as Darwin does, it’s Alan.  And he has a ridiculously good collection of photos from around the area to prove it.

The Aurum lodge sits right along Abraham Lake, (which is frozen over in the winter) and is in a perfect location for photographers. It’s no wonder that Darwin and other great nature photographers choose to stay here when photographing the area or running workshops…

© Mac Danzig

Throughout the next few days, we spent every moment of daylight- from dawn to dusk, out in the field shooting or hiking to different locations.   This was definitely my kind of trip.  Darwin and Alan took us to some really incredible locations including frozen waterfalls, snow-covered mountains, glaciers and of course all of the flat frozen bodies of water with many different Canadian Rocky peaks in the background.  The average temperature was around the 30 degree range (Fahrenheit).   We were told that even with the occasional harsh windchill, it was unseasonably warm in comparison to previous years at the same time.   I stayed comfortably warm simply by dressing in layers with a light windbreaker on top.    Crampons or ice-cleats are a must and I found StabilIcers to be very functional for the price.

The extreme lack of tourists due to the remote location and cold weather was a welcome change from my springtime photo excursions in the Southwest…  The only other people we encountered most of the time were ice-climbers.   These people are crazy, but in a good way.  I couldn’t believe some of the sheer ice cliffs these guys were scaling.  It was great to witness, but I doubt I’ll be trying my hand at vertical ice climbing anytime soon.

Ice climber © Mac Danzig

Driving through the Icefields Parkway is a humbling experience.  As the road winds through the forest of mountains, you are completely surrounded.  Everywhere you look, there is a gigantic peak piercing the sky.

© Mac Danzig

As far as wildlife goes, I had three excellent photo ops with Bighorn Sheep.  I had never gotten a good shot of this animal prior to this trip, so whenever we came across a herd, I spent my time photographing them, while most of the others continued working on their landscape shots…

© Mac Danzig

© Mac Danzig

On the third morning, we went to Abraham Lake for the second time and were treated to the most spectacular natural colors I have ever seen during a sunrise.  Everyone wandered carefully out onto the lake and found their own bit of foreground to prepare for the sunrise.   The lake is frozen solid in some places, but further out into the center, you can see the water below about 1 to 3 feet of ice.   There are bubbles, cracks and all sorts of amazing natural textures to use as foreground during these winter months.   Luckily for us, the fire in the sky hung around for a good 10 minutes, which was more than enough time to obtain some keepers.   When I viewed the files in the raw converter, untouched, they appeared almost over-saturated.  That is how intense the color was.  I actually ended up having to de-saturate the colors when processing the photos from that morning, due to the fact that digital files just can’t handle those intense reds the way film can…

© Mac Danzig

One thing that I made a conscious effort to do on this trip was look for new types of composition and focus a little more on abstract views of nature and textures.  Darwin and Alan are masters at this kind of shooting and being around them helped out a lot when it came to opening my mind to some great shots that I would normally walk right by (or over)…    The Canadian Rockies are so beautiful and the landscape so dynamic, that it’s easy to forget to shoot with anything other than your wide-angle lens.   But many times when the light was harsh and the sun was high in the sky, I would put my macro lens on and simply start paying more attention to the ice beneath me.   I’m glad I did.  So many great ice textures and tiny subtle scenes would have been lost if I hadn’t decided to open my mind to different types of composition.

© Mac Danzig

© Mac Danzig

During our last evening at the lodge, we were met with the company of Royce Howland and David Clapp.  They were just beginning their stay at the lodge on a 2-week-long photo expedition of their own.  Both of these guys are great talents and I personally feel they are among the very best landscape photographers out there today.   It was great to have an evening discussing (and sometimes hilariously criticizing the hell out of) the many facets which make up the present-day photography industry.  Clapp has got to be one of the funniest Englishmen I’ve ever met, and that’s saying a lot.  After a few hours of good conversation and red wine, it was time to pack it in, as tomorrow would be our last morning in the area.

© Mac Danzig

Making our way back to Canmore, we stopped at a few different spots including Mistaya Canyon.  While there, I kept my eye for the details working, rather than trying to capture the entire scene.  In the end, I got a few shots I was happy with, using a 10-stop ND filter to slow my shutter speed down to 30 seconds…

© Mac Danzig

This was such an excellent trip, we all agreed to come back sometime in the near future.  I particularly enjoyed the fact that everyone in the group was there to take photos and have a good time, rather than the tourist types who get bored and whine about the cold…  That, and it was insanely beautiful up there.

Here’s a list of links related to this article that you might find interesting:

More of my photos from this Canadian Rockies trip (as I post them)

Darwin Wiggett’s site

Aurum Lodge

6 favorites from each of the tour attendees (including myself)

Royce Howland’s Site

David Clapp’s Blog

Bryan Konietzko’s photos from this trip

Michael Dimartino’s photos from this trip

© Mac Danzig

Thanks for reading and looking…


Lower Antelope Canyon

Posted in Featured Photos, Travel Reports with tags , , , , , on January 14, 2010 by macdanzig

© Mac Danzig

Tucked into a convenient location just outside of Page, Arizona and less than 5 minutes from Horseshoe Bend, is the popular Antelope Canyon.  It is broken up into two areas (Upper and Lower) and is governed by the local Navajo Tribal Council.

Both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon see a good amount of tourism during the busy seasons (Spring and Fall) and although breathtakingly beautiful, they are not spots known for complete solitude.   However this should not stop you from visiting and seeing the amazing formations in the slots that have been carved over millions of years as water cut through sandstone.   The town of Page is an excellent place to stay during a trip to the National and Tribal parks of the Southwest.   I often use it as a halfway point to lodge between trips to Coyote Buttes and Monument Valley.  You may also find yourself here if you visit Grand Staircase Escalante.

These slot canyons can be extremely hard to expose for, depending on the time of day you decide to go, but well worth the challenge.  Antelope Canyon is one of the few photographic locations that is usually best in mid-day light when the sun is high, making it a perfect place to shoot in between the normal landscape spots of the area which require morning and/or evening light.    The following shots were all taken with the Canon 5D and the 17-40 L.   I recommend changing lenses as seldom as possible here, due to the high content of sand and dust on the slot canyon floor.   Strong winds can kick up a small sandstorm without warning.

© Mac Danzig

Rather than writing a long-winded essay on this well-known geological attraction (there is plenty of info throughout the internet),  I’ve decided to share some of my favorite shots from Lower Antelope Canyon, which sees less visitors than it’s Upper counterpart and is just as full of limitless photographic potential….


© Mac Danzig

© Mac Danzig

© Mac Danzig

© Mac Danzig

© Mac Danzig

© Mac Danzig

Thanks for looking


Death Valley National Park – A photography guide

Posted in Travel Reports with tags , , , , , , , on November 26, 2009 by macdanzig

Location Report – Death Valley National Park

Storm approaching the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley © Mac Danzig

If you immediately think of nothing but extreme heat and barren desert when the words “Death Valley” come to mind, you most likely haven’t experienced this incredible place first-hand…  Yes, the heat is ridiculous in the summer at the valley-level areas of the park, but DVNP has way more to offer than the stereotypical idea of extreme heat and sand.

As of the time this writing, I have been to Death Valley for Photography nine times and if I have anything to say about it, there will be many more trips in the future.  Every time I have visited, I have come back with usable images no matter what conditions the weather provided and each time I have seen something completely new.  In addition, every single excursion to this beautiful place has had a profound effect on me.

Death Valley National Park is the largest National Park in the lower 48 states, covering 5,262 square miles.    On any given day, you are likely to see and experience a plethora of Natural Phenomena.  From snow-capped peaks, to rolling sand dunes, to Ghost Town remains and everything in between.  Death Valley is, in my opinion the most geologically diverse Natural area in North America and that is a notion that definitely lends itself to success in photography.

Those of you who are familiar with my work know that I am a huge fan of remote places.   I have gone out of my way to go ‘out of the way’ as much as possible.  Death Valley absolutely fulfills the need for solitude and desolation, as long as you are willing to do a little (or a lot of) driving beyond the main tourist areas.   Keep in mind that all of these great spots are very far from each other, for the most part and I recommend either an extended stay, or exact planning of your time to get the most out of your visit.   For example, the Badwater area includes Artist’s Palette, numerous salt flats and the incredible Devil’s Golf Course. They are all within 20 mins of each other, and fairly close to the two hotels in the area, but nowhere even remotely near the Racetrack, Wildrose Charcoal kilns, or any of the high-altitude overlook views.

In this article I will only cover the sections of the park I am familiar with, and of those, the ones I believe to be the best areas for good photo ops.

Here is a link to a google map I’ve made of the area. I will link again to it at the end of the article.
View Death Valley Photography spots in a larger map



The Racetrack Playa

Might as well start with my favorite spot in the entire park and probably one of the most remote areas in all of Death Valley; The Racetrack.  This basin is an ancient dry lake bed with an amazing textured floor that includes the phenomena of the infamous “sailing stones.”

"110 Degrees" © Mac Danzig

Although the road to get to the Racetrack from both North and South is very rough, winding, and filled with large, loose natural gravel rocks that are quite sharp in spots, chances are you’ll see a few other folks (even in passenger cars) during a September or April trip when the weather is the most comfortable.     If you go during the colder months, there’s an excellent chance you’ll have the entire area to yourself.

Words can’t really describe the feeling you get at the Playa.  Especially if you are the only one there…  Bordered on the West by the Last Chance Range, and on the East by the Cottonwood mountains, a feeling of solitude is experienced naturally.   The silence itself can be immense and profound.  Every experience I’ve had at this location has left me longing to return again.

My advice is to spend at least 24 hours here if possible.  There are a few first-come-first-serve campsites just south of the Racetrack that will leave you easy access for sunrise and sunset light.  And if you’re a nocturnal shooter like me, spending at least 1 night here is a must.

Moonrise on the Playa © Mac Danzig

In addition to the lake bed itself containing the “sailing stones” is the “Grandstand”: a protrusion of black basaltic rock that sits 75 feet above the floor at the northwestern corner of the playa.   This is easily seen from the road or anywhere in the area, really.  And if you are looking for a good star-trail foreground subject or an interesting focal point beyond the normal shot, the Grandstand may be a good bet.

"First Light of the Day" © Mac Danzig (The Grandstand can be seen at the horizon below the mountains, center-left)

When walking out on the Playa, distance is not always what it seems.  You may find yourself heading towards a vague landmark while looking for rocks with trails to photograph, and end up spending triple the amount of time you expected to get to an area that seemed fairly close.  This isn’t necessarily a negative though (unless you foolishly visit in the dead of summer) because the more time spent here, the better, in my opinion.

Light is best in early morning, once the sun has broken over the Cottonwood range, but great sunsets can also be had here as well, just remember that the mountain range to the east is quite close to the playa, and actual evening light sets behind it earlier than you may anticipate.

And of course, night time shooting is excellent here.  During a new moon, you are far away enough from light pollution that the stars really stand out.  The Racetrack is perhaps one of the best places in Death Valley to photograph the night sky.

"Galaxis" - A shot of the Milky Way from the Racetrack about 1 hour before sunrise. © Mac Danzig

Getting there can be a bit of a struggle, depending on your vehicle and your patience for rough back-roads.  A high-clearance 4wd vehicle isn’t 100% necessary to get here, but having one will make your trip a lot more comfortable, safer and many times quicker.   Always carry a full-size spare, no matter what kind of car you take here.  The large, sharp natural gravel can flatten any tire, and in many areas of the road, there is no ideal place to pull-over and change a flat.

The Racetrack can be accessed from either the north or south, but the northern route is probably the best for most situations.

Coming from the north, you will pass Ubehebe Crater, (a half-mile wide volcanic crater that is estimated to be over 5000 years old) just before the road turns to dirt and becomes very rough and rocky.   Although not as immediately photogenic as you’d imagine, Ubehebe is definitely worth a stop to look at and experience.   On certain days, the wind at the top of the crater picks up so high that you can literally lean your entire body weight over the edge and be supported.

The first 30 miles or so to the track via Ubehebe is windy 1-lane gravel.  The last 4 miles before you reach the Playa turn from rocky to washboard… The kind of washboard road that will vibrate the eyes out of your head if you ride too fast on it.  This is another reason to have a vehicle with the kind of suspension that can handle these roads.

"Desert Floor" © Mac Danzig

Once you get there, my suggestion is to take a few moments to really absorb the atmosphere before you begin shooting.   There are 3 parking areas (north, middle and south) that have easy access to walk directly onto the playa.  Keep in mind that in order to find some good rock trails, you must be prepared to do some hiking out onto the lake bed.  There are no sign or trails, just a giant, wide-open playground with limitless photographic potential.




Sand Dunes

© Mac Danzig

There are three major groups of dunes in Death Valley:   Mesquite dunes (near Stovepipe Wells), Panamint dunes and Eureka Dunes.

By far the most accessible of the three is the Mesquite Dunes.  Unfortunately it’s also the most visited and therefore the most footprint-littered.   During the months of April/May and September, these dunes a lot of tourism.   Depending on recent wind and rain activity, you’ll sometimes have to hike quite a way during these peak months to find untouched sand, but it’s still an amazing location.  If you stop by here, you’ll be close to Stovepipe Wells, which contains a small convenience store, gift shop and over-priced gas, if you need it.

Regardless of the season or current wind conditions, it’s always a good idea to protect your equipment in the sand dunes.  There are only two times that I’ll put a uv filter on the front of my lens – shooting near splashing salt water, and shooting near large bodies of sand.    Hiking to find the right spot to shoot can take a long time and end up being more of a workout than you bargained for.   The soft sand is really hard to traverse and I’ve found myself and my gear submerged into the sand on more than one occasion.   Always keep what you’re not using zipped up in your bag.  Take great care when changing lenses – any stray grains of sand blown into the camera body can cause a post-processing nightmare.

The thermometer on my compass reads 111.4 F. This was during May right before sunset.

Hiking the dunes at night is an awesome experience.  Because of how disorienting an area like this can be, (especially at night) I always carry a GPS with me, even if there’s a full moon.  All these rolling hills can blend together and finding your way out can be real pain.

If you want a less-traveled location, check out either the Panamint Dunes or the Eureka Dunes on the North end of the Park.   If you are coming from Big Pine, CA, Eureka Dunes can be visited on the way to the Racetrack.  They are much larger and more interesting than the Mesquite Dunes, in my opinion.

"Moonlit Hourglass" © Mac Danzig




Furnace Creek and Vicinity

Furnace Creek, is pretty much the only “town” in Death Valley.   It includes a visitor’s center,  two campgrounds, the only two hotels in the entire National Park and the only real restaurant.   If you station yourself here, you’ll have relatively close access to the Badwater Salt Flats, the Devil’s Golf Course, Artist’s Pallette and Zabriskie Point.

© Mac Danzig

Zabriskie Point is an overlook area that also includes a primitive hikable trail system.   From the overlook you an see the salt flats as well as Wildrose Peak across the Badwater Valley.  It’s mostly a sunrise/early morning spot, but great shots can be had here at sunset and nighttime as well.   Don’t expect to have this place to yourself unless you go sometime during the off-season.

To see a panorama I made of Zabriskie Point hosted on Gigapan and gain a better idea of the view point, click here.

sunrise over Zabriskie Point © Mac Danzig


The Badwater Salt flats are one of the main attractions for people staying at Furnace Creek.  Badwater is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.  Most people visiting here will stop off at the parking lot with a little boardwalk.  I suggest driving a little further down and pulling off of the road to find some un-trampled areas of the flats.

"NaCl Earth" - Badwater Salt Flats © Mac Danzig


The Devil’s Golf Course is a rather unfortunately-named section of Badwater that is my personal recommendation as a must-see if you’re in the Furnace Creek area.    It’s a salt pan with huge, random, jagged formations of salt that formed when the body of water there evaporated.  (Much of Death Valley NP was underwater at one time and discoveries of fish fossils are still being unearthed at higher elevations in the park).     Seriously, be careful when you walk on this.  The floor here is sharp and not as brittle as you might think.  It would suck pretty bad to get cut open by a lump of serrated salt.

DGC can be an excellent evening location once the sun lowers behind the mountains, especially if there are good groups of clouds present to catch the light.  Sunrise of course lends itself to this location very well too.

"Salt and Storm" - Devil's Golf Course © Mac Danzig





Beside all of the ground-level geographic features, there are plenty of high-altitude overlooks spread throughout the park.  Many of the overlooks are truly amazing depending on what kind of light you have, but they are all very far from each other (Dante’s View, Augereberry Point, Telescope Peak, Father Crowley Point, etc)- Depending on how much time you have to spend, most likely you will only be able to get one or two of these in. Also, many times in DV, the light is hazy, even in early morning and late afternoon, so the lookout style points of interest may not end up being photogenic.

This is a telephoto view from Father Crowley Point, located on the eastern side of the park. From this vantage point, you are looking towards the West at Panamint Valley. Seen here is the snow-covered Panamint Range, 4000 feet above the arid Panamint Dunes below.

Dante’s View is a great early morning/sunrise location that looks northwest above the Badwater basin.  If you enter the park from the southwest, via 190 fwy, it’s easy to get to…  If you want to hike beyond the parking area here, you can go 4 miles one way to the Mt. Perry Summit, which is absolutely worth it, in my opinion.

Traveling through the Panamint mountain range gives some more opportunities for overlooks.  Telescope Peak is the highest point in the park and is accessed by a 14-mile round-trip hike starting at Mahogany Flat Campground.    In order to get up here, you’ll need a high clearance 4wd.  This entire area is really photogenic and includes the Wildrose charcoal kilns on the way up the mountain.  These are the best-preserved kilns in the west.   The road turns from paved to dirt a few miles before the kilns and once past the kilns, turns very steep and rocky.  Keep in mind that there is snow up here well into spring and the road isn’t really maintained.  This is a good opportunity to get a some shots of the charcoal kilns with snow covering them and chances are, you won’t see many other people.  These are best photographed in the early part of the day, because the sun washes out the sky from mid-day until evening when looking west here.

A quick snapshot of the Wildrose Charcoal kilns up in the Panamints.

Another overlook to check out if you’re in the Panamint range, near wildrose, is Aguereberry Point.   I’ve only ever been there in winter, where the unmaintained dirt access road was covered in snow, but even then, it wasn’t too treacherous.  From Aguereberry Point, you can see all the way across the west half Death Valley National Park.  The silence up here is beautiful and only occasionally broken by whistling wind.

On the way to Aguereberry Point (named after miner Pete Aguereberry) is the Eureka mine and remnants of Pete Aguereberry’s home.  Unfortunately, the Park service has deemed the mine unsafe recently and denied access to it, but hopefully some restoration will change that.  You can still have a look at the old house where Pete used to live as well as some other decaying remnants.

Eureka Mine © Mac Danzig




If you find yourself in the Panamint Valley or near Panamint Springs, Darwin Falls is a decent little spot to visit with a short hike through a wash to get there.  It is another prime example of the geological diversity in the area.  You’ll want a high clearance vehicle to get to the trailhead.  Keep in mind that during the summer months, the falls may be dry. (or so I’ve been told)

Darwin Falls © Mac Danzig

One example of the sporadic Death Valley weather was seen by me first hand one day in the winter.  It was warm in the Panamint Valley during the morning hours.   By mid-day, a strong storm came by and flooded the valley floor.  Extremely strong winds arrived afterward and created waves on the large pools of water that had been formed by the rain.

© Mac Danzig

By this time, the temperature had dropped almost 20 degrees even though the sun was still bright.

Unpredictable weather is a staple of Death Valley in the winter months.




Ghost Towns and mining remnants in the area

In addition to the Eureka Mine previously mentioned, are plenty of ghost towns (and pieces of ghost towns) scattered throughout the park here and there.  The ones worth visiting in my opinion are Ballarat and Panamint City (on the southeast side of the park) and Rhyolite- which lies in Nevada and is actually just outside the park boundaries on the Northwest side.    Rhyolite is a perfect location to stop by if you are coming from the 95 fwy and using Beatty junction to enter the park.  This old gold rush town is not hard to get to, and contains some of the most well preserved structures of any ghost town I’ve visited.   The now-deceased Cook Bank, who’s frame and foundation are made of cement, is still standing.  It’s roofless now and pieces keep coming down over the years, but the front wall should be there for a while unless there is some real seismic activity.

"Sundial" - the remnants of Cook Bank in Rhyolite, Nevada - © Mac Danzig

Rhyolite was a pretty happening place in it’s heyday.  If you’re familiar with ghosts towns, you’ll know that there isn’t much left of them in most cases, so this old place is a welcomed change.  There is also a cemetery near by which has quite a few old grave sites.

If you happen to be heading from Rhyolite towards the Racetrack, or even Stovepipe Wells and you have a good high clearance vehicle (and extra time), try taking Titus Canyon- just west of Rhyolite.  It’s a beautiful drive and will lead you through the grapevine mountains just after passing the ghost town of Leadfield.  This will take quite some time, so plan accordingly.





Animals are often hard to come by in DVNP, but a little time spent in the park should reveal a few of the park’s more visible creatures.  There are plenty of native animals that have eluded me, but one has to remember that Death Valley and the desert in general does not harbor many creatures who make their living grazing out in the open.

© Mac Danzig

Still, you are sure to come across wildlife in many different parts of  the Park if you’re willing to spend some time searching.  I personally wouldn’t plan a photography trip to Death Valley for wildlife alone, but it’s a great idea to bring the telephoto and keep it handy.

Burro family seen near Surprise Canyon © Mac Danzig

Wild Burros can be seen throughout the eastern side of the park and if you hike into the mountains, you just might come across some Bighorn Sheep.

Bighorn Ewe in Happy Canyon near the trailhead to the ghost town of Panamint City © Mac Danzig



If you haven’t been yet, hopefully you’ve now gained a better idea of what you can do here.  If you’ve already visited, maybe this will spark your interest to return.

I personally cannot imagine my photography portfolio without this place and I owe much of the experience I’ve gained to it.

As far as I’m concerned, there is no place like it on earth.


Below is a map of the area I’ve made with placemarks that correspond with this article’s featured spots.
View Death Valley Photography spots in a larger map.


I plan on hosting a few photography workshops in the near future at Death Valley, with an emphasis on night time long exposures.  Please check back on the blog in early 2010 for updates and schedule.



Thanks for reading.