Against the Traffic: Eureka Dunes, Death Valley

It rises as the tallest dunes in California and perhaps North America.

The Eureka Dunes lie in the remote Eureka Valley, an enclosed basin at 3000 foot elevation located northwest of Death Valley. They rise nearly 700 feet and stretch 3 miles long and 1 mile wide. They are magnificent in their solitude and pristine beauty. There is nothing in this valley! There are no distant lights or towns, no gas stations or convenience stores. Civilization is pretty much left behind. You are on your own! Amazing!!!! The silence is palpable. Surrounding the dunes are the limestone walls of  The Last Chance Mountains rising another 4000 feet. Quite something to behold.

 You will be traveling on a gravel road in Eureka Valley (which connects to a road running from Big Pine to the Grapevine section of Death Valley). This is where it helps to have your high clearance vehicle. No off-roading is permitted anywhere in the park, but the going can be tough. It is probably a good idea to travel with someone who can offer a helping hand if need be.

 The parking area at the foot of the dunes is adjacent to a meager campsite with Spartan facilities. So, bring with you everything that you need for the day. And as a follow-up suggestion, when you get hiking into the dunes, bring everything that you need by way of your camera equipment, as the walking is tough and returning to your vehicle may not be the best physical or time-management choice under the circumstances.

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 A couple of tips: Bring and drink plenty of water; apply sun-block and wear protective gear; wear good sturdy boots or shoes; please consider the eye cup that I recommended in my previous post PREPARING FOR DEATH VALLEY (the glare makes it extremely hard to see what you are doing, otherwise); and if you are considering the use of more than one lens, I strongly recommend you attach that extra lens to a second camera body as this is the last place you want to switch lenses out. You might remember that in my post  THE ROAD FROM SAN QUIRICO TO PIENZA  I discussed the hazards of this exercise due to the drifting air particles and such in Tuscany. At least under those circumstances, you could make your way back to your vehicle. You probably won’t have the same luxury once on the dunes.

Be patient and wait for the light. Tonight we head to Stovepipe Wells where we will bunk for the rest of the week.

 Happy Shooting!

Against the Traffic: Preparing for Death Valley

Getting ready for your trip into Death Valley is no simple matter. It requires careful thought and preparation.  Our first stop will be to Eureka Dunes, but we need to be on top of our game. There are plenty of good reasons. Death Valley is no simple jaunt to your neighbor’s garden party!


Death Valley is located in Eastern California and situated within the Mojave Desert. It is the lowest and driest area in North America. It holds the record for the highest reliably recorded air temperature on earth (134 °F (56.7 °C) at Furnace Creek on July 10, 1913). The previously-claimed world record air temperature, 136 °F (57.8 °C) was in Libya. Badwater Basin, which will be another of our stops, is the point of the lowest elevation in North America at 282 feet (86 m) below sea level. This point is only 84.6 miles (136.2 km) east-southeast of Mt. Whitney  (which was briefly mentioned in my previous post) and is the highest point in the contiguous United States with an elevation of 14,505 feet (4,421 m).


You may want to rent a high clearance vehicle. Be sure your rental car has a good spare tire. I know that when I first landed at the airport in Las Vegas and went to select my vehicle, I was so anxious to get on the road that I didn’t give as much thought to the process as I should have. Fortunately, my Jeep withstood the punishment meted out. The last 10 miles into Eureka Dunes are very rough; there is essentially no cell-phone service; no service stations for many many miles; you may drive for long stretches and never see another vehicle; you are pretty much on your own so give yourself the best chance to avoid chaos.

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Camera Equipment you will need includes but is not limited to: a backup camera body (always a good idea, but a must if you intend to use a second lens),  your camera manual, spare batteries, extra flash cards, a tripod and a polarizing filter. You may want a headlamp (exceptionally handy for your early morning shoots). I was introduced to a rubber eyepiece cup (only around $10) which clips over your LED and makes viewing under glare conditions so much more manageable. It has become an indispensible part of my travel pack.


Field Equipment suggested includes sunglasses, sunscreen, water bottles (2 quarts minimum; you should drink about 1 gallon/day to avoid dehydration), any food or meds that you might need that day (I always pack several energy bars and fruit for snacks), and extra layers of clothing.  You will need a lightweight pack to hold your field gear. 


Clothing.  Typical temperatures will range from possibly below freezing (it can be as much as 25 degrees colder than the valley at 5500 feet in the early morning wind at Dante’s View, (another of our locations), to an average daily maximum of 72-80 F and an average daily minimum of 46-53 F in Death Valley in late February.  Dressing in layers will allow you to adjust to a wide range of conditions.  I suggest a fleece jacket (or two), a fleece vest, gloves (see prior post), a warm hat, a sun hat, lightweight, loose fitting long pants and long-sleeved shirt, light hiking boots and hiking socks, and a parka or windbreaker that can fit over all your layers. Long underwear for early morning and high altitudes is a good idea.


Some stray tips. The park service provides a helpful Morning Report which has the daily weather forecast, yesterday’s temperatures and current road conditions; Death Valley National Park’s seasonal newspaper will help you make the most of your visit, and if you are without prior knowledge of the area or are not travelling without someone familiar with Death Valley, you can enhance your experience of Death Valley by joining a ranger guided tour.



OK OK! I know you are anxious to get out there and burn some gigs, so saddle up pardner as we are pulling up to Eureka Dunes! Yeehah!



Happy Shooting!


Against the Traffic: Alabama Hills, California (the iconic western movie set)

The Alabama Hills are located just west of Lone Pine, California and easily accessible. Lest you think your humble reporter has just discovered them, they have been used for many years to represent the iconic American West. Nearly 400 films have been shot here. The list of famous directors and actors that have been a part of this ongoing set is just too long. Just to names a few: directors William Wyler, John Ford, George Stephens and William Wellman; and actors John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, Barbara Stanwyck and Jeff Bridges.

High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart, culminates with a shoot-out between Bogart’s character and the police at the foot of Mt. Whitney. The 1955 classic Bad Day at Badrock starring Spencer Tracy and Anne Francis was also filmed in and around the Lone Pine area. The first Lone Ranger ambush was filmed here, and it was here that Roy Rogers found Trigger. I could go on and on.

It is no accident that these hills have been chosen time and time again to produce so many films. Mother Nature has much to do with this. Geologically speaking:

      “The high and low temperatures of the Sierra, and the freezing, expanding, and thawing of rain and snowmelt created the “chiseled”   splintering of their granite. But down in the relatively moist and soil-covered region of the Alabamas, this process did not occur. Instead, the soil gradually eroded away, exposing the oddly-shaped piles of boulders that stand here today. There are two main types of rock exposed at Alabama Hills. One is an orange, drab weathered metamorphosed volcanic rock that is 150-200 million years old. The other type of rock exposed here is 82-85 million year old biotite monzogranite which weathers to potato-shaped large boulders, many of which stand on end due to spheroidal weathering acting on many nearly vertical joints in the rock.”

There are dozens of natural arches, always a sucker shot for those of us bitten by the camera bug, easily accessible by short hikes. Among the notable features of the area are: Mobius Arch, Lathe Arch, the Eye of Alabama and Whitney Portal Arch.

Typical of landscape photographic technique, I strongly recommend three things.

1.  The use of your tripod is critical! If you are not comfortable with its use, get comfortable! Practice with it before you go out to shoot, or when you have time to dawdle away. It can get finger-numbingly cold out there. That is NOT the time to figure which end is up.

2.     Bring gloves that you can shoot with. There are a variety of gloves that work well for photographers. I found that the gloves that work best for me allows you to free your finger tips while allowing you to access your camera’s controls. Shop around. As usual, B & H is a good place to start.

3.     Be prepared to shoot early and grab the glow that only the first light can give you. It doesn’t last long, so get out there, set up and get to work. The late afternoon also provides beautiful long and warm shadows. Sleep is merely an illusion.

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If you are staying in Lone Pine, you will get a kick out of the western motifs. Movie paraphernalia is everywhere in celebration of this fantastic location. Get some sleep, as tomorrow we head down to Death Valley to shoot Eureka Dunes!


Happy Shooting!

Rich Smukler

Against the Traffic: From Lone Pine to Death Valley, California

Lone Pine, California is a sleepy little town. For me it was a great jumping off spot for my journey into Death Valley. Before your trip into the park, do not miss Alabama Hills which is the subject of my next post. But first, let’s discuss Lone Pine.

It is located 16 miles (26 km) south-southeast of Independence, California at an elevation of 3727 feet. The town is located in the Owens Valley near the Alabama Hills. Since Death Valley is unbearable in the dead of summer, February was selected for this photographic adventure. Lone Pine and most of the Owens Valley have a high desert climate characterized by hot summers and cold winters. January temperatures range from the middle fifties to upper twenties. This information is critical in your preparation as you may be shooting in near freezing conditions, extremely warm conditions, early dawn and evening shoots as well extremely challenging high sun glare shoots, especially once you reach the dunes of Death Valley.

The town is small and quiet and provides ample affordable housing and restaurants. There are drugstores, markets, clothing stores, gas stations, etc. for provisions that might be needed.


I landed in Las Vegas and drove across the Amargosa Valley, through Death Valley and eventually arrived in Lone Pine some 5 hours later (approximately 240 miles). May I recommend that you rent as sturdy a vehicle with as high a clearance as possible. Some of the roads you will be taking once you are exploring the park can be extremely challenging. There are some locations where you will be without cell-phone service and with no AAA or gas stations for miles. Make sure to carry plenty of drinking water and snacks. Clothing should be carried to provide for extremely varying temperatures. Sturdy boots or walking gear a must. Sun glasses, sun block, compass, road maps and full camera gear should be carefully considered.

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If you are coming from the Los Angeles area, the trip is about 4 hours north on US 395.

Before our venture into the Alabama Hills, there are a couple of sites in and around Lone Pine that you might want to consider. Mount Whitney is the highest summit in the contiguous United States with an elevation of  4,505 feet (4,421 m). I am contemplating this as a future photographic adventure. Though only about 23 miles on US 395 S or 16 miles on Whitney Portal Road, the trip will still take about 1 hour 15 minutes as the roads are rough. It is home to the Lone Pine Film Festival, each October. This small, high desert community has much to offer. I will discuss more about the film festival in conjunction with The Alabama Hills as that is where most of the films were shot.

Down the road from Lone Pine is the National Historic Site of Mazanar. The somber, skeletal remains of Manzanar remind us of a shameful chapter During World War II. “Tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans were forcefully deported to various relocation camps throughout the nation.” During my stay in Lone Pine I observed many Japanese-Americans who had come to pay their respects. I personally visited Mazanar with the thoughts of capturing some interesting images, but found the site unyielding for me on that day. Perhaps I wasn’t seeing particularly well. Sometimes it just happens that way.

The Sierra Nevadas loom in the background and I was able to capture “Sierra Nevadas” which was one of my favorite images on The Road to Death Valley.

Let’s get to bed early as  tomorrow we will beat the dawn on our way to The Alabama Hills.


Happy Shooting

Rich Smukler