Trip Report: Winter Desertscapes of Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks – December 2021

Last fall, when I received the news that my November Botswana departure would again have to be postponed due to COVID effecting international travel, I was disappointed and also concerned that I would be on such a long off-period. But, the amazing leadership at Backcountry Journeys quickly came up with an amazing alternative to keep me in the field. They put together a special departure to two of America’s most beautiful desert landscapes, creating a brand new itinerary through the incomparable Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks. Both of these national parks are known for their intense climates during the summer months, with temperatures in Death Valley regularly exceeding 120 degrees Fahrenheit. But during the winter, these parks experience sub freezing temperatures at night and comfortable mid 50’s during the day. This trip presented an opportunity to explore these desert landscapes free from concerns of intense heat and to see just what happens in some of the hottest parts of the world during the winter months.

This new itinerary would have us beginning our adventure in Las Vegas, then driving into Death Valley where we would spend the next four days exploring the salt basins, sand dunes, and 8,000 foot peaks that surround the lowest point in North America that is Badwater Basin. Though the name is as foreboding as they come, Death Valley is a place of immense scale and beauty, a place where extreme climates clash with a barren landscape colored by an array of minerals and compounds, devoid of plant life and exposed. The park is like an enormous time capsule, where one can observe the powers of tectonic movement, erosion, and the effects of one of the most extreme climates on Earth. It is also a place I hold a special connection with. Almost twelve years ago, I visited Death Valley for the first time to film a portion of my senior thesis film during my final year of university. Shot on 16mm film using a Canon Scoopic motion picture camera manufactured in 1974, the movie was an introspective exposé on the challenges of leaving family behind to pursue one’s dreams.

Death Valley made for the perfect backdrop, a place of beauty and despair where miners once toiled against the intense desert heat to extract precious minerals from the earth. And so during my three days of scouting in preparation for the BCJ Winter Desertscapes tour, as I explored the salt pans and sand dunes of my memories, it was an experience of deep nostalgia, reflecting on my own journey since I first visited the park to make my film. It was much as I remembered, and the entirety of the trip was an experience of bittersweet joy. And to be able to guide a group of equally passionate nature photographers through the desert was equally rewarding.

Our initial departure into Death Valley was marked with serendipitous omens in the form of rainbows arcing over the badlands of the park and the desert between Las Vegas and Death Valley. It is a rare sight to see rainbows in such an arid region. On a typical year, Death Valley only receives two inches of rain. But, in keeping form with the last few years, we would experience the unexpected in the form of an intense desert thunderstorm that completely transformed the landscape overnight. It hit in the early evening of the second night while we were on our way to dinner. Thunder and lightening crashed, illuminated the landscape as rain and high winds moved sand and gravel as if it weighed nothing at all. We scampered into our restaurant, trying to avoid the soaking rain as best we could. After our meal, we reemerged to find the storm gone and moonlight seeping through the clouds. But, flash floods had raced down the slopes as water surged into the basin carrying with it rivers of rocks and sand. The road home was more of a suggested path, as thick veins of earth and rock now covered large portions of the road.

We awoke the next morning to find a lake where Cottonball Basin had been and the high peaks around the basin covered in a new layer of thick snow. The transfiguration of the park forced some improvisation in our schedule, as much of the basin areas were flooded and the high altitude view points were closed due to heavy snow. But, we found new ways of seeing and photographing this beautiful park, seeking out reflections in the salt pans of Badwater Basin and shiny mud tiles, still holding their form but glistening in the sunlight.

After our four days in Death Valley, we loaded up and made the drive south to Joshua Tree National Park, crossing a vast region of the Mojave Desert to get there. We would have two and half days to explore the comparatively much smaller but starkly different national park that is Joshua Tree. Here, instead of a lifeless moonscape, desert plant and animal life abounds. Named for the enormous succulents known as Joshua Trees, the park is alien in appearance, but marked by the strange forms of cacti, yucca, and the ever growing, ever twisting forms of the Joshua Trees themselves. Joshua Tree is also a place of deep spirituality, revered by Native Americans, European settlers, and modern Americans like the late Gram Parsons. I ascribe this partly to the eery rock formations that exist here, enormous mounds of cavernous granite that take on the forms of skulls, animals, and otherworldly spirits. Eyes seem to be peering at you from every direction, partly obscured by the twisting forms of the desert plants. It can also seem like every living thing in Joshua Tree is trying to stab with you with spines and thorns, natural defense mechanisms evolved over the ages by desert plants to protect their delicate flesh from ravenous animals.

During our time in Joshua Tree, we explored some of its most famous rock formations, such as Skull Rock, Balanced Rock, The Rock Arch, and the Balanced Rock at Ryan Ranch. The low hanging desert sun illuminated these strange forms in warm light, basking them in an orange glow. We would see no more rainbows, and precious few clouds in Joshua Tree, but the opportunity to explore two desert landscapes as starkly different as Death Valley and Joshua Tree provided a deep look into the diversity of arid climates, how they can be either barren and exposed or full of desert life.

For our group, this was a trip of incredible conditions that may happen only every few decades. And we were there to see it, the flash flood that the National Park Service took to calling The Weather Event of December 15, 2021. The storm wiped the landscape clean of signs of human visitors, exposing to us a pristine landscape, different than how we had imagined it, but beautiful in some of the most unexpected of ways.

 

Ben Blankenship

Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See his most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com

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