Whether you visit in the summer or the winter, for sunrise or sunset, Death Valley National Park will blow you away. There is a reason that the (temperature) hottest place in America is so (popular) hot, and it's not because of the heat. Living in Las Vegas, we are about 2-3 hours from the park, depending on what area we want to check out, which means that day trips are the way to go, but multi-day trips will give you even more time to explore this massive park.
From the salt flats at Badwater Basin (the lowest point in elevation in North America), to the Mesquite flats sand dunes, you will never be bored with the views Death Valley has to offer. Our first day trip to Death Valley was to check out the salt flats at Bad Water, and it is still one of my favorite days ever. We got up at 2 in the morning to make it there before sunrise. This was important because we went in July, and wanted to get out of the park before 10am when the temperatures got too hot.
The crazy thing about the summer at Death Valley is that when it's 2am, it's still 95 degrees out so you don't have to bother bringing jackets, and the heat doesn't really pick up till 10am when the sun gets higher in the sky. We had an amazing morning, and had the entire park to ourselves. We only saw maybe one or two cars the entire day, and when we were at Badwater, saw absolutely no one. We had the entire salt flats to ourselves from sunrise till the time we left a few hours later. This gave us the chance to shoot pictures in any direction we could dream of and not have to worry about getting any photo-bombers in the back.
The salt flats are seriously SO FREAKING COOL! The beautiful white ground with nothing else in sight for miles, except the distant mountains makes for such a unique and breathtaking spot for pictures. The name "badwater" comes from the spring-fed pool that has undrinkable water due to the salty surrounding basin. Depending on how far from the parking lot you walk and how many tourists have been there before you, the salt crust that covers the ground can be seen in these really cool hexagonal honeycomb shapes.
After spending a few hours hanging out at the salt flats, we headed up to Dante's View, which is also one of the top places to watch the sunrise in Death Valley and overlooks the Death Valley Basin. The drive up from badwater to Dante's is actually quite a climb in elevation, going from below sea level to over 5,400 ft. It was especially cool to be able to look down over badwater basin and point to where we just were! For the purpose of taking pictures, Dante's view is much better photographed in the morning or evening when the light is much more even and soft, but in terms of catching a spectacular view, Dante's is gorgeous at any time in any light.
Another cool part of Death Valley is the long and never ending roads in the middle of nowhere that make for some pretty great pictures. We were lucky to be in the park when no one else was, so we had the view points AND the roads all to ourselves. Also, we made sure to be far away from any turns or dips in the road where someone driving wouldn't be able to see us.
After our first Death Valley trip we had been drying to get back and the next time decided to catch the sunset at the mesquite flat sand dunes. We went in early march and were blessed with absolutely amazing weather. It had been raining on most of our drive from Las Vegas, but right when we got past Beatty and headed into the park, we were clear of the rain and the sand dunes were shaded by beautiful clouds that made for the most spectacular sunset. The weather was superb, I didn't even need a light jacket until the sun had completely wet. Here are some of my favorite sunset and post-sunset pics from that evening. If these don't inspire you to check out this freaking cool park right away, I don't know what will. It's definitely worth it because it offers something for everyone. The best part is that this park is worth visiting even if you don't hike or backpack. Other national parks are way cooler for those to camp and backpack to get off the roads and into the wilderness. This park, while offering amazing hiking, still offers amazing views for those who don't stray too far from their cars while in national parks.
The sand dunes are definitely a spot you don't want to miss out on seeing if you make your way to Death Valley. I can't say what the temperature of the sand is during the mid-summer months (I've heard it gets to be scorching), but in March it was just perfect. The sunset was so pretty to see from such a cool spot, and we were definitely not the only people who had that idea. The parking lot was packed, and the dunes were buzzing with people all playing around and catching the sunset on a perfect day. The great thing about the sand dunes is that all we had to do to get some privacy was just keep walking a little farther, and were able to enjoy the dunes as if we had them to ourselves.
One of my favorite parts is that the color of this sand is absolutely perfect for pictures. The yellow tint against the blue mountains and sky is such a complementary color palate for pictures. Don't get me wrong, white dunes and pink dunes are beautiful, but nothing complements skin color the way a nice warm background does. The clouds right after the sunset were such a cool dark blue and just made for such a cool contrast against the barren looking sand of the desert. I absolutely love when it rains in the desert and hope to catch these dunes during the rain sometime!
We stayed around after sunset to try and take pictures of the stars. Death Valley is such a great place to see the stars because you are so far from civilization that the light pollution is next to nothing out there, and you can actually see the milky way with your bare eyes. The moon was at a small waning crescent that night which made for great lighting to see the stars, but clouds were a worry. You can't see or take pictures of the stars if the clouds cover all of them... But we got lucky because right where the milky way is, the clouds were not. Using a tripod and bulb mode, we were able to get some shots of the stars with minimal cloud blockage. This bad boy was taken with approximately a 30 second exposure.
I hope I inspired you to get on the road and check out this massive desert treasure, because it's something people travel from all over the world to see.