Sunrise at Zabriskie Point

It’s in the visitor guide for Death Valley National Park: Zabriskie Point is “a spectacular spot for sunrise” — one really does have to experience it at least once… even if it means pretty much guaranteed crowds on the Sunday morning of a long weekend. :)

The 35 minute drive from our room in Stovepipe Wells to Zabriskie Point made this doable for us without too much of a struggle. In the evening, we had already prepared all of our gear, clothes, and also food for a nearby hike we wanted to do later, so we energetically hopped out of bed at 5:20 AM, into our clothes, and after brewing a cup of hot coffee with the little coffee maker in the room, we were on the way! Okay, maybe the out-of-bed-hopping wasn’t that energetic…

Zabriskie Point was pretty busy already when we arrived, and the marked spots in the parking lot were almost taken. We made our way up to the vista point proper on the paved access trail, braving absolutely frigid temperatures, below 45°F (7°C) if I recall. I was wearing my warm jacket, scarf, and beanie. Why do these temperatures feel so very cold in the desert? How did I survive winters in Germany in the past?! I do not know. Just like I do not know why there were also people in shorts! 🥶

The amount of people without tripods was actually inspiring: most really seemed to come to experience just the sunrise. I liked how nature, grand landscapes and sunrises can get so many people out of bed very early. Photographers with tripods were a minority; I’d say 20-25 out of perhaps 100 people total.

I’m not a fan of the typically rather static photography, standing in a single spot and waiting for light and things to happen. I like to be on the move, but Zabriskie Point is not exactly big. The views itself are somewhat restricted, on the left by the Black Mountains, and on the right by Red Cathedral.

I still came away with way too many exposures — over 40, in this case! After some serious culling, I realized that I could put together a combination of images that would show some of the place and also tell a story of how the light generally progresses there… and what it instead did, on the morning we were there! 😊

First, here’s a photo from the area just below the paved vista point. (This is where everyone goes, and most people stay there.) In this photo, the badlands are entirely in cool shade, and indirect light from the twilight sky begins to illuminate the Panamint Range in the distance, and just begins to show on the brown hills on the left.

I’m not overly thrilled with this photo and cropped back and forth like a million times before settling on a square that uses only the left side of the original frame, leaving out the badlands on the right which didn’t have the same amount of weight in the frame, and thus felt too light and “empty” despite the rich detail.

But, since I’m such a rebel 😅 I couldn’t stay at this sole spot with everyone else, of course. I walked back a little bit, away from the vista point itself, and set up my camera along the short (also paved) access trail instead, where I’d be able to include some different foreground together with Manly Beacon*:

The twilight glow was nice at this point and it didn’t seem like much more would be happening soon so I thought — why not go a little wider? I changed the camera to a vertical position and made nine exposures to get this final result. If you’re on a desktop/big screen, give it a click to open it larger. (on your photo, rotate into horizontal orientation perhaps.)

Some clouds were moving in at that point, which normally would have been nice, but they were a bit too late and changed quickly, with only limited light and color on them. To get what little was there into the frame, I included the formation that is known as Red Cathedral. This would perhaps have been the better sky for a panorama, but you can see that the twilight glow on the badlands had pretty much vanished. This is the normal progression of light — twilight glow and colorful clouds just don’t appear together.

It would still take the sun a few more minutes to begin lighting up the Panamint Range directly. I walked over to the other side of the vista point and focused on some of the very colorful and complex ridges of the badlands above Gower Gulch, with a longer lens. I quite like this frame, and also included it in my Malpais portfolio.

The impressive Manly Beacon itself deserved a closer frame too — I should have done that one as early as possible to have the short-lived twilight glow on the land, but at least the light was still even. ;)

And then, the praised moment that everyone is waiting for: direct sunlight on the Panamint Range begins to illuminate the peaks and then slowly flows down to fill the basin.

From a photography perspective, I found this to be not very desirable, actually: the clouds are already fully lit at this point, while the badlands and Manly Beacon are still in the shade. In my photo, the clouds are actually shaded by other clouds, further east, that began to partially block the sun:

These blocking clouds created a condition that led to perhaps the most interesting photo of the morning: a stripe of only slightly cloud-filtered direct sunlight momentarily fell onto Manly Beacon, while the distant Panamint Range was almost fully shaded. The other thing that I like about this photo are the two hikers that appear on the ridge center left, providing an excellent sense of scale to the landscape! Can you see them? :)

More clouds began to move in and it was getting more and more overcast. We went back down the hill and drove the short distance over to Desolation Canyon for a nice hike in more of the colorful badlands.

*) Manly Beacon is named for William Lewis Manly, famous together with John Haney Rogers, for saving a group of Midwest emigrants on the way to California’s gold fields when they got stuck at “Bennett’s Long Camp” at Badwater Basin. The story is described on State Registered Landmark 444 along West Side Road.

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Next: Middle Basin Morning

14 thoughts on “Sunrise at Zabriskie Point”

  1. I would like to go here someday. I was in DV as a kid, but not since. It isn’t hard to see why there are crowds and its become so popular – it’s beautiful. I might even enjoy the rather balmy 7°C morning temps. :) The last frame with Manly Beacon (and for some reason I kept reading Manly *Bacon* throughout this post) would become my favorite as well.

  2. Wonderful collection of photos, Alex. Interesting to see how different details emerge in the shifting light.

  3. An interesting story of one particular morning and a good reminder that every day brings different challenges and opportunities. Joe and I were there but not for sunrise. I walked around a lot, too, of course, and also enjoyed the details of certain colorful areas. I like the way you told the story and showed the progression of light in the photos. The first one really appeals to me and the last one is a beauty! (They all are – there’s a nice quality of velvety softness to the rock) I wouldn’t have seen the hikers – what a sense of scale they add! (And the folks in shorts must be from the PNW – there are always guys wandering around downtown Seattle in shorts in snowstorms).

    • Haha! I’ve once read about Londoners and how they break out the short sleeves and shorts as soon as the rain stops. Sounds similar!

      The velvety softness of the colorful badlands is what I find very appealing, everywhere I see them… of course it’s nothing like that, up close…

  4. Danke fürs Mitnehmen! Übrewältigende Landschaft. Bei der Musik denk ich dabei aber definitiv an eune klassische Symphonie.


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