Death Valley National Park Photo Essay

Kicking up dust on Saline Valley Road.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” –Psalm 23

Whether this well-known Bible passage provided the inspiration for Death Valley’s ominous name is uncertain, but credit is given to pioneers who got lost there during the winter of 1849-50. As their food supplies dwindled, they assumed none would get out alive. Two young men eventually found an escape route over the Panamint Mountains, and as the party climbed out of the valley one of them turned, looked back and said “Goodbye, Death Valley.”

Sitting in the rain shadow of the towering Sierra Nevada and Panamint Mountains, Death Valley is one of the driest, hottest and lowest places on Earth. Average annual rainfall is just 2.4 inches. The world’s highest temperature — 134.1 degrees Fahrenheit — was recorded there on July 10, 1913, and, at an average of 107.2 degrees, July 2017 in Death Valley was the hottest month anywhere on Earth since records began in 1911. In the heart of the valley is Badwater Basin, which at 282 feet below sea level is the second-lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere. (The highest point in the lower 48 states, 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, is just 85 miles to the northwest.)

Despite such extremes, Death Valley is a beautiful, mysterious place. Occupying 5,262 square miles along the border of California and Nevada, Death Valley National Park encompasses mountain ranges and valleys, badlands, sand dunes, geologic formations, abandoned mines, historic sites and other wonders both natural and man-made. In the spring, after what little rain the area gets will have fallen over the winter, it comes alive with colorful wildflowers. Although visiting during the hot summer months is not advisable, Death Valley is an ideal motorcycling destination, with hundreds of miles of paved roads, improved dirt roads and unmaintained 4×4 roads.

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This collection of photos comes courtesy of Peter Neuper, a motorcycle and photography enthusiast who brought his Leica M Typ 240 full-frame mirrorless camera with a Super-Elmar-M 21mm f/3.4 ASPH lens on a buddy trip to Death Valley. Four of us — Peter, Paul Beck, Marten Walkker and myself — spent a couple days exploring the national park’s unpaved backcountry roads. 

DEATH VALLEY

The sunbaked ruins of an old mine on Hunter Mountain Road. Photos by Peter Neuper.
Off Emigrant Canyon Road, a scenic paved road that connects State Route 190 to Wildrose Canyon Road via 5,318-foot Emigrant Pass, is a rugged dirt road that leads to Skidoo, the site of a gold-mining boom town that flourished in the early 1900s.
On the 20-mile gravel road to the Racetrack — which is often so washboarded it will rattle your fillings loose — is Teakettle Junction, its sign adorned with dozens of teakettles decorated with names, dates and messages left by visitors from all over the world.
Through a slow process involving rain, wind and freezing and melting ice, rocks that tumble down from the surrounding mountains move across the Racetrack playa, leaving long trails in their wake.
Riding among the multi-colored rocks and sands of Titanothere Canyon on Titus Canyon Road, a 27-mile, one-way backcountry road that climbs over 5,250-foot Red Pass, goes through the ghost town of Leadfield and threads through the Titus Canyon Narrows, which are less than 20 feet apart in some places.
According to a National Park Service sign, Skidoo was originally named “23 Skidoo,” an early 20th-century slang term that meant “go away,” but the postal service refused to accept “23” as part of the name. Nothing remains of the town except small bits of rusted metal and broken glass scattered on the ground, but if you take Skidoo Road to the end you’ll see the ruins of a stamp mill that was used to crush ore clinging to the side of the mountain.
Just east of Death Valley National Park, on Nevada Route 374 near the town of Beatty, is Rhyolite, a ghost town named after a type of volcanic rock. Established in 1905 as a gold-rush mining camp, by 1907 it boasted a hospital, an opera house and even its own stock exchange. The mine closed in 1911 and the town was all but abandoned by 1920. This is what remains of the John S. Cook and Co. Bank on Golden Street.
A stone’s throw from Rhyolite is the Goldwell Open Air Museum, an outdoor sculpture garden and artists’ enclave. Inspired by Leondaro Da Vinci’s painting of the same name, Albert Szukalski’s sculpture of life-sized ghosts is called “The Last Supper.”
From the saddle of his BMW HP2, Peter stops to take a photo of the weathered sign at the beginning of Lippincott Road, just a few miles south of the Racetrack, which descends 2,000 feet in just a few miles. Despite the warning that high-clearance 4×4 vehicles are required and no tow service is available, clueless drivers occasionally attempt to drive down the steep, rocky road in their cars. The technical track will keep even experienced ADV riders on their toes.
Photographer Peter Neuper near South Pass, overlooking the Panamint Dunes and Panamint Mountains. Right: Rising up out of the billiard-table-flat Racetrack playa is the Grandstand, a large outcropping of dark dolomite. 
Rising up out of the billiard-table-flat Racetrack playa is the Grandstand, a large outcropping of dark dolomite. 
With its blinding white sand, desolate salt flats, bone-dry humidity and brain-baking midday temperatures, Death Valley can be a stark, forbidding place. During the summer months, the National Park Service issues stern warnings about extreme heat, the risks of dehydration and flash floods, and then there are the rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widow spiders and hantavirus-carrying rodents lurking in the shadows. But if you use common sense, are prepared for the conditions and travel during cooler months, then Death Valley is much more inviting. The magic really happens at sunrise and sunset, when the temperature drops and the sun is lower in the sky, creating a kaleidoscope of colors. Peter awoke before dawn to capture this photo of his campsite at Panamint Springs. 

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