Death Valley Report Part 2: Badwater Basin

January 30, 2022  |  Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California

I'm still going through photos from my recent trip to Death Valley National Park. It was a whirlwind trip, only spending four days in the park, but I had a chance to see some truly amazing sights. Last week, I highlighted my visit to Zabriskie Point, so today I thought I'd tell you about another spot in Death Valley that I found fascinating: Badwater Basin.

Sunset at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park.

Badwater Sunset

The sun dips behind Telescope Peak as the salt flats in Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park catch the last light of the day.

Badwater Basin is an endorheic basin in Death Valley. An endorheic basin is one that collects water but has no outflow to other bodies of water. These can form some of the largest lakes in the world, such as the Caspian Sea. Badwater Basin features a spring-fed pool, located near the road that passes the site. The accumulated salts in the basin make the water undrinkable, earning it it's name. As you walk out onto the salt flats, you'll notice ridges that form polygonal shapes on the surface of the dried mud. These shapes form through the repeated cycle of freezing, thawing, and evaporation that pushes the salt crystals into these forms.

I was in Death Valley photographing with my friend Kristen Wilkinson, and we decided our first visit to Badwater Basin would be for sunset photographs. We wanted to be able to see where we were going the first time out there, to get familiar with the area before the light went down. I determined the sun was going to set over the left shoulder of Telescope Peak, the highest peak of the Panamint Mountain Range and highest point in Death Valley National Park. It seemed a bit ironic that we were seeing it while standing in the lowest point of the park. Once I determined that I decided to wait for the sun to start to slide behind the mountains, and made Badwater Sunset, above.

A pink sky glows in the pre-dawn twilight at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park.

Badwater Twilight

The lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park is home to 200 square miles of salt flats. Telescope Peak dominates the landscape to the west.

I quickly became enamored of the different shapes the salt crystals made, and also loved the mountains that created the backgrounds for my photographs. With that in mind, I began looking for interesting shapes I could place in front of the mountains. After the sun sank lower behind the mountains, I waited for the sky to turn a warm pink tone and made "Badwater Twilight".

A starry sky above Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park.

Celestial Basin

Limited Edition

The incredible beauty of the night sky is on full display as Jupiter descends toward the horizon and stars begin to shine just after twilight in Badwater Basin. The pyramid of light you see is known as Zodiacal Light, a stunning phenomenon that is the result of sunlight reflecting off cosmic dust orbiting in the solar system. Badwater Basin is a vast salt flat that lies 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley National Park, and is characterized by the mesmerizing polygonal patterns created by groundwater rising up through the salt and evaporating. This is a limited edition of 100 prints and includes signed certificate of authenticity.

Landscape photography is a funny thing. Most of the time, landscape photographers want interesting skies with lots of interesting clouds. This first sunset at Badwater Basin, we had clear skies, which normally would annoy me, but trying to compose photographs with the patterns in the foreground and the mountains in the background meant I could minimize the sky so it didn't matter much.

One time photographers LOVE clear skies is when trying to photograph the stars above a landscape. Death Valley National Park is a dark sky park, meaning there is little to no light pollution and the land is protected for scientific, natural, educational, or cultural value, or set aside for recreational purposes. With the skies being clear, Kristen and I decided to stick around a bit and make sure we got some night skies. It's still a bit too early in the year to see the Milky Way in the northern hemisphere, but star-filled skies are still a lot of fun to photograph!

While my sunset shots were taken facing west toward the Panamint Range, I faced to the South for "Celestial Basin", above, and to the north for "All Points North", below.

The salt flats at Badwater Basin at night in Death Valley National Park.

All Points North

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park under a star-filled sky. Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below seal level, and is comprised of over 200 square miles of salt flats.

The day after we photographed sunset and night sky in Badwater Basin, we spent our time in other areas of the park. But remembering the alpenglow I captured on the mountains from my morning at Zabriskie Point, I decided I wanted to try and capture that in the basin. We arrived early and made our way out onto the salt flats - about a mile and a half walk - and waited for the light to come up. We were the first ones there. As we stood in the middle of the salt flats, there were no cars passing on the road, and no one else on the salt flats. I was struck by how utterly silent things were. Out there, sound carries for miles. My previous visit, I could hear clearly a conversation happening over a half mile away. On this morning, for a brief time, I stood there in perfect silence. No bird song, no people talking, no cars driving. It was perfect.

Morning sunlight shines on Telescope Peak and the Panamint Mountains, as Badwater Basin's salt flats stretch out before them.

Badwater Morning

Morning sunlight shines on Telescope Peak and the Panamint Mountains, as Badwater Basin's salt flats stretch out before them.