Death Valley Report Part 3: Exploring Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

February 2, 2022  |  Death Valley National Park, California

One of the things that draws me to the work I do, and drives the passion that I have for it, is the variety of landscapes I see and explore. I think that's what made the trip to Death Valley National Park so special for me, the variety of landscape within the hottest, driest, and lowest national park. I've already put the spotlight on two other very different locations within the park, Zabriskie Point and Badwater Basin, so in this trip report I wanted to shine the spotlight on Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

There are only a few dune fields within Death Valley National Park, and the conditions at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are perfect for the creation of this dune field. There must be a source of sand- in this case, the eroding Armagosa Mountains in the north. There must be wind to move the sand, and finally, there must be a barrier to prevent the sand from simply blowing away. At Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, that barrier is the Panamint Mountains to the south.

What drew me to the dune field was the sweeping dunes, featuring strong curved lines while the mountains acted as a backdrop. In the early morning or late afternoon, the low, angular light of the sun creates fantastic contrasts of highlight and shadow, and the ripples in the sand created by the winds really stand out.

The pre-dawn light glows on the dunes at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley National Park.

Mesquite Twilight

Limited Edition

The pre-dawn light glows on the dunes at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley National Park. This Limited Edition of 100 prints includes a signed certificate of authenticity.

When Kristen Wilkinson and I planned the trip to Death Valley, the dunes were high on our list to photograph. But there were a few concerns to be wary of. The first and most obvious is that the dunes are a popular attraction, and get many visitors who hike around the dunes. For most people this is no big deal, but I prefer a pristine landscape untouched by man for my photos, if I can get it. For that reason, we decided getting there for sunrise would be provide a better chance at finding dunes without footprints, with very few venturing into the dunes at night, and the overnight winds having a chance to wipe away any evidence of the previous day's visitors.

The other concern we had was wind. Obviously, you want to be careful with expensive camera gear, and the two days prior saw sustained 20 mph winds and gusts as high as 45 mph. Many of the park's vistas were obscured by a haze of blowing sand, and we wanted to avoid having our lenses sandblasted. So we found other locations those first two days before finally visiting Mesquite Flats on the morning of day three.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes glow in the early morning light in Death Valley National Park.

Into The Dunes

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes glow in the early morning light in Death Valley National Park.

We had also decided to enter the dunes from another spot not directly next to the parking area, hoping that would give us an opportunity to find the "road less traveled", and again, fewer footprints on the dunes. We decided to skirt the dunes' edge and head further north before heading into the dunes. From there, we began trekking along the ridges of sand, stopping when we saw a composition we liked.

Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes at dawn.

Dawn in the Dunes

First light illuminates the dunes and creosote bushes at Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park.

You can see the results in the four photographs I've shared here. I managed to find a few scenes to make interesting images from. The soft, pink light so common at sunrise in the desert was perfect for the sand, showing the contours of the dunes and the patterns and ripples created by the wind in the sand. Occasionally a creosote bush would catch the light just right and break up the hypnotic patterns of sand, adding real visual interest.

The first rays of light shine on Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley National Park.

Mesquite Dunes

The first rays of light shine on Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley National Park.

We continued our trek through the dunes, a slow trudge due to the soft nature of the sand, until the sun rose above the mountains and the light became harsher than I wanted to photograph in. I would have loved more time in the dunes but with only four days in the park, and other locations I wanted to be sure I explored, one morning was all I got.

Oh well. I suppose that gives me reason to go back!