The Many Faces Of Badwater Basin

I saw my first photos of Badwater Basin many years ago.  The vast, white hexagons spreading out to the horizon instantly grabbed my attention as I couldn’t tell if I was looking at ice, snow or sand.  It turned out to be none of those as I was actually looking at salt.  Couple that with the fact that badwater basin is the second lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and I couldn’t wait to get out there with my camera.

I made my first trip out to Badwater in the Spring of 2015 with Tom Bricker.  It had rained lightly the night before and we made a quick trip down from the Mesquite Sand Dunes to see if any water had collected in the basin.  I walked out onto the flats expecting to see the smooth hexagons that I had seen in earlier photos but the salt flats had been broken into pieces as far as we could see.  Discouraged, we moved on to look for other things to photograph, but i made a mental not to return soon as we obviously must have been in the wrong section of the basin.

It turns out that we had headed into the basin from Badwater Road too early and had merely walked into one of the rougher sections of the basin.  The more pristine area, i.e. more salt and less dirt, can be seen as you look down from Dante’s Peak, several hundred feet above the valley floor:

The center of the salt flats is most easily accessible by simply driving to the main parking area and walking out.  Although this route can be discouraging as entire buses full of tourists are deposited here, you will leave most of the crowds behind if you walk out at least a couple of miles.

Over the next couple of years i made several return trips to the Salt Flats in Badwater, and each time I found that some aspect of the flats had changed.  During rainy years, which are rare in Death Valley, mud an minerals will wash down into the basin from both the Panamint and Amarosa Ranges and the lowest point, where the water generally resides the longest, is in that white area seen from Dante’s Peak.  It is worth noting that after heavy rain, the center of the flats may be under several inches of water, so either rain boots or hiking boots that you don’t really care about will be the order of the day.

I was fortunate enough to show up in Death Valley after just such a storm in February of 2017. As I arrived, I had to put my poor Prius through its paces as water and debris was now flowing freely from several spots along route 190 and Badwater Road. I barely made it through a decent sized stream flowing just past Gold Canyon and then gunned it as I was now positive that I would find some water out in the flats.

I wasn’t disappointed.  Between earlier storms and this one, I had never seen so much water on the flats before.  Only a bit of the dirt road leading down from the parking area was visible and everything else in all directions was now underwater.  I was surprised to find that even a couple of miles out, the once pristine white salt flats were now covered in mud.

The interesting thing about both Badwater basin and Cottonball Basin just to the North is that wet soggy mud doesn’t seem to last very long.  As the water recedes, salt crystals ooze up through the mud and, especially around those center areas where the salt seems more prevalent, eventually establishes a new salt floor with barely any ridges at all:

As the floor of Badwater is constantly shifting (apparently is is continuing to widen slowly over time) pressure between the water below and the salt crystals above results in the ridges becoming more prominent.  In the outer areas of the basin, you can see where the salt crust eventually shatters and pieces are strewn for miles making the task of hiking across them a bit more challenging.

Over the Summer, the pure white of the new salt flats begins to dim as the floor is covered by dust storms.  But as soon as a new storm rolls through, the dust is washed away and the whole process starts over again.

While the white hexagon patterns of Badwater are fun to shoot at any time of year, my favorite time to be out there is after a good sized storm has rolled through.  If the water is TOO deep, you lose all of the ridges of the hexagons but the feeling of literally standing on water with spectacular reflections in all directions is something that shouldn’t be missed. Most photographers prefer a very shallow water level which give you the reflections as well as the hexagonal shapes to use as a foreground.

On my first trip out to the Salt Flats of Badwater, I didn’t even consider the possibility of shooting a sunrise from there.  The Black Mountains loom large directly over the parking lot and my guess was that you wouldn’t see the sun until at least 10 AM or later, killing off the best light of the morning.  Badwater seemed to be a “sunset only” location as the Panamint Range would allow plenty of sky to the West.

It wasn’t until last January that I finally decided to head out during a potentially good sunrise, only after my first two choices looked like duds.  It was on this occasion that it really began to occur to me that once you go far enough out, the Black Mountains shrink down enough to allow for a sunrise, but only if you are able to shoot a pano or shoot with a wider lens.

Key tips for shooting Badwater Basin in water:

  1. Bring a beach chair.  This might seem obvious to some of you, but it’s something that I have forgotten on more than one occasion.  The chair can be used to put your camera bag on or to SIT in if you are out there for a couple of hours.
  2. Get low and experiment with the geometric foreground in front of you.  If you are too low, the patterns disappear, but if you shoot from 4-5 feet above, you might miss out on making the closer tiles larger in the frame.
  3. Start your hike out early.  Give yourself time to get set up and experiment.
  4. Sunscreen, and lots of it.  If you get hit by a cloudless day, you’re going to cook pretty quick on a white, water covered surface in the lowest area of real estate in the U. S.
  5. Bring lots of extra towels and micro fibre cloths.  It’s easy to get that salty solution on your camera, your lenses and of course, your bag.
  6. Be sure to clean your tripod and gear after you get home and the salt can be highly corrosive and very hard on your gear.
  7. Bring WATER.  Temperatures in that park can spike very quickly and it is always a longer trip back to the parking lot than you remember.

Badwater Basin is easily one of my favorite place to shoot in Death Valley, and with good reason. You can shoot this area 7 different times in the same year and have it look completely different on each visit.

As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them below.  Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “The Many Faces Of Badwater Basin

  1. Steve

    Really nice job showcasing a truly unique area in our country, easily one of my favorite spots to visit. I’ve never had to chance to visit here after it rains to photograph it but it looks amazing and thanks for the sunrise tip, I would have never given this area any thought for sure. Keep up the great work and look forward to seeing more here in the future!

    • William McIntosh

      Hi Steve – Thanks so much for the kind words and for the heads up on my website glitches. I think I have it sorted now. I agree with you on Death Valley. Definitely one of my favorite spots!

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