Death Valley After Dark: Astronomy and Photography in the Backcountry - Atlas Obscura

Death Valley National Park, California

Death Valley After Dark: Astronomy and Photography in the Backcountry

Accompanied by experts in astronomy and night photography, explore the dramatic landscapes of Death Valley National Park under the stars. 

Designated one of the world’s best Dark Sky Parks by the International Dark-Sky Association, Death Valley National Park boasts some of the most striking scenery and brightest constellations in America. Our intrepid crew of photographers and stargazers will be joined by accomplished astronomer Tyler Nordgren and National Parks at Night photographer Chris Nicholson for five days of backcountry exploration and learning.

During the day we’ll drive in Jeeps across remote desert landscapes and learn about the role Death Valley has played in the exploration of the solar system, from a testbed for Martian landers and rovers to the geological processes that serve as analogs for planetary scientists. Then, at night, we’ll turn our attention skyward. Led by Tyler and Chris, we’ll experiment with light painting and night photography techniques while learning about astrophysics. 

This trip and workshop is limited to only eight participants.

Important notes:
This trip includes two nights of camping and several days in the backcountry. The temperature will drop to the low 40s (°F) at night, so you’ll need to bundle up. 

Participants are expected to bring their own tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. If you’d like us to provide this equipment for your two nights of camping, a supplement of $220 of applies. 

INTRODUCING OUR PARTNER: NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

National Parks at Night (NPAN) has been leading photo programs for the last three years. Their team of educators has been inspiring passionate students to “Seize the Night” with videos, workshops, speaking engagements, and articles featuring locations all over the world. NPAN aims to visit every national park in America over the next 10 years—at night, camera in hand.

YOUR PHOTO INSTRUCTOR

Chris Nicholson is a partner and instructor with National Parks at Night, the author of Photographing National Parks, and a Manfrotto Photography Ambassador. A former magazine editor for 10 years, Chris has worked independently since 2004, with his cameras focused primarily on nature and sports. His work has appeared in several books and over 30 magazines. He is also a book editor for National Parks Traveler, an editorial consultant for Chimani national-park travel guide apps, and a writer for various photography websites. Chris has taught for CreativeLive, is a regular presenter at the B&H Event Space, and he speaks at photography conferences and events around the U.S.

YOUR ASTRONOMY EXPERT

Tyler Nordgren is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Redlands. Since 2005, he has worked with the U.S. National Park Service to promote astronomy education in U.S. national parks where the public still has a chance to see a natural nocturnal landscape that includes an unobstructed view of the universe beyond our own atmosphere. Dr. Nordgren has helped document this vanishing landscape with award-winning night sky photography. In addition, Dr. Nordgren has also developed a popular poster campaign in conjunction with the National Park Service to “See the Milky Way” in America’s parks where “Half the park is after dark.” He is the author of Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks, which was published in 2010 as a way to spread the message of the importance of protecting the night sky.

YOUR BACKCOUNTRY GURU

Tao Tao Holmes is the founding member of the Atlas Obscura Trips Team. Since October 2016, she has organized over 30 expeditions around the globe in partnership with a diverse community of talented guides and organizers. Tao Tao has led camping trips in New England, Colorado, and the French and Italian Alps; she is also staffing Atlas Obscura’s 2018 trips to Romania, New York City, and Newfoundland.

TRIP COST

A $500 deposit is required to secure your spot. This deposit is nonrefundable after three days. We have a limited capacity, and we expect the trip to fill quickly. The trip will cost $2,960 ($500 deposit plus $2,460 final payment). The cost includes all expenses throughout the trip, including all meals, Jeep transport, two hotel nights (the other two will be camping), daily photo instruction, and nightly astronomy sessions.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED & WHAT YOU’LL LEARN

Workshop participants must have at least basic photo skills, know their cameras well, and be comfortable shooting RAW in manual mode with a DSLR or high-end mirrorless camera. Night photography experience is not necessary, but even folks with extensive experience shooting at night will find this class challenging, stimulating, and inspiring. We’ll help you focus, compose, and paint with light—and push you to take full creative control over your images. For more advanced night photographers, we can offer specific challenges and goals, and guidance in the field based on your areas of interest. Come ready to dive into many hours of education, exploration, feedback, and hands-on experiences.

You will need to bring a DSLR/mirrorless camera, a wide and fast lens, and a tripod.  A full list of recommended gear will be provided once you sign up! 

QUESTIONS?

Please email us at trips@atlasobscura.com or call us at (646) 961-4857 with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, or payment. 

Itinerary
Day 1
Arrival & Wildrose Charcoal Kilns
  • Today, arrive on your own to Death Valley and meet us in Stovepipe Wells, a small way station in the northern section of the park. We’ll be there to welcome you at Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel, where you can take some time to get settled. In the afternoon, there will be an introduction and photo orientation led by Chris, Tyler, and Tao Tao, your Atlas trip leader.
  • As evening falls, we’ll head over to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns and dive into Night Photography 101. Afterward, you’ll have some free time to do some shooting.
  • We’ll have dinner together at Toll Road Restaurant, the local establishment, and maybe grab a quick nightcap at Badwater Saloon before turning in for a full night’s sleep.
Day 2
Astro-Landscapes at Racetrack Playa
  • This morning, we’ll have breakfast at the hotel before packing up for two nights in the backcountry. You can leave nonessential items behind as we pack our gear into backcountry Jeeps. 
  • Today, we head out to one of Death Valley’s most iconic sights: Racetrack Playa. Here, scattered about the desert, are boulders that have left mysterious-looking zig-zagging trails, sometimes stretching over 800 feet. 
  • The drive will take about three hours, with a stop for lunch along the way. Before reaching the Racetrack, we’ll take a look at Teakettle Junction. Here, along a dirt road in the Mojave Desert, stands an eclectic collection of teapots left by visitors from around the world, some with letters tucked inside. In accordance with Teakettle Tradition, we’ll contribute our own teapot to this impromptu shrine.
  • We’ll arrive and set up shop at Homestake Dry Camp, the closest campground to the Racetrack (three miles). If you don’t have camping experience, we’ll be sure to help you out with your tents and other gear—and don’t worry, we’ve got the backcountry cooking and libations covered. Later in the afternoon, we'll have some time to capture shots of the Racetrack during daylight and sunset.
  • Once night falls, we’ll be treated to an astronomy lecture by Tyler, followed by a session on astro-landscape photography. 
  • Then, we’ll warm up with dinner and some hot beverages. Afterward, enjoy free time to test out some new night photography techniques, or join Tyler for more stargazing using his telescope. 
  • Get cozy in lots of layers for our first night out under the stars.
Day 3
Moonrise Over the Eureka Dunes
  • This morning, rise with the sun to capture those early-morning rays as they light up the desert. By the time you’ve wandered back, a warm breakfast served with backcountry coffee will be waiting for you.
  • After breakfast, we’ll break down camp, pack up the Jeeps, and head in the direction of the Eureka Dunes. Today will include several hours in the Jeeps, so make yourself comfortable. On the way, we’ll make a side trip to refuel the Jeeps, then continue onward, ending the day at Eureka Dunes, the highest sand dunes in California. 
  • If we’re lucky, we’ll arrive in time to see the sun setting over the dunes—and maybe even hear “the singing sands,” a natural phenomenon causing the dunes emit a low, quiet rumble. Afterward, we’ll enjoy our last backcountry dinner at Eureka Dunes Dry Camp and spend an evening away from artificial light, with cameras and telescope in hand.

 

Day 4
Ubehebe Crater and Badwater Basin
  • Our day begins with a leisurely morning by the dunes. Take some time to relax, wander, and capture  more images of the dunes before having breakfast and packing up camp. 
  • From here, we’ll continue onward to Ubehebe (pronounced YOO-bee-HEE-bee), a volcanic crater at the edge of the Cottonwood Mountains. After lunch, we'll wander down and around this spectacular crater. 
  • With our time in the backcountry drawing to a close, we’ll make a quick stop at Stovepipe Wells to pick up everyone's vehicles. We’ll then continue, caravan-style, back to the world of soft bedsheets and hot showers. Arriving in Furnace Creek, we’ll check in at the The Inn at Death Valley, which offers a pool and plenty of space to sit back, relax, and edit photos.
  • After a group dinner, we’ll visit the striking salt flats at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. In the summer, this is one of the hottest places on earth, and holds the world’s highest-ever recorded temperature (56.7°C/134°F).
Day 5
Post-Processing, Slideshow & Departure
  • This morning, we’ll enjoy a leisurely breakfast at the inn, overlooking views of the Panamint Mountains. For the remainder of the morning, Chris will be available to help with post-processing, ending with a short slideshow of our best images.
  • Our trip concludes today at noon. If you don't need to head home or continue onward to your next adventure, you may wish to relax a while longer at the inn or spend additional days in the park. 
The Fine Print

 

YOUR DEATH VALLEY PHOTO & ASTRONOMY EXPEDITION INCLUDES

  • A talented photo instructor from National Parks at Night, an astronomy expert, and an Atlas Obscura trip leader.
  • Daily photo instruction, and final post-processing guidance.
  • All meals during the trip, beginning with dinner Wednesday and ending with breakfast Sunday. Expect a combination of sit-down restaurant meals, prepared lunches, and backcountry cooking accompanied by proper libations. Water and snacks will be provided throughout.
  • Transport throughout the trip in backcountry Jeeps outfitted with Kevlar tires.
  • Camping chairs and lanterns for our nights in the backcountry.
  • Brand-new headlamps for your nightly photo and astronomy sessions.
  • A great group of fellow Atlas Obscura fans and photographers, excited to explore all that the night sky has to offer.

ACCOMMODATIONS

We’ll be spending two nights in hotels: Wednesday at Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel; Saturday at The Inn at Death Valley. The two nights in between (Thursday and Friday), we’ll be camping at designated sites within the park (Homestake Dry Camp and Eureka Dunes Dry Camp). Camping chairs and lanterns will be provided. If you’d like us to arrange your camping gear in advance (tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad), we’re happy to do so for a supplement of $220.

PLANNING YOUR TRAVEL

You’ll need to arrive in Stovepipe Wells by 2 p.m. on Wednesday, December 5. The trip concludes at noon on Sunday, December 9 in Furnace Creek. If you’d like to lengthen your stay, we’re happy to extend your hotel reservation.

NOTE ON WEATHER & PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

Death Valley is a place of extremes: the hottest place on earth and driest place in North America. In December, expect pleasant, mild daytime temperatures with a high of 67°F. At night, it can drop down to 39°F, so a good sleeping bag is a must. In the desert, it’s possible we’ll encounter strong wind.

Keep in mind that this workshop is almost entirely outdoors and fairly active. You should feel comfortable walking a cumulative three to four miles each day and remaining outside and on your feet for long periods of time, especially after dark. We will be walking on desert sand, dirt paths, and other uneven ground.

NOTE ON ITINERARY

Itineraries are subject to change. We expect to do everything listed in the itinerary, though the order may be rearranged based on weather and other local conditions.

PAYMENT

You will be charged a $500 deposit to hold your space. This deposit is nonrefundable after three days. The final payment of $2,460 will be due by September 10, 2018. All reservations will be final after this date and subject to our cancellation policy. By submitting your deposit, you agree to the trip’s Terms and Conditions.

TRAVELERS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR

  • Transport to and from Death Valley National Park, California.
  • Camping equipment (unless arranged for a supplemental fee of $220).
  • Photography equipment and gear; we’ll send a list of what you’ll need once you sign up.
  • Travel insurance (optional).

QUESTIONS?

Please email us at trips@atlasobscura.com or call us at (646) 961-4857 with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, or payment. 

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