May 21, 2015 | By: Mason Cummings
Photographing some of California's remote desert treasures reveals the need to protect these magnificent places.
The last rays of desert sun began to dwindle as I stood among the alien spires. Suddenly the high, thin clouds came to life with pastel oranges and pinks, and it felt as if I was truly on another planet.
Last winter, as The Wilderness Society’s photographer, I took a tour though some of California’s most breathtaking expanses of unprotected desert. These are just a handful of areas The Wilderness Society is working to protect and they are just as scenic as some of our nation’s most famous landscapes.
Many of these wild and delicate lands that are under threat from potential renewable energy projects and other forms of development. While renewable energy is a critical part of addressing climate change, large-scale solar projects can have a serious impact on the land. These desert treasures are simply too special to develop—even for something as important and needed as renewable energy.
Stump Spring, Nevada
The first stop on my itinerary was Amargosa Canyon, just across the California border from Las Vegas. A series of minor travel delays quickly accumulated, and by the time I was finally leaving Vegas it was clear that I wouldn’t make it to my planned destination for sunset. Luckily, there was still just enough time for plan B—twilight photos at Stump Spring.
Stump Spring is an area we're working to protect on the western border of Nevada. While it wasn't on my original itinerary, it seemed a suitable first stop as the gateway to the California desert. These areas are all interconnected—regardless of state or management boundaries—and that notion became abundantly clear with each new destination.
The next morning I awoke well before dawn at China Ranch Date Farm and started to hike downstream by the light of my headlamp. The desert silence was occasionally interrupted by chirping birds as the subtle glow of dawn slowly became more distinguishable. As the light grew stronger, the sporadic chirping progressed into a full-on chorus of songbirds.
The Amargosa River is a rare perennial waterway—one of the only of its kind in the California desert. While much of the river flows underground, some parts surface in the Amargosa Canyon. The isolation of this rich habitat makes it a classic “bird trap” for migrating birds that wander off track during migration.
At first, the conditions showed potential for an explosive sunrise, but a thick layer of high clouds extinguished the colors just as they began to unfold. The light was far less than ideal for photography, so I slowly hiked back upstream while soaking in the subtle beauties of this amazing landscape.
Despite disappointing light, the Amargosa was my favorite stop of the trip. I could easily spend days exploring this verdant oasis in the middle of the desert.
By late morning I finally pulled myself away from the canyon and followed the Amargosa’s intermittent flow to the south alongside Highway 197. As the river made a U-turn around the Amargosa Range and into Death Valley, I continued south into the beautiful and remote Silurian Valley.
I pulled off the highway and headed up a dirt road toward the valley’s east rim for an elevated view toward the west. After several miles I began to get a sense of the valley’s enormous scale. It was humbling to think that well beyond the impossibly distant horizon lay even larger areas of protected desert.
Silurian Valley provides a vital ecological connection between mountain ranges, and also connects Death Valley National Park with Mojave Preserve. I was right in the middle of a critical link between two desert sanctuaries—and I couldn’t see another soul in any direction.
There was such depth to this pristine landscape; I couldn’t begin to imagine what it would have looked like covered in solar panels—and that almost happened. Last fall the Bureau of Land Management denied an application for a large-scale solar project in Silurian Valley. With any luck, that decision will help set a precedent for conservation of such wild gems.
The otherworldly landscape of Trona Pinnacles is like a scene straight out of a science fiction film. Hundreds of stone columns mysteriously rise far above this remote, open playa.
Thousands of years ago, this part of the Mojave Desert was covered by a large lake. Over time, calcium carbonate, in a form known as a tufa, formed underwater pinnacles before the lake went dry. Now, hundreds of tufa stand above an open desert playa, some reaching 140 feet or more.
I spent the afternoon exploring these bizarre formations before shooting sunset, where I was treated to the week’s most vibrant display of light. The pinnacles came to life as the sky lit up with color, and for a fleeting moment I felt like an interplanetary traveler. The area is best explored by sunset or sunrise, when the curious landscape features are accentuated by dramatic light.
As Highway 198 rounds the north end of the Slate Range, the first glimpse of Panamint Valley is nothing short of astounding. The sheer vastness of the valley was nearly incomprehensible as I descended onto its open playa.
From afar, the open valley floor appears monotonous, but I quickly noticed pockets of unique habitat with every passing mile. I arrived shortly before dusk, but stayed well past sunset to try and capture the stillness of the desert night.
Time seemed to stand still as I stood in silence waiting for the stars to emerge. The silhouettes of surrounding mountains appeared so close, but the valley’s emptiness was playing tricks on my eyes. These mountains abruptly rise nearly 11,000 feet above the valley floor, but the wide-open playa does little to help convey the valley’s massive scale.
Death Valley National Park
The road back to Vegas brought be through Death Valley National Park, and I couldn't resist stopping at the Mesquite Dunes to take a few shots before finishing my last leg through the desert.
As I stood there in a long-protected national park, I couldn’t help but consider the unprotected landscapes where I had spent the past several days. These locations were just as scenic as a famous national park—and in some cases, offered even better opportunities for solitude and exploration.
It seemed appropriate to be closing out my trip standing just north of the Armagosa River's eventual terminus in Badwater Basin. The connectivity between all of these locations was clear. This wild, contiguous landscape must remain unbroken by large-scale renewable energy development—their collective value is simply too great to sacrifice.
Photos by Mason Cummings