Latitud 36.420177, Longitud -116.812305
Tired of Montreal's constantly cloudy skies, I finally decided to take an astrophotography trip to Las Vegas. Why Las Vegas, if it's so full of light pollution? Because it is a totally desertic place, and most importantly, it is common to find clear blue skies almost all the time.
As expected, my goal was to get away from that city in the direction of an astro-photo-friendly place, and a good place not so far away was Death Valley National Park, California, which is about 2 to 2.5 hours from Las Vegas.
I got aware of that park thanks to the publications of Rogelio Bernal Andreo, a professional astrophotographer. Many of the excellent shots he has produced were taken there.
The Las Vegas area and its surroundings seem to be the perfect area for astrophotography. It is a mostly desert area with little chance of rain, thanks to the fact that there are not many lakes around. I was impressed and excited to see the blue sky with almost no cloud on the horizon. The only thing I think that could affect , and this depends on each person, is the intense heat: you could feel the ravages of temperatures ranging from 33°C to 52°C in the Death Valley area.
I was used to the fact that in the deserts in Mexico the temperature during the day was extremely hot and at night extremely cold. As I was studying the area and doing research with the park managers, I wrote to them and asked them if it was necessary to wear any kind of clothing to protect themselves. They answered with a contradictory message: it's very hot but it was good to take a jacket. What? Uh... even though it could be evident "the heat", as I didn't know the area and because of my previous experience in the Mexican deserts I decided to carry a jacket for the winter, like of the ones we use in Canada and other clothes for the cold. But in the area of Death Valley, in the season that was at the end of June, it was the opposite of the Mexican deserts: in day we arrived to an extreme temperature of almost 50°C and around 3 a.m. it went down to approximately 33°C. So I confirm, if you go in summer, forget about the cold and better take some sunscreen.
Another thing they warned about was certain poisonous animals like rattlesnakes and scorpions. Honestly speaking, here I was frightened because I analyzed the situation and I said to myself: "I am going to go alone to the desert, to be in a place far away from civilization it is better to take precautions". So thanks to the magic of technology and the excellent service of sites like amazon.ca, which work extraordinarily well in this country, I was able to get myself some protective boots against snake bites in time. Even after the trip, it can be said that the precautions were a bit exaggerated but they were not too much because I really was in places where I could have met that "tender" local fauna.
About this park, I must say it's impressive. It is a totally deserted place with mountainous formations and great plains. I thought I was going to go to a totally virgin area away from civilization but that is not the case at all.
Being a national park in the United States, it has economic support for its conservation, which means that each one of the points of interest is well arranged, paved, with information, parking and even some with latrines. There are even hotels and gas stations inside the park, near Furnace Creek and Stovewell Pipes. I highly recommend that if you go for astrophotography you stay in a hotel in the park because it will be more comfortable to return to rest in short time after the astronomical session.
Death Valley has several points of interest such as Badwater Basin, Dante's View, Artist's Drive, Mezquite Flat Sand Dunes, Devils Golf Course, etc. Zabriskie point is one of these points of interest for observing the rocky landscape. It is called Zabriskie Point in honor of the owner of a mining company that did work in Death Valley.
I chose this place as an observation point but I must say that you can literally choose any point off the park's roads, stay yourself in the desert and start taking pictures. Why did I choose this one? Because it is a paved esplanade which makes the stay comfortable. It is also located on a hill where you have to climb a small paved road to access the place, and it makes the parking lot stay down so it avoids cars coming with the lights on to bother you.
Unfortunately, the flashing lights of the cars cannot be avoided, since one is not far from the road and although they are not constant, the cars are passing frequently.
How to get there
Death Valley is easy to get to: from Las Vegas, take Highway 95 North towards the town of Beatty. Once in Beatty, take highway 374 which has directions to Death Valley. From Beatty to the Death Valley Visitor Center, near Furnace Creek are approximately 48 minutes, and from Las Vegas in total are 2h 36 min. approx.
For the astronomical
I have to be honest with you about the astronomy: having seen spectacular pictures taken by other expert astrophotographers; and for being a desert place far from any light pollution, I had very high expectations of a completely dark sky. However, this was not the case: apparently there were dust particles suspended which gave the appearance of some pollution, but in spite of this I am not complaining, the sky was a thousand times better than what we can have here on frozen lands. A very very important advantage is that most of the time it is clear and the beautiful blue skies are constant. Only one day out of the five I was there was cloudy to the point of not being able to take an astrophotography, but from then on it was an excellent clear sky every day.
The only drawback I would give you is that even though the location is excellent, it's not that far from the road so the lights of cars passing by can be annoying or ruin the occasional shot.