Mud tiles in late-afternoon light, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Mud tiles in late-afternoon light, Death Valley NP, California

I’m thinking about Death Valley, and other desert areas in California currently affected by the rain from Tropical Storm Hilary. These are places that receive very little precipitation, where the ground is mostly rock and dirt, and even a half-inch of rain can fill normally-dry washes and create flooding and debris flows. There are few bridges along the roads in the desert; they just run right through the washes, because it’s so rare for those washes to have any water in them. That means even minor flooding or debris flows can cause lots of damage.

This storm could bring several inches of rain to many desert areas today and tomorrow. Some places could get a year’s worth of precipitation, or several year’s worth, in just a couple of days, or even a few hours. It’s a scenario that could cause major rock and mudslides, wipe out roadways, and create catastrophic flash floods. I hope everyone in those areas has found a safe place to ride out the storm.

As a nature photographer, I also think about the changes this storm will bring to the landscape. This could be a 100-year flood event in many desert areas. There could be major alterations to the course and structure of some washes, canyons, and alluvial fans. Playas will fill up, perhaps higher than they’ve been for decades, leaving behind mud and silt as they dry. Could we even see wildflowers after this storm? Maybe. Some desert flower species will bloom after summer monsoon rains, and this storm will bring lots of rain. But it’s also an unprecedented event, so the effects are hard to predict.

Thinking about this storm reminded me of the last time we visited Death Valley, in April. It was a busy time for us, and I never got a chance to post some of the photographs I made then, so here’s a small selection.

We had a great time in Death Valley, as we always do. Temperatures weren’t too hot – not nearly as bad as they can get in April, in the hottest place on earth. Our workshop was focused on night photography, and we had great conditions for that, with mostly clear skies, and only one windy night. And we found an area with beautiful, sculptured, wind-eroded mud tiles in late-afternoon light, which we had a blast photographing (see the photo at the top of this post).

That April trip to Death Valley was sandwiched between sojourns to photograph the abundant wildflowers blooming all over the state, after the record amounts of rain and snow we received last winter and spring. Now our state is getting hit by another big weather event. The hits keep coming. It’ll be interesting to see the changes on our next trip to Death Valley – but I don’t expect to be able to get there soon, as it may take awhile to repair the roads.

Stay safe everyone.

— Michael Frye

Stream rivulets in salt flats, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Stream rivulets in salt flats, Death Valley NP, California

Badlands at dawn, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Badlands at dawn, Death Valley NP, California

Dunes at sunrise in a sandstorm, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Dunes at sunrise in a sandstorm, Death Valley NP, California

Rolling dunes, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Rolling dunes, Death Valley NP, California

Rock pinnacle and star trails, Death Valley NP, California

Star trails over sand dunes, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Star trails over sand dunes, Death Valley NP, California

Related Posts: Wildflower Odysseys; Escaping the Snow; Moonset, Death Valley

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.