Beyond Black

December 08, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

Idaho is full of lava fields. Craters of the Moon is probably the best-known volcanic area in the state. There the landscape is a vast expanse of black: lava, cinder cones, tree molds, and lava tubes. 

For an over-the-top lava field experience, head for the Big Island of Hawaii. Volcanoes National Park is a must-see, but you can find evidence of volcanic activity everywhere. My personal favorite? Black sand beaches.

Once the lava cools enough to solidify, it turns black. Unless you're witnessing an active eruption, then, the color you'd associate with past volcanic activity is black.

Within Death Valley National Park in an area of the Black Mountains, there's a spectacular exception to that rule: Artist's Drive.


Death Valley National Park, California
There you'll find a riot of color: red, pink, purple, aqua, green, yellow, orange, and chocolate brown. The rock is volcanic in origin, created by explosive activity that occurred during the Miocene Era. Oxidation and chemical weathering has transformed the volcanic deposits, painting them in a variety of colors.

So while Craters and Volcanoes like their basic black, these volcanic remnants in Death Valley are most certainly unafraid to wear color.

The Artist's Drive formations are probably not what most people conjure up when they think of the desert. 

There are ample opportunities to hike there, and if you visit I highly recommend doing so - especially the washes. 

To fully appreciate and photograph the color, avoid the area at mid-day when the sun is shining. Warm late-afternoon light enhances the pinks and reds and casts some nice shadows, but that's a double-edged sword if you're trying to shoot: you'll also encounter a lot of high-contrast situations. For my money, the best time to work anywhere in Artist's Drive is early morning before the sun climbs above the mountains. (Obviously an overcast day will create the same flat light but those can be hard to come by in the desert.)

The images I've posted here were created before the sun became an issue. The beautiful purple you see in the photograph above disappears as soon as it's lit: at that point it reads as gray. The green is still visible but not at all vivid. With the sun shining, you'd walk right by this scene and not give it a second glance. 

The pinks you see below wash out in sunlight, and the rocks lose definition because of frontlighting. 

Within Artist's Drive, the early bird gets the worm. That doesn't mean you have to be on location at 0-dark-30. Because this area is nestled beneath the hills, there's plenty of time to work between official sunrise and when the sun climbs high enough in the sky to get in the way.

Scout it and enjoy looking at it during the afternoon, absolutely. But shoot it first thing.


Death Valley National Park, California


Death Valley National Park, California


In Local News

The elk hunt is ongoing in Grand Teton National Park, which means Antelope Flats Road is still open. They typically close it the day after the hunt is over. You can still get to the barns after the road closes, but you'll have to walk.

The calendar says it's still autumn, but winter arrived early and with gusto. November 2022 was tied for the snowiest in the Tetons since 2000. The ski resorts are roughly a month ahead of where they were this time last year. Grand Targhee is reporting 140" on the season with a 64" base. Jackson Hole is at 166" for the season with a 54" depth.

The ice rink at the Jackson Fairgrounds (with lights) opened this week. The rink in Town Square is scheduled to open at the end of the month. 


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