When most photographers think of multi-colored and beautifully patterned sandstone their thoughts immediately turn to Coyote Buttes in Northern Arizona. Beautiful as it is, it’s an extremely popular location that requires a permit to visit the most interesting features. Access to some areas also demands either a capable four wheel drive vehicle or an arduous hike. What if I were to tell you that I know of a lovely little place with sandstone at least as gorgeous, if not more so, than Coyote Buttes with easy access and virtually no crowds? Would you be interested? Well, such a place exists and it’s called Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.
I fell in love with Valley of Fire when we first visited in 2005. We spent a couple nights in their amazing campground while exploring a sandstone wonderland so colorful it’s hard to believe it’s natural. Red, orange, yellow, white and purple – yes, purple – sandstone is eroded into arches, fantastical towers, narrow slot canyons and magnificent pillars. Spring wildflowers add even more color to this magical landscape. Bighorn sheep scamper up canyon walls, playful antelope ground squirrels entertain with their antics and reclusive gila monsters, one of only two poisonous lizards in the world, leave their tracks in small sand dunes. Petroglyphs chipped into desert varnish tell stories of ancient peoples. Tinajas, or tanks, hold water year-round that sustains wildlife and sometimes, renegade Paiute Indians named Mouse.
Valley of Fire State Park is about an hour south of Mesquite and an hour northeast of Las Vegas. It shares a boundary with Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which is where you’ll find most of the tourists. Located on the outskirts of the Mojave Desert, summer temperatures are dependably hot. July and August bring monsoons and flash floods. Spring, fall and even winter offer moderate temperatures and surprisingly few tourists. The park averages only 500,000 visitors per year, most of whom stop at the overlooks and never set foot on a trail. While there is plenty to see and photograph from or very near to the road, the backcountry opens up endless opportunities to those willing to exert even just a little bit of effort. Some of the most popular and scenic sites are less than a mile from the trailhead and it is quite likely that you’ll find yourself all alone once you lace up your hiking boots.
Alert visitors will notice natural arches throughout the park. Unlike the massive spans found in Arches National Park, most of the arches in Valley of Fire are quite small. But, bigger isn’t always better. You’ll be surprised at how photogenic an arch measuring only two feet across can be! Look for wind caves carved into the sandstone and you might just find a hidden treasure glowing with reflected light. Just remember that this is a very fragile landscape and treat it with the care and respect it deserves.
Valley of Fire State Park is a remarkable place with endless opportunities for photography of grand and intimate landscapes as well as interesting abstract patterns in the colorful sandstone. You’ll find plenty of uses for lenses ranging from wide angle to moderate telephoto focal lengths. I find that my Canon 24-105mm lens sees the most action when I’m on location in Valley of Fire, though my Canon 16-35mm lens certainly doesn’t sit idle in my pack. Pre-dawn glow light is often better than the actual sunrise so be sure to be on location and ready to burn through some memory cards (or film) about half an hour before sunrise. I don’t find much need for filters although a 3 stop graduated neutral density filter can be helpful at times. Alternatively, you can blend exposures by hand or use HDR software to tame the dynamic range. Don’t be surprised when you find that you have to reduce saturation in the digital darkroom to reign in the insane colors!
If the photos in this post don’t pique your interest in the park, I highly recommend you visit the website of German photographer Isabel Synnatschke. She has spent quite a bit of time exploring Valley of Fire with her camera and her online gallery contains some of the best imagery I’ve seen from Valley of Fire. She has also produced a fantastic e-book titled “A Closer Look at Valley of Fire” that is an excellent reference for photographers who want to maximize their opportunities in the park.
Next time you find yourself wanting for some time in the desert, don’t forget about Valley of Fire State Park. Just don’t blame me when you fall under her spell.