Mojave National Preserve

Wind Power

The desert Southwest is a windy place. In many areas around southern California and Nevada, large wind farms harness the energy of the wind. Their presence is a reminder of the constant and fierce power of the wind here. The strong winds in this part of the country also play an important role in shaping the landscape.

Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve

One example of how winds shape the landscape is sand dunes. There are many sand dunes in the Southwest, and the wind is responsible for forming, shaping, and moving these dunes. One example is in Mojave National Preserve. I’ve written about the Kelso dunes in Mojave Preserve before. These dunes are tall heaps of sand gathered and shaped by the wind.

Another great place to see sand dunes is in Death Valley National Park. Death Valley has several sand dune systems, including the Mesquite sand dunes. It was a very windy evening when I hiked out among the Mesquite dunes. I had to keep moving to prevent the sand from gathering around my feet and causing me to sink more deeply into it. It also took a while for my tripod to gain stability in the shifting sands. At the peak of the dunes, I got sand-blasted as the sand whipped up over the crest.

Tranquility on Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park

The landscape changes constantly as the sand dunes reshape themselves and move within the system. These changes are subtle when viewed from a distance. But when you get up close, it is clear just how much material is being moved around by the wind. Footprints in the sand alter the way the sand flows, but it does not take long for those footprints to vanish, swallowed up by the wind-powered re-shifting of the sand.

Here in Las Vegas, windstorms are one of the few weather hazards we get. This past weekend at the Boulder City Spring Art Festival, I experienced the power of the wind first-hand. My tent, along with the tents of three or four other artists, was blown over by strong wind gusts. It could have been a lot worse for me. Fortunately nobody got hurt, and the only property that was damaged was my own. I’m taking it as a learning experience, and I am making changes in my booth setup to prevent this problem from happening to me in the future. But at least I got a photograph out of it. This photograph shows the remains of my tent. Someone suggested I put a price tag on it and sell it as modern art!

That's not the kind of art I like to make, however. I much prefer making landscape photography, and I thank the wind for helping to sculpt many beautiful sand dunes for me to photograph.

Desert Heat, Death Valley National Park

Struggling to Photograph Mojave National Preserve, Part 2: Success!

Last time I visited Mojave National Preserve I was hoping to visit the Kelso Dunes. Unfortunately, I encountered numerous problems as described in part 1 of this story. I didn’t get to visit the dunes, although I did make a nice photograph of a field of Joshua Trees. I have since returned to the preserve, and this time I had more success.

Kelso Dunes at Mojave National Preserve at Sunset
Kelso Dunes at Mojave National Preserve at Sunset

I double-checked my camera and tripod--they were ready to go. I made sure my flashlight was packed. I rechecked the weather one more time. Everything was in order, so I hit the road. This time I exited the interstate at Nipton Road and then turned onto Ivanpah Road to enter the preserve from the north. Like last time, after exiting the interstate I was pretty much isolated. That’s definitely one of the features of the preserve. If you want to get away from everything, this is a good place to do it. Actually, it was a much busier day. I saw more than 10 times the number of cars I saw last time. Of course, since I only saw one or two last time, that’s not saying much!

The Kelso Dunes are some of the tallest sand dunes in the country and took about 25,000 years to form as they are now. The tallest dune is over 600 feet high. That’s somewhere between 50 and 60 stories tall, and hiking up into the dunes was not a simple walk. It’s like walking on a beach that’s all uphill. For every two to three steps you take you advance about one and a half steps as you slog through the sand. Very quickly, my boots started filling up with sand, which made things even more difficult. The last part was the hardest part, where it’s a steep uphill climb onto the main dune.

Kelso Sand Dunes in Mojave National Preserve
Kelso Sand Dunes in Mojave National Preserve

I turned onto the main dune and looked down at the sand. Along the way, the sand has ripples from the wind as seen in this picture. Once I was on the main dune, it was different. The eastern side of the dune, which was facing into the wind, had what looked like the same ripples, but actually the surface of the sand was flat. The rippled pattern was a design caused by variations in the darker and lighter sand. All of the sand I saw on the way up was the lighter kind, and I’m not really sure where this darker sand comes from.

Alternating light and dark sand pattern on Kelso Dunes
Alternating light and dark sand pattern on Kelso Dunes
Closeup of sand pattern
Closeup of sand pattern

It’s a beautiful pattern, and I kind of felt bad disturbing it by walking on it. But it’s amazing how quickly the wind shifts the sand around and reforms the patterns. I was up on the dune for an hour and a half or so, and by the time I was leaving, most traces of my presence were already gone. I’m sure that within a couple of hours there would be no evidence I had walked there at all.

Going back down was much easier than going up! And this time around I had my flashlight with me. I stopped a couple times on the way down to do some experimental moonlight photography. The trail was dark, so I was glad to have that light. When I arrived at the car, the first thing I did was took off my hiking boots and emptied a huge pile of sand onto the ground! What a relief that was. By now all that sand is back on the dunes where it belongs.

I am very glad I returned to visit the Kelso Dunes. It’s really an amazing place. I was also pleased with the photographs I came back with. That was pretty much what I was envisioning and hoping for.

Struggling to Photograph Mojave National Preserve, Part 1

When I was preparing to leave home to go to the Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve, something told me I should bring my book. I did, and that was just about the only thing that went right that day. Well, it wasn’t a complete failure--I did end up with the image below, but I didn’t get to visit the dunes at all in what was close to being a comedy of errors.

Joshua Trees in Mojave National Preserve
Joshua Trees in Mojave National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve is about two hours south of Las Vegas. Many people drive by it on I-15 on their way between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but few stop to explore there. It is really an interesting place. It’s isolated, and it feels that way. It’s quiet--very quiet. It’s a little spooky. Once I exited the interstate and started driving on Kelbaker Road into the preserve, I was alone. On the way to Kelso Depot, which is a train station where there is a visitor’s center and which is located nearly 30 miles into the preserve, I passed only one car headed in the opposite direction. I pulled over and got out of the car at one point. There was absolute silence. The only thing I heard was the occasional noise made by various insects nearby.

I arrived at the depot just as they were closing. When I say “they,” I mean the single park ranger who works there. So I got back on the road and continued to my destination, the Kelso Dunes. These dunes are some of the highest and largest sand dunes in the country. The highest dune is around 600 feet. They are clean sand, too. They’re not littered with brush or other small plants. It really feels like you’re in the middle of the Sahara.

Unfortunately, things did not go so well. I was leaving home later than I had planned, so I thought I probably would not have time for one of the hikes I wanted to do, but at the same time I would probably have some time on my hands before sunset when I was planning to shoot the dunes, so I brought my book with me. It’s a good thing. I had checked the weather report the day before, and it said it would be partly cloudy during the day and mostly clear in the evening. The forecast was correct, except that it left out the possibility of scattered thunderstorms, or maybe I just missed that part. A storm cell was forming right over the dunes as I was driving toward the area!

Thunderstorm over Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve
Thunderstorm over Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve

When I arrived at the trailhead, there were dark clouds, thunder, some lightening, and the beginnings of some showers. I wasn’t about to go out and climb to the top of a 600 foot high sand dune with no trees or any other cover and carrying a metal tripod, making myself the absolute tallest thing in the area when a thunderstorm is in progress! So I sat in the car, waited, and read my book. I hoped the storm would pass quickly and leave me time to do the hike and find a good spot for photography before sunset. It didn’t. Eventually I had to give it up. It got too late for me to be able to get to a good position in time even if things did clear up. Strike one.

Interestingly and somewhat maddeningly, the rest of the sky was pretty clear. It was just like the forecast had said. The storm was only over the dunes, right where I wanted to be. I decided to try to salvage the trip by finding some other things to photograph. Kelso Depot itself is an interesting building, so I headed back in that direction. When I got there, I didn’t even bother to stop. The light was terrible. The sun was completely blocked by the storm, so instead of the nice golden light that would have been falling on the depot at this time, it was completely in dull shadows. I kept going.

On my way out of the preserve, I passed through the Joshua Tree forest. I found a field of some trees that would make a nice subject, so I pulled over and took some test shots. It was starting to get a little too dark, and I needed my tripod. I got the tripod out and set it up. When I went to put the camera on the tripod, I couldn’t believe it. The mounting plate that connects the camera to the tripod was missing! Normally I leave that attached to the camera at all times, but I remembered that I had switched it to my secondary camera a few days earlier and never moved it back. Strike two!

I did the best I could under the circumstances. I ended up with the image at the beginning of the article, which I do like. I may have taken a different photograph if I had had more time, but the light was changing very rapidly, I was fumbling around with the tripod with its missing mounting plate, and I was about to lose an opportunity for any picture at all. There were also a lot of holes in the ground, and I was expecting a snake or some other unwelcome animal to make an appearance at any time. So I quickly decided on this composition.

OK, so it wasn’t all that bad. It could have been worse. I could have gotten a flat tire or run out of gas in the middle of this deserted place. And I did get a lot of reading done! After I got home, I realized that I had forgotten my flashlight too. I usually don’t need it, but I always like to bring it in case I do stay out a little later (or arrive before there’s any light at all). That’s strike three!

But in photography, you’re never out. I’ll just go back again, and eventually I’ll get to shoot those dunes.

To be continued….