From Vegas to Valley of Fire State Park

With the blinking lights of the Vegas strip in the rearview mirror, and nothing ahead but vast desert landscape, my destination was the Valley of Fire State Park. While it's only a one hour drive, it feels worlds away from the bustling city center. There are no houses or businesses, just dry arid land and powerful mountains in the distance. Gas stations are also sparse, and this is definitely not a place you'd want to be stuck. The sun is relentless, and I constantly felt thirsty in this dry air. Eventually the GPS cut out, and I was left to simply follow signs. North on 15 towards Salt Lake City...


While listening to my road trip music (Neil Young, and also Joni Mitchell), I noticed fighter jets screeching across the open sky. They were too far to identify, but appeared to be either F18 or F22 jets. It was incredible to see their silhouette set against the snow capped mountain tops. Just minutes later I saw what looked to be a Drone with the circular attachment on top. A roadside sign noted a nearby Air Force Base, possibly explaining the military aircrafts. Back on the road, the traffic around me had changed from pedestrian vehicles to mostly eighteen wheelers. 

Once at the park, I had my first "what the what!?" as I noticed a long range of crimson red rock set against a rugged wide open landscape. Cheerfully paid the $10 toll and began to explore in my rented Jeep. Surrounded by astounding natural features, I was tempted to pull off everywhere. Although it was mid afternoon, the light was terrific as the blue sky perfectly complemented the rich mountain colors. This was enhanced even further with a twist of the circular polarizer. 

I was using two cameras, the Canon 6D, and the Olympus OMD EM10. Both had their benefits, but overall the user experience was more fun with the mirrorless camera. At each pull off I would get out of the car and explore beyond the gaggle of tourists.

Sometimes it would only take a few minutes to find a hidden little arch or a breathtaking vista. The adventure had just begun and I was already dumbfounded by the expansive beauty of the park. 

One of the longer hikes I took was the Rainbow Wave, where prickly cactuses poked out from the red sand, making an interesting foreground for the bold mountains. With the overwhelming amount of natural beauty it was challenging to make a simpler photo. I made a good number of images while testing a variety of compositions. The trail was named after the extremely colorful patterns on the rocks. One of the most exciting finds was a prominent band of color not typically found in nature. I got down very low to emphasize this. 


When working in a mountainous region, the precise time of the sunset can be deceiving. While the actual time it dips below the horizon may be 5:30pm, it can be blocked by mountains 30-45 minutes earlier than that. Knowing this, I set out for my sunset destination around 3pm.


It was called "The Fire Wave" and the trail head noted an easy 1.2 mile roundtrip hike. I had researched the location while still in New York and set off with a bounce in my step, excited to see it for myself. The trail was well marked, which is necessary considering how large this place is. In fact, the designation of a "State Park" is misleading, at least to me. Considering the sheer size and majesty of this area, it could easily qualify as a National Park. Anticipation built as I came around each breathtaking bend.


 The sand eventually made way for these impossibly long, massive rock formations, complete with deep ridges and colorful stripes. This signaled that my destination was near. Joy built with each step, and I pondered just how unbelievable this planet we live on is, and how important it is to travel, get out, have adventures and see as much of it as possible.


I waved to a few hikers who were resting nearby, climbed over one final boulder and saw first hand why this was called the Fire Wave. The sweeping curve of the rock is dramatic, further emphasized by these thick bands of contrasting color.


In the background stands an extensive series of mountains, all of which were being illuminated nicely by the sun, now lower in the sky. Again, the polarizing filter was essential here to really bring out the vivid colors of these natural features. I was shooting wide, basically between 17mm and 35mm, using both horizontal and vertical compositions. 


With the shots I had hoped for in the camera, I decided to hike a bit further to find another spot for the actual sunset. This turned out to be a good decision as many more impressive photos were found nearby. Once again, I found the most dynamic compositions from the ground. Laying there on the warm rock, I was felt a connection to this amazing location. 


Along the way, I came across one last mountain vista, and used a graduated ND filter to balance the bright sky with the dark foreground. With that, my final Las Vegas photo adventure was done. I hiked back to the Jeep and carefully drove the long, winding and dark roads out of the park. There in the distance, I could see the blinking lights of the strip, and I followed this all the way back to my hotel for a well deserved dinner, and restful night of sleep.