While visiting Death Valley National Park, I took advantage of every opportunity to experience some sunrise photography. My favorite area of the park was Badwater Basin salt flats, a white sea of salt in the middle of nowhere, 282 feet below sea level. The only two souls for miles, we arrived at 5:30am and ventured far out into the dark, eerie morning abyss. After walking for about 30 minutes, the pristine salt crystals started to form beneath our feet, an otherworldly landscape taking shape. We stopped in the middle of the vast basin, looked around us, and saw nothing but salt, mountains, and sky. The cold air was dense with silence.
We photographed the blue morning light, sunrise arriving an hour late due to the extremely low elevation and surrounding mountains. The sun first warmed the mountain peaks in the distance before slowly spreading across the salt flats. We saw it getting closer, creating shadows in the hexagonal rock formations as it made its way toward us.
When those orange tones hit the ground beneath our feet, everything changed. The landscape took another shape, a livelier shape, one full of color. This is what we had come for. Basked in the orange morning glow, we got the photos we had envisioned, capturing a celebration of the elements in one of the most barren spots on earth.
When those orange tones hit the ground beneath our feet, everything changed.
How to See the Sunrise at Badwater Basin Salt Flats
Best Time of Year to Visit Death Valley
The best time of year to visit Badwater Basin Salt Flats and do some sunrise photography is in the cooler months of October through May. Avoid visits in the summer months, as the high temperatures and extreme climate can be very dangerous. In the summer, Death Valley can reach scorching temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 Celsius). On winter and spring days, you can expect to enjoy blissful sunny weather averaging at about 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 Celsius).
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Budget Enough Time to See the Sunrise at Badwater Basin Salt Flats
What I learned from my experience was that I needed to walk much farther than I expected to reach the area of Badwater Basin I had seen in photos. I went there seeking the pristine hexagonal shapes of white salt that looked like the surface of another planet. When you arrive at the parking lot for Badwater Basin, however, that is not what welcomes you. Instead there is white solid ground as far as the eye can see. There may have been salt formations there at one point in time, but it’s likely that the daily tread of visitors has turned it into a flat surface.
Trust me, keep walking. Set out walking into the distance, and keep going. You will eventually reach the salt rock formations you’re looking for. I timed it, and it turns out I walked for about 30 minutes before I reached the area I decided was good enough for some sunrise photography at Badwater Basin. I saw a few other photographers way further out than I was. The extremely flat surface makes it a bit hard to judge distance just based on sight, but I would estimate that they walked for at least an hour to reach where they were. So if you’re planning to be out in the perfect spot when the sun peaks over the mountains, be sure to budget 30 minutes to an hour of walking.
Prepare for Sunrise to be Late
Another thing I learned from my experience is that the sun didn’t rise when my weather app told me it would. I had planned to arrive early enough to trek out onto the salt flats, find the perfect spot, and get some great shots in the blue light before dawn. What I didn’t plan for was waiting an extra hour out there on the flats. Due to the extremely low elevation and surrounding mountains, this wasn’t the typical sunrise photography experience. The sun didn’t reach us until an hour later than expected.
So do your research on the planned sunrise time, and expect it to be later. I recommend staying inside the park if you can to reduce your early morning drive. I stayed at the Ranch Hotel at Death Valley Oasis and it was awesome having a short driving distance to the salt flats.
Parking at Badwater Basin Salt Flats
I parked in the main parking lot for Badwater Basin and it worked just fine for me. It is a paved lot with marked spaces, and as you look down from the parking lot, you will see the sign for Badwater Basin. There is a restroom near the lot as well. When I had arrived at 5:30 in the morning, my husband and I were the only ones there, it was dark, and I was doubting if we were in the right place. So I am here to let you know that you are in the right place. I saw some other cars drive past the lot and park on the side of the road. That was probably fine as well, but it didn’t seem to get them much closer.
What to Bring for Sunrise at Badwater Basin Salt Flats
- Water. There is literally nothing out there, so be sure to be prepared with water and snacks. Remember: the farther you walk out, the farther you have to walk back. The full sunrise adventure could easily take a few hours. Reusable bottles like Hydroflasks are recommended if avoiding plastics.
- Comfortable shoes: This seems obvious, but if you’re like me, I wore the cute shoes (uncomfortable shoes) that I wanted to be wearing in my photos. It was an unpleasant surprise to learn how much walking was required. You’ll be walking on even surfaces at some points, and will be constantly stepping over the lines of rock salt.
- First aid kit. I always mention this one, but it seems like it is especially necessary when going out to see the sunrise at Badwater Basin salt flats. Firstly, you’ll be walking in the dark, and secondly, that rock salt is sharp. If you fall out on those flats, it is going to be painful and there is going to be some scrapes. I don’t know how I didn’t fall when I was there, especially while trying to walk around looking cool and collected for my photos and not looking at the ground where I was stepping.
- Flashlight if arriving in the dark.
- Back up batteries. With non stop sunrise photography and probably a fair share of waiting around, you can expect to use up all the batteries on your camera and phone. Bring some back ups just in case.
- Towel or blanket to sit on. There was a long wait time, and that white salt gets all over your clothes. Best to put something down to sit on while you wait for the sun.
Be Sure to Actually Wait for the Sun
I admit there was a moment where I thought about turning back early. I had come there for sunrise photography, but had other plans to see the rest of Death Valley that day. The sun was about 45 minutes late at that point, and it was getting cold out. I didn’t know how much longer it was going to be, and the sun was still only hitting the mountains way in the distance. Eventually I saw a warm glow on some of the ground, but it was very far away. Again, it’s hard to judge distance when the surface is that flat. I decided to start walking towards the lit up ground in the distance and meet the sun halfway. It was a total game changer, and I’m so extremely thankful I didn’t leave early.
Planning a Trip to Death Valley?
- Check out my post on Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Learn when to visit and how to be prepared.
- Be sure to include Zabriskie Point in your visit.
- Consider a full day, small group tour of Death Valley from Las Vegas, Nevada.
Pin it for Later: Sunrise at Badwater Basin
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