The Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada is an amazing place of red rock sandstone, sweeping vistas, vast desert, and wildlife. If you are interested in photographing spectacular desert scenery or just spending time getting back to nature the Valley of Fire is the perfect place to go. Located just 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada and about 16 miles south of Overton, Nevada, the Valley of Fire has easy access off Interstate 15. It is also easy to make day trips to the park from Mesquite or Las Vegas.
Photographing at Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
The Valley of Fire State Park is a public recreation area and nature preserve encompassing an area of nearly 46,000 acres and sits in a four by six mile basin. The park derives its name from the Aztec Sandstone formations which often appear to be on fire when reflecting the sunshine. The area was designated as a state park in 1935 but it had been visited and inhabited by Native Americans as early as 300 B.C. There are many prehistoric petroglyphs in the park created by these ancient peoples. Please always be mindful of the fragile nature of this ancient art and do not be tempted to mark over it or destroy it in anyway.
Here is a video of one of my adventures in the Valley of Fire you may enjoy watching.
Visiting the Valley of Fire is a must for me whenever I am in the Las Vegas area. Many times I will camp in one of the two campgrounds, Arch Rock or Atlatl Rock. These campsites are first come first serve so get there early to ensure you can find a spot. The best time of year to stay in the park is late fall, winter and spring. Summer can be brutally hot in the park so if you are visiting that time of year make sure to wear proper clothing to protect your skin and drink plenty of water.
The light in the Valley can be amazing for photographing. The surrounding desert allows the light to shine at very low angles especially in late fall, winter and early spring. If you are in the park during the summer, scout the areas you want to photograph during midday. Then, be on location before the sun comes up or an hour or so before sunset so you can be ready for the light. Good photography is about finding your composition beforehand and then waiting for the perfect light and atmospheric condition. Sometimes you can get lucky and just be in the right place at the right time but having a plan and being in the right spot when the light happens is a good recipe for success.
The Valley of Fire is not large and you can drive to any point in the park fairly quickly. Some of my favorite locations to hang out are White Domes, Fire Wave Trail, and Fire Canyon/Silica Dome. Rainbow Vista is another of my favorite places though it is very popular and can be crowded. The view down the road towards the visitors center is an amazing perspective to photograph.
THE ROAD GOES EVER ON...
There is abundant wildlife in the park, including rodents, rabbits, birds, and desert bighorn sheep. Many years ago while exploring the park with my wife I noticed an owl was living in the area between Atlatl and Arch Rock Campgrounds. We found the Great-horned owl, and I was able to get a photograph that I titled Silent Watcher. I have since returned many times trying to find the owl again but no luck. On my most recent trip I did find one of their feathers and spent some time photographing it in the light of a shady grotto far back in a box canyon. I titled this series "Feather Light" and am very happy with these photographs. Please remember to take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints when visiting any outdoor area. It is also against the law to posses any bird of prey feather including owls unless you are part of a First Nations Tribe. When I was done photographing the feather I placed it back where I found it.
FEATHER LIGHT SERIES- QUIETUDE
Desert Bighorn sheep are abundant in the park. You can almost always find them in the Rainbow Vista and Mouse's Tank areas. I also found some living in the area of the Arch Rock and Atlatl Rock campgrounds. Bighorn sheep are amazing animals to watch and photograph but remember they are wild and can harm you if you get too close. I like using a telephoto lens to photograph wildlife and usually use 300 millimeter or longer to keep a safe distance from large animals.
I found the above ram watching me from a ledge as I was exploring a box canyon and was able to spend some time photographing him from a safe distance. Just remember don't box in animals, leave them an escape route if they want to leave the area. Wild animals that are use to humans can be dangerous when approached so keep a safe distance of at least 75 feet (25 yards) from large herbivores and 100 yards from predators.
Here is a video of my adventure finding and photographing some desert bighorn sheep in the Valley of Fire for your enjoyment.
Desert bighorn sheep are beautiful majestic animals that are highly skilled at climbing the sandstone rocks and ledges of the valley. I'm often amazed at their gymnastics of jumping and climbing as if they are just having fun. You can spend hours watching and photographing the sheep in the valley and being entertained by their antics. Some photography tips for getting clear images of animals are:
1. Use a high ISO 1500 or higher.
2. Use a wide aperture setting to help blur the background. This isolates the animal making it be the main subject of the photograph and will also give you the exposure latitude to shoot with a faster shutter speed.
3. Use a faster shutter speed to control camera movement and blur.
4. Use a tripod if possible. This technique will help steady the camera improving your chances of a sharp image.
I took these photographs of the sheep at ISO 1600 f/5 and about 1/1000 sec.
Once the sun sets over the Valley of Fire a whole other world awakens. Many animals are active at night and are not as scared by flashlights as you would think. Even though the park closes at sunset if you are camping in one of the campgrounds you can find many places to explore after dark in those areas. Just make sure to have a good flashlight or headlamp and extra batteries and enjoy the solitude the nighttime has to offer. The Valley of Fire has some wonderful views of the night sky, especially if you are looking south and southeast. If you are looking west and southwest you will see the lights of Las Vegas on the horizon but even then you can get some amazing night sky photographs. I took the photograph below in between the two campgrounds on October 19, 2017 looking southwest. I found the lights from Las Vegas added to the interest of the image by giving some contrast and color in the sky over the red rocks. The rocks are lit by a passing car that was coming into the Arch Rock campground. Spring is the best time to photograph the night sky in the park because the Milky Way rises in the southeastern sky with very little light pollution in that direction. My typical exposures for night sky photography are ISO 6400 f/2.8 and 15-30 seconds of exposure time. Learning how to edit photographs in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop will also greatly improve your photography. I took some liberty with the image below and adjusted the contrast to lighten the shadows and highlights then dodged the highlights, burned the blacks in the sky, adjusted the color and used a brush to add the magenta highlight areas in the sky. This technique replicated atmospheric conditions I have photographed in other places where the sky had a slight magenta hue. I don't normally add to my images but in this case I just felt it needed something more.
FIRE IN THE SKY
If you have never been to the Valley of Fire State Park and you are going to Las Vegas it is worth the time to make the hour long drive and enjoy some classic southwest desert scenery. Winter is the best time of year to go unless you are looking to photograph specific things like the night sky, then spring and early summer are best. Remember to obey the park rules and do not take any objects or mark any of the rock faces with graffiti. Watch for wildlife and enjoy photographing it but keep your distance. Get out and explore and take in the desert in all its raw sandy glory, you never know what beauty you will find!