On October 3rd, 2014, my buddy Alex and I packed up some photography gear and hit the road for Las Vegas. Our motives were atypical though--we weren't headed for the strip, and had no interest in the casinos. We wanted to see the Valley of Fire, Nevada's oldest state park located about 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas proper. Armed with five cameras, two iPhones, and lots of water, we set off for Nevada.
We stayed the night in a hotel in Henderson, NV just outside of Vegas, and since we left late on Friday afternoon, that was our first stop. The hotel was located right on Lake Las Vegas, and had a clever little beach and boating area right off to the side of the pools and patio. It was around midnight when we got in, and being that I had rented a Sony A7s for this trip, we thought it was a good idea to head out and test the low-light capabilities of this particularly legendary camera.
There wasn't much going on at the hotel that night, and most of the common areas were pretty much empty. Nevertheless, we found a few interesting spots to take some pictures and give the Sony A7s some difficult lighting to work with.
Valley of Fire
The next morning we hit the road for the Valley of Fire. The route we took circled the northern side of Lake Mead, and from the moment we entered the Lake Mead recreation area, we were immediately taken aback by the scenery. It's so incredibly stark, with nothing but a seemingly endless stretch of shockingly gigantic rock formations. The immense scale of everything is difficult to describe, but even more difficult to photograph.
About halfway to Valley of Fire, we had to pull over to just to take in the massiveness of this scenery. It's really amazing and unlike anything I'd ever seen before.
Once we arrived at Valley of Fire, we paid our fees and started winding around the park itself. There are a number hiking trails throughout the park, but we decided to go in as far as we could and explore one of the most prominent: the White Domes Trail. The view from the parking lot was underwhelming, but the trail ahead was highly recommended so I was eager to see what the fuss was about. As we climbed up and over the first rock formation, it all became pretty obvious why we had come here.
The immense scale of these rock formations is damn near impossible to communicate in these pictures, but if you take a look at the picture above, towards the middle you will see a couple of fellow hikers on top of a rock below us. Yes, those are people, and yes they look like ants. These rocks were absolutely massive.
In the image below, we encounter the same issue. Scale is such a hard thing to convey in photos, especially with scenery like this where there is very little contrast between what you're standing on and what's far below. In this photo we were standing on top of a rock that was likely 75 feet up from the trail below to the left. This was, as far as I'm concerned, a cliff.
Red, White, and Beige
The other part of this incredible location that is difficult to convey in photographs is the significant variation in rock formation color. One rock is red, and just around the corner it's a sandy white. I have no idea why exactly that is, but it makes for endlessly interesting photographs and constantly changing scenery. By looking at these photos it may seem that we're in a completely different location each time, but in reality most of these were taken along a single 1.25 mile hiking trail. Bizarre.
We finished hiking the White Domes trail and hobbled our way up to the car to pack up and head to the next one. The light was starting to get interesting at this point, as the rocks caused fascinating hard shadows and constant variations in lighting conditions.
Below is a picture of me taken by Alex, and then a picture of Alex taking that picture of me. I was standing in a pillar in light.
This is the last part of the park that we stopped at, and I can't for the life of me remember what it's called. It wasn't as much of a trail as White Domes was, but instead was simply a cluster of enormous dark formations, the tallest of which had to have been 150 feet. Alex climbed that one, but fearing for my life, I decided to sit it out and enjoy the scenery. Again, as the sun was starting to go down, the light started getting interesting and casting nice shadows.
Alex then climbed on top of an outhouse to get a good picture from high up, and nearly killed himself when he fell off of it. If only I had gotten that on video.
Sweaty, tired, and hungry, we packed up the car and headed back to the hotel. I didn't have my Leica with me during the hikes, mostly because I didn't want to damage it while climbing, but I did manage to snap this picture of Alex in the parking lot just before we packed up to go home.
Conclusion: EVERYONE NEEDS TO SEE THIS PLACE
There aren't a lot of places like this, that despite spending all-day hiking around, they continue to blow your mind as you're driving away. I wish our pictures had done a better job conveying how incredible of a place this is, but I guess that's always a challenge with photography. There was no shortage of things to see, rocks to climb, and pictures to take, and I could (and would happily) spend another weekend there without question.
As far as the gear goes, the Sony A7s performed admirably. It's small and light, but solid and confident feeling. The electronic viewfinder is incredible. There are no other words to describe it: it's simply incredible. Not to mention the low light performance, and the awesome flexibility of the files. This camera is a winner, there's no doubt about it.
The real surprise was how much I enjoyed the Rokinon 14mm f2.8 lens. I was admittedly a bit concerned about only bringing a single lens with me to test with this camera, not to mention a fully manual lens. But I found that manually focusing was a piece of cake with the focus assistance and excellent viewfinder, and the resulting images were absolutely stunning. It's not perfect, and is in no way distortion-free, but in real-world use that doesn't seem to matter much, and for the price, I'm not sure that you can do any better than this. If I were putting together a Sony A7 system, this would be an absolute must-have for my kit.
The Fuji X100 was great too, although I didn't shoot with it nearly as much as I thought I would. I don't have much to say about the X100--it's an X100. It's small, fun to shoot with, and the images are nothing short of incredible. With the latest firmware, focusing is snappy and accurate, and manual focus is actually usable. The built-in ND filter is a god-send in situations like this, and that alone is reason enough for it to always be in my bag.
Extra: Rock-A-Hoola Waterpark
On the way back to Los Angeles, we decided to stop at an abandoned waterpark that I've seen explored a few times. It was built in the early 60's and experienced ownership turnovers, revenue issues, and eventually closed for good when an employee used one of the slides after-hours, was crippled, and thus awarded $4.5 million in damages. Already strapped for cash, and unable to find a buyer, Rock-A-Hoola closed it's doors for good in 2004.
There have been rumors of reopening swirling around for the past year or so, but such rumors have been met with equal opposition claiming that there are no such plans. The property does, however, have a new owner that has hired full-time security. Unfortunately this means that we were booted off the property just as quickly as we arrived, but I did manage to catch a few pictures before we were forced to leave.
All the slides have been removed, and not much is left but the remains of an arcade, a snack bar, and a few other smaller buildings. It's heavily vandalized and destroyed, covered in graffiti, and completely dead. It's strange and almost uncomfortable to see an amusement park in this kind of state--a place that once brought joy to many, now in ruins.
Five minutes later, before we had even ventured into the main park area, an angry man in a truck yelled at us to vacate the property. So we did, and that was the end of that.
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