Last week I visited sunny Pasadena to present the five years of scientific research I have been working on, and I’m happy to say that I now have my PhD in Control and Dynamical Systems from Caltech (unofficially, that is – there’s still some administrative paperwork to be shuffled around). In brief, I studied how a fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), which has a brain 1 millionth the size of the human brain, is able to use visual cues and odors to locate, and land on, food sources. The results represent a step forwards towards understanding how their brains function, and because of the similarity between nervous systems across species, they also represent a step towards understanding how our own brains function. I will write up a more detailed synopsis in the near future, illustrated by photographs of course.

To celebrate, I spent Thanksgiving week with my parents in Death Valley National Park – a family tradition that dates back to my childhood in California. By my estimates, over the course of these trips I must have spent more than 4 months within the park (some of it before Death Valley was designated as a National Park in 1994). And yet, there are still many places I have yet to visit. After spending the past 3 years in the Pacific Northwest surrounded (sometimes trapped) by enormous green trees, clouds and rain, and glaciated mountain peaks, it was incredibly relaxing to be back in infinite expanse of the desert. The warmth, freedom, comfort, silence, vastness, mystery, and subtle beauty are more therapeutic than any other environment I have experienced.

We started our trip with a visit to my favorite dunes, far from the throngs of tourists. The warm sunset light and parting clouds were a wonderful welcome back.

Sunset Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Wild Sands : Prints Available

Sunset on the dunes, in California's Death Valley National Park.

Sunset Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Sunset Dunes : Prints Available

Sunset over the dunes in Death Valley National Park.

On these trips we always camp in the backcountry. One of the first things that struck me was the silence. Complete silence. Not a breeze, not a chirp, car, or plane. In the Northwest, even when far from the bustle of civilization, there are always streams, winds, rustling leaves, crashing waves, singing birds, etc. I had never realized quite how special that silence was until having missed it for so long.

Creosote, Death Valley National Park, California

Creosote : Prints Available

A lone Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) takes in the view of its siblings in the wash below, under the golden light of sunset in California's Death Valley National Park.

Although with a name like Death Valley you might not expect to find much (living) wildlife, there are in fact many desert creatures that call that park their home. On our trip we saw several burros (wild donkeys), an adorable kit fox that visited out camp, and a coyote.

Coyote, Death Valley National Park, Telescope Peak

Desert Coyote : Prints Available

A coyote poses in front of the vast landscape of Death Valley National Park. Snowy Telescope Peak looms in the distance.

Hidden along the many mountain ranges surrounding Death Valley are countless canyons that carve their way through thousands of feet of ancient geological layers. Only a few of these canyons have relatively easy access, which means adventure and solitude can easily be found by picking a distant feature to explore. On this trip we visited several canyons that I had previously never been to. Though much of Death Valley is rather muted in color, there are pockets of brilliant reds and oranges if you look closely. I can’t wait to be back in the area for an extended period of time next year!

Brilliant Colors, Canyon, Death Valley National Park

Fantasy Canyon : Prints Available

A deep canyon cuts through a pocket of incredibly brilliant colors in California's Death Valley National Park.

Canyon Hiker, Death Valley National Park, Colorful

Canyon Wonder : Prints Available

A hiker (my mother) takes in the incredibly colorful scenery of this remote canyon in Death Valley National Park. 

Mud Slot Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California

Mystery Mud : Prints Available

Golden reflected lighted beckons ahead, in this narrow slot canyon composed of mud and rocks in California's Death Valley National Park.

Beautiful Slot Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California

Geological Rainbow : Prints Available

A myriad of colorful rock formations come together in this beautiful slot canyon in California's Death Valley National Park.

Tags: , ,

11 Comments to “Desert Therapy – Death Valley National Park”

  1. Your desert photographs are therapeutic to the viewer as well. Congratulations on your PhD. Way to go. Now if you can just figure out why some of our brains don’t work, there you might have something too.

  2. Floris –
    First, congratulations on your accomplishment and degree. I hope your investment of time and resources proves vastly worthwhile.

    I’ve followed you for years and always enjoy seeing a new post in my Feedly reader. Yes, I live vicariously and hope your adventures and great photography continue for many many years. Thanks for sharing your life.

    Bravo. Go forth….

  3. Thanks David and Bruce!

  4. kelly Morgan says:

    Congratulations, Dr van Breugel!

    A leap for humanity, and I also hope this frees up more time for your photography. Inspiring on so many levels.

    Kelly Morgan

  5. Navin Sarma says:

    Inspirational images, as always. Congrats, Dr. van Breugel! A major achievement

  6. Sarah Marino says:

    Congratulations on finishing your PhD! Best wishes for the next chapter in your life, which I too hope includes more photography.

  7. Kim gray sent me this link because I’ll be making my second trip to DV soon. I’m planning to camp at Eureka Dunes, among other places. Thanks for the inspiration!

  8. Richard Wong says:

    Congrats Dr. Van Breugel! Lovely work as usual. It will be interesting to see your images from the PhD project.

  9. Beautiful, warm images! I could use some desert therapy and it only the beginning of the winter here in the east. Thank you for warming me up and congratulations.

  10. Really beautiful pictures! merry Christmas!//Jonathan

  11. Bruce says:


    Thanks for the desert therapy! Found your site from browsing the site

    What perfect timing to find your photos of DVNP, which is on my bucket list of places to still visit. I am an east-coaster and looking out my office window at 6 inches of snow, 18 degrees and a bitter wind.

    Thanks for the inspirational photos and a little therapy to get me through this winter in the northeast.

    Congrats on the PhD!