Famed aviation photographer Jim Mumaw shares his thoughts on how to enjoy one of the most unique places to spot military aircraft in the United States.
Editors Update: Jim Mumaw was able to photograph the C-17 in Star Wars Canyon this past week. This is the first high quality photo seen in the canyon. We share the rest of his article highlighting his many journeys to the canyon to photograph amazing aircraft. Check it out!
Death Valley National Monument, the name conjures up visions of desolation and remote silence broken only by the winds blowing across the valley floor. Amid the natural solitude, on the eastern side of the monument, it’s a much different story. It’s one of the world of aviation’s most unheard of treasures.
Along Highway 190, which winds its way from the small town of Olancha on I-395 in the Owens Valley at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Death Valley, is a canyon of note. The maps call it Rainbow Canyon but to pilots, it’s “Star Wars Canyon”. Just before descending down a winding path into the Panamint Valley, there’s a small paved parking lot. The sign says Father Crowley Point but to aviation enthusiasts, it might as well say Wonderland.
Tourists gather at the railings overlooking the canyon which, at points, has red-colored outcroppings. Suddenly, the silence is broken by the sound of approaching jet engines. A form, at first small, comes around from the northeast and drops down into the canyon. It’s a fighter jet! Within seconds the shape of an F/A-18 Hornet is discernable as it drops well below the walls of the canyon and, in no time, an F/A-18F Super Hornet from the Black Knights comes roaring past below the tourists, yanking and banking as the crew navigates through the winding canyon and out into the valley ahead.
Welcome to one of the only places that a person can drive to, get out of their car and walk a matter of feet to see such a show of power and skill. The action can range from nothing to spectacular with no set schedule so it’s always a gamble. And there’s no guarantee as to what aircraft you might see.
It’s fun to watch the tourists look up as the aircraft scream by below them. It’s human nature to look upward instead of below one’s feet to see jets flying. On a summer’s day, very many dialects can be heard among the tourists. One day, I heard French, British, Australian, German, Swiss, Japanese, Spanish (from Spain) and even Dutch.
Planes from NAWS China Lake, NAS Lemoore, the ANG in Fresno, Nellis AFB and even Edwards AFB come smashing through the canyon. You can see F/A-18 E & F Super Hornets, Ea-18G Growlers, F-15 Eagles and even T-38 Talons and F-16s from Edwards AFB. More rare are the Rescue copter from China Lake’s VX-31 as well as the UH-1Y Venom, also from China Lake with VX-9. One never knows what will show up. British GR4 Tornados have also been seen as well as A-4 Skyhawks of a private company. It all depends on luck as to what you’ll see. The training area has been in use for decades. Well back into the 20th century and before jet aircraft, pilots have used it for honing their skills.
There are some things to keep in mind when if you decide to take the challenge to go to the canyon though. It is Death Valley, so depending upon the time of year, you need to be prepared to boil or freeze. Water is imperative regardless. Also good tires if you venture away from any paved area. There are different spots that photographers venture but once you leave the pavement for marked dirt roads, you must stay on the dirt roads only (no off roading) and those roads are ripe at time with potholes and, always rife with tire killing rocks.
It is within a national monument so the landscape must be left as you found it. No changing things around for a more comfortable experience, no stacking rocks, don’t even take any home. And… NO litter or trash! This is a treasure but the Federal Government can shut down access to it by closing roads, etc. if they believe that it is being abused in any way. You’ll also suffer the wrath of the regular photographers and enthusiasts who jealously guard the area against abuse, not to mention the rangers.
It must also be stressed that, if you choose to view the action away from the safety of the parking area’s railings, the drop into the canyon will almost always mean a body recovery opposed to a rescue for anybody unlucky enough to misstep or lose their situational awareness as the aircraft come by.
A lot of things to keep in mind, but they will make for a safer and more enjoyable experience as well as keep this wonder available to all for years to come.