One of the most iconic desert photo locations is the dry lake bed/playa — that vast, flat, cracked moonscape-type surface you see in almost every western-U.S. Model Mayhem portfolio, usually featuring a naked chick twirling around with a piece of fabric or something blowing in the wind. These playas are actual lakebeds that puddle up with water after our infrequent heavy rains, and then dry back out a few days later, leaving a perfect, smooth, cracked surface that is GREAT for shooting — and as mentioned, very popular with the MM set. Luckily, there are several dry lake beds around Vegas, so all the photographers don’t crowd each other out 🙂
The closest playa to Vegas is El Dorado Dry Lake, just 30 minutes south of the Vegas Strip. It’s right off the U.S. 95 — you literally just drive right off the side of the highway and onto the lake bed, and head back as far as you want (it’s fairly flat, so you can do it just about any type of car). Because this lake bed is so convenient to town, it’s very heavily used — there are usually one or two photo shoots going on out there at any given time, plus other people driving around on dirt bikes, flying around in light planes and even practicing on their drum kits (I have personally witnessed all of the above). But the lake bed is big enough that there’s plenty of room for all of this, and you can usually shoot pretty much unmolested.
But because it’s so heavily used, the surface of El Dorado tends to get pretty beat up — especially after a rain, when numbers of stupid fucking redneck troglodytes come out and go muddin’ in their trucks, dirt bikes, ATVs, OHVs and assorted other RNMVs (that’s Redneck Noise-Makin’ Vehicles), leaving deep scars and tire tracks on the playa surface — not to mention shotgun shells, broken glass, fireworks and assorted other redneck detritus.
Even still, if you drive back far enough onto the playa you can usually find a decently smooth area — the farther back you go, the less marked up it tends to be, with the added bonus of being further from view from the traffic on the highway. I have shot on this lake bed dozens of times, and have never been harassed by law enforcement — it’s BLM (Federally administered) land, so nudity is technically illegal…but I’ve never had an issue. (Because it’s BLM, you can also camp out here for free, if inclined.)
The future of this lakebed is uncertain — the area is becoming encircled by vast fields of solar panels, which will probably show up in the background of your photos, but which as of this writing (Oct. 2015) are still manageable. I also heard that the planned Interstate 11 from Vegas to Phoenix might cut right through this lake bed…so who knows how much longer it will be a viable shooting location.
The second most popular lakebed for photography is Jean Dry Lake, about 45 miles south of the Strip just off I-15 (take the Sloan exit, and follow the frontage road — which is technically Las Vegas Blvd — to the well-marked turnoff for Southern Nevada Liteweight Rd, which is a decent dirt road manageable by just about any car). Drive out onto the lake bed and find a spot that suits you; it’s a pretty big lake bed, and usually in decent condition. You can also head a bit further south to Primm and backtrack up to nearby Roach Lake, although I’ve never personally been there and can’t vouch for its shootworthiness.
One thing of note; this lake bed is closed during the Mint 400 off-road race in March, so be advised. I think Roach Lake may also be closed that week. Fuckin’ rednecks!!!
Ivanpah Dry Lake
Another huge lake bed is just across the California border, about 50 miles south of Vegas off the Yates Well Rd. exit. I have never shot here, so can’t vouch for its viability…but I’ve driven past it many times, and it looks legit. Let me know if you shoot there; I’m curious!
One of my personal favorite lake beds is Apex, about 45 min north of Vegas. For some reason fewer people use this one, so it’s less torn up than the others. As an added bonus, it’s on the way to Valley of Fire…so you could hit both in a day (although I do not recommend shooting nudes at Valley of Fire).
For access, take I-15 north to the U.S. 93 junction, turn left under the freeway and then immediate right onto the frontage road (which is technically Las Vegas Blvd, just like down in Jean — that’s a long road!). Follow this road north along the freeway until the yellow dividing line on the pavement ends. There’s a VERY rough dirt road off to the left leading right out onto the lake bed — high clearance is advised, although I’ve seen people do it in other cars. Just go slow!! And as with all dry lake beds, avoid this area if it has recently rained — I once got stuck in the mud, and had to leave my truck out there for three days until it dried enough to drive out!!!
If you really want a pristine, unmarred lake bed surface, and you’re willing to drive a ways to get there…try this lake bed about 2.5 hours north of Vegas. You need 4WD to reach it, as Alamo Canyon Rd (the turnoff once you exit U.S.93) is pretty rough in spots. But the reward is a VAST, near-pristine lakebed in the shape of Texas (so it’s sometimes referred to as Texas Lake).
There are also ruins of an amazing ghost town nearby; Delamar ghost town still has stone ruins standing, and a dense Joshua tree forest along the way. But 4WD is definitely necessary to reach the ghost town.
NOTE: I last shot here in late 2014, and the lake bed was beautiful. But I just read that in Jan. 2015, the daughter of some nitwit astronaut carved a huge message, visible to her dad on the International Space Station, reading “STEPH <3s YOU.” (This was accomplished using studded tires, by a team from Hyundai who drove their sedans around, carving up the desert.) Now it’s in the Guinness Book as the World’s Largest Tire Tracks…so I guess it’s not only rednecks who fuck things up :-/ BOYCOTT HYUNDAI!
Either way, this lake bed is vast enough that you could still probably find a clean spot to shoot on.
Finally, the BEST lakebed I have personally ever seen is the über-remote Racetrack, inside Death Valley National Park — but it takes 5 hours to get there from Vegas, and the road is pretty gnarly (I did it in my 2WD pickup, but high clearance is definitely needed at minimum).
This is the lakebed you always see photos of where the rocks appear to move on their own, leaving weird traces in the surface. But other than that, the lakebed surface is amazingly pristine, since it’s so hard to get there. But even then, I read where some assholes from the U.K. went in and carved their names and the dates into the surface earlier this year — can you imagine?!?!? I’m not sure if there’s been enough rain since then to erase their marks…but either way, it’s a VAST lakebed, so you’d definitely be able to find a clear spot farther out.