The Racetrack

3 hours.  27 miles on a beat up dirt road that’ll jiggle you in ways you never thought possible.  No water.  Virtually no shade.  No gas, no services, no bathrooms, no cell reception.  Hot as hell at only 8 in the morning.  And if you’re lucky, you won’t have to swap out a flat time.

Your reward in seeking this God-forsaken location?  The Racetrack, in the backwaters of Death Valley National Park.

Yes, all this to find a roasting, baking, flat-as-a-board dried lakebed in the middle-of-nowhere, USA.

And yet in this back of beyond place, something remarkable: rocks that seemingly move on their own.  With so few people around, all that’s seen are rocks on a lakebed, with mysterious trails behind them of where they moved to and from.


Tracks at the Racetrack
Tracks at the Racetrack

Thanks to some tireless (and probably more than a little crazy) researchers from, among other outfits, NASA, this little mystery was finally solved last year.  Use Google if you want the details, as I am no geologist or climatologist.

What I am, however, is a photographer!  And this woebegone spot is an absolute gem.  In the interest of brevity, I’ll focus this post on three main points: preparation, execution, and experience.

Boring stuff first!  Preparation, that is. As you’ve probably realized, getting here is not exactly the same as going down to your local drugstore for a Coke and some ice cream  The road is nasty for the last two hours … do not attempt it in a sedan, and certainly not in any rental car (which sometimes don’t even carry spare tires!!!).  There are rocks in the road (lots of them, really) and they are sharp.  And the road itself is a veritable washboard.  Best plan is to have a 4WD with all terrain tires, and at least one spare (maybe two if you can swing it), and for you to have a solid knowledge of how to change a tire on your vehicle.  And if the weather is bad, don’t even think about it – stay home and try again later.

Next items: water (lots), food, full tank of gas plus gas can, sun protection, road kit, shelter, map, fire making materials, and warm clothes (it can get shockingly cold at night).  Treat this the same as you would a long backpacking trip or disaster prep at home – you will NOT be near help if things go south.  You need to be able to get by on your own for some time if needed.  And for God’s sake let people know where you are going – Rangers, camp staff, friends and family at home.

Road to the Racetrack
Road to the Racetrack

 Bottom line: if the name of the park you’re in has the word “Death” in it, DO NOT SCREW AROUND ABOUT IT.  There will be a later post here about the abject stupidity I saw in DV as well … it was as appalling as it was shocking that more nitwits don’t end up as coyote snacks out there.

And now that I have scared the daylights out of you, on to more mundane things.  First, plan to get there early.  As in, do not plan to arrive anytime later than 9am if you can pull it off.  You will be up and driving in the dark or twilight, and that’s a good thing (plus the desert is wicked awesome in morning light and shadow).  If you can, pad your arrival time so you can take a few shots along the road.  There’s a surprisingly large forest of Joshua Trees about a third of the way down the dirt road that look really cool, plus in the right season there’s lovely flowers.

Joshua Tree Forest
Joshua Tree Forest
Cactus Flowers by the Road
Cactus Flowers by the Road

Once you’re finally out to the lakebed (you’ll see if from about 6 miles out as a white blank spot in the desert floor with 1 big rock formation in the middle of it), sit in the car for a few minutes, preferable with the A/C on, and plan what you’re going to do.  Note that the moving rocks tend to concentrate at the South end of the lakebed (the far end), but the North End has a very interesting large rock formation called the Grandstand.

Then get out there and start shooting!  A few thoughts:

  • You can walk around on the playa (the lakebed) as long as it’s not wet. If wet, your footprints will show up and last for years, so don’t be “that person” who fouls it up for everyone else.
  • The playa sits at the end of a canyon, so you’ve got some cool sharp mountains that rise on either side of the spot as background.
  • Polarized sunglasses will help you pick out the rock tracks better (or looking through your SLR with a CPL filter attached), especially if they are faint like this year in our charming California drought.
  • Get interesting angles on the tracks and the rocks.
  • Use the Grandstand as a mid or fore-ground as well.
  • Graduated ND filters and HDR can be your friend, since the lakebed is often much more reflective than the surrounding environment. Case in point below, you’ll notice (a) much more definition in the mountains, and (b) a more natural color palette as well (Photoshop does not seem to like the almost-white-with-a-hint-of-yellow of the lakebed).
Non-HDR of Tracks at the Playa
Non-HDR of Tracks at the Playa
HDR of Tracks at the Playa
HDR of Tracks at the Playa
  • Get low! The lakebed looks very impressive if shot on your stomach.  See the following example.
Low Shot of Rock at the Racetrack
Low Shot of Rock at the Racetrack

Be aware that execution should be speedy here.  You will tire faster than you think, as the playa radiates heat back up, so it will feel even hotter than your thermometer will tell you.  It is also 4000+ feet in elevation, though it won’t feel like you gained that much on the drive out there from the valley floor that’s often at or below sea level.

But last and most importantly is bringing truth to the experience of being there.  It’s a unique place, very far from any type of hustle and bustle.  It has a elegant simplicity in design that lends itself to very powerful, uncluttered photographs, with beautiful composition, texture, and color compositions.

I’ll close this by leaving you with the first thing that really stopped me in my tracks (yeah, I know, the pun police are coming for me).  And oddly enough for this beautiful place, it wasn’t a visual – it was a sound.

Or rather, the utter and complete lack of sound.

Even my footsteps on the playa were near silent.  In fact, the loudest thing I could hear while walking around was the sound of my jeans rubbing against my legs at each step, which seemed deafening.  I’m convinced the lakebed acts as a sound absorber, because even when a Jeep tore by on the lousy road at 20 mph a few hundred yards away, I couldn’t hear it at all.  Only the dust plume gave it away.  It’s like being in a soundproof room where the walls suck up every decibel, so quiet you’d swear that even if you scream at the top of your lungs there wouldn’t be a sound.  The only thing that will occasionally break through and remind you you’re still in the real world is if an Air Force plane powers through the sky at 70,000 feet high, as they do supersonic flight stuff out there (not like they’re really going to annoy any locals out there, right?).  But even that is muted – no worse than jetliner way off in the distance.

The Racetrack’s truly a magical place.  Even as unique as I expected it to be, I was surprised by what I got.  And that’s one of the best things when out on a shoot, for me anyhow – it helps me take that extra step and push myself that tiny bit further.

The Grandstand at the Playa
The Grandstand at the Playa



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