The Racetrack

Visitors on the Racetrack

During my visit to the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley earlier this year, I encountered very few people. There were more people than I expected, but the number was still low. The Racetrack is located in the remote backcountry of Death Valley and requires high clearance and 4x4 vehicles to travel to it, so it’s not a very crowded place any time.

A Journey at Nightfall

The Racetrack is a large area, and when there are three or four groups of people and the group size is only one or two people, it’s pretty easy not to encounter anyone. The area is completely silent too, and even when you can see other people, you can’t really hear them. I couldn’t even hear the cars driving to and from the Racetrack along the playa, a little less than a mile away.

Large insect on the Racetrack in Death Valley

During my visit, I was not without visitors, however. I arrived at the Racetrack in the afternoon. I found a rock to photograph, and I was working with it when all of a sudden a large insect landed near me. I have never seen this kind of insect before, and I don’t know what it is. It looks like some kind of beetle. When I touched it, it kind of hunkered down and stayed that way long enough for me to take its picture. After a couple minutes another one of these insects arrived. They seemed to follow me around, and they kept going near my bag too. I don’t know if they were looking for shade, food, or what, but I couldn’t get away from them for a while! Finally I just walked over to another rock that was a short distance away, and I didn’t see these two again. I didn’t see any others of these insects either.

Lizard on the Racetrack in Death Valley

My other main visitor was a little lizard. I had been at a rock for probably an hour or so. Suddenly, this lizard came darting out from behind the rock. It had probably been there the entire time taking refuge in the shade, and I didn’t even know it. The lizard was much more skittish than the insects, so it was hard to get close enough to get its picture with the wide angle lens I had on my camera. Eventually it went scurrying off to the shade of another rock, and that’s the last I saw of it.

I didn’t expect to encounter very many annoying flying insects like gnats or mosquitoes at the Racetrack, but in the late afternoon and early evening I was visited by a small swarm of small flying insects. I don’t know what to call them, but they were kind of like a cross between a large gnat and a small moth. They landed all over my bag, and they were flying around and landing on me, too. They were only there for an hour or maybe even less, and then they were gone. They did not return even in the morning around sunrise, so they must only be active in the early evenings, I guess. Or maybe they just moved on to someone else.

Fortunately, these were the only creatures that visited me. There were no snakes or large animals. I’m sure they were out there, but they probably don’t venture out on the playa too much. The Racetrack Playa is a very wide open area where you can be completely alone. It was nice to have a few visitors to keep me company!

Photographing the Milky Way

One of the treats of visiting a dark location far from major cities is seeing the night sky. Looking up and seeing all those stars and the galactic arms and center of the Milky Way is an awe-inspiring experience. There aren’t too many places left in the world that afford a spectacular night sky view because of the continual expansion of light pollution from cities and towns. One of the better remaining places, however, is Death Valley National Park.

Lighting Up the Racetrack in Death Valley

One of my goals during my visit to the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley was to do some astrophotography and create a photograph that includes the Milky Way with the moving rocks. I specifically chose to go when there would be a new moon so that the skies would be their darkest. I also planned my trip for late spring, when the Milky Way starts to become visible at night. It’s visible throughout the summer as well, but summer is not a good time to visit Death Valley!

I was not disappointed. It was incredible! When I woke up at 2 AM and took a look outside, in my half-sleeping daze I had to convince myself that I was seeing the Milky Way and not just some low clouds obscuring the rest of the stars. When my night vision was ruined by turning on lights as I got things together and I could still see this “cloud,” I was convinced that’s all it was. I took a test shot, and there it was. That was no cloud! That was the Milky Way spreading across the entire sky. I immediately picked up my gear and headed out to the playa.

Running from the Light

I had two main challenges in creating these photographs. The first was finding the right moving rock. The stars provide a decent amount of light. You can easily walk around without fear of tripping over anything, but your vision is impaired. You can’t really see any details 10 or 15 feet out. I had a flashlight, but I didn’t want to use it, and I’m not really sure it would have helped too much. I didn’t want to use it so that I could preserve my night vision as much as possible. There were also a couple other people out on the playa stargazing and photographing, and I’m certain they would not have appreciated an intense light being shined all over the place.

So I walked. I headed in the general direction I had been at sunset the previous evening. Sometimes I would cross a rock path. I would turn and follow that trail. A couple times there was no rock or the trail kind of died away. Frequently the rock at the end was no good because of footprints around it. One time I just didn’t like the trail of the rock. And a couple times it went on and on, and I felt like I was moving too far from the area where most of the moving rocks are located. In those cases I turned around and headed back to that main area.

I wandered around still somewhat half-asleep in a zombie-like search for something. It did occur to me how strange it felt to be doing this, but I knew the rocks were there and I would be able to create a spectacular photograph if I could just find one. One time I just stopped and looked around. I knew that there were rocks around me, probably not that far away, but I couldn’t see them! Everything is a dark gray in starlight. I was trying to find a very dark gray object in that dark gray background. It wasn’t easy.

After about 45 minutes I came across one more rock. I set up a test shot to see what it looked like, and I knew I found my rock. It was perfect. I liked the rock so much that I used it at sunrise as well to create a couple additional photographs of it.

So now I had my rock. The other challenge was setting focus for the stars. You pretty much just set the lens to focus at infinity, but you can’t just do that because the infinity setting on a lens is not always accurate. Here’s a hint for anyone interested in trying this kind of photography. I set my ISO to the maximum of 25600 and took a quick test shot. I then adjusted the focus and repeated until the focus was correct. Setting the ISO very high allowed me to take a shorter exposure so I could quickly iterate through the process until the focus was right. Once I had it, I took note of where that focus is dialed in on the lens so I could more quickly reproduce it. Then I switched back to ISO 100 to minimize noise and began making my longer exposures.

All my efforts paid off. I was absolutely thrilled with these photographs I created that night, and they are among my favorites of the photographs I made at the Racetrack.

The Star Traveler

Do You Know the Way to the Racetrack?

Moving Rock on the Racetrack at Death Valley

Moving Rock on the Racetrack at Death Valley

With directions like these, you know it’s got to be a neat place: Starting from Furnace Creek in Death Valley, head toward Stovepipe Wells. Turn right to take the road to Scotty’s Castle. Turn left toward Ubehebe Crater. 

To Scotty's Castle

To Scotty's Castle

To Ubehebe Crater

To Ubehebe Crater

To The Racetrack

To The Racetrack

At Ubehebe Crater, turn right to take the road to the Racetrack. Continue for 21 miles until you reach Teakettle Junction. At Teakettle Junction, stop, take a break from the washboard road, check your phone for messages, and make any last minute calls. If you happen to be traveling with a teakettle, hang it on the sign. Then continue for another six miles to the Racetrack Playa. When you arrive, stop at the Grandstand, then continue to the south end of the playa where you will find the moving rocks.

The Grandstand at the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley

The Grandstand at the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley

I love the names of the places in Death Valley. On this drive to the Racetrack, you get to encounter several of these places. At 190 feet below sea level and with summer temperatures that routinely exceed 120 degrees, Furnace Creek is aptly named. I’ve written about Scotty’s Castle and Ubehebe Crater before too. Ubehebe Crater is the perfect name for that intriguing feature of the landscape.

Teakettle Junction is an interesting place. Look at all those teakettles people have hung there! People usually write something on their teakettle and include the date. All the dates I saw were from 2015, and the park service obviously gathers them periodically and clears them away. That does cause me to wonder what they do with all those teakettles!

Teakettle Junction

Teakettle Junction

Teakettle Junction is also interesting because it is one of the few places in Death Valley where there is cell coverage. I don’t know if it’s the elevation or the direction of the nearest tower or what, but out there at Teakettle Junction, literally miles from anything (and there usually isn’t cell coverage there either), you can make calls and check messages!

The drive out to the Racetrack is really a lot of fun. You get to go to this amazing place in the backcountry of Death Valley. You have to drive on a primitive road where high clearance and 4x4 vehicles are recommended. The 27 miles on the primitive road is a little grueling. It is completely a washboard. Some areas are not that bad, but by the time you get to Teakettle  Junction, you really do need a break from it. And then you still have six miles to go!

The drive is well worth it, however. The Racetrack is one of the most amazing places I have seen, and I would love to make that trip again some time.

The Racetrack Playa

I recently took a trip out to Death Valley National Park to visit the Racetrack Playa. What an amazing place! I’ll be writing more about it in my next few blog posts, but for now I wanted to share with you some of the photographs I made during my visit.

The sun is rising at the Racetrack

The sun is rising at the Racetrack

Going to the Racetrack is an event. It’s something many photographers dream about doing from the first moment they see a picture of those mysterious moving rocks. Why are photographers so fascinated by this place? It is certainly an odd sight to see, but from a photographer’s perspective, it’s a dream location. Everything is set up for you. A beautiful location. A dry lakebed, which itself is a really interesting subject with its patterns of mud. Amazing mountains in the distance. You want a foreground element? OK, pick a rock! Need some leading lines to make a stronger composition? The rock’s trailing path is ideal!

The Racetrack Playa seems to have been hand-made specifically for photographers. The best part of it is that the rocks tell a story. Each rock has gone on a journey, and that history is part of the photograph. Photographs that tell a story are strong photographs. There are so many opportunities to create photographs like that at the Racetrack Playa.

Moving rock at the Racetrack in the afternoon

Moving rock at the Racetrack in the afternoon

When I arrived, I immediately ventured out onto the playa. The rocks start about a half mile away. Many of the rocks closest to the road have been ruined by people’s footprints when they walked on the playa when it was wet. That’s a terrible shame, because those footprints will remain for many years. You have to continue farther out to find the good rocks and trails.

Shortly after sunset at the Racetrack

Shortly after sunset at the Racetrack

I found a couple rocks that were near each other and decided to focus photography at sunset on those two. They were close enough to each other that I could alternate between them and create a couple different compositions.

That night I did some astrophotography and created some photographs of the Milky Way and the moving rocks. I’ll write a separate article about that experience. I was up for most of the night, and in the morning I made some additional photographs before and during the sunrise.

My trip to the Racetrack Playa was an amazing experience. I loved seeing these mysterious moving rocks, and it was a great joy for me to create these photographs of them.

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