The Infamous Racetrack Playa in Death Valley, California. April 14, 2010. © Copyright Ben Gundy – all rights reserved.
Last year a friend and I traveled to Death Valley, specifically, to go to the Racetrack playa to photograph and just to see what everyone was talking about. A little background of the Racetrack playa area from Wikipedia:
The Racetrack playa is 3608 feet (1130 m) above sea level, and 2.8 miles (4.5 km) long (north-south) by 1.3 miles (2 km) wide (east-west). It is also exceptionally flat and level with the northern end being only 1.5 inches (4 cm) higher than the southern. The highest point surrounding it is 5,678 feet (1731 m) high Ubehebe Peak, rising 1970 feet (571 m) above the lake bed 0.85 mile (1.37 km) to the west.
The playa is in the small Racetrack Valley endorheic lake between the Cottonwood Mountains on the east and Nelson Range to the west. During periods of heavy rain, water washes down from the mountains onto the playa, forming a shallow, short-lived endorheic lake. Under the hot desert sun the thin veneer of water quickly evaporates leaving behind a surface layer of soft slick mud. As the mud dries it shrinks and cracks into a mosaic pattern of interlocking polygons.
I will not get into a discussion on how the rocks move, but they do move and all by themselves. I believe wind, water, and freezing of the playa have something to do with it, but I will leave that to the experts. I do know that no one has ever seen the rocks move and there is a ongoing study underway using remote GPS, I believe, to track these rocks when and if they do move.
The road out to the Racetrack is 26 miles of washboard, sand, rocks, and dust. This road is not recommended for vehicles with low ground clearance, bad tires, or generally if the vehicle is in bad shape. Your tires need to be load range ”C” or higher otherwise you will be running the risk of a flat or two. Of course a 4×4 is in order, but a high clearance two- wheel drive can make it, just keep the speed down and take it slowly. For any vehicle, the faster you go the more shredded your tires will become as the rocks are very, very hard and sharp. Bring plenty of water and some food if you get stuck on the road. There is no service of any kind, cell phones don’t work, and you will be waiting a long time for a service truck, never mind the cost of one coming that far out.
Interesting side trips while going out to the Racetrack is Ubehebe Crater and Teakettle Junction. Don’t forget to bring a discarded tea kettle to add to the junction sign post…great fun.
The best time to photograph at the Racetrack is either sunrise or sunset with sunrise being the first choice. You will need to walk out onto the playa for about a mile or so from the parking area to get to the good rocks. Unfortunately, people have been stealing the rocks or just picking them up, looking at them, then putting them back down not necessarily in the same location. In other words, there are fewer and fewer of the rocks in their own original tracks, so don’t touch anything, just photograph. The lens of choice is some kind of wide angle…your choice here. Bring your polarizing filter (you never know), a warm jacket (your at 3608 feet), a hat of some kind, and suntan lotion.
Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright Ben Gundy (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from Ben Gundy.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Canon EF24-105mm L lens at 32mm
ISO 200, 1/160 sec at f/14
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