Racetrack Playa

There are many places that I visited in the American West which took my breath by its sheer beauty, but I did not see a single place as odd as the Racetrack. It is not that easy to get there as there is a 28-mile dirt road leading to a remote closed-in valley located south-southwest of Ubehebe Crater. Racetrack Playa is a dry lake bed, that is home to wandering rocks. These rocks weight up to 700 pounds and move mysteriously when no one is looking. They leave a trail behind them and occasionally push mud into tiny rills in front. Some tracks are narrow-straight while others meander. Some tracks are short while others are up to 3,000 feet long.

Playas are some of the flattest and smoothest landforms on earth. During periods of heavy rain, water collects on the playa to form a shallow lake. As the water evaporates, a soft layer of mud is left. As the mud dries, it shrinks and cracks into an intricate mosaic of interlocking polygons. The south end of the Racetrack Playa abuts a steep, 850-foot mountain face composed of dolomite, a calcium-magnesium carbonate. Stones falling from this face supply the playa with most of its moving rocks.

What force is responsible for this outlandish lithic behavior? It is pretty clear that these rocks only move when the playa surface is soft and wet as the tracks they leave behind have shallow furrows and rounded, levee-like ridges. Evidence suggests that strong gusts of wind, in combination with a slick mud surface, set rocks in motion. However, there must be some additional, unknown elements playing into this phenomenon as it is unconceivable that a 700-pound rock can be dislodged for 570 feet just by a strong wind.

Practical advices:

The ideal is to drive a high clearance car, have two spare tires and have another person being part of the party driving a second car. Do not fall the temptation to drive fast on the 28 miles stretch from Ubehebe Crater to the Racetrack Playa. The reasons for all these precautions are easily to be understood once you drive these infamous 28 miles and get to see a car at the roadside with a completely trashed tire or even a couple of tires. The dirt road has some quite sharp rocks which can easily puncture or slash any tire. I have seen such a scene on my third trip to Racetrack Playa. Ironically enough I did not follow my own advice as I was driving a Mini Cooper and even more ironically did not have any problems with my tires at all.

The best light to photograph at Racetrack Playa are at dusk, at sunrise, around sunset, dawn and at night. In other words, plan to overnight there at a primitive camping area located at the far south portion of the valley. Driving the 28 miles dirt road from Ubehebe Crater to the Racetrack or back in the dark is all but a pleasant experience.

Getting there:

The adventure starts at Ubehebe Crater. Almost any road leading to this crater is paved and is an easy ride. The exception to this rule is if you decide to get to Ubehebe from Eureka Sand Dunes. Ubehebe Crater is located in the northern part of Death Valley and any starting point getting there is at least an hour drive.

Once on the dirt road from Ubehebe Crater it takes another one and a half to two hours to get to the Racetrack Playa. In these two hours you will drive 28 miles and that will give you already an idea of what kind of road you will face.

For further directions I refer to the map at the bottom of this travelogue. Click on it.

Taking shots:

The wandering rocks are located at the south end of the Racetrack Playa. The longest and straightest trails are concentrated in the southeastern part of the playa. The ideal timing is to explore the area three to four hours prior to sunset. Browse the area in search of the most bizarre and most appealing tracks. Take some snap shots during this time of exploration and experiment different compositions so that you have a pretty good concept of how you want to craft your images once the light conditions reaches the right point. Organize mentally (or on a paper) your point of interests on a east-west (or vice-versa) orientation.

The light is during the day the diffuse and provides only very flat impressions of the playa. It is imperative to wait for the first light hitting the ground at sunrise or having the last light of the day at sunset. What once looked flat all of the sudden turns into a 3-D experience. The intricate mosaic of interlocking polygons comes alive, the tracks behind the rocks pop up. A brief moment later the magic is gone! If you did not map your points of interest for this fleet moment of magic you will be very disappointed.

Once you see that the sun is close to set behind the range in the west you should position yourself at your most eastern placed chosen point of interest. Take your shots and than move on westbound to your next point of interest to take your next set of shots, and so on. You will see that you can walk with the setting light for a short period and extending somewhat your photographic experience to multiple spots which you have located earlier during your scouting time.

The same principle applies during sunrise, although than you need to start with your most western located point of interest and work through the different selected points towards the most eastern located spot.

The moving rocks provide also a fantastic foreground element during dusk and dawn moments with colors and clouds in the sky, or when the rock is in the shade while the mountains in the background are touched by sun light. In latter condition I strongly would advice to use ND grad filter with hard transition.

The Racetrack Playa offers much more besides the moving rocks. There are the Teakettle Junction on your way from Ubehebe Crater to the Racetrack Playa, the Grandstand located at the north portion of the playa and certainly other spots to be found and worked out.

Last update: July 24, 2014

Racetrack Playa