Photography Guide to Racetrack Playa, Death Valley

“Magical Moving Stones”

Photo by John Fowler

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Racetrack Playa Death Valley National Park - Photo by National Park Service
Racetrack Playa Death Valley National Park - Photo by National Park Service

Racetrack Playa

In the heart of Death Valley National Park there is a flat desert expanse with hexagonal texture called Racetrack Playa. This dry desert in and of itself is not the main attraction. Scattered across this stunning expanse hundreds of stones can be found. Rocks that have seem to have a life of their own. Scratching a trail into the desert surface, they appear to travel as if propelled by an unseen force.

The Mystery Solved

These slabs of dolomite and syenite can range in size from a few ounces to hundreds of pounds. For years the movement of the rocks was a complete mystery. Even the most massive stones move vast distances. Starting in 1972 scientists began working to solve the mystery. Observing the rocks over many years, they monitored their movements and eventually determined that as the mud of the desert surface freezes and melts gradually the stones move. The trails left by this movement last for years, creating the appearance of rapid movement. One of the most notable examples of this phenomena involves a 700 pound stone nicknamed Karen. After not moving for years, the massive rock disappeared in the winter of 1994. It was discovered almost a half mile away from its original location.

Death Valley Racetrack Stones - Photo by Jon Sullivan
Death Valley Racetrack Stones - Photo by Jon Sullivan

Getting to Racetrack Playa

Racetrack Playa is in Death Valley and only a couple of hours from Las Vegas. Getting to this National Park is easy. But getting to the Racetrack is another story altogether. The single road that leads to it is in very rough shape almost every time of year, and although it is graded annually, it doesn’t seem to have much effect. Expect a bumpy ride to the location and an off-road vehicle is essential. Plan for about an 8-10 hour journey which will leave you about 2 hours at the Playa to shoot.

Make sure you have plenty of water (at least double what you think you will need), sunscreen, food and a full tank of gas. As there is no cell service and a rough route to the location, so be prepared. Getting stranded out here will suck if you do not take the appropriate precautions.

We recommend a route starting at the junction of Scotty’s Castle Road and Highway 190.  Follow Scotty’s Castle Road to Ubehebe Crater Rd (follow the signs to the crater just past Grapevine Junction). Follow Ubehebe Crater  Road to the crater, and we recommend stopping to take photos of the crater. There is a circular road near the crater, and if you follow it, you find a sign for the Racetrack.  This junction is where the pavement ends and the real adventure begins.

Racetrack Valley Road is 27 miles of vehicular hell. This route requires 4×4 capabilities, and if it is wet, we recommend waiting for a dry day instead. After about 3 hours of bumpy, difficult driving, you will finally come across the Racetrack on your left.

There is parking available near a rock formation called the Grandstand. This area is also reasonably picturesque, so we recommend parking there getting out and shooting.

Uhebebe Crater - Photo by Gerrit Burow
Uhebebe Crater - Photo by Gerrit Burow

Teakettle Junction

One of the highlights on the route to Racetrack Playas is the Teakettle Junction sign. The rough journey to the playa can take a toll on the body, and this makes a great stopping place. Visitors for years have left teapots on this sign, often placing handwritten notes inside the teapots. This quirky little highlight provides for a fantastic photography respite along the bumpy route.

Teakettle Junction - Photo by Amy Mew
Teakettle Junction - Photo by Amy Mew

Photographing Racetrack Playa

One of the nice things about this location is how difficult it is to get to. This means that it is pretty rare you will find the location crowded. As well Death Valley got its name for a reason, the location is blisteringly hot in the summer. This can also be to your benefit if you are feeling hardy and want to avoid any people. But dress and pack appropriately if you plan on this approach, as it will be mentally and physically challenging to shoot in this kind of heat.

Rather than braving the scorching heat we recommend arriving very early in the morning, just as the sun is coming up. While the sailing stones can be picturesque at any time of day, having the stark oblique shadows of the morning sun will improve your images. As well this will be the coolest part of the day. In addition, because there is little light pollution this is an amazing astrophotography location.

The greatest concentration of sailing stones can be found at the southeast corner of the dry lakebed.

Be sure to pack graduated filters to get any richness that the sky may offer to counteract the starkness of the surface landscape. As always a tripod is always recommended and one that permits you to place the camera low is better for bringing the rocks into the foreground.

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