The Mysterious Racetrack Playa at Death Valley National Park, California
This post marks the beginning of a series on my recent Spring photo excursion to Death Valley National Park, California, one of my favorite places on earth. As many of my friends know, I am a great lover of the desert Southwest. In this post, I will be focusing on perhaps the most enchanting and mysterious location within Death Valley – the infamous Racetrack Playa, best known for its strange moving rocks. In a nutshell, “The Racetrack” is a scenic dry lake bed (playa) with so-called “sailing stones” (moving rocks) that leave track-like imprints on the mud-cracked surface of the playa. The Racetrack is a place of spectacular desert beauty and mystery and is very alluring to park visitors, despite being extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous to access.
The very rough, 29-mile drive on a gutted, bone-jarring, wrenching, dirt washboard road – Racetrack Valley Road – is not for the faint of heart and requires a high clearance, four wheel drive (4WD) vehicle, as well as fortitude. I highly recommend travelers rent a jeep from Farabee’s Jeep Rentals, located across from the renowned Furnace Creek Inn (the only jeep rental outfit in Death Valley National Park). The road is strewn with numerous large sharp rocks and steep berms, and is not kept up by the Park Service. In many places this desolate, winding narrow road is reduced to a single lane, making the meeting of two vehicles passing in opposite directions awkward, to say the least. Possessing tires with a very high ply (rating) is essential, as many people end up with flats due to the sharp rocks. But, I digress.
The Racetrack has no vegetation and is dry for almost the entire year. When dry, its surface is covered with hexagonal mud crack polygons. These polygons form in sets of three mud cracks at 120º to each other. A few days after a precipitation event, small mud curls, otherwise known as “corn flakes,” form on the playa surface. During the rainy season (summer and especially winter), a shallow cover of water deposits a thin layer of fine mud on and between the polygons of the Racetrack. Heavier winter precipitation temporarily erases them until spring, when dry conditions cause new mud cracks to form in the place of the old cracks. Fierce sandblasting winds continually help to round the edges of exposed polygons.
The so-called “sailing stones” are a geological phenomenon found in the Racetrack. Slabs of dolomite and syenite ranging from a few hundred grams to hundreds of kilograms inscribe visible tracks as they slide across the playa surface, without human or animal intervention. The tracks have been observed and studied since the early 1900s, yet mysteriously, no one has actually witnessed the stones in motion. This has led to rampant but unwarranted speculation as to paranormal or UFO activity. Racetrack stones only move once every two or three years, with most tracks lasting three or four years. Stones with rough bottoms leave straight striated tracks, while those with smooth bottoms wander around the surface of the playa. The sailing stones are most likely moved by strong winter winds once it has rained enough to fill the playa with just enough water to make the clay slippery. This area of the park is located in a very remote valley between the Cottonwood and Last Chance (great choice of words) mountain ranges.
The road out to the Racetrack originates south of Scotty’s Castle and Grapevine Junction near Ubehebe Crater. Shortly after the road goes from bad to worse, a mini Joshua Tree forest can be seen along the route – a true visual treat of desert sentinels saluting passersby. Joshua trees are a type of yucca (not cactus) that can grow up to 30 feet tall. After about 21 miles, you will reach a fun stop called Teakettle Junction. If you drive straight ahead, you will reach the Grandstand area of the Racetrack in about six more bone-jarring miles. Note that it takes another two to three miles of driving to reach the playa beyond the Grandstand, and a long hike out onto the lake bed to see the moving rocks. Without hiking far out onto the playa, you will not be able to see the mysterious stones. My, what photographers do to get their images!
At Teakettle Junction, the road to the left leads to Hunter Mountain and Hidden Valley, another precarious route. Teakettle Junction is simply a roadside sign located at a junction in the above-mentioned dirt roads; attached to the sign are many dangling teakettles that visitors have hung with folksy messages inscribed on them. When the desert winds kick up, the teakettles clang and bang, morphing into their own version of Death Valley windchimes. This is a unique, isolated desert location in the middle of absolutely nowhere that continually draws visitors en route to the infamous Racetrack Playa. The Park Service claims that early settlers in the area put up the sign to indicate there was water nearby, although there are no visible indications of the presence of water. According to tradition, visitors are supposed to hang new teakettles with written messages in order to bring good luck to future travelers. Something greatly needed in this desolate area of the Mojave desert. This is a great place to stop and rest your weary bones from the gut-wrenching drive out to the Racetrack.
Please note that there is no cell phone service on Racetrack Valley Road, so the use of satellite phones are recommended in the event you become stranded with a flat tire or worse. If you rent a jeep from Farabee’s, a satellite device is included in the rental fee that will allow you to notify the owner should you encounter trouble. This perk, to me, is well worth the cost of renting the jeep in the event of an emergency. For more information on Death Valley National Park, please visit the official Park Service website.
The first two images of the Racetrack moving stones were taken with my Nikon D800, and are HDR (high dynamic range) photographs comprised of bracketed RAW shots processed in Photomatix, Lightroom, Photoshop, and with Nik and onOne software. The other images, also taken with my Nikon D800, are single RAW shots processed with much of the same software, although they are not HDR images. They include an image of the Joshua Tree Forest, Teakettle Junction, and a group of photographers we encountered on our trip, taking turns shooting the tea kettles. These photographers were also en route to the playa to shoot the moving rocks at sunset. It was wonderful, as always, to hook up with like-minded photographers feeling the same passion for this special place. This journey, to me, is a deeply moving and spiritual experience that is hard to replicate.