Our second day in Death Valley National Park was to be spent getting into the park and down to Racetrack Playa to see the racing rocks. Lindsay and I woke up early in the morning for sunrise and some breakfast and then packed up camp and got on our way. We still had a good distance to cover on unpaved road before getting to “civilization”. We pressed onward into the park with our first stop at Scotty’s Castle to try to fuel up and get some more ice for the food cooler. The drive into Death Valley takes you on a plunging 4000 foot drop from where the sand dunes were. Once at the bottom of the valley its nothing but a gravel straight away. I had a good time sitting on the roof rack of the car taking photos while Lindsay tore down the road.
When we got to Scotty’s Castle there was a nice big sign saying NO GAS! Not a real problem though we had plenty to get down to the Playa and back. We got what we needed at the store there and then headed on to our second stop a few miles away at Ubehebe Crater.
The crater was pretty interesting and we thought for a second we might hike down to the bottom but realized once we started down the trail that walking back up the 500 feet of very loose gravel and rock was not going to be that much fun; especially after our trek up the 700 foot Eureka Sand Dunes. We opted to stay on the rim with all the other tourists.
After a short hike to Little Ube Crater we got back in the Jeep and started the 27 mile washboard road down to racetrack playa. Racetrack Road is probably one of the worst washboard roads I have ever been on in my life and my Jeep agreed with me a little later on in the trip. We made it down to the playa in one piece and stopped at the north end to see the Grandstand; a big black rock sticking up out in the middle of a perfectly flat lake bed; really odd. Most of the racing rocks are found at the very south end of the playa on the Racetrack. We decided to skip the racetrack and go setup camp 2 miles farther south and take a much needed nap and then come back at sunset. After Lunch and a few hours of napping we drove back up to the playa and hiked the half mile out to the racetrack to find the racing rocks. Once out there the rocks aren’t hard to find. Everywhere we looked there were rocks of all sizes with trails going in every direction possible with no pattern or logical motion. One would think that all the rocks would just blow in a straight line all in the same direction. Not so here. Over time the rocks have zig zagged every which way possible. There is no definitive answer to how the rocks move but plenty of theories; most involving lots of wind and rain. I have a few of my own theories which I documented with photos. We stayed at the Racetrack until sunset and then headed back to camp for a hot fire and dinner. After dinner and lots of debate we decided to go back to the playa at night to try to find a really nice rock/trail and photograph it with star trails. It was pretty intimidating walking out into pure darkness and crossing our fingers that we would be able to find our way back to the car with no visible references. We didn’t last very long out on the playa at night, the temperatures dropped into the high 30′s really fast that night (in the morning our tent was completely covered in ice). I took a couple test shots, got my photo composed and then took a single 10 minute exposure. After that it was just too cold to stay out there. On our way back to the car I was able to put my astronomy skills to work and use the stars and some mountain peak shapes to navigate a straight line back to the car. Back at camp, we threw the last bits of wood in the fire to give us some heat as we went to sleep.
Day 2 finished.
The rumors are true and I was indeed in Death Valley this weekend. I have wanted to do a big back country, offroading, photo adventure in Death Valley for some time now. I finally found the perfect weekend to give it a go. Lindsay and I packed up my jeep on Thursday in between lunch turkey and dinner turkey and headed north bright and early Friday morning. The plan was to drive up to Lone Pine and take Death Valley Road all the way into the park. Our first stop though was the 700 foot high Eureka Sand Dunes; one of the largest dune fields in the country. A good portion of Death Valley Road through the mountains was paved but the last 35-45 miles to the sand dunes were maintained gravel roads. Once we got to the sand dunes we setup our camp right at the base of the dunes and started hiking up the long winding ridges of the dunes to get to the top. The hike was way longer and more strenuous than we thought but it was well worth the view. From the top we were able to see the entire dune field as well as several other mountain ranges that were covered in snow. I thought it was pretty cool to be in a place like Death Valley and always be able to see mountains with snow.
After getting to the top of the dunes we slid down a 700 foot dune face and hiked back to camp on flat solid ground. There was still a little light left so we decided to hop in the jeep and go explore another section of the dune field via some muddy, rain soaked trails.
Having a capable 4 X 4 was a must for several sections of the road and the wear and tear on the car (more of that later) paid off with some incredible views.
We wrapped up the first day with a great fire, some good camp cooking courtesy Lindsay and a great view of Venus, Jupiter and the rest of the Milky Way. It is such a wonderful feeling to be camped out in the middle of nowhere over 2 hours from the nearest small town. Complete silence and isolation.
Day 1 Done!
In a previous post I made, I commented on my distaste for the crowds of photographers that are typically found at the big parks all trying to get the same shot. At a park like Yosemite the impact isn’t readily seen since there are big paved parking areas and sidewalks at the overlooks for people to setup their tripods. But in a remote and beautiful place like Racetrack Playa in Death Valley the overuse is readily seen. While there were no hoards of photographers while I was there (I counted 5 at the most for sunset and myself for sunrise) I could easily see where the popular racing rocks were and where the photographers setup. My fiancee and I were really disgusted at how badly the area was treated by photographers eager to setup their tripods to get the shot. The ground in front of one rock that was particularly close to the parking area was completely torn up from people walking on the damp lake bed and setting up their tripods and digging in to get stable. It upset me that people would be so careless with such a one of a kind resource. I shot the majority of my shots there without a tripod save for a few later in the evening and at night. When I did use a tripod I made sure I didnt “set” in the ground or put any uneeded pressure on it leave scars on the ground. So all I am saying is to tread lightly and think before setting down a tripod on fragile soil and don’t setup where someone else has obviously setup; if not for the sake of the land but for orginalities sake. I found it no problem to stop down to f/22 and bump up the ISO a little during the day and at sunset to avoid having to use a tripod. Night shots and dusk shots are another story, a tripod is a must but every little bit of protection of the land helps.