Milky Way Over Racetrack Playa
A little over a year ago, I made my first visit to Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park. (I wrote some nonsense about it and alien life here following the trip.) I was instantly enamored with the place. It was beautiful, tranquil, photogenic, and a bit mysterious.
It was also a challenge to visit. Death Valley National Park is itself fairly remote and desolate, probably seeing fewer guests in its busiest week of the year than Yosemite on a slow day, and Racetrack Playa is far more remote than the rest of the park. This is because the Racetrack is in an area of the park away from the most popular spots, and the road to access it is of the unpaved washboard variety, requiring a 4×4 high-clearance vehicle.
Prior to visiting last year, I did a lot of research on Racetrack Playa, and it sounded like the potential for a flat tire or vehicle damage was in the 33-50% range. Rather than risking damage to our own SUV, I rented a Jeep near us. (Farabee’s in Death Valley is also an option, but they charge $200/day, and that’s not for an overnight rental.) I planned on detailing that experience in a subsequent post last year, but I forgot. To make a long story short: I ended up getting a flat tire…but not on Racetrack Road. Driving on the 15 from Death Valley to Los Angeles on a donut tire at 1 a.m. while getting passed by big-rig trucks was not an experience I wish to repeat. It’s not even one of those “sucked at the time, but funny in retrospect” kind of stories. It was miserable.
But I digress. During that trip, I noticed a photo in the Visitor Center. I was blown away, and knew I would need to return during the summer months to shoot the Milky Way. As Death Valley National Park is an International Dark Sky Park, I knew it would be an amazing scene–even better than Yosemite or Joshua Tree National Parks.
This time, rather than going alone, Sarah and our friends Ryan and Ashley joined us. We again rented a Jeep near us, and headed out over the weekend. We packed a couple of tents, plenty of food, all of our photography gear, and made the drive.
Aside from wanting the Milky Way shot, I was so eager to return sooner rather than later because there’s no telling if the morons who seem insistent upon ruining Racetrack Playa will strike again. Recurrent behavior like this could force the National Park Service to close Racetrack Playa for a restoration project akin to Mariposa Grove in Yosemite. Sure enough, there were tire tracks on the playa this time. Tire tracks. From a car.
I get that the vast majority of people are oblivious, self-absorbed, and/or just don’t care about conservation, but I assumed the treacherous drive to Racetrack Playa would be pose a significant barrier to entry for those imbeciles. Fortunately, tire tracks aside, the playa is looking pretty good, aside from a few trails that are missing rocks and a few trails that clearly have “staged” rocks. (It’s really unfortunate that photographers who should know better do this–please don’t if you make the trek out to the Racetrack.)
We wandered around Racetrack Playa for a couple of hours before sunset, taking in the beautiful scene and scouting the location. Thanks to the elevation, the temperature wasn’t unbearable (it was 107 degrees at Badwater Basin the same day), but the wind was hellacious, sweeping dust across the playa and making it difficult to shoot.
The sunset turned out to be gorgeous, which was a small victory for me after a slew of near-misses at Death Valley. Fortunately, the short exposure times for it meant the wind didn’t have much of a chance to blow around our tripods. The same would not be true when shooting the Milky Way, so I was a bit anxious about that.
More immediately, the wind posed a significant obstacle to setting up our tents, which we elected not to do upon arrival since the wind wouldn’t allow it. When we got back to the Jeep, we decided to park it sideways as a bit of a windbreaker, so the tents wouldn’t blow over. This proved unnecessary, as the wind seemed to stop abruptly almost as soon as we moved the Jeep.
After a couple hours of sleep, Ryan and I each woke up around 1:15 a.m. to check the sky. It was almost totally clouded over. I don’t mind a cloud or two in the sky when shooting the Milky Way as I think it can add some drama to the scene, but this was way too much. I would’ve been bummed by this, if I weren’t so exhausted that I was partially relieved at the prospect of more sleep.
Around 2:30 a.m., (it seemed like 5 minutes later) Ryan was yelling at my tent, trying to wake me up. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the Milky Way was clearly visible with the naked eye. We were both pretty excited, and we set out towards the playa.
The reason we had gotten up so early before was because we wanted to scout out locations while the moon was still up and that light made it easier to see. Even though we had headlamps and lights, it was pitch black. During the previous afternoon, we had spent a good amount of time finding the “good” rocks out on the playa…and that was in broad daylight.
By some miracle, the first rocks we encountered were some of the rocks we had dubbed the best ones the previous day. I still don’t know how we found these in the dark, but I’m going to assume it was divine alien intervention. That would help explain how the wind died down, the clouds disappeared at just the right time, and the ease with which we located the rocks.
We had about 2 good hours of shooting before the pre-dawn light started to mute the quality of the Milky Way. After that, we headed back to our tents, and slept until the bright morning light lit up the Playa and made sleeping unbearable. We quickly packed up, made the long drive back down the unpaved, washboard road (and did not get a flat this time!) and headed to the Mesquite Dunes.
As for photos, I’m really pleased with the results. We lucked out in almost every regard, and I’m pleased with several shots from the weekend. All was not perfect, though. You’d think this would be plenty of time to capture good photos, but in reviewing what I shot now, I’m wishing I would have tried more and tested other ideas in the field. There’s one fisheye panorama, in particular, that I did a sloppy good on, and now Photoshop won’t accept it for auto-alignment. (If anyone has any alternatives for that, I’d love to hear them.)
With how lucky we got in almost every regard, I can’t complain about this. In any case, leaving something on the table for next time isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and gives me an excuse to go back. There are a ton of new places I want to shoot in California, but Racetrack Playa strikes me as a place I’ll visit annually for a while. It’s a ton of work to get out there and renting a Jeep isn’t cheap, but the payoff is worth it.
I hope to do more posts about Racetrack Playa, but with the way I am about things, who knows if that will happen, so I wanted to at least post a mini trip report with this photo. Hope you enjoyed, and if you have questions about making the trek to Racetrack Playa, please post them in the comments.
If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. To get some more Death National Park photo ideas, check out my Death Valley National Park Photo Gallery, which includes additional shots I have taken on my visits there. For photo licensing inquires, please contact me.
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Have you been to Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park? Is it something you’d like to visit someday? Share your thoughts on this or anything else, or questions you have in the comments!
Excellent shot of the Racetrack rocks, and great adventure story. I’ve been there 2x: Dec 2017 and in mid Feb 2018. The Racetrack is a challenge mentally and logistically. The Racetrack Road invites one to go faster which increases the risk of shock damage or flat tire. The 1st time I visited, I was not prepared, got there in the dark, could not find the rocks, and froze my butt off in the sub freezing temperatures of winter. My cameras were set up for time lapse and locked up due to the freezing temps. Overall, I considered that adventure a fail, but was lucky to make it home without any damage to my vehicle and self. Being one that does not accept failure I did some research on the Racetrack, I learned a lot and mustered up the courage to plan and do the trip again in Feb 2018. This time I was prepared, got there early, Recon the area, found the rocks, and got the photos I had hoped for. Racetrack adventure brings great satisfaction when the mission is accomplished without damage to the vehicle or self. I hope to do the trip one more time once I get some AT tires. I’ve been pretty lucky so far with stock tires, and don’t want to push my luck in a place like the Racetrack.
Wish my neck wasn’t messed up last week or I would have loved to have met up with you guys out there. SOME day I will make it out the Race Track. Killer shot. Looks like you caught that rock trying to sneak across the playa in the middle of the night. Still can’t get my brain around how those things move.
I’m always happy to read anything about Death Valley. Beautiful Milky Way above! Thanks for sharing!
Great shot! Any hints on exposure or post processing?