I Took Some Pictures of Rocks

Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park is one of my favorite spots in California. This is the location famous for its mysteriously moving rocks, and in this post, I’ll share the best photos I’ve taken out on Racetrack Playa, from the couple of times I’ve camped out there.

First, I feel behoved to reiterate just how much I love Racetrack Playa. Aside from the mystique of the moving rocks, it’s just a beautiful and tranquil place. You’re out on the playa–often without anyone else around for miles–surrounded by mountains in all directions. If ever I decide to go “off the grid” so the man can’t track me, I’ll go here. (The man, if you’re reading this, I’m just kidding. I’ll actually be in Arkansas. Look for me there.)

Normally, when a location or phenomenon gains as much attention as Racetrack Playa has, it becomes overwhelmed with people. In the social media age, Yosemite National Park has become crippled by crowds during its annual “Firefall.” During recent Super Blooms, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has seen an influx of people from Los Angeles posing for glamour shots. Fortunately, Racetrack Playa has not suffered the same fate…

This is likely in large part due to the barrier to entry. Death Valley National Park is itself fairly remote and desolate, located in the middle of nowhere relative to other popular National Parks. On top of that, Racetrack Playa is even more remote than the rest of Death Valley. The road to access Racetrack Playa is of the unpaved washboard variety, requiring a 4×4 high-clearance vehicle, as well as a lot of time and patience.

Very few visitors of the already few visitors to Death Valley National Park will have the time and appropriate vehicle to make it to Racetrack Playa. Hence it being one of the rare well-known, hyped-up-places that also remains unpopular in terms of visitation.

While (I guess?) it’d be nice if more people could experience Racetrack Playa, such obstacles are undoubtedly essential to the location’s unspoiled existence. Racetrack Playa has had its share of (presumably) unintentional damage as people have walked on the playa when the ground has been damp. It has also suffered vandalism, as people have ridden bikes or driven (yes, with actual cars) onto the playa, and moved rocks from their tracks.

The National Park Service warns that damage to the playa can take years to disappear, and I’ve seen some of this damage in person. A greater number of visitors also means a greater number of self-absorbed idiots who would leave behind traces of their visit for years to come. In this regard, it’s for the best that some days the number of visitors to Racetrack Playa numbers in the dozens, rather than the hundreds or thousands. (Both times I’ve camped at Racetrack Playa, I’ve seen fewer than 5 other people.)

Anyway, over the weekend I was going through photos from my past visits to Death Valley National Park, daydreaming of the next time we’ll make it out there, and I found a bunch of shots I had yet to edit. I thought I’d post those today, along with two of my favorites that I’ve already shared here before…

Late afternoon is one of my favorite times at Racetrack Playa. Even though the heat is brutal, I love the long shadows of the rocks. It makes them look larger than life (and also easier to find!), and also enhances the contours of the playa.

I liked how the color of the sky balanced out the frame here. It might seem like a simple shot, but setting up the tripod to photograph these rocks is more difficult than you might imagine.

You have to get close to the rock to emphasize it, but you can’t get too close, or you have to focus stack. You don’t want to get too low, or you lose the trail of the rock, which is important to the “story” of the photo. Get too high, and the scene is not as engaging. I’m not even kidding. You’d think taking a picture of a rock would be as simple as showing up and pressing the shutter, but it’s not.

Choosing the best rocks is also a challenge. I’d say 95% of the rocks on Racetrack Playa are duds. Their trail is poorly defined, the playa around them is damaged, there are two rocks inexplicably next to one another, etc. etc.

I’m not wild about the ‘bubbled up’ playa above, as I think it looks like a road block to that rock (maybe I overthink this stuff?), but I really liked the shadow of that rock under the full moon, and thought its positioning was otherwise solid.

This trio of rocks is featured a few times in this set. I was really hyped to find these three rocks, which actually branched off from a single trail. This was an otherwise boring shot, so I introduced distortion to the scene by pointing the fisheye downward to give this an ‘edge of the world’ vibe.

My three favorite rocks once again, this time with the Milky Way overhead. I wish I would’ve spent more time on this, as I think I could’ve done something here to make the rocks more visible. Perhaps some light painting or something.

I love this shot because of a small detail you might not even notice: the cloud of dust kicked up just under the sunburst. These photos might look peaceful and serene, but that cloud of dust is a “nice” reminder that one of these afternoons there was a brutal dust-storm that was so intense it was tough to use a tripod during!

Another Milky Way rock shot. If I were braver, I’d head out to Racetrack Playa during the summer Milky Way season, but I fear getting a flat tire on the road out there, not having cell service to dial for help…and dying of heat exhaustion and/or dehydration.

My three favorites, along with a bunch of other rocks. Another thing that is deceiving about these photos is the prevalence of the rocks. Before stumbling onto this rock-dense area, we had to walk about a mile and were growing concerned by the total lack of rocks on the playa.

Another shot of the full moon rising over the horizon. This is a (roughly) two-minute exposure, but if you were to glance at it quickly, you might mistake it for a poorly-exposed daytime shot.

The way the full moon illuminated Racetrack Playa on this particular night was surreal. It went from dusk to (briefly) pitch black to dusk again as the moon started to rise, to being so bright I didn’t even need a flashlight.

That’s it for this post. Hopefully you enjoyed this set of “Pictures I Took of Rocks.” If you’re thinking of visiting Racetrack Playa, I’d encourage you to go, but definitely do your research first. It’s a bit daunting and requires you to work for the shots, but I think the end result–both in terms of memories and photos–can be well worth it.

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.

Your Thoughts…

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!

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6 replies
  1. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    The majority of the shots seem to be around f9/f10. Where did you set the focus point, on the rock, or slightly behind?

      • Kevin
        Kevin says:

        Thanks. I think I’d missed that post on focus stacking – it’s a neat technique. Or perhaps I’d just forgotten since I don’t have photoshop. It looks possible in GIMP, but harder.

        The image of the Milky Way is perhaps less interested than the daytime photos from the perspective of the rocks, but the sky is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like that with all the light pollution where I live.

  2. wwcpd
    wwcpd says:

    Beautiful shots! I’ve mentioned here before that Death Valley is my fave national park (I know, I’m weird). In fact, as I type this, my desktop wallpaper is a shot of Darwin Falls. Have you been there? I’d love to see your photos.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I have not! It’s another place that’s on my list. Even though we’ve been to Death Valley many times, there are still so many things we’ve yet to see. (In fact, I’d hazard a guess that we’ve seen less than 5% of the park.)


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