Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park: Photos & Tips

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 photos I’ve taken at Racetrack Playa from the couple of times I’ve camped out there, plus info and tips on reaching this difficult-to-access location.

For starters, Racetrack Playa is a dry lakebed that’s far “off the beaten path” in Death Valley National Park. It’s about 3 miles long and 2 miles wide, and in the scorching heat that makes for a brutal hike as you search for the “best” rocks. Racetrack Playa is also extremely flat, and features playa surrounded by mountains on three sides.

Before the mystery of the moving rocks was solved (it’s an interesting story worth reading), there was a ton of speculation as to why the rocks moved. Previously, I’ve offered my own theory of ancient aliens, and science be damned, I’m sticking to that. Kidding aside, it’s actually quite fascinating, and while it’s a breakthrough that we now know the why of the moving rocks, a part of me enjoyed the mystery.

Aside from the mystique of the moving rocks, Racetrack Playa is 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.)

In terms of info and tips, Racetrack Playa is in a remote area of Death Valley. From the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, the drive to reach Racetrack Playa is over 83 miles. That may not seem long, especially on straight-away roads that you can do at a decent speed. This is all on Google Maps, so I’m not going to rehash directions here.

However, nearly 30 miles of that are on unpaved, washboard roads. The last stretch of the drive is interminably long and excruciating, but maintaining a slow speed is absolutely necessary if you don’t want a flat tire. Consequently, it takes about 3.5 hours to access Racetrack Playa from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.

The turn off for Racetrack Valley Road is near the parking lot for Ubehebe Crater. From here, it’s 27 miles to the Racetrack Playa. For the entire stretch of this unpaved gravel road, you’re going to want to keep your speed under 15 miles per hour. Plus, as noted, you’ll need a 4×4 high clearance vehicle.

About 20 miles in, you’ll reach Teakettle Junction (above), which is like an oasis in the dessert. Get out, stretch your legs, thank your lucky stars you don’t have a flat tire (yet), and do whatever else you need to mentally prepare for the final ~7 miles.

There are two parking areas for Racetrack Playa at Death Valley National Park. The first parking area is for the Grandstand. The Grandstand itself is a large rock formation jutting out of the middle of the playa. It’s cool if you’re into that sort of thing, but we’re guessing that you drove all this way for moving rocks.

The Grandstand is not so good for those. Instead, you’ll want to continue driving until you come to the next parking area. This doesn’t have a name (to my knowledge), but it’s pretty easy to spot. Park here, walk straight out about a half-mile, and you’ll start seeing the moving rocks.

In terms of other tips, bring plenty of water and food, a spare tire, and fix-a-flat supplies. The best course of action is to plan as if you’re going to get stuck out at Racetrack Playa…as there’s a decent chance of exactly that happening. You may also not see anyone else out there when you visit, so don’t count on someone else–or cell service–to rescue you.

When I’ve gone out to Racetrack Playa, it’s been part of camping trips at Death Valley National Parks. I’ve always gone out mid-afternoon and stayed overnight at the Racetrack. I know others recommend going first thing in the morning, which is solid advice if you’re not going to camp. I’d avoid the middle of the day. There’s no shade to offer any reprieve from the sun and heat–it’s like the surface of a stove out there.

Racetrack Playa Photography Tips

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.

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.

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!

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 rock photos, along with tips for Racetrack Playa at Death Valley National Park. If you’re thinking of visiting Racetrack Playa, I’d encourage you to go, but definitely do the proper planning and pack more supplies than necessary. 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? If so, what did you think of experience? Any additional tips to add that we didn’t cover? Would you do it again, or do you think it was a ‘one and done’? Was it worth your time and effort? Is visiting Racetrack Playa something you’d like to do someday? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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7 replies
  1. Mike Day
    Mike Day says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this set/post. I simply love the desert floor and the beautiful cracks they provide for the scene. Almost likes scales on a lizard. This is some of my favorite work of yours Tom.

    Reply
  2. 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?

    Reply
      • 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.

        Reply
  3. 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.

    Reply
    • 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.)

      Reply

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