Racetrack Playa is one of the most captivating natural areas in Death Valley National Park, yet it is one of the most difficult to access. The cool weather seasons are best for this venture, because the scorching triple digit summertime heat has a way of making practically any vehicle unreliable. Getting stranded in the Death Valley backcountry can quickly turn into a survival situation, so it is best to be well prepared before setting sail. Packing emergency food and water rations is a good measure, while thoroughly checking the vehicle ahead of time will ensure a safe return. A high ground clearance vehicle will be needed for the trip from Ubehebe Crater and Teakettle Junction to Racetrack Playa. For those who traverse the Saline Valley to this destination, a 4x4 will definitely get the job done.
Dawn is the best time for the long dirt road trip from Ubehebe Crater to Racetrack Playa, because the morning light casts a golden glow on the pristine desert terrain. The Joshua Tree forests come to life as the mountain shadows recede and the golden highlights cast on the mountains look like a perfect picture postcard. The vast dry lake bed that is known as Racetrack Playa will come into view during the downhill run from Teakettle Junction and when it does, be prepared to stop and stare in awe! This big dry lake certainly does have an otherworldly appearance that naturally attracts onlookers from miles away.
Upon arrival, the roadside parking area is known as the Grandstand, but there are no races to be seen unless a long term time lapse movie function is employed. Those who have never heard of Racetrack Playa or have not done any prior research will likely wonder what the big deal is all about and merely viewing from the edge of the dry lake will provide few clues. The only way to discover the mysterious origin of the name of this place is to set out on foot to get a closer look. Once a visitor ventures out into the dry lake bed, the experience quickly becomes visually surreal. The dry mud cracks create patterns that fade into solid white in the distance any direction one looks and the ominous rock outcrop island out in the middle seemingly imparts a magnetic attraction that draws onlookers closer. All around are lonely looking rocks scattered over the dry lake bed and all it takes is wondering how they got there to cause the mystery begin.
The rocks on the surface of Racetrack Playa have a physical presence that takes time to decipher. Each rock has left a long skid trail in the dried mud where it traveled from, but rocks do not naturally move on their own accord. Many scientists assumed magnetic forces or continuous seismic activity was the cause, but the answer actually is much simpler than that. A combination of freezing temperatures, soil moisture collecting where the rocks touch the ground and high winds is what makes the rocks race across the big dry lake. A tour of Racetrack Playa early on an icy cold winter morning will confirm this theory to be true, which is all the more reason to arrive at dawn.
Racetrack Playa certainly is a fascinating place to be and it is a photographer's dream come true. In my own case, it was a frustrating experience because I shot a few hundred pictures during my first visit and somehow the Raw Files ended up getting destroyed. I actually ended up having to do a second trip to get more photos that could be published, but the lighting conditions were not quite as good as the first attempt. The problem was that I arrived way too early and the glare of the rising sunlight was absolutely blinding on the dry lake. After the sun rises above the surrounding mountains at about 9:00AM, the lighting for picture taking is much better, which is something to keep in mind. A good photo of the racing rocks on this big dry lake certainly is worth framing, so be sure to pack a good camera and a tripod for the ride!
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