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Trip to The Racetrack in Death Valley

Well I just can't seem to keep myself at home. Not long after my trip to the Sierras to capture the fall color, I decided to head back up in that part of California for a camping trip. But this time, it was off to the desert.

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

A buddy of mine and I set our sights squarely on The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park. For those of you who haven't heard of it before, The Racetrack is an expansive playa of dry, cracked dirt upon which boulders sit, dotting the landscape in no particular pattern. These fairly large rocks are peculiar in that they sit in the middle of this endless expanse, far away from any logical source. They leave one wondering how they could have gotten so far out in the middle of nowhere.

But the even more peculiar thing about them is that many of these boulders have definite trails scraped into the dirt, very clearly indicating a track the rocks once took to reach their current resting spots. It's like they just slid across the dirt all by themselves, driven by nothing more than their own will. Hence the name "The Racetrack."

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

The trails don't appear to follow any slope, especially since the playa is about as level as level gets. In fact, trails seems to go in all different directions. You can find one boulder with a clear trail coming from the north, and another rock not 20 feet away with a trail coming from the south. It's truly bizarre. From what I understand, the movement of these rocks has never been seen or filmed in action. There are only hypotheses as to what causes them to move - all revolving around strong winter winds.

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

Some of the tracks even change direction, creating sharp angles in their trajectory.

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

This rock (below) in particular baffled me. It has 2 trails going off in opposite directions. One is to the southwest and another to the northwest. It seems like this rock must have been heading northeast, stopped, turned sharply to the northwest, stopped, and then turned right back around and started heading southeast on its own previously laid track. Really interesting.

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

Here the rocks are "racing" away from their source at the edge of the playa.

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

But it wasn't only about the rocks and their trails. The cracked dirt of this playa was interesting enough in itself to warrant a picture or two. It looked like cobblestone. Almost mesmerizing as you walked over it.

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

Overall, The Racetrack was a great place to shoot and I was lucky to have a decent sunrise. But the real adventure was in getting there. There are no paved roads to the playa and it's really best visited in a 4x4. We opted to get there via Saline Valley Rd to the south, which eventually connects you up to Racetrack Valley Rd.

Old Rusted Truck in Death Valley National Park, CA

All the way up to Racetrack Valley Rd at Teakettle Junction was an absolute blasty. It was a great, fun off-road trail with gorgeous scenery, tons of variety and a good chunk of elevation change. But the best part was the weather. A storm was passing through, which dumped rain and snow on us. Here's a couple short video clips from the drive in:


So that part of the drive was fun. But what nearly made me lose my mind was the 30+ miles of brutal washboards on Racetrack Valley Rd. It was like driving on corrugated steel with your head in a paint can shaker. Mind-numbing. You can't drive much faster than 10 mph without every bolt and screw in your car rattling free. Here we are taking a break from it. Don't let the smiles fool you...

Nick Carver on Racetrack Valley Rd

I didn't get much in the way of landscapes after sunrise on The Racetrack, but I did manage to snap some shots of a couple of ravens perched on a park sign. They were brave, allowing us to get just a few feet away.

Ravens in Death Valley National Park, CA

Ravens in Death Valley National Park, CA

Ravens in Death Valley National Park, CA

^ Here they perch right above a notice that says "Do Not Feed Wild Animals." Not the best place to beg for food...

Ravens in Death Valley National Park, CA

For the second night of the trip, we camped in Death Valley proper in a secluded spot, did some nighttime off-roading to an abandoned mine and then set off for home the next morning. Excellent trip overall.