The Road to the Racetrack

Sliding Rock, The Racetrack, Death Valley

Sliding Rock, The Racetrack, Death Valley

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A couple of weeks ago I got the bright idea to spend the twenty-four hours separating my two Death Valley workshops with a trip out to the Racetrack. While it seemed like such a good idea at the time, as my first workshop drew to a close I started longing for a bit of recharge time before the next one (it didn’t help that the first workshop’s final night was in Lone Pine near Mt. Whitney, an hour-and-a-half drive from Death Valley). But since I’d invited my brother Jay (who assisted my first workshop) and friend Doug (who would assist my second workshop), and they’d changed plans to join me, I sucked it up and made the trip (much to my ultimate delight).

You’ve probably seen pictures of the Racetrack, which, like many features in Death Valley, defies common logic. The Racetrack is a perfectly flat playa (dry lakebed) surrounded by rocky mountains that frequently shed large chunks of dolomite, many of which come to rest on the playa surface. But unlike the rocks you and I have known, the Racetrack rocks move. A lot. And as they scoot along the playa they carve tracks in the otherwise flat surface, sometimes several hundred yards long. The creepiest thing is that nobody has actually seen these rocks move. Science still doesn’t have a perfect explanation for what goes on here, but the general consensus is a combination of water, wind, and (possibly) ice is involved.

A major part of the Racetrack legend is the road out there. It’s a two hour drive on twenty-seven unpaved, unpatrolled miles of sharp rocks and jarring ruts. The road, a notorious tire eater, twists up to 5,000 feet elevation before dropping back down to 3,700 feet at the playa.

Given the time and effort it takes to get to the Racetrack, our plan was to land in time photograph sunset, wait for dark and photograph by moonlight, then throw down sleeping bags and spend the night, rising early enough to photograph sunrise. Armed with my rental SUV, if all went as planned (no flat tires), we’d make it back to Furnace Creek by noon and (fingers crossed) have time to clean up and eat lunch before starting workshop number two at 1 p.m. Piece of cake.

So, at the conclusion of workshop number one, my brother and I hustled back from Lone Pine and picked up Doug in Stovepipe Wells. Before setting out we made a quick stop in the general store, where the clerk reported that a recent Racetrack visitor had told him earlier that day that all the rocks had been stolen. Hmmm. Undeterred, we set off on our adventure with high hopes.

A light rain fell for much of the drive, quite unusual in this arid region that gets less than two inches of rain per year. And with rain comes clouds, one of which we entered not long after turning onto Racetrack Road. Instantly the visibility dropped to about one hundred feet and remained that way for much of the journey. Of course the lack of a view was of little concern to me, since my eyes strayed from the road only long enough check the dashboard tire pressure indicator.

Given the limited visibility and my targeted focus, I’m afraid I have little to report of the journey, except that it was with great relief that we somehow pulled up to the playa on schedule and without consequence. The rest of our adventure will need to wait until my next post—until then, above I offer proof that we did indeed make it, and that the trip was very much worth the effort.

11 Comments on “The Road to the Racetrack

    • Thanks, Laurent. I’ve seen that video; it shows the playa flooding, but it doesn’t explain the rocks’ movement. They’ve done lots of research since this video and are getting a better idea of what could be going on, but they’re still not sure. I kind of hope it stays a mystery for a while longer.

      • Hi Gary,

        Is it possible to communicate with you directly?

        Don Hamburg introduced me to your blog and to you work. I would like to get more information about some of the workshops you offer.

        All the best,

        Laurent

  1. Beautiful perspective.Crystal clear picture worthy of prolonged viewing. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Beautiful image Gary. I know the ride out there must have been wild, as it rained pretty good while I pasted through the valley on my way to Pahrump after the workshop. I only wish I could been there too.

    • Thanks, Allen. Unfortunately I’m only able to read the abstract, but this looks like one of several credible theories currently floating around. It’ll be interesting to see which, if any, rises to the top.

  3. Going to be there a few days following the Yosemite workshop. BTW when do you have time to rest and see the family?

  4. Pingback: The Road to the Racetrack, Part Deux « Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

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