Racetrack Playa rock at sunset

Racetrack Playa rock at sunset

After buckling down and going into a nearly week-long lockdown of reintegrating back into civilized life, researching timelapse stuff, and prepping for my trip up to Alaska, enjoying having as much hot water available at any time as I want without having to carry water up a mountain or boil it in a pot to heat it up, having ready access to juicy electricity and warm showers, I neared the end of the couple of days I’d reserved here at this backpacker’s hostel here in LA and although I could of course stay here longer, my intuition was telling me to be ready to go and to not book more days.  Okay! (I’ve learned to listen because it always leads me to amazing places in the most incredible ways.) 🙂 Now I’d been wanting to go to Death Valley, the lowest, hottest, and driest place in the US, and home to the Racetrack Playa (pictured above) which was on my bucket list, but the extreme heat there (~120 degrees this time of the year) warded me off. Nevertheless, the excitement kicked in and alright! Let’s do this!! 🙂

I usually travel alone since I like being able to keep to my own schedule without having anyone waiting on me, but this time I had a friend I’d made here at the hostel come join me, and it worked out so well for both of us. He wanted to make it to DV after hearing about it in Las Vegas and I wanted to save some money on gas. 😉 A win/win! I’m starting to like traveling with others. And so with a new friend by my side, off we drove into the scorching summer desert!

My Aussie friend had never seen a Wal-mart so we stopped at one along the way to stock up on food and water. He was blown away by how large it was… 🙂

Arriving in Death Valley after Sunset

It took us a good 6 hours or so of driving to get to Death Valley and we arrived just after the sun had set. Our first real stop was the sand dunes, but since the light was already gone, the main event became the sky as we watched the zillions of stars come out as the gorgeous Milky Way spanned what felt like a massive overhead dome. The moon wouldn’t rise for a few more hours so we had some really dark skies out in the desert away from major cities. I was in love…

Milky Way and stars over the mountains

Milky Way and stars over the mountains (Canon 1D, ISO 1600, 50mm, f1.4, 13s, in-camera NR)

Sunrise at Zabriskie Point

Now for our sunrise I wanted to shoot the iconic Zabriskie Point which was a good little ways away, so we hopped in the car and drove on over to the site. Not including the national parks in Alaska, Death Valley is the largest park in the USA, and so we did a bunch of driving… When we arrived at Zabriskie, with the exception of the starlight, it was nearly pitch black. I was hoping to find the mountain and do some startrail timelapses of it, but it wasn’t until the moon came out and lit up the earth that I was able to see where on earth we were and what the heck was around us. 😀

When the moon came out, I found what I thought was the famous point and set up to start shooting startrails. This trip marked my first serious attempt at timelapse photography. I made a LOT of mistakes and learned just as much. I’ll post a few videos here, but I consider them all test clips. I’ve still got a lot of experimentation to do to learn things about timing, creating smooth timelapses, finding how long to shoot for, and so on. These videos are far from perfect, but they’ll give you guys a little preview of what I’m working on. 😉

With that said, here’s the first timelapse I shot… of what I *thought* was Zabriskie Point.

After running the camera for a little while, draining one battery, and putting in another, I headed off to get some sleep underneath the unbelievable stary sky above. At night it dipped down to about 87-90 degrees, which a park ranger would later would tell us was uncommonly cool for nights here this time of the year. One great thing about sleeping in temperatures like these is you don’t need a sleeping bag or tent! Just throw down a sleeping pad and you’re all set! Quick setup and quick teardown! Woohoo!!

Death Valley temperatures

Death Valley temperatures

I woke up before my alarm went off as the sun started to cast a faint glow in the sky and it was only then that I realized this wasn’t the actual landmark I wanted to shoot! lol… whoops! It looked similar and was still pretty, but the actual point was far off in the distance, not actually sticking up from the horizon, and tough to see in the dark.

My friend and I headed up to the viewing area and I set up to shoot yet another timelapse, this time of the sunrise. It worked out quite well, other than the fact that I didn’t have enough battery life to make it through the whole sunrise… (The 1D isn’t so great for this line of work… I’d love to get a pair of 5DII’s sometime soon!!) 😀

Swapping in my last battery, I waited for the light to hit the main peak and fired away.

(Note: I recently purchased an inverter for my car so now I can charge my camera batteries as I drive. BIG help!!!)

Zabrinskie Point at sunrise

Zabriskie Point at sunrise

This point is quite photogenic of course, as were the ripply sand formations to our left. You can see them here in this pano below. The hill-shaped shadow in the lower part of the image is from the raised viewing area specifically built for tourists.

Zabriskie Point sunrise panorama

Zabriskie Point sunrise panorama

Badwater Basin

Finished with Zabriskie, and still misspelling and mispronouncing the name of it, we packed up and headed out to the other nearby location I wanted to hit for sunrise, Badwater. I’m really glad I chose Zabriskie Point for sunrise because it was actually quite gorgeous at first light. Badwater, pictured below, was totally in the shade when we arrived and wouldn’t have made for good first light shots. Morning glow, yes, but not first light.

To get here, just park at the parking lot and walk down to this boardwalk. Turn right to go to the watery area or walk straight, off the boardwalk and down the flat walkway to that white area in the distance to get to the salt flats.



So, this is the site for Badwater, named because one day a dude showed up here on a mule and even his mule refused to drink the ridiculously salty water. The guy called it “bad water” and the name stuck.

Badwater Basin at 282ft below sea level

Badwater Basin at 282ft below sea level

At 282 feet below sea level, this place is the lowest point in North America. The lowest point in the world is the Dead Sea in Israel which sits at 1360 feet below sea level. Amusingly enough, the highest point in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney (14,505 feet), is only 76 miles west of here. Death Valley is definitely a place of extremes!

Now the basin here is covered in this gorgeous crystalline white salt. (and yes, it tastes very salty!!) According to wikipedia, “repeated freeze–thaw and evaporation cycles gradually push the thin salt crust into hexagonal honeycomb shapes.” The honeycombs look really gorgeous…

Lots of photos of this location I’ve seen look pretty much the same… basically the photo below showing off the honeycomb structures, so I felt like getting something a little different. :p

Handstands at the Badwater Salt Flats

Handstands at the Badwater Salt Flats

282 feet below sea level. How low is that? Well check out the photo below.

See that sign up there? That's sea level.

See that sign up there? That's sea level.

See that white rectangular sign that I’m pointing to? (and also conveniently enough using my hand to block the sun with?) That sign is up at sea level. Want a sense of scale? Look down at the base of the mountain roughly underneath the arch of my wrist. There’s a vertical slit in the mountain, a cave you can walk in. The entrance is at the top of a hill you walk up. See that white dot at the bottom? That’s a person’s shirt.

Devil’s Golf Course

One great thing about Death Valley is that although the park is huge and it may take several hours to drive from one point to another, there are a number of sweet locations clustered relatively close together. Near Badwater is the Devil’s Golf Course, so-named because it’s been said that only the Devil could play golf here. (Click the link to go to the wikipedia entry and find out how it was formed.)

Devil's Golfcourse

Devil's Golf Course

These are basically some mondo-huge salt crystals. The ones pictured here are about 1-2 feet in diameter. This area is right off the road. You turn off, drive down a little side road, and pull up to a parking area with views of these.. things in every direction. They’re hard enough for you to walk on, around, and through. Fun place.

Artist’s Drive

Artist's Drive

Artist's Drive

Continuing up the road past the Devil’s Golf Course, we took a gorgeous scenic road called Artist’s Drive. It’s basically a several mile loop you can take where you drive over hills and alongside mountains that are colored thanks to oxidizing metals. You’ll have areas of white, yellow, brown, green, orange… like the palette of a painter. 🙂 In fact, there’s an area you can see here called Artist’s Palette!

After the first run along the loop, I wanted to go back and do the loop again to try and do a driving timelapse. While I didn’t have a good feeling about it, I pressed on and did it anyways. I suggested that my friend, sitting in the passenger seat, hold the camera up as steady as possible and let the timer automatically trigger the camera. He couldn’t get a good support the way that side of the dash was set up in my car and so the shots weren’t turning out well. So I took the camera instead and set it down on my side of the dash behind the steering wheel. We made the drive again and, well, something I didn’t think about ruined the entire series. You see, I had the camera set down on the dash and on the lens are two rings, one for focusing and one for zooming. As I drove, I kept the camera pressed down on the dash for support and steadiness, but in the process it spun my zoom ring and completely knocked the lens out of focus. And so now I have a wonderful timelapse that’s completely and utterly out of focus. 😀 I need to get a better system for driving timelapses. (I’ve already developed one and will be showing you guys this at a later date…)

Lunch with a Road Runner

We didn’t do much for breakfast that morning and were starting to get hungry, so we stopped by a visitor center. The thermometer was registering somewhere over 110 degrees by this point and we found a picnic table in the shade to make a meal.

It turns out that we weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the shade. A road runner was doing the same thing!! 😀

Roadrunner running into the shade

Road Runner running into the shade

He doesn’t look like the road runner you see in cartoons… Also, try as I might, I couldn’t get him to say “meep meep.” 😀

Cartoon Road Runner

Cartoon Road Runner

Another big difference I noticed was that the real life road runner would let me get really close! Wile E. Coyote would have needed ACME rocketskates to get this close… 😀 He let me get within a few feet before retreating.

Roadrunner portrait

Road Runner portrait

As you get closer, he’d puff out his feathers and to make himself look larger. I think he also fanned out his feathers to help cool off a bit. Either way, when you get too close, within about 3-4 feet or so, he’d bolt. Speaking of running, this guy is FAST! He can dart off in a flash. It’s pretty awesome. He’d pretty much sprint/jog from one shady spot to another, faster than the other little critters around.

Ubehebe Crater

Now the main thing I wanted to see here in Death Valley was the Racetrack Playa. To get there you need to drive up a bunch of paved roads and then down a 27-mile rocky gravel road. Right before you switch from pavement to broken up rocks, there’s a pullout to go see Ubehebe Crater. (It’s pronounced you-bee hee-bee, but I like to say it “ooh baby”) 😀

Jamiel at Ubehebe Crater

Jamiel at Ubehebe Crater

It was WINDY up here! Gusts often top 50mph. Notice Jamiel taking a picture with one hand and holding his hat on with the other. This crater wasn’t formed by meteor impact, but by geologic forces. As the helpful sign nearby explains, rising magma turns groundwater into steam which builds up until the superheated combination of steam and rock *explodes*.. creating a crater like this one. There’s actually several craters here, but this one is the largest in the area. The earth fart that caused this one spewed shattered rock over a six-square-mile area, leaving a crater half a mile across and 500 feet deep. lol… The Earth is COOL. 🙂

Racetrack Playa

So to get to The Racetrack, you gotta take this infamously rough road. Any time you tell someone that you’re gonna go this way, they ask you what car you drive and issue stern warnings about driving slow and having a spare tire handy, as well as having plenty of food and water.

Yucca Trees on the road to Racetrack Playa

Yucca Trees on the road to Racetrack Playa

While the posted speed limit here is 35mph, it’s recommended to go no faster than 20-25. Many people have blown tires down this 27-mile rocky road. To get to the playa, you can drive in from the north or the south. I took the northern road both going in and going out. Going in was tougher for some reason and going out was much easier, perhaps due to elevations changes. We were able to coast on the way down. In any event, it was definitely a gnarly ride. It’s no wonder they recommend having a 4×4 to make the drive!

Along the way as you get closer to the racetrack, you start running across these yucca trees, also known as joshua trees. I was so excited to see them because there’s a national park south of here called Joshua Tree National Park that I’m not gonna be heading down to see on this trip, but I got to see the JT’s anyways. 😀

Me being a Yucca Tree

Me being a Yucca Tree. Can you find me? =)

Eventually we made it down to the racetrack, with all 4 tires doing splendidly no less! I thanked my tires and complemented them on holding up so well and then headed off to go do some exploring.

So Racetrack Playa… what’s a playa? It’s a dry lake bed, and it also happens to be the flattest of all natural surfaces.

Your classic shot is one of getting close up to one of the rocks, with nice sidelighting emphasizing the texture of the playa and the path that the rocks take.

Racetrack Playa rock at sunset

Racetrack Playa rock at sunset

Now why do the rocks move? No one knows for sure, including the geologists who study the area and spend a lot of time here, but there’s all sorts of theories, everything from ice sheets pushing the rocks when the ground is softer to aliens zapping the rocks or something…

This video seems to be pretty sound. I told a ranger who works there about it, but he wasn’t convinced, oddly enough.

As to why the rocks move, I have my own theory…

Playing with the Racetrack Playa rocks

"Human-powered" sliding rocks

Now getting around the playa is tougher than you’d think! You see, this place is HUGE! It’s 2.8 miles long and 1.3 miles wide. I wanted to find the best looking tracks possible so I went out there, camera and tripod in hand, and jogged all over the racetrack in 115 degree temperatures. Eventually I set down the camera to cover more ground and scout out for better rocks. I couldn’t find any huge dramatic paths and after a bunch of running in such temperatures, I started to get a heat headache so I had to take a rest… It’s pretty awesome how thick the air is at lower elevations compared to up on mountaintops. You can run run run! The heat wasn’t as bad as I expected. Keep your skin protected, drink plenty of water, spend time in the car with the AC blowing, and you’re fine. The wind felt wonderful and I loved the dry air. One thing I noticed was that my eyeballs felt like they were baking in the heat, a sensation I’d never experienced.

I had less time here than I wanted. Because there’s mountains surrounding the area, particularly in the west where the sun sets, the last direct light of the day was earlier than I anticipated. When I found a good rock that I liked, I set up and started doing some timelapse work.

I started shooting a bit later than I wanted and stopped shooting earlier than I probably should have, but at least I got a few seconds of decent timelapse footage.

After the sun had set, I started heading back to my car, but not before stopping to take this self-portrait on the playa. 🙂

Laying down on Racetrack Playa

Laying down on Racetrack Playa

Being Conscious of Others’ Abilities and Limits

Once the sun had set, my friend finally came out to come see the playa for himself. You see, the heat triggered his allergies and he’d left his allergy medicine back in the hostel. Whoops… I had to be really aware of his physical condition because he was starting to develop some growing heat symptoms and wasn’t feeling very well. For some reason he was also stubbornly unwilling to drink a lot of water or ask around if any of the rangers had medicine that would help his allergies. Trying to tough it out I suppose, in the face of impending heat stroke? I don’t get it… I had allergy medicine in my first aid kit, but due to his particular physiology, he couldn’t take it. He needed special allergy medicine. Thanks to this experience and considering I’d like to start taking people out into nature on fun treks and explorations, I’ve learned to doublecheck beforehand that anyone I take with me have all the medication they need, to find out how physically fit and experienced a person is in the outdoors.

(I’ve also found there’s a difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. Some people may have experience in extreme conditions, but you may discover when you actually get out there that they don’t know how to take care of themselves. Shit. Then you have to look after not only yourself, but also start to babysit them. If a person’s not straight up about what they know how to do and what they can handle, they’re putting our safety on the line. They’re putting their life in danger, and mine. NOT COOL.)

In any event, I’ve become much more direct and upfront about asking about people’s experiences and if they’re capable of handling these sorts of things. It’s dangerous not to. “Here’s what we’re getting into. Here’s what you need know beforehand and what conditions to be prepared for. Are you up for it? No need for bravado and machismo here. There’s no shame in saying no. We all just need to be clear on what’s up.” I’m not saying this guy wasn’t prepared, for the most part he was, but it highlighted the importance of making sure every person is adequately prepared and fully aware of what they’re getting into. I don’t wanna be anyone’s babysitter here, but at the same time, I don’t want to take anyone somewhere where they could be in some serious danger, y’know? Everyone’s safety, well-being, and enjoyment is important here. Either way, it would definitely be wise to step up and handle safety awareness issues responsibly right from the get-go whenever I’m taking people out like this, regardless of if I’m an official leader or not.

That said, I am starting to like more and more traveling with people. It provides opportunities to save money by splitting costs on gas and camping fees, I get to enjoy conversations and learn about other places in the world, they often come up with cool ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of myself, and so on.

One concern I had was about spending hours and hours shooting something while a non-photographer would be sitting around twiddling their thumbs as I was out playing with my cameras and waiting for the sweet light. I’d rather make my own plans and set my own schedule, without trying to accommodate everyone else at the same time, you know? There’s a real freedom in flying solo. You go where you want, when you want, for as long as you want, without having to answer to anyone or check in with anyone. I love that. Yet one cool thing I discovered was that this wasn’t an issue here. He didn’t know too much about what to see and where to go, and so after a bit of research I had a plan of what to see, in what order, and what times of the day to go for maximum awesomeness and sunrise/sunset sexiness. At the same time, when I was out playing on the racetrack, for example, my friend was sitting back near the car in the shade, really really enjoying his time just looking at the racetrack and admiring it, soaking it all in. It was so happy to find that he could relax and genuinely enjoy himself without my photo’ing and my schedule being an issue for him. It just fit well, and for this I am really grateful.

Mesquite Sand Dunes

Anyways, after the sun set behind the mountains in the playa, I was eager to hit the road again and get out of there. The campsites near the playa were closed, and I would much rather make the drive back during the day instead of at night. So with the light fading, we made the drive back up towards paved roads, making it safely out of the gravel road with all 4 tires still going strong. You rock, tires!!

(Note: They have rangers who drive the whole park daily to check for stranded travelers. If you have any problems, they recommend simply waiting by your car because they will have someone coming by to check on you. Pretty cool.)

Anyways, I was getting pretty tired by this point… been going strong all day on 3 hours of sleep, so I was ready to find a place to buckle down and get some shut-eye. We wound up stopping by a place near the sand dunes. Throw down a sleeping pad, grab a pillow if you have one (a jacket or sweater works well here too), and out you go! It usually takes me a while to fall asleep, on the order of an hour or two, but after a few short minutes of admiring the starlit sky, I was out. I only woke up once during the night and by that point the halfmoon had come out and was shining overhead. Cool. Back to sleep!

After a solid 7-8 hours of sleep, we got up, packed up, and set out to go check out the sand dunes. Because there were some mountains in the east, the dunes wouldn’t be hit with first light. Thus we had a little time after the technical sunrise before the light would start basking its warm glow onto the sand dunes. Once it did, boy were they ever beautiful…

Mesquite Sand Dunes

Mesquite Sand Dunes

We walked a little ways into the scene, particularly once many of the picture-taking tourists started to leave, and I got a chance to explore what these sand dunes are like. Walking over one hill, I looked down and found this gorgeous footprint-free area.

Gorgeous sand patterns leading up to the big dunes

Gorgeous sand patterns leading up to the big dunes

Glancing up towards the mountains in the background, this view was my treat.

Rippling sand in the mountains

Rippling sand in the mountains

Ahh, so beautiful… 🙂

This was our final real stop, but I did make one little stop in the park before leaving… taking a shot I’ll show you guys later once, well, you’ll see… 😉

So yeah, Death Valley. Cool place. (Figuratively, not literally.)

I figure Death Valley is good place to start my drive up to Alaska. From the hottest place in the USA to the coldest state. From the area with the lowest elevation (-282 feet at Badwater) to the state with the highest peak (20,320 feet at Denali). From the largest park in the lower 48 (Death Valley NP) to the largest park in the USA (Denali NP). Yeah!!

From one extreme to another, full of adventure and joy, here we go on up to Alaska!! 😀


  1. Bill Schalaba
    on August 7th, 2010

    This is awesome! Thank you, my dad always told me he was going to take me there. He passed before he had the chance. Thanks for sharing this Ariel.

  2. David Gantt
    on August 8th, 2010

    These are the most wonderful photos of Death Valley I’ve ever seen! Bravo! Great job.

  3. Mathews
    on November 26th, 2010

    May I use one of your pictures in an illustration? The picture of the Milky Way over mountains to be exact. If not, you needn’t reply.

  4. Ariel
    on November 26th, 2010

    Sure Mathews, go for it. 🙂

  5. Zsolt
    on October 31st, 2011

    Thanks, for all of the information. This is awesome.
    I’m planning to go to the Race Track with a mini van in December and stay there for overnight. What do you think /I know they recomend high clearance veichle to do it/ is it doable?

  6. Ariel
    on November 2nd, 2011

    You don’t need a high clearance vehicle, but the road is gravely and grated and it can be rough on tires. The rangers recommend to KEEP YOUR SPEED DOWN and that’s definitely a good idea. Bring a spare tire, watch for bigger rocks which can pop a tire, bring extra water, especially when it’s hot. The rangers drive the road basically daily when it’s hot to check for people who are stranded on that road with blown tires. So it’s not so much high clearance as it is rough on the tires.

  7. Dany
    on November 15th, 2011

    Your pictures are amazing. I’ve been searching for pictures of the milky way galaxy taking from death valley and it’s the best one that I found. From what spot you took this amazing photo, cause I went on June for the first time but it did not look like that it was a full moon. Now I’m planning to go but I would like to know where is the best place to see it.

  8. Danya
    on November 15th, 2011

    Thanks for sharing your beautiful images.. I have a canon rebel t1i and I would like to know what is the setting to capture the milky way.. Thank you

  9. Ariel
    on November 15th, 2011

    The Milky Way shot was taken near Zabriskie point, I believe. There’s random mountains all around the area. 🙂

    To capture the Milky Way, you’re going to want high ISO, fast lenses, and long enough exposures to get the light without going too long where you start getting star trails.

    Have fun! 🙂

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