Death Valley National Park – “The Racetrack” – February 17-19, 2012
The idea was to get on “The Nickel” (my apologies for not giving credit to my buddy/partner in crime Eric Ballatore for swiping his term “The Nickel” in the initial blog post!) South immediately after work on Friday in order to arrive in Death Valley somewhere between 2-4 am… Just in time for sunrise! So I arrived in Death Valley around 230 am on Saturday morning… This gave me just enough time to catch a two hour nap (in the jeep of course)…
The alarm goes off at 430 am (on Saturday) and I gather all my gear and begin to hike out onto the salt flat in Badwater Basin… The stars are amazing; however, I am setting up for sunrise… As the sun begins to rise, I am distracted by all kinds of commotion coming from the parking lot… Three vans of tourists were let loose on the salt flats? Well, the sky was clear with zero clouds, the setup for a boring sunrise, not to mention the tons of people not caring one bit about being in my frame! I laugh and I decide to gather my gear up and head out to the Racetrack!
The Racetrack is a 2-3 hour drive from Badwater Basin… Four wheel drive and tires with reinforced sidewalls is recommended/required (big rocks)… There are two routes to get to the Racetrack… One is considerably easier and less dangerous than the other… I opted for the safer route (for now!)… The Racetrack is famous for its “sailing stones” on the playa… “The sailing stones are a geological phenomenon found in the Racetrack.” “The stones slowly move across the surface of the playa, leaving a track as they go, without human or animal intervention.” “They have never been seen or filmed in motion.”
I couldn’t win, no clouds in the morning for sunrise and completely socked in with clouds for a non-sunset! 8.5 hours of driving and not a single decent picture… The last resort was to shoot star trails; however, the clouds were not cooperating and I have never had any success in shooting star trails! So I decided to get a few hours jeep-time (sleep) and get up periodically to check the cloud situation.
600 pm: Not looking so good, socked in clouds
800 pm: Slight clearing with a few stars visible
1000 pm: No change
1200 Midnight: It’s on…
It’s Sunday morning (1230 am in the morning), and I am off to the Racetrack to photograph “motionless” rocks and if I am lucky some star trails! It’s the desert, it can’t be that cold? Yup it’s cold… A mix of 24 degrees, a gentle breeze compounded with standing in the same spot for nearly 8 hours… I walk about 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile out on the playa trying to find the perfect rock… It’s creepy out on the playa alone, so I find myself shining the flashlight in all directions just to make sure I am alone, not interested in any desert creature’s company…
On a clear night, the stars in Death Valley are absolutely amazing, little light pollution make it feel like you could actually get away with stealing a few… So I finally find a decent rock and start shooting… I planned on shooting at least twelve 5-minute exposures for the star trails and then wait until sunrise to take one shot for the foreground (the rock!)… After about eleven exposures into the long process, I decide my composition was terrible and I want to shoot to the north!!! It’s only about 230 A.M., so I have plenty time to pack up my gear, begin the hunt for a rock that has a trail coming from the north, and start over… So I find a decent rock and begin to mount the camera on the tripod when all of the sudden my head makes a quick, awkward subconscious jerk… What was that all about? In my peripheral vision I picked up on a shooting star that seemed to heading for me! Anyway, the following photo is comprised of sixteen 5-minute exposures and one exposure taken near sunrise in order to give some detail to the foreground… Yes it is a long process that involves a lot standing around and waiting… Thank goodnees for Smartphones!
So I must have been feeling a bit adventurous, but more likely delirious (obvious lack of sleep) deciding to forego the easier/safer route while opting for the Lippincott Pass route! What do those THICK DASHED DOUBLE BLACK LINES on the map mean anyhow? Let’s just say that the Lippincott Pass route can be characterized by steep questionable hair pin turns, rock/boulder climbing, extremely narrow, terrifying washouts, deep ravines, and some of the most beautiful scenery many folks don’t get to experience… So in all I traveled about 7 miles in approximately 2 hours of travel time, not much of a shortcut!
I finally make it to 395N with the jeep still intact! I decided to head north on 395 and spend a few hours searching for ancient Indian Petroglyphs near Bishop, CA in the beautiful Eastern Sierras! Supposedly this particular area in the Owens Valley is loaded with Petroglyphs… The snow-capped Eastern Sierras along 395 (e.g, Mount Whitney, Mt. Tom, and the White Mountains, etc…) are absolutely magnificent… Of course I can’t pass up the opportunity to stop at the Subway in Lone Pine, very good (A+)! So I have one particular Petroglyph in mind and I have absolutely no idea where to begin looking! Talk about finding a needle in a hay stack? I have a picture to use as a reference and that’s about it!
I climb directly up the steep bluffs and begin hiking aimlessly up and down multiple canyons and ridges with beautiful snow-capped Mt Tom (13,652 ft) to the west and the White Mountains to the east… After 6 hours of hiking, approximately 7-8 miles no luck! On the bright side, I have combed a good portion of the area and I have a good starting point for next time
Time to head home, another great adventure, exhausted…