For those who don’t know, the “sailing stones” are rocks on a dry lake bed that have left tracks in the mud during the winter indicating the rocks have moved a considerable distance. How do they do it? There has been a lot of speculation about high winds pushing the rocks over slippery mud. There are even people who believe that aliens move the rocks just to mess with our heads or worse, that the rocks have magical powers. What makes that belief worse is that people will sometimes steal the rocks from the playa. I should point out that the rocks can be heavy, up to 700 pounds. The idea of them moving because of wind alone is not plausible, even if the mud is slippery.

The mystery was solved in January, 2014 when scientists placed GPS transmitters on a number of the rocks to monitor their movement. When the rocks began to move, scientists made the trek to the playa to photograph the movement. Time-lapse photos reveal that the rocks were embedded in thin sheets of ice that lifted and encased the rocks. Light winds then pushed those ice sheets across the playa at a slow pace, dragging the rocks across the mud. This is how the tracks appear. High winds and aliens are not required.

Different rocks are often encased in different sheets of ice. Wind changes direction and thus creates angles in the tracks. Not all rocks move every year. Some tracks run in different directions because rocks may have moved in one season and not another, leaving tracks that travel in conflicting directions. Some rocks move in parallel, indicating ice sheets large enough to move rocks together. Rocks have been measured leaving parallel tracks up to 830 meters apart.

Personally, I find nature and science to be more exciting than magic and aliens. One thing everyone can agree on is that the sailing stones of Death Valley are unique in the world. I was excited at the chance to photograph them

Sailing Stones at Racetrack Playa

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When I mentioned where I was going, my 6 year-old grandson looked at me with his eyes wide in alarm. “Why is it called Death Valley?” he asked. Realizing he thought I was going there to die I said, “Oh, it’s a place where some people in horse-drawn wagons died a long time ago. I will be safe.” To make sure of that, I hired Jeff Sullivan, a photographer who leads many tours to Death Valley and has done so for years. He is probably the most knowledgeable photo guide to the area and indeed, wrote the book, Photographing California which includes an extensive section on Death Valley.

I also rented an all-wheel drive, high clearance jeep from Farabee’s in Furnace Creek. Farabee’s normally rents for a day or a half day, but I arranged to pick up the jeep at noon and keep it for two nights. I wanted to have plenty of opportunity for night photography there. In addition to the two nights at Racetrack Playa, I decided to make the five hour drive from Los Angeles the day before, so I could be rested and ready to pick the jeep at noon for my drive to the Playa.

I also invited my friend Gary to join me on this expedition. I mentioned that since I would be doing a lot of night photography, I would sleep part of the day in my tent. He said that considering it was going to be 105 degrees in Furnace Creek on the day I arrived, he figured someone would have to pull my desiccated corpse out of my tent from trying to sleep in that heat. I knew that the Racetrack Playa is over 4,000 feet in elevation and temperature drops around 3.5 degrees for every thousand feet of elevation, so it shouldn’t be that hot. Besides, doesn’t the desert cool off at night? Gary also said that it sounded like another grand David Wells adventure and that he was sure I would get some great photos. I hoped that part of his prediction would come true

Stovepipe Wells

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After leaving around 9:00 AM, I arrived at Stovepipe Wells around 1:30 PM. Stovepipe Wells is one of the two main towns in Death Valley. It isn’t much to look at. Besides the ranger station, there is a grocery store, gas station and a couple of outbuildings. It is also adjacent to Mesquite Dunes. I stopped for lunch at the parking lot for the dunes. It was 101 degrees but felt even hotter, possibly because the Stovepipe Wells is at sea level and as a result, the air is dense. I stayed in the car to eat and walked out only a hundred feet of so to get a few shots of the dunes framed by the bones of old ironwood trees. Despite the sign saying not to hike on the dunes after 10:00 AM because of the danger of heatstroke, there were a number of tourists out hiking in the distance. I hope they at least brought water.

Mesquite Dunes with bleached Ironwood

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Hikers heading out on the dunes despite the heat

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Continuing on towards Furnace Creek, where I had booked a campsite for the night, I saw the sign for Harmony Borax Works and turned in to the parking lot. While prospectors combed the Western hills for gold, silver and other precious minerals, the biggest export of Death Valley turned out to be borax. The famous 20 mule team wagons carrying borax out of Death Valley came from this mine and processing center.Borax is used as a cleaning and whitening agent, often in laundry detergent. It is also used to kill ants.

Chinese workers lived in tents on the adjacent plain while white owners and supervisors lived in nearby Furnace Creek, so named because it has a spring of hot water. The mine was only operational from 1884 to 1888 but the image of 20 mule teams adorn boxes of borax to this day. The mules pulled a load of over 30 tons, including water for the mules. A steam driven wagon replaced the mules and eventually a railroad replaced the steam wagon.

Harmony Borax Works wagon

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As the sign says, Furnace Creek is 190 feet below sea level. It was 104 there. I have been in 104 before. In fact, I moved into my home when it was 112 in the San Fernando Valley. I carried furniture all day in that heat but 104 in Furnace Creek somehow seemed hotter. The air pressure with the heat was suffocating. After checking in to my camping spot on a large dirt parking lot bordered with ironwood trees, I decided to photograph the tourist hot spots. The trees lining my campsite are the ones behind the sign below.

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My first stop was Artist’s Point and Artist’s Palette. These are somewhat colorful rock formations on a one-way loop road. This road is a side loop off the road to Badwater Basin. I wanted to be at Badwater for sunset. The first stop on the loop is Artist’s Point. Getting to the point requires a short hike, maybe a couple hundred yards at most but by now it was 105 degrees and the elevation was even lower. I walked up the hill to the vantage point a lot slower than I would normally, conscious of the possibility of heatstroke. The Point was not that inspiring. The next section of road has extreme dips and turns, almost like a roller coaster. A few miles further on is Artist’s Palette, another hillside with colored rock, chiefly green.

Artist's Point

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Artist's Palette

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On to Badwater Basin, the lowest point on Earth. When I arrived there, the temperature was 106 and the air pressure even higher. I stopped to ask a ranger parked near me where I might see hexagonal sections of salt flat. He said he hadn’t been out there in a while but he understood it could be a couple miles walk. Helpfully, he said that about 700 yards out on the right was a section of salt flat that was extruding from the ground in fingerlike projections. Even more helpfully, he offered to pour a 5 gallon tank of water all over me and my clothes. That felt great! The evaporative cooling made my walk on the playa tolerable. As the ranger predicted, there were some beautiful, delicate fingers of salt projecting up from the ground where he said they would be. I got there in time to get backlit images as the sun was setting beyond the mountains. I used an aperture of f16 to produce a sunstar when the light of the sun was split by the horizon. When I got back to the car, the temperature gauge said 112. I don't think that was true but it sure felt that way.

Lowest point on Earth - 282 Feet Below Sea Level

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This pool by the parking lot is the lowest of low points. The geology that causes Badwater Basin is that the Earth in the area of the Great Basin from the Sierras to the Rockies is stretching apart. Badwater is sinking as the great blocks of granite forming the mountains on either side tilt up. There there is about 6,000 feet of mud silting up the basin, but the ground is sinking faster than it is being filled by runoff. The water in the pool is fed by an underground aquifer rather than from runoff from the nearby mountains. There just isn't that much rain.

Salt Crystals Projecting Up From Evaporation

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As the ranger predicted, there were some beautiful, delicate fingers of salt projecting up from the ground where he said they would be. I got there in time to get backlit images as the sun was setting beyond the mountains. I used an aperture of f16 to produce a sunstar as the light of the sun was split by the horizon. When I got back to the car, the temperature gauge said 112.

Sunstar backlighting salt crystals

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112 degrees at quarter after six

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On the way back to my campsite, I checked out Zabriskie Point and decided to be there for sunrise. Smoke from fires in the Sierras made for a muddy evening view.

Driving down the short hill to Furnace Creek, I was disappointed that my campsite had not cooled off after sunset. After having some dinner out of my ice chest, I practiced  night sky photography using a star tracker. By 10:30 PM, I decided to try and sleep on the air mattress in the back of my Subaru. It was still 97 degrees. I opened all the windows and the moonroof but the hot wind failed to cool me. Again, I felt like I was suffocating in the heat. I thought of my friend Gary and his prediction. I got out of the car, walked over to the restroom and soaked my tank top shirt under the sink. Wringing that out, I laid it on top of me to provide some evaporative cooling. It helped but I still couldn’t sleep. By 2:30 in the morning, it was still 94 degrees but by now the wind was howling and showering me with dirt. Reluctantly, I closed the windows and moonroof, soaked my shirt again and tried to sleep. I must have dozed off because I woke to see the stars disappearing as dawn was approaching.

Driving back up to Zabriskie Point, I found a couple dozen other people photographing or just enjoying the sunrise. There were even a couple of professional models doing a commercial shoot. It is a beautiful location. My favorite shot from that morning has the “belt of Venus” or penumbral light on the horizon. Unlike where everyone else was shooting, I found a spot to the side with nice leading lines in the foreground rock.

Zabriskie Point - This would look good on someone's wall

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After breakfast out of my ice chest, I took advantage of the Furnace Creek Ranch pool and showers attached to Fiddler’s campground. That was why I paid $24 to sleep in a dirt parking lot instead of the nicer parking lot at Zabriskie Point. A quick swim and shower made a huge difference.

The Ranch at Furnace Creek pool

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Furnace Creek Ranch also has a great collection of old mining equipment, including a 20 Mule Team wagon and the steam wagon that replaced it. Notice the wide rim iron wheels on the wagons. No worry about punctures with those!

While waiting for my jeep, I ate, bought more ice at the Furnace Creek store and arranged to leave my car for two nights at the nearby visitors center.

Borax Wagon

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Steam Wagon that Replaced 20 Mules

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Farabee’s Jeep rental is adjacent to Fiddler’s campground.In fact you could walk across all of Furnace Creek in under three minutes.

I had been in text contact with Jeff Sullivan as he drove down from his home above Bridgeport to meet me. When I picked up my jeep, I headed out to our rendezvous point.

The drive as far as Ubehebe Crater is all paved. Just beyond is where the fun begins. Jeff led with his Subaru Outback with all terrain tires. I followed as best I could in the jeep. Jeff was taking the road at about 35 mph, kicking up a long trail of dust. I kept as close as was safe but the jeep was bouncing and fishtailing as if I was driving on bumpy ice. We drove that way for about an hour, over a pass studded with Joshua trees, then coming down and stopping briefly at Teakettle Junction. Though the road is about one and a half lanes wide, there are numerous pullouts to allow passing in either direction. Only one section was narrow, twisty and hemmed in with rock. That was near the top of the pass.

Teakettle Junction is actually an intersection with a cutoff to Hunter Mountain. For some reason, people have been hanging teakettles on that sign for decades so of course I had to stop and take  photos of the sign like everyone else. Apparently the Park Service takes down any teakettles that make the sign unreadable so the array of teakettles changes over time.

When Jeff asked what I thought of the road, I said, “I have driven worse in a Prius.” While this is true, I wouldn’t have driven it at this speed. Jeff said he once got three flat tires on this road during one trip. That was before he got all terrain tires. He has also seen numerous people with flat tires on this road. I had been expecting a technical, rock-crawling, deep-rutted, sharp boulder road, so rocky washboard was a pleasant surprise. Just the same, I would not want to be out there with car trouble. Towing service can run up to $2,000. If I ever want to go back though, I will just buy the all-terrain tires. They cost about the same as the price of two nights jeep rental.

Teakettle Junction

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Coming down the hill from there, we soon arrived at Racetrack Playa. The first feature we passed is a black granite outcropping called The Grandstand. Presumably, that’s where spectators would sit to watch the sailing stones race each other on Racetrack Playa. The playa is about seven miles long (North to South) by about two miles wide. The road parallels the long side of the playa. At the south end is where people park to hike out to the stones. The stones are most abundant at the far side of that end of the playa because the stones roll off a mountain on the far side.

We didn't go out on the playa right away as we wanted to make camp in the light and have an early dinner. The road continues another six miles to a small campground, really just a loop to turn around with a few flat spots to set up tents and a single unmaintained outhouse. We continued on to that empty campground to set up our tents and eat before hiking out on the playa for sunset and night shots.

The Grandstand

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The road from the playa to the campground was not as rough, so I shot a little of it using a GoPro. You can see how the jeep is fishtailing by the way it side slips around the road.

Road to campground

Homestake Dry Camp

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Though it was pleasantly warm as we set out for dusk on the playa, I carried a windbreaker, warm hat, neck wrap and light gloves in my photography backpack.

We arrived at the playa parking lot just as the sun was touching the Western mountains. Jeff pointed out to me that the advancing shadow line made a nice low light that highlights the tracks of the moving stones. We had only walked a few hundred yards when I saw my first tracks. I was pleased to note that we could easily keep pace with the advancing shadow line of sunset, even with stopping for numerous photos.

Low angle light shows the tracks

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What we were looking for photographically was a rock with an interesting track and some element of interest in the sky for a background. We hoped for good light at sunset or sunrise, but there weren’t clouds to reflect the light, just some haze from fires in the Sierras. We also hoped for good penumbral light after sunset but haze blocked most of that as well. Being in a truly dark environment at moderate elevation with dry air did give us a great view of the Milky Way. That was spectacular.

Side light shows the tracks at night

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I left the light painting to Jeff and he did a great job, using a flashlight to sidelight the tracks so the shadows would show them better. He also tried using small tea lights to cast an even glow on the playa. Though that did look more natural, the tracks didn’t show as well.

Galactic Center shows more in a vertical shot

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The playa is also large and remote enough that we had no trouble from other photographers lights in our frame. We saw one couple the first night but they stayed near the parking lot nearly two miles away. The second night we talked to another photographer who remained about a quarter mile away.

During the day, we saw others venture out near the parking lot. Our campground had a group with campers on pickup trucks the first night and a group of jeeps the second. Everyone was very friendly and polite. Each group was asleep when we returned from the playa to our tents at around 10:30 PM, so we had no interruption to the silence and darkness of the desert.

Being out on the playa at night has a serene beauty in it’s silence, dark and wide open expanse. You don’t have to worry about some animal sneaking up on you. There are no animals, not even a bug. There could be no sneaking. It is a place where silence, darkness, emptiness and peace envelops you. I always feel a sense of peace and greater connection when I gaze on the Milky Way. I don’t have to drive so far to get that connection but I certainly felt it on the playa.

As the galactic center set in the South, we turned our attention to the less dramatic part of the Milky Way in the north. The sky there includes the Pleiades and the Andromeda Galaxy. In case you have never seen the Milky Way, I should point out that it appears as a band across the entire sky. Most of what we see is the night sky is part of our home galaxy. The Milky Way is just the thickest part of our galaxy, a spiral galaxy seen on edge.

Milky Way to the North

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The next morning, we were out at sunrise, following the low light across the playa. There were a lot of interesting tracks, but the sky was just not as dramatic as at night. An interesting sky makes a better photo. After all, we are just photographing dark rocks on beige, dried mud. The tracks add mystery, but a good sky adds beauty.

Really long track

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One really sad feature of the playa is tracks left by people who walked out when it was muddy, or much worse, drove out on the playa. Those tracks can last for years and years, leading many photographers to speculate online that it’s not worth going to Racetrack Playa anymore. Though it is sad to see the effects of thoughtless people on a world-class natural wonder, the playa is large enough that we still found plenty of interesting tracks.

Footprints on the playa

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Tire tracks near the parking lot

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As to photographic advice; though I brought a variety of lenses, I only used my IRIX 15 mm. To make a compelling nighttime image, it was best to mount our cameras about a foot off the ground and just a few feet away from each rock. This meant we needed to have a lot of depth of field. The wider the lens, the greater the depth of field. I set my focus to infinity, allowing the nearby rock to be a little soft. I want the stars to be point-sharp.

Another reason for a wide-angle lens is that the movement of the Earth causes stars to streak with long exposures and smaller lenses. At 35mm, stars double their length in just 15 seconds. To get stars really sharp at 35mm would only allow about 8 seconds of exposure time. Using the 15mm, I could leave the shutter open for 30 seconds and get a sharp image. The maximum aperture on that lens is f2.5. I shot at 2.8 and had surprisingly little coma or barrel distortion, though I did have to do some vignette correction in Photoshop. If I had been shooting that close in the daytime, I would have set the aperture to f11 for maximum sharpness from front to back .

I also shot at a relatively low ISO to minimize grain. I used ISO 3200. My Sony A7r4 goes up to ISO 102400, but despite what some claim, I find the images too noisy. Even at ISO 3200, I had to apply about 50% noise reduction in post processing. If noise reduction makes your photo lose too much detail, try applying some contrast to bring it back.

It was  nice to have Jeff’s company and photographic advice. We were able to get better photos by working together on light painting than we could have gotten on our own. He was also good company during the daylight hours when it was too hot to sleep in our tents and the light was not good for seeing the tracks on the playa (You were right, Gary).

Jeff on the Playa at dusk

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The photo I will print from this trip was made by compositing the sky from a colorful dusk shot with the foreground and Milky Way shot  taken in the same location an  hour later. The foreground was a full night shot with side light painting using a flashlight. I did some dodging and burning to even out the light from the flashlight. The rock tracks are  more pronounced because of the side lighting.

I used the dusk shot of the sky as the background layer for the sky. I removed all the stars in that sky layer using the healing brush tool and applied noise reduction at 100% to blur the sky. From the Milky Way shot taken later, I used the Select/Color Range tool to copy all the stars, including the Milky Way and pasted that on a separate layer over my prepared sky. The result is a clearer Milky Way than could be seen with the naked eye during the blue hour, with less noise overall. The advantage of using that dusk sky is the color it adds to the image.

This is the one I will print

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After two nights, a sunrise and two sunsets, I had gotten my fill. We headed back towards Furnace Creek after breakfast on our last day so I could get the jeep back to Farabee’s on time. On the way back over the pass towards Ubehebe Crater, I stopped and got a couple shots of the Joshua trees at that altitude. They were much smaller than the ones I am familiar with in the Mojave desert nearer home or in Joshua Tree national park, probably due to less rainfall. As you can see from the image, the road isn't bad.

Pass on Racetrack Playa road

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We also stopped for a quick shot at Ubehebe Crater. The crater was the result of a steam explosion about 600 years ago when lava met a pool of underground water. Apparently the surface erupted in a massive explosion. That would ruin your day if you happened to be above it when it happened. We live with the illusion that the earth is stable and unmovable. The fact is, it is always in flux. Most of the time the earth is is moving a lot slower than  human timescale, but sometimes it does something sudden and dramatic .

Ubehebe Crater

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I dropped the jeep at Farabee's and gassed up my Subaru in Stovepipe Wells. Five more hours of continuous driving and I was back home, tired but happy. It was an exhausting trip but totally worth it.

Life is short. Let's get outside and have some fun while we can.


David Wells

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