The Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones : How Did They Sail Across a Dry Lake?
When I first saw a photo the Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones years back I was just as perplexed as you probably are now. My first thought: How did these massive stones (some weighing over 200 Pounds) glide across this barren landscape!? They look unlike any other geological phenomenon on earth, because quite frankly, and to my knowledge — this magnificent act doesn’t occur anywhere else on earth!
How They Got there (The Stones)
Until recently no one knew how the Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones made it across the lakebed. However, in 2010 a team at NASA figure out the “sailing” effect is due to the lake bed freezing over during the winter and creating a thin layer of ice that moves these 200 pound stones across the dry barren lakebed. It’s such a unique effect that, to our knowledge, happens nowhere else on earth!
How I Got There ( Dhaval )
Getting to this spot was more than a logistical and vehicular struggle, it was a mental struggle. The thought of visiting one of the most isolated areas of one of the most isolated National Parks in the United States sent a shivers up my spine. I’d be remiss to say I didn’t have a million fears running through my mind. What if we run out of water? What if a flash flood rolls through the valley? What if our tires get punctured, we get lost and encounter ghosts… Ok Ok I went a bit overboard there but you get the point. Our final destination was in fact a campsite next to a century old mining operation (So the thought of Ghosts was within the realm of imaginable)
Lucky for me I went into the adventure with a game plan and an impressive squad of adventurers.
We set off from Los Angeles and decided to spend two days getting to our destination: Racetrack Playa. We made a pitstop in Lone Pine and headed out around noon the next day to begin our 3 hour 4 Wheel Drive Journey to the Playa. Because I didn’t drive and was lucky enough to be a passenger — I’ll gloss over this section and provide a map of the way there 😉
One point of interest to let you know you’re right path is Tea Kettle Junction. It’s literally a sign post with dozens of Tea Kettles dangling every which way. Make sure you take a photo when you get here. It means you’re one of the lucky few on Earth to have gotten this far.
TRAVEL PREPAREDNESS :
- Only enter the Playa with 4 Wheel Drive Vehicle . Some sections of the road are washed out, some have deep riffs and others are covered in sharp volcanic rocks. Having Heavy Duty tires and a reliable spare tire is a must as well.
- Consider a Caravan. We entered the Playa in a caravan of 3 vehicles —
- Bring Plenty of water and supplies. Conditions can change dramatically in the playa and there is literally only one road in and one road out.
- Let your friends and family know where you’ll be. Share GPS coordinates
- Don’t be an idiot. Stay on the road and follow drive carefully.
Now to the fun part, how to set up your compositions and photograph the Racetrack Playa sailing stones … RESPONSIBLY
Setting up Camp
When I got to the Playa my first instinct was to explore and spend hours looking at the fascinating sailing stones. Luckily my buddy Chris P Zero has been to the Playa a number of times and suggested we scope out some compositions, set up camp then come back an hour before sunset. Whether you are looking for an amazing sunset composition or sticking around for starry sky images with the rocks in the foreground — setting up camp before you plan your shots is smart for two reasons: 1) DUH you wont have to fumble around in the dark setting up camp 2) It’s usually over 100 degrees during the day.
If you drive about 2 miles past the Playa you’ll see a 50 year old Port-a-Potty (DO NOT USE THIS) that hasn’t been cleaned in decades. Drive about 150 feet past the dung hole and you’ll find a fire pits and a flat clearing to set up camp.
** Don’t be an asshole and pack out everything you bring in **
CAPTURING THE MOMENT(s)
After setting up camp and chilling for a bit we decided to head back to the playa around 6PM to set up our compositions for Sunset and Milky Way Photography.
The Playa covers a massive area. From my estimations (please correct me if I am wrong) the lakebed is 2 miles deep and 7 miles wide. Most of the stones are on the Southwest Corner closest to the main parking lot. We walked about a mile out in search of our compositions. MAKE SURE YOU BRING A FLASHLIGHT — once it gets dark you wont be able to see a thing.
There were about 6 of us who ventured out to set up our compositions — our goal: A Milky Way Timelapse spanning 4 hours.
Important Notes (if you are capturing The Milky Way/Time lapsing)
- It’s incredibly dark out on the Playa — plan accordingly
- Try to schedule your trip for a day when the moon rises/sets during the Milky Way’s transit across the night sky
- If you want a decent shot that captures the sailing stone trail you’ll need to composite or blend shots
- Make sure you have extra batteries and mark the GPS coordinates of your gear and car — it’s easy to get lost out on the playa when it’s dark
- Bring Walkie Talkies — you wont get reception and you’ll need a way to communicate with your squad
My Experience Photographing the Playa
My buddy Chris was an amazing guide and played a big influence in how I decided to photograph the Racetrack Playa sailing stones. The gameplan was as follows: We decided to go on a night when the Milky Way rose shortly after twilight and set as the Moon Was rising. I know that sounds confusing but this Video below is Illustrates the time span I captured
The Effect captured here is a “Moonstrike” and the beauty of it is you can stack and capture single frames within the timelapse and edit your stills accordingly. Because the playa is so dark any ambient light is BAD — it’s important to either: a) set up your time-lapse, head back to camp and pick it up later or b) setup your lapse and hang out on the playa without turning on any lights. We chose option A because we set up multiple time lapses and wanted to shoot stills of the Milky Way using our Star trackers back at camp.
Setting up Your Composition (finding the right rock)
In my opinion this is the single most important part of capturing the Racetrack Playa sailing stones. Whether you are shooting Sunset or Milky Way shots, finding the right rock with the right leading line trail is essential. I specifically looked for rocks with leading lines that trailed South West because that’s where the Milky Way rose that night. There are a number of different options and fortunately the trails go every which way — so if you’re attempting to capture sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset or milky way shots there is a rock for everybody.
I set up two timelapses out on the Playa using my Sony a6000 with my 12mm f2 lens and my Canon 6D with my 16-35mm F2.8 ii Lens. Because I was focused on time-lapsing the experience I opted for shorter intervals with Higher ISO settings. This kills two birds with one stone.
First, It allows you to get a substantial number of frames for a smooth transitioning Timelapse. Second, it gives you some great short interval frames you can stack for the best depth and quality. I use Starry Landscape Stacker and the settings I’ve outlined below provide some great results for still images when you extract frames from time lapse sequences:
Sony a600 with 12mm lens shot at f2 —–> 6 second shutter at f2 6400 ISO
Canon 6D 16mm shot at f2.8 ——-> 8 scond shutter at f2.8 8000 ISO
Respect the Playa ( A adventurer’s guide to preserving the landscape)
- DO NOT move rocks — the Racetrack Playa sailing stones have spent years drifting across the playa. Don’t ruin the experience for those who follow in your footsteps
- DO NOT drive your car onto the playa — this sounds like an absurd request but some idiot decided it would be a good idea to drive their car onto the playa and leave tread marks in 2017
- DO NOT walk onto the Racetrack Playa sailing stone trails — some are more shallow than others — stepping on them can permanently damage them
- DO NOT walk onto the playa if it’s muddy or after rainfall. There are visible footprints from a group of idiots who did this years ago.
Playa Playa PLAY ON
Visiting the Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones can be one of the most rewarding and memorable journeys of your life or it can be one of the most treacherous and horrible journeys you’ve ever encountered. Planning for weather, transport and communication makes all the difference. I was fortunate enough to have an amazing experience where everything went as planned. I was also offered an opportunity to face a common fear of braving the unknown because I planned accordingly. I couldn’t have done it without my squad though! If you have any questions feel free to ask below or hit me up on Instagram !