A few days ago my buddies and I made it to the Death Valley National Park, after a long and uneventful drive from Colorado. I have previously been to the valley several times before, but neither my friends, nor I have ever had a chance to visit the magical Race Track playa. After deflating the tires of our SUVs, we headed out to the valley to camp overnight, shoot at sunset the same day and sunrise next day before heading back. We camped at the designated campground at the end of the road, which was about 10-15 minutes of drive time away from the playa. We spent a good part of the late afternoon scouting for some good rocks, realizing just how vast the territory of the playa really is – it is miles long!
While scouting the area, I remember reading a story about photographers moving rocks after taking pictures, so that no one else ended up with the same shot as them. A rather sad story indeed and something I wanted to check this time for recurrence. Indeed, we found a number of rocks that were physically removed or relocated. In some cases, stones were moved around and in other cases, they were completely absent from their original spots. Those were easy to spot, as you would see a hole on the playa marking where the stone once stood. A rather disturbing and unpleasant sight for sure. I then found a couple of moved rocks, one of which was of medium size and had a nice trail to it. I found it a few meters away, sitting in the middle of another track. One could easily see that it did not belong there. Plus, the mudded area on the bottom of the rock was clearly visible. I moved it back to its spot and it indeed matched with the hole, but even after placing it the same way it was, I realized that the damage had already been done – the dry mud around the stone was already broken up in small pieces. What a disappointment! Such a beautiful and unique landmark that is being vandalized and destroyed by other photographers. And I think it is pretty safe to assume that it is the photographers doing it, because most people we saw on the playa were there with large cameras and tripods.
After finding a couple of good spots, we set up tripods and waited for the sunset. Sadly, clouds covered up the sky and we did not see any color. We took a few shots here and there not to leave empty-handed and returned to the campground. The next day was going to be our hope for a more colorful sunrise.
Although we overslept a bit next morning due to exhaustion, we made it out to the playa while it had quite a bit of color. We started running around and trying to capture as much as we could in the short window of opportunity. We then drove to the north side of the playa to explore more there. After heading out to the playa, here is what we came across:
We were there the previous day and those tracks were not there. What happened? It was clearly man-made damage, but we had a hard time understanding whether it was a bike or a stroller that did the damage, as the tracks were not exactly even. These lines were all over the place – around 5-6 at least in different areas, all originating from the parking lot. Another disturbing problem to witness and be saddened by.
But that was nothing. As another photographer and myself got closer to the big “island” of rocks in the playa and started exploring it, we came across this pretty sight:
Yes, those are photographers camping right on the Race Track playa. Three tents nailed right into the dry mud. Seeing this made us quite furious. These people were not only breaking the park rules (it clearly states on the signs on the parking lot to be careful and not damage the playa or walk on it when it is wet, because it could take years for those tracks to disappear) but also vandalizing the national landmark – something the whole world comes so far from to see and enjoy.
We were quite loud expressing our anger at what we were seeing, waking up those sleeping in their tents. One of the guys got up inside the tent and when I saw that, I raised my camera to take a picture of the “evidence”. As soon as he saw me with the camera, he disappeared back into his tent. I snapped a few images of these conveniently set up tents, saw a camera rig between the tents (they had been photographing the night sky and overslept) and a motorized skateboard that was used to damage the dry mud on the playa. These people used the skateboard at night several times, going back and forth from their car to the playa carrying their gear…
There was only one car in the parking lot, a brand new Range Rover, so we knew what needed to be done to get them reported to the national park service. We headed back to the parking lot and I snapped a few images of the vandals’ car:
No license plates, but VIN numbers and a temporary license plate were enough. As I was taking images of the evidence, one of the vandals showed up in the playa, heading towards the parking lot. I continued to snap images, as I was ready to confront them – I was full of frustration and anger at that point. My last piece of evidence was going to be with the guy opening the Range Rover, so I waited. He came up without saying a word and for a while tried to hide on the other side of the car. I patiently waited. When he finally came at the backside and raised the rear door, I snapped another picture. He realized what happened, looked at my side but did not say a word. And that’s when I decided to confront.
With a calm voice, I asked him why they damaged the playa with those tracks. He tried to pretend like he did not know anything about it, until I rephrased what I said and specifically pointed out the skateboard. His response? The title of this article “it was my first time on the Race Track Playa“. Wow. My second question was “but you staked those tents right on the playa, damaging it”. His response “No, we did not. We kept the playa nice and fresh”. Another big fat lie. Take a look at the image of tents again yourself and tell me if they look loose to you.
We stayed on the campground and it was pretty windy the previous day. So windy that our tents would fly away if we did not secure them to the ground. And this guy wants to convince me that he set up the tents without damaging anything. Keeping the playa nice and fresh, yeah right!
On our way to the nearest ranger station, we came across a ranger in an SUV. I stopped him, explained what happened and showed the pictures. Turns out that someone else reported trouble and this time it was threats coming from the same people in that gray Range Rover. The ranger was not clear about the details, but he said that he was sent to assess and investigate the situation. He gathered all the data from me, requested me to send him photographs of the evidence (which I gladly did later on) and headed off to the site. I have not received a response from him yet, but I really hope that the vandals get what they deserve.
What an utter disappointment! With so many people coming to the playa, it is our own kind, our dear photographers that are doing the most damage. I won’t be surprised if the playa is closed down for public access if this continues to happen. Thanks to idiots that spoil it for everyone, whether it is the kind that think it is OK to set up fire under the Delicate Arch, or the kind that knock over rocks in the Goblin Valley, or the kind that thinks it is OK to move rocks just to get a stupid picture, we are quickly destroying some of the most magical places on this planet. Very sad, disappointing and discouraging to see such unacceptable behavior from our buddying photographers.
If you ever witness something similar, please do not hesitate and take immediate action to prevent abuse and vandalism. It is our responsibility to preserve our beautiful and fragile planet for future generations…