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…
A Range Rover from the South Bay. Why am I not surprised. I’m so sick of Southern California Doucheoisie, I’m actually ashamed to be one of the people supporting the economy that likely pays for this person’s lifestyle.
Human beings as a species, the further up the wealth & lifestyle ladder they get, become increasingly out of touch with the reality of the environment they live in, let alone the environments they visit in their spare time. We are at the point where people daily think to themselves, “if I have enough money to do whatever I want, nobody should be able to stop me, or even have an opinion about it.”
The truth, though it probably sounds laughably far-fetched to most by now, is that we the human race actually have a responsibility to live within our means, as a whole on this planet, not just as individuals or whatever our innate sense of greed dictates.
This means being mindful of whether or not we’re leaving scars wherever we go. Some places, like sand dunes, can be foot-printed to high heaven because wind and rain are more frequent and will erase most signs of human beings rather quickly. Other places, unfortunately, are more easily damaged in a permanent or long-term way. And yes, that means we have to restrain ourselves sometimes, or pay an extra fee, or even apply for permits and get rejected a couple times before being allowed in. Just try climbing Mt Whitney, or going to The Wave.
It’s understandable that many folks are quick to make cliche arguments like “What makes YOU so special; you go to these places but you won’t tell people where they are? I want the GPS coordinates, you a-hole” …or… “It’s just a rock / boat / tree / arch… What’s the big deal? Kids are starving in Africa, get off my back.” …Indeed, there are bigger fish to fry in the grand scheme of global war / hunger etc. But that doesn’t mean we should trash our planet so that there’s nothing left that is beautiful for our next generations to see.
I’ve got news for you idiots- it’s simple math: we are many more decades away from light-speed / warp-speed space travel than we have decades left worth of this type of self-absorbed lifestyle on this planet. Our only option is to change who we are as human beings.
Disheartening people will treat it with such disrespect and entitlement. Thank you for confronting them!
I’m curious about the best time to shoot the Racetrack. I would imagine in winter months with rain is when it is too wet to photograph without destroying the landscape. Would summer be best or a fall month like October?
Than you Nasim for reporting this to the Rangers.
I can not understand why and how people and in particuler fellow photographers can do this to our beautiful landmarks and national parks.
I also just returned from a two day trip to Death Valley (but did not make it the Race Track as my vehicle was not appropriate for that type of roads) and saw how people do not care about the environment leaving empty water bottles and more, all over the place not realizing that if we all did that, in a few years the beautiful spots like Zabriskie’s Point, Badwater Basin and others will look like landfills. What you bring in, you bring back out.
Furthermore, there is entrance fee to the park and a ticket to place to be seen from the windshield and I notice that very few cars had this ticket. If we all want to have this park for generation to come, we all need to contribute a little.
Nasim I think its sad we have individuals who see only the world to rape and care not for others or what they destroy. you have all the right tools to enjoy the world but only content not thinking of others or what is in front of the lens. why move the rock it been there for more years than you. why destroy what has been there for years or a matter of eternity. i think only a select few give no regard to the rest or the world they see. i remember and live by the word written on the sign posts to all the nation parks in NZ ” take nothing but photos, leave nothing but foot prints”. hardly what i have just read or looked at your two links.
It is the right thing to do with the hope they learn but i think not. i hope all the photographers here read this article and learn. taking photos is more about respecting what we see about us than destroying, i hope other’s do the very same.
Welcome to mankind… I think it’s great that you stepped up!
Another topic but same type of story. We own 2 dogs and like to travel (with them). We always have “poop bags” with us, clean the hotel rooms if needs be after we leave. But it’s getting more and more difficult to find hotels/B&B allowing dogs. Why? I talked to the owner of the last B&B we visited in France and she told me stories about how ill mannered some dog owners are. Leaving the poop on the door steps, allowing the dogs on the bed without proper cover, leaving the dogs alone for hours in the room barking, etc…
These people are the reason why more and more hotel won’t accept “us” anymore.
So, it’s not the photographers, it’s the people in general. Not thinking about the consequences of their actions, just being selfish.
And maybe the reason why someday dogs will not be aloud in National parks either as people leave their “poop bags” along hiking trails.
Hi Nasim, Such a shame that people will do something like that knowing that they are destroying property and a national landmark to boot. I am so glad to read your article reporting this occurrence, taking pictures of the damage and the perpetrators and reporting them to the park service ranger. I hope they get what they deserve, but most likely the punishment will only be community service and probably a slap on the wrist and a too small of a fine. Jail time would be appropriate in my mind. The 2 Boy Scout leaders got off way too easy in my opinion for what they did. It was obvious viewing the video of them knocking over the rock formation and their celebration and disgusting antics after what they did, and claiming after they were caught they were only trying to protect others from getting hurt was just a bunch of BS.
Thanks again Nasim for doing the right thing. Maybe this article will alert others to be vigilant and report people like this, and maybe even prevent someone who reads this from doing the same thing.
Good for you Nasim! It’s too bad there are so many people who think the rules don’t apply to them.
I hope the Park Service nails them. I can remember as a kid, going to Yellowstone with my parents before they got rid of all the black bears. There were signs everywhere saying “don’t feed the bears” and the car in front of us was giving the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. So I guess there’s nothing new under the sun.
Nasim: I totally share your outrage at how selfish and careless some persons are when visiting a very fragile piece of country. Did you get up to Zabrisky Point? Your image of the rock with that colorful sky made your trip worth it–I would be thrilled if I had captured it. Try to visit Death Valley again if you hear that it has had a good winter rain, as it did a few years back: formed a temporary lake and brought out carpets of wildflowers. I greatly enjoy this site and like your idea of having guest contributors; also find your lens reviews very informative.
Sadly our world is full of people who have no respect for anything or anybody. Mostly because they have no respect for themselves.
I am glad these people were reported but I suspect any penalties imposed will not be enough to result in behavioral change.