While most of the general public is drawn to the “vista point sign” as a beacon of photographic opportunities, landscape photographers tend to shy away from the paved point-and-shoot congested photo opportunities. We seek out locations that are off the beaten path. Away from the hordes. Photo locations that are seen widely through images, but not through the human eye.

However, many of these locations require us to go off the beaten path. Dive into the natural hordes found in our wilderness. And in doing so, no matter how hard we try, we will ALWAYS be leaving behind some trace of our experience. Be it tripod marks on the ground, footprints, worn paths or worse, signficant damage to the ecosystem. We always leave a mark.

The cliche saying goes “Take only photos, leave only footprints.” But even footprints are too much. Especially when that mark is long-lasting.

In a remote northern section of Death Valley lies the flat playa called the Racetrack. This dry lake bed has long been a beacon for photographers, as at the extreme southern edge of the lake bed one can find the “mysterious sliding rocks”. This phenomenon, seen in the above photos by High Sierra Workshops’ alumni Michael Couron, features rocks that slide in haphazard fashion across the playa, leaving 20- to 60-foot-long tracks in the hardened mud. The tracks occur when the playa is wet with the rocks moving slowly — believed to be just 3-to-5 inches a year — with the imprinted track lasting for decades.


Each spring during our Death Valley workshop, we take the long trek out to the playa in our 4WD vehicles, driving down a road that eats car tires as if they were appetizers for an upcoming meal. When I first visited the Racetrack about 30 years ago, our trek down the fabled 30-mile dirt road was one of isolation. I don’t recall seeing any other cars along the road or when we reached the Racetrack.

Today, the road is crowded with rented Humvees and Jeeps, along with the smattering of private 4WD vehicles and ill-equipped sedans and compact cars. Easy access to rental cars that can make the journey has now led to easy access to the Racetrack. And along with the easy access comes a much greater and damaging impact to this unique and delicate natural landmark.

Over the past few years, we have been greatly saddened with the shocking removal of the moving rocks from the playa by tourist scavengers. While the rocks are deemed “mysterious”, they aren’t magical rocks to bring home! Removal of the rocks means the the tracks will no longer grow in length and become just an empty line on the playa. What took years to create quickly comes to an end with the removal of the rock.

Adding to that, last year upon our arrival the playa was littered with hundreds of random rocks, placed there by tourists “to see if they will move” across the playa. Instead of roughly 50-60 moving rocks, there are now upwards of 300 random rocks covering the playa, sadly scattered around tracks with no source rocks.

Each year the photographic potential at this remarkable location diminishes by those who don’t understand “tread lightly”.


After a rainstorm earlier this month, a volunteer headed out to the Racetrack to see if there was any fresh movement and instead found this scene below, as shared on the Death Valley NPS Facebook page:

Either during or shortly after the rainstorm, unknown photographers tromped through the wet playa mud to take pictures of the rocks, leaving behind a massively rutted landscape that will take decades — literally — for Mother Nature to wipe clean.

Take only photos, leave only footprints.” But even footprints are too much, especially where that mark is long-lasting.

We see it frequently on our workshops where other photographers are ignoring their impact on the natural landscape, be it bushwhacking or literally climbing on the delicate tufa formations at Mono Lake. Has “tread lightly” become a phrase that is as common as “recyclable cups”, easy to recite but which takes effort to actually apply?

Here at HSW, we are sticklers with “tread lightly” … and not because teaching it to the students is a requisite of our operating permits with the park service! We want to ensure that our actions have as little or no impact on the scene to further ensure availability for generations to come. It is not a matter of courtesy but our responsibility to leave as natural a scene possible for future visitors, just as those who preceded us took measure to not leave any sign of their presence. That’s also why we donate 5% of each workshop student’s tuition to a non-profit group working to preserve, enhance and ensure a landscape for future generations for each workshop location.


But we also need to be mindful, especially in today’s day of easy travel and access, that not all those who preceded us to our favorite “remote” locations are actually photographers but rather tourists looking to see what they have set eyes upon in only photos before.

Without fail every year at the sand dunes during the Death Valley workshop, we grumble and complain about the “non-photographers” who head out to hike to the tallest dune, not walking in the shadow side of the rises and leaving a visible scar of footprints in our potentially pristine photograph. But we must remember that to the non-photographer, “tread lightly” means leave only footprints. And that is all they are doing.

They don’t know that the footprints mar the scene, rendering a landscape unsuitable for ‘clean’ photographs. And by the next morning, in a quick process by Mother Nature, the wind will sweep their footprints away, leaving a smooth and velvet texture on the dune for those sunrise photos … until the next enthusiastic hiker treks from dune top to dune top to witness the sunrise from the highest vantage point. Do you blame them? If you weren’t a photographer, wouldn’t you do the same?

In his essay about the damage done at the Racetrack, Matt Kloskowski says:

[blockquote type=”blockquote_quotes” align=”left”]Sure it may take longer to go away, but to the photographer that only visited the dunes that weekend (and maybe can’t get back for several years), does it matter that the footprints would wash away in a few days or a few years? Regular people (non-photographers), walk around these places because they want to experience them. They have no idea, that they may be ruining a photograph for a photographer. They’re just as entitled to walk out on the dunes as I am right? They paid the entrance fee to the park just like I did and they’re not violating the park rules.[/blockquote]

We do need to be mindful that “tread lightly” has different meanings to different people. But yet at the Racetrack, those footprints are nearly an indelible mark on the hardened playa surface. Tire prints from 2007, less than an inch deep in the softened mud, are still clearly visible seven years later. How long will these footprints that are several inches deep take to disappear?

Yes, as photographers we see it that they have ruined our perfect photo. The ability to actually create a photograph of the scene like we have seen before has been severely compromised. Coupled with the rocks removed over the past several years, the random placement of rocks placed by tourists, and now a pock-marked surface, has this location been altered for decades? A generation?


Despite the signage at the Racetrack parking area that says boldly, “Do not walk on the playa surface if it is wet” some individuals chose to ignore the NPS advisement and as a result created lasting damage. But as Matt Kloskowski says in the same essay as above:

So put yourself in the place of a tourist … You’ve flown thousands of miles … you’ve driven 2 hours to get there. You pull up and it’s muddy. But you really want to see those rocks up close and check it out for yourself. You look on the ground and what do you see? Mud? It’s not a coral reef, where it’s pretty well known that the effects of a human touch can ruin hundreds of years of growth. It’s not a sacred ground or monument either. It’s mud. Oh, and you have no idea that this is a popular photography spot? Why? Because the other 99.9999999% of the world doesn’t know the places photographers like to go to. So what do you do? You walk out on it and check out the rocks.

All we can do is educate others (i.e. non-photographers) who might not be aware of their impact in the bigger, non-photographic world. As sometimes we as photographers are more aware of the impact on the landscape that non-photographers do not see. Such as the mud at the racetrack. We need — nay our responsibility as landscape preservationists! — to lead by doing. To be sure that our version of “tread lightly” defies the “take only photographs, leave only footprints” mantra. Let’s leave nothing behind as our legacy except for the images we have created.

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