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Jul 25, 2004 - Death Valley   -   2004/07/25Viewed 796 times this month, last update: 2004/11/15

Yesterday I took a day trip out to Death Valley, to look around, and to go to the Racetrack Playa, where rocks move about on the surface of a dry lakebed (playa) for no apparent reason.

Yes, it was hot, but the temperature was strongly tied to elevation, so I had a range of temperatures, from 87 degrees, to 116.

My trip started in Big Pine, where I took Death Valley road for for about 60 miles to the trailhead of Racetrack Playa. Death Valley road used to be paved, and still is in some parts, for is mostly gravel and "washboard". It is the only way to get to Eurika Dunes, and if I go there someday I'll use it, but otherwise not. It's very long, and pretty, don't get me wrong, but very, very long and quite hard on your brain, all that bouncing around. (Not to mention your suspension, or the hard disk in your laptop!)

The road from Ubehebe Crater (which is spectacular, even at night!) to the Playa is equally hard on anything that rattles (like kidneys), but is mercifully shorter, (sarcasm) only (end sarcasm) 27 miles.

Racetrack Playa is amazing. I actually got chills being in the presence of such a cool thing. It's gorgeous, huge, and flat. I had to lie down and take it all in. At 1200 feet, it's not all that terribly hot either. It was 102 when I was there, at about 2:00pm.
See below for commentary about the racing rocks. They're just too cool for words.

Cranshaft crossing. I have no doubt this trail has killed many an engine. my truck had no problems. If there's one thing it does well, it's deal with heat. The temperature gauge never twitched, even though the air being blown out of the engine compartment was unbarably hot.
After fourty-odd miles, of washboard, I was almost brought to tears by this tiny piece of old, but flat asphalt.
On the way to Racetrack Playa
Teakettle crossing, yet another trail for another day.
Racetrack Playa, from the road, comming from the north.
The grandstand, the only disturbance in the lakebed.
The dried mud of Racetrack Playa. Notice the skin on the tiles. I poured some water onto the tiles, and noticed that the top skin resists absorbing the water, while the mud underneath quickly becomes wet and very slippery.

As far as I know, no one knows what exactly is going on here. I think it has somerhing to do with the slippery mud under the upper skin, and lots of wind, but I have lots of questions, and a lot of wonder. Why don't they sink in? Wouldn't it take a tornado force wind to move those large rocks?
But as much as they don't make sense, they still exist. And they move. Not all in the same direction either, and from the look of the tracks, they have been doing it for a very long time. I just loved wandering around looking at these rocks. They're very much an enigma.

The Playa is just beautiful, I have to go back.
The salt flats in Saline Valley.
Lippincott mine road.


Update: 2004/11/15
I mentioned above the insane amount of washboard road on this trip. Well, since the trip, I've been finding problem after problem with my truck due to the endless vibration. Here's the list:
  1. Broken battery tie-down strap
  2. Broken driver's seat bracket, causing driver's seat to wobble. Had to weld back together.
  3. Nearly every radio cable nut vibrated right off.
  4. Spare tire carrier bolts torn partially loose from bracket:
The solution for future washboard-road-rich trips? Air way down, drive even slower, tie down batteries with steel bracket (done) and use some lock-tite on radio cable nuts.

Click Here to view the first 2 comments to this article!

Jon (2004-07-28): Be sure to invite us again. We want to go back sometime soon.

Erik (2004-07-28): You got it. After I get back from Ireland (I'm leaving for 10 days Saturday) and need a vacation again.

david scrarlett (2005-05-06): we're going to assault the Playa in two weeks..we drove through death valley three years ago,on a daytrip from a vegas trip,and we fell in love with the place(death valley)and can't wait to get back.we(wife,elizabeth and I)are going to spend he better part of a week just checking out as much of the valley as we can...I've bought coyote calls,and am taking my telescope for the hopefully clear nights.I'm like a child about those moving rocks...since first reading about them,they're on my mind constantly..and can't wait to walk right up to them and check them out first hand....this website and account of death valley has really whetted our appetites and we can't wait to spend time in this strange and beautiful place...we likened it to going on a trip to the moon...thanks to the photographer and poppa of this website....we've really enjoyed your views and descriptions....

Erik (2005-05-06): David, I'm very glad you enjoyed this article and my photographs. I to am eager to get back there. It's a magical place. For more photos, check out my friend's site, at JonSullivan.com

Eric (2005-08-28): That 'road' to teakettle junction (more a dry streambed than a road), was so much fun to drive on! I drove it in my old Toyota 4x4 at about 55 to 60mph. Of course I paid the price, when I got back home (San Diego), I had a broken motor mount! But it was still worth it.

Eric, K7ELH

Erik (2005-08-29): Yeah, that road has a heavy toll!

Donis (2006-04-13): Hi Erik ~ Loved your website, pictures and suggesstions for future travel to the playa. My husband and I JUST got back a couple of days ago. Went to the playa on Sunday, April 9, 2006. It was amazing. The road sucked!! We went in from Ubehebe Crater, but the trip on that awful road was worth it. We were wondering what the road was like coming from Saline Valley/Lippincott Mine? Is it the same washboard type? When we go back to DV, we would really like to try that road, just want to be prepared. Thanks for your insight. Donis

Erik (2006-04-13): Hi Donis! I'm glad you liked the Racetrack as much as I did! It's a very special place, and though the road does suck, it's probably best that it's there, otherwise the playa would get too much traffic.

Regarding Lippincott mine road: I don't know what kind of vehicle you and your husband drive, but unless you've built it up specially for off-road use, Lippincott mine will be unusable for you. It's heavy-duty off-roading, and goes almost straight down into Saline valey. I plan to use Lippincott mine road next time, but even in my built-up truck, I'll only do that with a companion vehicle.

Tim Howells (2006-05-10): Enjoyed looking at your pics Erik, made us go back to DV for a second time in 8 months, and we're from the UK! :) Did it this time in a Buick Rainer, so we were able to do The Racetrack and several of the mines up in the hills and canyons. One of the best trips I've done - truely a magical sight at he end of it all. Unfortuantely we blew a shock absorber with about 9 miles to go on the return trip form The Racetrack, which was removed the next day after borrowing some spanners from the guy who owns the petrol station at Furnace Creek. The shock absorber was last seen entering a bin, outside a garage not too far from Red Rock Canyon in Las Vegas, about 15 mile from Alamo Rentals... :) Well worth it though, and at least the horrendous washboard and lengh of the drive will stop 99.99 percent of DV visiters from going to The Racetrack and making it less of a special place.

The Racetrack and Aguereberrys camp will stay with me forever! :)

Erik (2006-05-19): Thanks for the tip on Aguereberry's. I'll have to check that out!

Jared Woods (2006-07-25): Me and my brother did Lippincoot Road with a Toyota Tundra no Problem, any 4- wheel drive should make it.

Heather (2007-01-10): Just came back from my 9th trip to DV (from Canada!). It is not only magical, it's addictive. I finally got to the racetrack - the lack of order of the rock/mud tracks is truly mind-boggling. Stayed the night out there despite the cold this time of year. The roads were all in better shape this year than I've seen them in awhile - as long as you don't go 55-60 mph! ;-) A tip for those who travel through DV with little time: Desolation Canyon is a beautiful small example of what some of tha larger canyons look like, and it can be hiked in a couple of hours tops.

Erik (2007-01-15): Heather, thanks for the tip about Desolation Canyon! I'm glad you had fun!

Vincent (2007-12-07): Hi Erik, thanks for sharing nice pictures. we like to visit racetrack via Ubehebe Crater. do you think 7-passenger van can do the job? Thank you in advance.

Erik (2007-12-08): Vincent, yes, I think a normal van or even car could make it, but you need to take it very slow, and be very careful of ruts that could bottom out, or high-center your car.

I'd also recommend not going after a recent rain, as that would rut the road more.

Lastly, take a second vehicle. If your van doesn't make it, you'll want some way to go get help. (A small pickup truck should do.)

Remember, they call it "Death Valley" for a reason.

T_Rex (2008-02-27): I'd love to come to such a magical place but from all the comments I read I think I'll wait until I can afford to buy a helicopter !

Sierra_Slima (2008-03-18): I drove up Lippincott last week and 4x4 is a must going up. High clearance is also important. I scraped the skid plate on my 4-runner once, not badly though. I advise having good tires and a patch kit and pump. I've got BFGoodrich All Terrain (triple sidewalls came in handy)with all the very sharp rocks on the trail. Some fool in a Chevy Astro van had left a trail of oil for a few miles down the grade (No doubt from a rock he didn't clear) and it was apparently abandoned at the bottem of the grade with a seized engine. A note left at the top of the grade and dated a week prior mentioned the van. Don't do it in a low clearance vehicle you won't make it! 4x4 low is a must going up and low range is recommended going down. 4x4 would be handy going down too. It's a great drive but not for the novice in a passenger car for sure.

Erik (2008-03-21): Thanks for the trail report Sierra_Slima, I've been recently thinking about going back.

halee izzu (2008-09-30): hey why do they call it death valley?

Erik (2008-10-04): Halee,
See wikipedia here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_valley

See also: Canon A80 Camera, KPC 3 Plus and HTX-252, Canon A80 Camera, My Truck Batteries, Death, Fright and Photography, Death, Fright and Photography


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