A magical and remote spot located a long way from civilization, the Racetrack in Death Valley has to be one of the most intriguing places I have ever had the good fortune to visit.
It is tucked away in a fairly inaccessible part of the park, requiring a two hour drive at no more than 15-20 miles per hour along what can best be described as a sometimes dirt, sometimes rock, covered road. Advice given by past visitors mentions the need for 4 x 4 transportation, though the time I ventured there a couple of years back with my buddy Steve, we were in a mini-SUV without the luxury of any kind of advanced traction. We were lucky enough to have pretty decent clearance, and as we clattered along over the sharp and unstable surface, we wondered what damage we were doing to our rental car.
The temptation when driving to the Racetrack is to become impatient and speed up… some even say that the ride smoothes out if you go a little faster. The biggest lesson I learned from that last trip – other than to stay on trails that were actually on the map – was to go slow. In the six hours or so we spent on this journey we saw one other vehicle, so if you do encounter a mishap, you better be prepared to deal with it by yourself!
Steve and I were on a pretty ambitious schedule last visit, and we had places to go after visiting the Racetrack. Our intention was to visit the Racetrack and then head up into the Owen’s Valley for a few days. We meandered along the bumpy surface for what seemed like forever, and surprise, surprise… I was able to get us there in one piece. I remember the first glimpse we had of the playa and the Grandstand (the rock outcrop at one end of the playa). It was an eerie place – we were so far out in the wilderness, and the silence was very noticeable indeed. We were excited though, and the expanse of the view before us was quite awe-inspiring.
Unfortunately we were only able to be there during the middle of the day when the light was less than favorable for making photographs. We spent a couple of hours there all by ourselves wandering around inspecting the “moving” rocks that the Racetrack is so famous for, each of us grabbing our own photographic compositions. Many explanations have been proposed for how the rocks – some of which must have weighed 60lbs – had left behind a trail outlining their movement. The scientific explanation would be that a combination of strong winds and a thin layer of ice/water/mud enables these large rocks to slide across the playa leaving behind an obvious and unusual trail. The non-scientific explanations would mention something about magic!
After a brief but eventful detour at Teakettle Junction – let’s just say we explored some alternate routes out that didn’t quite pan out as hoped – we headed back toward Ubehebe Crater and a solid, paved road. The road back out from the Racetrack isn’t any better than the road going in, so I tried my best to maintain a steady speed. About an hour and a half after leaving the Racetrack, we finally rejoiced when we felt the smooth surface under our car that signaled we were at least on our way back toward civilization and a hearty meal.
As we zipped along the National Park road toward dinner, a warning light appeared on the dash… something wrong with the tire pressure in the back left. Sure enough… we had a slow flat tire. Maybe I should have driven even slower coming back from the Racetrack? We limped back to Furnace Creek where Steve was able to change the wheel.
Anyway, ever since that brief visit to the Racetrack, I have always wanted to go back there – this time to stay overnight to try to capture the wonder of this place under better lighting conditions. Needless to say I am especially excited about this part of the trip, and this time I will be a little more careful driving in and out.
For more information on the moving rock phenomenon and the Racetrack itself, check out these resources:
Racetrack Playa – Wikipedia
The Sliding Rocks of Racetrack Playa – Paul Messina
The Sliding Rocks on the Racetrack Playa – DesertUSA.com