The Racetrack (properly called The Racetrack Playa) is in the northeastern part of Death Valley NP, between the Panamint mountain range (which forms the western edge of Death Valley itself, and the Last Chance Ridge which is a small set of mountains to the west of Death Valley in the northern section. You access it from Ubehebe Crater (30 minutes Northwest of Scotty’s Castle) via a 27 mile long dirt road with no restrooms anywhere along the way. This road is typically just wide enough for two way traffic. The road and the terrain varies from mostly flat and somewhat straight to gentle hills with one or two narrow curvy sections. Some portions of the dirt road are such that you can move along at 20 to 30 mph while other sections are 5 mph type driving. It all depends on how recently they graded the road (which is not done all that often) and recent weather.
We were there in early March, 2014, a week after a significant (for Death Valley) rain where one part of the road (closer to Ubehebe Crater) actually had become a river bed during the rain. It was dry when we went but was quite rough and gouged by the water which also brought, and deposited, large rocks in the road. This was the 5 mph section. On the way in, we caught up to a mini van whose driver was a more cautious than I and it took us 1:40 hours to drive the dirt part. Even though there are periodic pull-outs where he could have pulled over and let me by, he chose not to do that. So, I followed him ¾ of the way until we hit a longish, straight, and somewhat smooth section where I was able to pass.
On the way back out that same drive took us 1:08 hours at dusk with the last half in the dark (30 minutes quicker). – Of course I was pushing the speed on the way out trying to make it to the paved section at Ubehebe before full darkness.
About 2/3 of the way along the dirt road (Racetrack Rd) you will come to Teakettle Junction. There’s nothing there but the intersection of two dirt roads and some signage. What makes this interesting is that people have adorned the road signs with old teakettles, many of which have inscriptions on them. I believe the park service thins them out from time to time as some photos I’ve seen had many more than was there on our visit (see my photo attached). It’s worth a stop and a photo or two.
Along the dirt road is also the best stand of Joshua trees to be found in the Park.
There are two interesting sections of the Racetrack Playa. The first one you come to is “The Grandstand” which is a rock island in the middle of the flat dry lake bed. The second is the South end of the dry lake bed where most of the “sliding rocks” are. This is another 8 to 10 minutes along the same dirt road.
So, let’s do the math. Here’s how our trip went, time wise
3:15 left Scotty’s Castle
3:30 Got to start of Dirt road at Ubehebe Crater
5:09 Arrived at Grand Stand area
5:39 left Grand Stand area
5:46 arrived at sliding rocks area
6:06 left sliding rocks area
7:22 Arrive at paved road
7:37 Arrived at nearest restroom since Scotty’s Castle (Mesquite Springs Campground)
BE NICE TO OUR PARKS
You know the old saying for our National Parks: “Take only photos, leave only footprints”? Well here it needs to be “Take only photos, DON’T leave any foot prints”. Here’s the deal. When it’s dry (most of the time), the lake bed is hard dried mud. It’s easy to walk on and solid (you don’t sink in, crack the surface, or leave foot prints) in these conditions walk wherever you want. However, if it’s rained recently and the surface is moist, then every step you take leaves a foot print. In most places in the world this is not a problem. However here it is a major problem as due to the infrequent rains those footprints you leave may last a decade or more ruining the experience for people coming after you for the next 10 to 20 years. This is NOT NICE. After driving all this way down that dirt road, I want to see the boulder tracks in the Racetrack in their natural state, not the imprint of your hiking boots. As mentioned we were there a week after a big rain that had washed away all the prior footprints. However in the day or two after the rain some @#$% idiot ignored all the signs and walked all over the race track area leaving a big foot prints with every step. Those foot prints will probably still be there when I bring my yet to be born grand kids here in the future.
As mentioned there are two sections of interest. The first is the Grand Stand which is a rock island sticking up out of the flat lake bed (see photos). You can walk to and all around it (if it’s dry). However, the best photos are from a bit up the hill to the west of the parking area. There’s a trail that goes up this hill. The higher you go the better. As you go up, the angle of your camera goes down giving you a better perspective of the rock island in the lake bed and allows you to exclude more and more blank sky as you go. In the late afternoon, the shadow of that ridge just to the west creeps across the lake bed. When we got there (5:45 pm) the shadow had just gotten to the base of the The Grandstand and over the next 30 minutes had gone up and over the feature. I was only able to get one or two shots before the Grandstand was split between sun and shade. 60 to 30 minutes earlier would have been perfect. Oh, well, I hadn't counted on having to follow that slow driver on the way in.
At the south end of the lake (8 minutes from The Grandstand). There is another parking area. This is the area where most of the sliding rocks and their tracks are. No one has actually ever witnessed these rocks sliding. However, the current theory is that after a good rain in the winter, if it goes below freezing after dark and there is a really strong wind the wind blows the rocks on the slick ice. As an engineer, I’m thinking that the freezing part of this story is not correct and the wind just blows the rocks on the slick wet mud – but then again I've never studied it as others have. Anyway, if the lake bed is dry, wander around and you’ll find many boulders with “tracks” behind them where they slid. Most I saw were in the 1 to 3 foot diameter range but I've been told there are some the size of a small car. We were there when the entire area was in the shade of the mountain as the sun went down. So, trying to get enough contrast to show he tracks was very difficult and mostly a post processing task. I suggest getting there when the tracks are still in the sun, but the sun is at a low angle (either AM or PM). Maybe next time.
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