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“Getting to and Photographing THE RACETRACK and Teakettle Jct)”
Review of The Racetrack

The Racetrack
Certificate of Excellence
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Owner description: Unusual desert area where rocks move from place to place, but the actual movements have never been observed by humans.
Palo Alto, California
Level 6 Contributor
251 reviews
81 attraction reviews
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 1,177 helpful votes
“Getting to and Photographing THE RACETRACK and Teakettle Jct)”
Reviewed April 2, 2014

GETTING THERE

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.

PHOTOGRAPHING IT
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.

If you found this information useful in your decision making process, you gleaned information you may not otherwise have discovered, or you just enjoyed reading it and appreciate the time I put into writing it, please give me a "helpful" vote. You’re welcome to contact me through danhartfordphoto dot com (where you can see more photos) or through the “Ask Caifdan69 about .........” button at the bottom of this review

Visited March 2014
Helpful?
43 Thank Califdan69
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
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Vancouver, Washington
Level 2 Contributor
6 reviews
4 attraction reviews
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 9 helpful votes
“Well worth the drive.”
Reviewed March 24, 2014

The road is rough so 4x4 is reccommended with good tires and a spare. It traverses a variety of scenes as you climb up into the upper valley. Six miles before the Racetrack is TeaKettle Junction. Come prepared with your own to add to the ecclectic collection. At the lakebed signs warn you to stay off the playa ifit is wet to avoid doing irreparable damage. When dry you can safely walk around and see the boulders and the tracks they have made over the years as the wind moves them and changes direction. Seeing is believing.

Visited February 2014
Helpful?
3 Thank Mike B
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Fitchburg, Wisconsin
Level 6 Contributor
121 reviews
69 attraction reviews
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 82 helpful votes
“The Racetrack has been desecrated”
Reviewed March 24, 2014

Sorry, but the Racetrack isn't what it used to be. Spring 2014 visitors ventured out onto the playa when it was wet and sticky, and left large foot prints all over - it'll be years before those footprints disappear. Some of the footprints are very close to some of the stones and totally distract from the scene/setting.

And, there were greater than a hundred people there on the day that we visited. Most of them were students in a geology class from Columbia University who were playing tennis, throwing a frisbee around and generally not interested in the features. Another group of students looked like a photography class who were posing with their stuffed animals. Both of these groups of students could been elsewhere on this very large playa, but they were right near the most picturesque part.

For such a long trip from the main roads, it wasn't really worth it.

Visited March 2014
Helpful?
7 Thank IlluminataPhoto
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Pagosa Springs, Colorado
Level 1 Contributor
4 reviews
3 attraction reviews
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 15 helpful votes
“The Racetrack”
Reviewed March 16, 2014

We traveled to the Racetrack on March 6, 2014, and would rate it as one of the top three geologic features we have seen. The playa itself would be worth the trip, with its interesting, almost waxy appearing surface hardly broken by 2 or 3 inch shrinkage polygons. With mountains close or very close by to the southeast and northwest, the effect of the bright, absolutely flat playa surface is greatly enhanced. The Grandstand, an "island" of volcanic rock that accents the northeastern end, is also striking. And, of course, the rocks and their tracks are just cool.
It is very fortunate that the road to the Racetrack is just difficult enough to somewhat limit the amount of visitation and the damage caused by people walking on the playa when it is wet, or, even worse, moving or taking the rocks home for door stoppers. The conditions of the road as we found them, were as follows. Rain less than a week before our trip had caused minor erosion for a couple of miles not far from the end of the pavement, but this was really not even a nuisance. The first ten miles are largely up a gentle grade, and this stretch was rocky, not washboarded. The rocks were in the 2 inch range, with some, really just a few, much larger and easily avoided. After topping out in a nice Joshua tree forest the road flattens for several miles, and the surface was quite good all the way to Teakettle Junction. Beyond that point the descent to the playa is rougher due to rocks, but the only significant washboard we encountered was along the playa itself, in a sandy section. During the day we saw about 15 vehicles, about a third rental Jeeps. Most people were in SUVs or pick-ups, and at the Racetrack we saw both a Corolla and a Camry. The people we met on the road were driving very cautiously, a couple about 5 mph. How you drive and perceive this road will depend on your experience, your vehicle, and your tires. We did not see what we would call sharp rocks, but there are plenty of sufficient size to take out the sidewalls of cheap road tires. We do a lot of back country 4WD and have great tires, so we found the road to be completely routine, but if you rarely leave the pavement it may be challenging. Renting a robust vehicle with good tires would be very reassuring in that instance. Our travel time to the SW end of the playa (there is parking and signage there) where the rocks are nearest to the road, took an hour and 25 minutes including the requisite photo stop at Teakettle Junction. On the way back it was an hour and 5 minutes from the Grandstand to the pavement. Our travels on bad roads have taught us that it is foolhardy to be unprepared to spend at least one unexpected night in our truck. On the other hand, at least on a perfect day in March, there will likely be others joining you on the way to the Racetrack.

Visited March 2014
Helpful?
8 Thank Rick S
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
New York City, New York
Level 5 Contributor
59 reviews
5 attraction reviews
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 50 helpful votes
“Be Prepared!!”
Reviewed February 4, 2014

Anyone who is going to Death Valley is familiar with the magical moving stones. The mystery is yet to be solved. No wonder people are drawn to it. However, getting there is no easy task. It is about 90 miles from Furnace Creek and the last 26 miles past the Ubehebe crater, is pure washboard. Unless you are supremely confident that your vehicle can handle the torture (and the ride back), don't attempt it. Also, budget a lot of time. Just Ubehebe to the Playa and back would be atleast 4 hours. Add another 2 for travel to and from FC.

Rent a 4x4 from Farabee's, and leave early. Also don't try to drive on this road after dark unless you are an off road expert. Also consider the remoteness of the location. The nearest gas station is Stovepipe Wells (75 miles away). Nearest area of cell service is near Mesquite. People have reported getting reception at the Teakettle Junction but I would not bet my life on it. Take enough water and food for atleast 24 hours.

The pace itself is quite magical and worth the trek. But if you are a city dweller like me, the tension of being stranded in the middle of nowhere with zero survival skills, is quite stressful. Next time I will be much more prepared so that I can actually enjoy the place.

Visited January 2014
Helpful?
15 Thank KaustuvDG
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.

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