Forum Index > Trip Reports > Day 1/6: The Racetrack and extras, Death Valley NP (4/17/12)
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GaliWalker
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PostTue Apr 24, 2012 4:59 pm 
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Part 2: Sand dunes and Fall Canyon, Death Valley
Part 3: Delicate Arch and extras, Arches NP
Part 4: Mesa Arch (Canyonlands) and Arches NP
Part 5: The Needles, Canyonlands NP
Part 6: Kanarra Creek and Zion NP

In the dead of winter, with snow blanketing everything, my thoughts turned to springtime in the awesome southwest, God's country. In summer, conditions can get too hot, but springtime is just the perfect tonic for the winter blues. Furthermore, it had been two years since my previous visit, so choosing the southwest as this year's destination for hiking/photography fun was an easy one. As usual, I had a long list of sights I wanted to experience, some new and some leftovers from my previous trip. Prioritizing these and gathering the requisite information made the winter months zip by. Everything was set about a month ago; all that was left was to put the plan in motion…pure enjoyment, without the stress.

April 17, 2012 (Day 1/6): Death Valley National Park

I had flown into Las Vegas the previous day, made the 2hr drive to the town of Beatty, 45min from the closest edge of the park, and spent a short night in my home for the next two days. I woke up early and bee-lined my way to Zabrinski Point. It was still dark and a touch nippy, so I put on my down jacket and headed the short distance to the viewpoint, waiting for sunrise to get my first glimpse of Death Valley. As light began to suffuse the surroundings various alien formations began to materialize out of the gloom. Manly Beacon and Red Cathedral, which were on one side of the viewpoint and I'd seen numerous photographs of before, were equally matched by some badland formations on the other. However, for a while, looking at the play of sunshine on the Panamint Mountains, on the far side of the famous Death Valley badlands, was most arresting. Another thing to spout out of the gloom was an army of photographers, sporting expensive camera gear and serious faces. This would be the story of my entire trip...photography seems to be one of America's more popular hobbies.

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In these places, mornings are short. The sun seems to zoom upwards, quickly making photography an uninteresting proposition. Keeping this in mind, I closed up shop and headed to nearby 5,425ft Dante's View, which offered a fantastic view of Badwater Basin and southern Death Valley, from a series of hill tops. Alas, the sunlight was already becoming quite harsh in the valley (though not on the hilltops), so I opted for tighter compositions.

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With morning over and done with, it was back down into Death Valley proper, to do some touristy things: a quick stop at the 282ft below sea-level point, then north to the nearby Natural Bridge, and then a stop at Devil’s Golf Course, where salt deposits make the badlands a golfer's nightmare (The Angry Hiker would probably have loved it though). Still heading north, towards the Furnace Creek visitor center, I took the one-way scenic Artists Drive past weirdly colored hillsides, known as Artist's Palette.

12- Heading to Badwater Basin
12- Heading to Badwater Basin
13- GaliWalker at -282ft, looking longingly at 11,049ft Telescope Peak
13- GaliWalker at -282ft, looking longingly at 11,049ft Telescope Peak
14- Hiking to the Natural Bridge
14- Hiking to the Natural Bridge
15- Natural Bridge
15- Natural Bridge
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17- Devil's Golf Course
17- Devil's Golf Course
18- Artist's Drive
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19- Looking at Artist's Palette
19- Looking at Artist's Palette
20- Artists Palette
20- Artists Palette

It was around 1:30pm by now and I was ready to head towards my highlight destination of the day. In the northern part of the park, tucked away in a fold of the Panamint Mountains, is a playa, or dry lakebed. A playa is the flattest naturally occurring surface on Earth. This particular one, known as The Racetrack, featured rocks that like to race up and down the completely level surface, when no one is looking. And we know this because the rocks leave tracks behind. The cause of this is mysterious (not really), but the best guess (I'd say almost certainly so) is that rain makes the playa surface slick, which allows wind to push the rocks around, etching weirdly curved tracks. The drive to The Racetrack is long: 1-1.5hr of driving from Furnace Creek deposits you at a gravel road, near the Ubehebe Crater. The final 27mi are on this gravel road. The park service recommends budgeting 2-3hrs to cover this distance, one-way! I decided to stop at the Furnace Creek visitor center and get first-hand confirmation about the condition of the road. Imagine my dismay, when I was informed that I should not attempt to drive the gravel road in my SUV, since the likelihood of a puncture was extremely high. I'd rented that SUV only for this road, otherwise would have opted for a cheaper car. What to do?

For more than 10 years, photos of the moving rocks in various media have tantalized me. One of the two main reasons I'd come to Death Valley was The Racetrack. To not be able to visit it would have been extremely disappointing. After asking for recommendations from the Park Ranger, I was advised to look into renting a 4x4 vehicle, fitted with heavy duty tires. Half an hour later, $217 lighter in the pocket, I was on my way in said vehicle, rented from a place just 5min down the road.

The gravel road turned out to be relatively smooth and quite wide. It is frequently plowed to level the surface. The plowing had resulted in berms on either edge; touching these would have given me the puncture I'd been warned of, even with heavy duty tires, deliberately inflated to a lower than normal level. After a cautious start (15-20mph) I warmed up and was soon motoring along at 40mph. The drive was quite pretty, with Joshua trees making an appearance halfway in. An hour later I was at the edge of The Racetrack. At the near end a rocky outcrop, known as The Grandstand, took my fancy. As I scrambled up to the top I was presented with a fantastic view of the entire playa.

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After messing around at The Grandstand, basically awaiting better light, I headed back to the jeep and drove the final 2mi to the far (south) end of the playa, which is where most of the racing happens. You have to walk a half mile or so to the southeastern corner...rocks and tracks everywhere...extremely cool.

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30- Neck and neck
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The drive back was even faster (45min), but it was after 11:00pm before I was back home in Beatty. Time enough to grab 4hrs of sleep, which would be my average for each of the 6 days of fun and frolic...

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'Gali'Walker => 'Mountain-pass' walker
bobbi: "...don't you ever forget your camera!"
Photography: https://www.flickr.com/photos/shahiddurrani/albums
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Matt Lemke
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PostTue Apr 24, 2012 6:17 pm 
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GaliWalker wrote:
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That's Manly Beacon....fun climb!

I didn't see any racers when I was there...didn't know where to go  frown.gif

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GaliWalker
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PostWed Apr 25, 2012 6:19 am 
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Matt, I hadn't planned to climb Manly Beacon, but Red Cathedral (to the right of Manly Beacon) was on my list. Unfortunately, I ended up doing something else instead (day-2), so it got cut. As you'll see, once all the reports are up, I had a pretty successful trip, so wasn't particularly disappointed on missing out on Red Cathedral.

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'Gali'Walker => 'Mountain-pass' walker
bobbi: "...don't you ever forget your camera!"
Photography: https://www.flickr.com/photos/shahiddurrani/albums
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kite
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PostWed Apr 25, 2012 9:10 am 
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Nice, I did the trip out the track two years ago and I still have not gotten all the dust out of my truck yet.
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Davidą
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PostWed Apr 25, 2012 9:19 am 
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Quote:
After asking for recommendations from the Park Ranger, I was advised to look into renting a 4x4 vehicle, fitted with heavy duty tires. Half an hour later, $217 lighter in the pocket, I was on my way in said vehicle, rented from a place just 5min down the road.

I find park rangers to be particularly over-cautious - did you really need the 4X4 or would have a high clearance vehicle sufficed?

BTW - Excellent photographs as always - looking forward to the rest of this report.

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Matt Lemke
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PostWed Apr 25, 2012 9:40 am 
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I typically take what park rangers tell me...and do the exact opposite  biggrin.gif

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Don
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PostWed Apr 25, 2012 10:21 am 
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Fun to read your report and look at your always beautiful photographs, Gali.   Death Valley is favorite of mine for many reasons.

I too am surprised at the need for an SUV with "heavier duty tires" the road into The Racetrack.  I drove my Ford Ranger in there with no problems, also cruising at about 40 mph in many stretches.  I guess I was living dangerously!

NASA conducted and published an interesting study in 2010 on the racing rocks.  They used sophisticated sensors and GPS coordinates to track their movements.   I found their findings pretty fascinating (as well as some of the previous lore).  You can read it at:

http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/roving-rocks.html

Thanks for sharing.  Looking forward to more!

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GaliWalker
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PostWed Apr 25, 2012 10:42 am 
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The drive to the Racetrack did not require a high clearance vehicle, since the surface was reasonably level. The 4x4 rental guy told me the problem spots are the berms on the side of the road, even for his jeeps. If you hit those the tire sidewall has a good chance of puncturing.

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'Gali'Walker => 'Mountain-pass' walker
bobbi: "...don't you ever forget your camera!"
Photography: https://www.flickr.com/photos/shahiddurrani/albums
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Karen˛
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PostWed Apr 25, 2012 12:30 pm 
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GaliWalker wrote:
The 4x4 rental guy told me the problem spots are the berms on the side of the road, even for his jeeps. If you hit those the tire sidewall has a good chance of puncturing.

Ah so see Don was fine because he has a skinny little truck (I know because it is the same as mine - although his is not as gaudy of a colour  lol.gif ).

I thought this report was going to be a long time coming, you had me worried, thanks for offering it bit by bit, I'm anxiously awaiting more.  Your photos make me wish to go back as it has been a while since I was last there.

GaliWalker wrote:
The drive back was even faster (45min), but it was after 11:00pm before I was back home in Beatty. Time enough to grab 4hrs of sleep, which would be my average for each of the 6 days of fun and frolic....

Heh, this sounds like one of my "vacations".   lol.gif

GaliWalker wrote:
Alas, the sunlight was already becoming quite harsh in the valley (though not on the hilltops), so I opted for tighter compositions.

And this is the sign of a good photographer.  You came home with fantastic photos regardless of the conditions because you adapted to the light.  Bravo!  Bring on more SW goodness!   up.gif

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GaliWalker
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PostWed Apr 25, 2012 2:15 pm 
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lol.gif I wondered the same thing! At least the $217 bought me peace of mind, if nothing else.

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'Gali'Walker => 'Mountain-pass' walker
bobbi: "...don't you ever forget your camera!"
Photography: https://www.flickr.com/photos/shahiddurrani/albums
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Schroder
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PostWed Apr 25, 2012 2:18 pm 
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up.gif It looks like you're having much better weather than I had a month ago. I found out when I got home that wind records were reached.
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Yana
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PostWed Apr 25, 2012 2:39 pm 
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The moving rocks are crazy!

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Malachai Constant
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PostWed Apr 25, 2012 3:07 pm 
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There is little water in Death Valley doh.gif so the rocks do not get rounded like most place as a result they are often razor sharp.

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"You do not laugh when you look at the mountains, or when you look at the sea." Lafcadio Hearn
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Slugman
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PostWed Apr 25, 2012 3:20 pm 
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You did get an advantage of sorts from the second rental. Many rental contracts say you cannot drive on dirt roads, and some roadside assistance companies won't come help you there (for free). But because you rented this vehicle expressly for the trip you took, they could hardly weasel out of helping you if you got a flat tire anyway.

Great pictures, worth the hassle and the expense, IMO.  up.gif  up.gif

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Tigerotor77W
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PostSun Apr 29, 2012 7:49 am 
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I feel like I'm going to comment in every one of your threads. biggrin.gif Good work -- enjoyed seeing more shots of the rocks.
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