Trip Report - Death Valley Road Trip

Racetrack Playa (Matt Pritchard) More photos below.

By Matt Pritchard

A cold wind passes through us as the volcanic gravel underfoot crunches with every step. We are the only people for miles. Standing at the edge of an ancient crater on a moonless night, we can feel the void below us. Beneath a blanket of stars, we pour the champagne and wish the world and each other a Happy New Year.

Our holiday road trip was a last-minute idea. Jody’s office was closed for the holidays and my six-month hiatus from the working world didn’t end until January 3. We had no solid plans for New Years and we were anxious to spend some time outside.

Despite our hopes for a powder-laden romp through the mountains, a nasty, wet storm chased us up and over the Sierra. From Kirkwood to Mono Lake to Mammoth and Bishop; wherever we traveled the rain seemed to follow. Typically, we love winter storms – the bigger the better. Big, funky maelstroms that blow in from the Pacific and pound the Sierra with loads of snow; the stuff epic powder days are made of. Unfortunately, the snow level was hovering around 8,000 feet. When the snow looks like Slurpee and the Gore-Tex is begging for mercy, even the faithful begin looking for alternatives. This is how we found ourselves bouncing down 45 miles of washboard dirt road with a car full of ski equipment, bound for the northern reaches of Death Valley National Park.

We fell in love with Death Valley just six months earlier, on our first trip to the park. On that trip we focused our limited time around the most popular spots in the Furnace Creek area – Badwater, Zabriskie Point, etc. As we traveled along the road from Big Pine, we decided this trip would focus on the northern part of the park. We grabbed a campsite at Mesquite Flat and spend the next three days exploring in earnest.

The highlight of the trip was probably our excursion to Racetrack Playa, a geological oddity buried deep within the park’s interior. The 35-mile dirt road to The Racetrack is littered with hazards: deep ruts, big rocks, and ample washboard. The recommended mode of transport is high-clearance, short-wheelbase, 4-wheel-drive. But once again Jody expertly navigated through the junk, and the Subaru delivered us safely.

Racetrack Playa is a dry lake bed, about two miles long by one mile wide. The perfectly flat surface of the playa is broken up near the northern end by a stretch of craggy rocks, known as The Grandstand. The main attraction, however, lies at the other end of the lake bed, where thousands of rocks have tumbled down the cliffs that rim the edge of the playa. After large storms, the playa can flood, creating a very soft mud. If wind conditions are just right, the rocks will sail along the playa floor, leaving deeply-grooved tracks in their wake. Since nobody has actually observed the phenomenon, theories abound.

Our time at the Racetrack was short but exciting. We spent about an hour walking around and photographing the surreal landscape. Just as we were packing up our cameras, a storm swept through the canyon, delivering wind and hail - reminding us that we could run, but we could not hide. The storm broke up as we drove back to camp and the filtered light made the stands of Joshua Trees and flowering cacti a sight to behold.

The rest of our time in the park was low-key. We toured Scotty’s Castle at night and rang in the New Year on the edge of the Ubehebe Crater. It isn’t often that you find a way to celebrate a spoiled ski trip, but our unplanned trip to Death Valley was a real treat – a special way to spend a short winter break.

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