Racetrack Playa is a dry lakebed in a remote part of Death Valley National Park. It is known for rocks that mysteriously move across it. Along with Eureka Valley Sand Dunes, it became a destination of my trip a few days before Christmas.
Gallery of my favorite photos
Unlike the Eureka Valley Sand Dunes that can be reached easily by just about any car with a bit of careful driving, the easiest access to Racetrack Playa is by 25+ miles of a washboard road with plenty of sharp rocks and holes. My rental Wrangler was sure ready for it. (NPS Backcountry&Wilderness Access Map is useful when planning trips through Death Valley.) After leaving the Bay Area in late afternoon, the Sierra crossing was a bit slower because of fresh snow that fell just a day earlier. I spent the night just east of Tahoe in Minden, Nevada, and started a familiar drive on Highway 395 before a very colorful sunrise. The clouds broke as I passed Mono Lake. June Lake loop made for a little scenic detour I could not resist. The fresh snow made it as pretty as ever. The weather kept improving as I drove south through Bishop and Big Pine. The Death Valley Road, which starts a few miles east of Big Pine, is normaly a very lonely drive but this time it seemed completely abandoned. It was a weekday, a few days before the holidays during the worst weeks of the coronavirus pandemic in California, and the travel restrictions must have kept some away.
|Cassino in Gardnerville||Sunrise on 395||Ranch near Bridgeport||Motel in Bridgeport||Bridgeport Courthouse|
|Film for sale?||Mono Lake||Abandoned house near Lee Vining||Abandoned house near Lee Vining||Jeep and Mt. Dana||Grant Lake|
|Silver Lake||House by Silver Lake||Jeep starting the Death Valley Road|
|Desert scenery||Desert scenery in BW|
Some 10 miles south of the Death Valley Road at the southern end of Eureka Valley, Eureka Valley Sand Dunes are an impresive sight standing almost 700 feet tall. This makes them the tallest sand dunes in California, but they are still dwarfed by Last Chance Mountains that rise steeply behind them 4000 feet above the valley floor. My previous visits at the beginning of 2014 and then again 2017 yielded many memorable images and it was great to be back again. The dry camp next to the dunes was closed because of the coronavirus and I drove past it to the other side of the dunes before making a long hike to the top of the dunes. It was almost dark when I came back. I ended up sleeping inside the Jeep, and was surprisingly confortable in spite of my 6'3" frame. I got out in the middle of the night to take a few pictures of the night sky. This is one of the darkest places there is. It was a moonless nights, and it seemed one could see almost all the way to the center of the universe.
Sleeping in the car had one advantage - there was no need to pack up the tent. I drove back to the dry camp and started my sunrise trek from there. There was no one else around. I hiked along the north side of the dunes as I had during my previous trips. When I finally made a turn toward the main ridge, I noticed a significant change to the topography. The lower dunes west of the main ridge seemed to have been flattened. I was staring up a climb up to the main ridge if I wanted a good view point. Grudgingly, I started going up a steep side ridge, sliding back a bit on every step. I made it to the main ridge just before the sun crested the mountains to the east.
Even though the sun was rising in the sky, it was still quite cold as ice that formed in my water bottle reminded me. I made my way higher up the main ridge but instead of continuing a laborious walk along it all the way toward its eastern end, I decided to not disturb the pristine ridge line for the next photographer, and descended back down. As I neared the road, an F-35 roared above leaving behind a trail of condensation from its wingtip vortices. I saw quite a few F/A-18 Super Hornets during my visit in 2014 and the dunes seem to be along a popular training flight path for the Navy fighter planes. Maybe they like the sand dunes too, which must seem like waves of an ocean from above. Other than some repositioned dunes and newer and more expensive planes flying by, not much else changed in the desert.
After driving back to Death Valley Road, I followed it from Eureka Valley through Hanging Rock Canyon, by an old sulfur mine, down to Crankshaft Junction and then south until I hit the pavement briefly near Ubehebe Crater. It is 72 miles from the sand dunes to Racetrack Playa. and the last 26 from the crater were the slowest. The road is relatively narrow, surfaced with large rocks, and wasboarding makes for a bumpy ride. The road follows the terrain up. Stands of Joshua trees appear right near its crest before it starts descending into the Racetrack Valley. Just a few miles short of the valley is Teakettle Junction with its sign covered by teakettles. It is a reassuring sight - you are almost there.
|Jeep and the Eureka Valley dunes||Leaving the dunes||Heading into Hanging Rock Canyon||Sulfur mine||Ubehebe Crater||Road to the Racetrack|
|Teakettle Junction||Teakettle Junction|
Racetrack Playa is a dry mud covered flat almost three miles long and over a mile wide. The little tiles of cracked mud stretching across the enormous flat are alone an amazing sight. However, what makes the Racetrack really famous are its sailing stones - boulders that move across the lakebed. It has been established that this happens under wet conditions in winter when thin ice sheets form on the lakebed. Driven by winds, they push the rocks across the slippery surface. All that is left when the ice melts and the lakebed dries are tracks behind the boulders. The conditions that make this happen are quite rare and only occur every few years.
After reaching the southern end of the Racetrack, I hung out there until the sunset, looking for a photogenic rock and its track. I was all alone, having this huge place all to myself.
Since there is no camping by and near the Racetrack Playa, I drove a few miles past it and spent another night in the car. It was a warmer night than the night before in Eureka Valley. Before the sunrise, I drove back toward the north end of the Racetrack where the Grandstand is, figuring that the sailing rocks would stay in the shade for a quite a while after the sunrise due to their location.
The Grandstand is an outcrop that sticks out some 75 feet from the lakebed. Its dark color contrasts with the light beige color of the dried mud. It was quite a sight in the rising sun.
|Tracks on the Racetrack||Mud tiles and a rck||Tracks and the Grandstand||Ubehebe Peak and the Grandstand||Ubehebe Peak and the Grandstand||Ubehebe Peak and the Grandstand|
|Sun above the Grandstand||Sun above the Grandstand||Tracks on the Playa||Tracks back||Shadow||More tracks|
With the sun illuminating much of the Racetrack, I returned to its southern end to take one more look at the sailing boulders and to enjoy the expanse of the place for a bit longer.
|Cracked mud on the Racetrack||Sliding rocks||Sun and the sliding rocks|
|Sliding rock and the sun||Sliding rock and the sun||Jeep by the Racetrack||Fisheye shadow||Fisheye shadow|
I had a hard time parting with the Playa but it was time to go. I passed Teakettle Junction again, and stopped by the Joshua trees along the way to Ubehebe Crater. My next stop was at Stovepipe Wells where a lot more people congregated to see Mesquite Flat Dunes or just refuel. After the solitary experience of the previous days, midday Mesquite Dunes did not seem very attractive even though I reminisced about a visit years ago when my sons were little. After a quick lunch, I continued west across Panamint Valley toward Lone Pine.
Upon reaching Owens Valley and looking at the peaks of the Sierra Nevada rising to over 14,000 ft on the west side, it was clear the weather was changing. I watched more storm clouds on the way to Bishop. The sun set as I was going up toward Mammoth Lakes, and snow started flying. I was tempted to stay in Mammoth overnight and enjoy the snow and the mountains in the morning, but decided to push on. It started snowing heavily going up Conway Summit above Mono Lake, with visibility reduced to zero just past it. As I looked for the road in the whiteout, there was no traffic in the other direction until a snoplow appeared as an orange ghost from nowhere. Fortunately, the conditions quickly improved as I drove farther north and the road was snowfree when I crossed the Sierra over Carson Pass.
|Teakettles at Teakettle Junction||Jeep at Teakettle Junction||Joshua trees||Joshua trees||Jeep at Ubehebe Crater||On Scotty's Castle Road|
|Panamint Valley||Weather behind the Jeep||Descending into Owens Valley||Blowing sand in Owens Valley|
|Jeep and the Sierra Nevada||Sierra Nevada from Owens Valley||Red and blue||Highway 395||Solitary tree||Solitary tree in BW|
|Channel and Inyo Mountains||Owens Valley||Ranch gate||Approaching Bishop||Leaving Bishop|