Death Valley Racetrack Trip
March 9 to 17, 2013
I love Death Valley and go there almost every year. Some of my earliest panoramas were made there, and my coverage of the park has always been reasonably good. But early panos need to be replaced by higher quality new ones, and especially by spherical versions (up and down as well as all the way around). So I gave Death Valley a high priority this year, with The Racetrack as a special goal.
The Racetrack is a dry lake famous for the mysterious tracks left across it by stones that apparently move - when nobody is watching. It can be reached from either north or south, and I have been there three times before, using both routes, without difficulty. The park service warns about the hazards of the road, especially the frequency of tire damage, the difficulty of getting help, and the exorbitant cost to get towed out if you break down. But I had four-wheel drive and big rugged tires, so I wasn't worried.
As it turned out, getting to the Racetrack entailed a lot of trouble and expense, but I managed it. Then I worked hard for three more days and updated my pano coverage of many other parts of this huge park - largest outside of Alaska.
It turned out to be a productive and enjoyable trip - nine days on the road and 76 panoramas. But expensive, I spent a thousand bucks on tires.
(Click any picture to open a larger version.)
It is a long day's drive from the Bay Area to Owens Valley, literally dawn to dusk this time of year, 450 miles.
I camped at Portagee Joe, just outside the town of Lone Pine. It has a nice little creek running through it, courtesy of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (they release water from the aqueduct for it).
I started out full of confidence, intending to drive up to Santa Rita Flat in the Inyo Range for a morning panorama of the Sierra. But I had a flat tire almost immediately, just half a mile from the end of pavement on the Mazourka Canyon Road, still within sight of the highway. Because of the loose and uneven surface the jack that came with the truck wasn't able to lift the wheel clear of the ground. I walked down the road to get cell phone reception and called AAA, who were useless, but that's another story. Fortunately a couple of local men came down the road and helped me out.
I went straight to the tire shop at the wye in Bishop (not for the first time) and bought two new tires, this time specifically heavy duty truck tires.
Then I made my way down Owens Valley, up to Lee Flat and the Darwin Plateau, through Panamint Valley, over Townes Pass to Death Valley, then north to Mesquite Springs campground. It was a great drive with incredible scenery, and I was positioned for an early start to the Racetrack - I thought my tire troubles were over.
The Father Crowley overlook, high above Panamint Valley. It is named Father John J. Crowley, the "desert Padre', whose parish covered a vast area of desert in Owens valley and Death Valley. While I was taking a panorama here a jet fighter flew up the canyon below the level of the parking lot.
At least this time I was able to change the wheel with no problem. Playing it safe, I returned to Bishop via paved roads only. It was undeniably a beautiful drive, but annoying - 190 miles I had driven just the day before.
I was at the tire dealer when they opened, and bought two more tires. The problem seems to be the extra weight that the camper puts on the tires (about 1500 pounds), requiring heavier duty truck tires. The new ones are ten-ply. I lost about a mile per gallon fuel efficiency, and they add noticeably to road noise.
With my confidence restored I took a much shorter but partly unpaved route, the Big Pine-Death Valley Road over the Inyo Range and through Eureka Valley. I arrived at the Racetrack in late afternoon with no problems.
The light was excellent for photography of this dramatic and mysterious landscape. It is famous for the tracks left in the clay surface of the playa by stones that apparently move around, though nobody has ever seen them do so. (The mystery was actually solved that very winter, when researchers witnessed the stones move in high winds when frozen into rafts of ice.)
New stones enter the Racetrack from this talus slope at its southeast corner. Some stones which presumably originated here have now traveled almost all the way across to the far side, half a mile away.
In the morning I watched with amusement as a group of serious off-road expedition guys drove past me on the Lippincott Mine Road towards Saline Valley. They all waved solemnly as they passed, faces set with determination, lots of gear neatly stowed. There are several roads to Saline Valley, but they had chosen this one because it is the worst, not even shown on the official park map. "Guy stuff", as my wife is wont to say.
The next morning I took a few panos at the Grandstand, a rocky island in the dry lake bed of Racetrack Playa, then made my way, without incident, back to the paved road at Ubehebe, the north end of Death Valley. On my way down the valley to Greenland Ranch (Furnace Creek) I stopped to visit the remarkable pupfish at Salt Creek.
The ancestors of the pupfish in Salt Creek lived in a huge freshwater lake that filled Death Valley during the ice age. In the eleven thousand or so years since then, the lake dried up and the fish adapted to the new environment. They now live in a marsh and short flowing stream much saltier then the ocean, with extremely high water temperatures in summer.
Though not as bleak as some of the camp areas in Death Valley, Texas Spring Campground is barren and the sites lack privacy. But it has some shelter from wind, and is close to both the visitor center and Furnace Creek Ranch.
Continuing with the program of upgrading my Death Valley pano coverage, I revisited most of the famous sights in the central part of the park. I made new panoramas of Furnace Creek, Zabriskie Point, Dantes View, Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Badwater, and the salt flats. I camped at Stovepipe Wells, positioned for the next leg of my journey leaving Death Valley through Emigrant Pass.
Several square miles in this lowest part of Death Valley are covered with crystalline salt. The color and the patterns vary with admixture of other minerals and sediments, and the length of time it has been crystalizing since last dissolved by floodwaters.
On my way out of Death Valley I took side roads in the Panamint Mountains to the town site and mill at Skidoo, Aguerreberry Camp, and the great view from Aguerreberry Point. By late afternoon I was at Searles Lake and the Trona Pinnacles.
Pete Aguerreberry lived here for many years. He ran a not very profitable gold mine and guided tourists around the sights of Death Valley. He also determined the most dramatic viewpoint of Death Valley from the west side and laboriously built a road to it.
It was apparently Spring Break for many, and the nice campground at Red Rock Canyon State Park was full. All the dispersed camping areas nearby were infested with snarling OHV's. So I drove over Walker Pass and camped at the west end of Lake Isabella.
The weather had turned windy and cloudy, not good for photography even though the hills were green and flowery. Lower down, in the San Joaquin Valley, it was foggy. So I just drove straight home.