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Dirt roads in Death Valley (June 25, 2009)

Crossing Death Valley: Ubehehe Crater, Racetrack Playa and Lippincott Road.

Death Valley Road


Death Valley, everybody knows this terrifying name. It is a very famous place that made me dream when I was young. I wanted to see these large expanses of desert burnt by the sun, where heat makes travellers suffocate. It was 7:30 am when we left Bishop, it was less than the 56.7°C recorded in 1913, but it was hot, really hot.

We stopped at big Pine to fill up as the next gas station is far away. Then we left road 395 to Death Valley Road. First kilometres, the road is undulating, we could see the first Joshua trees it was charming. Quickly after asphalt road is replaced with a gravel road; the road is easy suitable for 4WD vehicles. In straight road segments we could reach 30 mph.
The topography is surprising: the famous valley is in fact not only one valley but a series of separate and parallel mountain ranges with broad valleys interposed.
On the horizon Eureka Dunes appeared, these dunes are located in the bottom of the eponymous valley and blocked by a mountain chain, Last Chance Range. Indeed the name suits the place; it was our last chance to turn back. In the middle of Last Chance Range there is an old sulphur mine, apparently abandoned since 1942.
Soon after we had a magnificent view of the northern part of Death Valley; the following day we would be in the scenic part of the park, 100 miles south. On the road we met a scrawny coyote.
We reached Ubehehe crater at 11:30 am. The crater is around 800 metres large, surrounding area is a desolate place, the ground is black. At the peak we were alone, in fact since our entrance in the park, around 8:30 a.m. we had met no one!

Death Valley, Californie

Death Valley, Californie

Death Valley, Californie
Death Valley from Last Chance Range.

Death Valley, Californie Death Valley, Californie

Racetrack Playa


From Ubehehe crater we took a road to Racetrack Playa; here road signs advise the use of a 4WD vehicle only. The road was not as easy as previously; in places we crossed arroyos, dry torrent beds. After driving 2 hours and 45 kilometres of gravel road we arrived at Racetrack Playa, the high point of the day.
There was no noise at all, a dead silence prevailed. The playa is an old dry lake; it is 4.5 km long and 2 km wide. Its surface is made of millions of polygons. It is also perfectly flat and level with the north end being only 4 centimetres higher than the south. In the south, stones move alone leaving amazing tracks behind. The rocks seem to come from a low rocky hill, then a mysterious moving starts on a definitely flat ground.
From scientists, strong winds on this flat surface could be an explanation. For others, stones could move in ice floes during cold winter. Anyway no explanation has been formally demonstrated.

Death Valley, Californie Death Valley, Californie

Death Valley, Californie

Death Valley, Californie
Racetrack Playa.

Death Valley, Californie Death Valley, Californie

Death Valley, Californie

Death Valley, Californie Death Valley, Californie
Rock chase on the playa.

Lippincott Road


We continued the trip following the road on the south up to Lippincott Road. A sign informed the danger “Not recommended for vehicle travel. Route not maintained. Washouts and cutbanks ahead. No tow services available. Experienced drivers using 4x4 high-clearance vehicles only”.
During the preparation of this trip I had seen that a road gets to road 190 from Racetrack playa, but in the car we realized that the road is not marked on the official map we had. It must be in bad condition. It was possible to go back but we had to get back to Ubehehe Crater to find a road suitable for all vehicles or to go to Teakettle Junction and then take Hunter Mountain Road, but we didn’t know the condition of this other road. So we decided to continue, we would see later.

First, came a steep section of the road, with a lot of boulders and a very steep side on our left. So we drove very slowly, because of the boulders and the ravine close to the wheels. Then the road was very narrow and from time to time the car skidded. After a couple of miles the brakes burnt out, we started to realize what “Death Valley” means. Slowly we moved closer to the valley and after the last sharp bends we were on a flat road in Saline valley.

One hour and a half was needed to go down the 7 miles of Lippincott Road. On the flat road, the drive is not easy with a lot of boulders and arroyos. After one hour of slow drive on Saline Road, we reached Hunter Mountain Road. Last sharp bends were behind us. Then, we passed a pick-up truck going the other way, and after that a trail bike; they were the only people that we crossed on the backcountry roads. We had left Racetrack Playa for 3 hours, we could at least rest as we reach paved road.

Death Valley, Californie

Death Valley, Californie Death Valley, Californie

Information


  • Amargosa Hotel, located at Death Valley Junction allows avoiding expensive prices of Furnace Creek.

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