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Sunday, May 7, 2017

Lippincott Pass and Death Valley's Racetrack Playa

The Grandstand appears to float on the Death Valley's Racetrack Playa

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Death Valley National Park? Chances are it would be one of the following: hot, really hot, frying hot, dust, wind...death maybe? Even if you jotted down a hundred things, I doubt that snow would be one of them, but that is exactly what stopped us in our tracks on the way to the famous Racetrack Playa.

An old sign still stands halfway up Lippincott Pass announcing the entrance to the park. It's been 23 years since Death Valley was designated a National Park; it became a National Monument in 1933.

Our group had compared notes during our stay at the Geologist's cabin and realized none of us had ever taken the Hunter Mountain route to get to Racetrack Playa.

Hey! we said, Let's do it! It'll be fun!

It was early February, during a record year of precipitation in California. The Panamint mountains, which make up the western edge of  Death Valley, range from 6,000' to 11,000' and it didn't come as a surprise that snow might fall there. What surprised us was the staying power; when we arrived Hunter Pass had ten feet of cold, hard packed snow that wasn't giving any sign of melting soon. There was a short discussion of having the Unimog take a run at it and try to clear a path for the rest of our vehicles, but it was quickly scrapped as one of those ideas that might get us on the Darwin Awards list. None of us had a craving for that kind of infamy.

Let's start at the beginning:

After having an expensively nice lunch at the Forty-Niner Cafe in Furnace Creek, our group raced out of the valley on Hwy 190 past Stovepipe Wells to Saline Valley Rd, just as the sun was setting. We found a nice spot not far from the turnoff and set up camp. This area is BLM land, and you're allowed to camp anywhere there is an established spot. This site was perfect for the four vehicles, and even came with a fire ring which we quickly utilized. It was darned cold up there. (FYI: This is where we discovered that wrapping cold chocolate chip cookies in foil and sticking them on the coals for a few minutes makes the perfect camp dessert.)

In the morning we took off for Hunter Pass. Saline Valley Road is actually a nice wide county-maintained gravel road. As it climbed into the mountains though, it turned from gravel to dirt to damp dirt to mud. Thick gooey mud. The snow started showing up around 6,000' and the mud turned to slushy mud. After coating all our trucks in exquisite plaster-like muck we came to an intersection: To the right up to Hunter Pass (which looked pretty clear as far as we could see); to the left was down to Saline Valley, where the turnoff to Lippincott Pass was located.  Andrew went ahead toward Hunter Pass, disappearing around the corner. One minute later the radio bleeped; "Uh, you guys might want to wait back there for a minute."

Rasa and Craig forge ahead on the mucky road

Snow. Enough snow to throw snowballs at each other, make snow angels in, and certainly to get a vehicle stuck in. Andrew gave it a go, but wasn't confident he would be able to make it very far. He drove back, and a contingent of the group walked up the road to check it out. After kicking at it a bit, then seeing how much deeper it got just a few hundred feet further up the road, it was decided that Lippincott Pass would be beautiful this time of year.

Ryan and Andrew confer about the feasibility of having the Unimog blaze a trail for us. The general consensus was we all liked our vehicles (and each other) too much to risk it.

Mark makes a snow angel while we wait for a decision on the pass.
The view from the intersection of Hunter Mountain Pass/Saline Valley Rd, looking back toward Hwy 190, Panamint dunes in the center.

In the meantime, we had picked up another vehicle on the route; an older guy (I'll call him Larry) in a truck and camper had passed our camp earlier that morning, and we caught up to him when he pulled over and tried to figure out where he was. Larry heard where we were going and decided that sounded like where he was going. As we all turned around to take the left fork Larry settled into the middle of the pack, trundling along in his Ford. Every so often he would pull over and dig around in his back seat; by the time we got to the turnoff to Lippincott, everyone had passed him and he was at the end of our line of vehicles.

The road across Saline Valley leading to Lippincott Pass. Notice the brown highlights on the white paint of the Xterra, courtesy of Saline Valley Rd.

We gathered at the crossroads a few minutes, and Andrew was volunteered to go first. He was in one of the most nimble vehicles, and if he encountered anyone coming down he would be most able to pull over to give them room and warn them of our group coming up. Lippincott Pass, as you may have guessed, is not a very wide road. In fact, it would be exaggerating to describe parts of it as "one lane."

Looking down at Lippincott Pass road, "Larry", us and the Unimog were lining up for the last (and scariest) leg, Saline Valley behind us. (photo courtesy of Rasa and Craig Fuller)

Here's the thing about these back roads; no one takes care of them. If there's a slide, there will be a pile of rocks in the middle. If there are heavy rains and some of the road washes out, hopefully your vehicle's not too wide. Eventually, sometimes, pending funding, a park employee will take a grader over some of it and try shoring it up, but no guarantees. So you have to keep your eyes open, know your vehicle, your skills (or lack thereof), and be prepared to back down if necessary.

The Unimog navigates a slide area of the road.
(photo credit: Rasa and Craig Fuller)
Here's a view from behind, going over another slide area.

We got pretty lucky. We didn't meet anyone coming down, and the road was in fairly good shape, considering the rainy year. There were a few slide areas we had to drive over, making the Unimog in particular tilt at a nail biting angle, and a few wash outs that necessitated a spotter, but otherwise it went well. The ride was uneventful, and Larry only pulled over once to rummage in the back of his truck on the way up. Andrew met us at the top and we all took pictures of the sign with our vehicles, another successful pass! Our luck continued with the sight of an empty campground at the top; Homestake Camp is where we planned to spend the night.

The top of Lippincott Pass, dirty but victorious.

We pulled in and Larry pulled up next to us to rest before heading out toward Teakettle Junction. He rummaged in his backseat one more time and emerged with a beer, sitting down on his bumper to shoot the breeze a bit more. We realized then, that starting around 9:00am, this guy had at least four beers before we got up and over the mountain. It was now 11:15.

Our new friend thanked us for letting him tag along, tucked his beer into a koozie and headed off down the road. As we watch his dusty wake, we decided to re-name Lippincott "Four Beer Pass" in his honor, then silently shuddered to ourselves with retroactive fear at what could have happened.

The beautiful Homestake Campground on the south end of the Racetrack

We had a nice lunch then walked down the road to the Racetrack Playa. I wouldn't recommend doing this in the summer without a hefty amount of water; it was only 70 degrees, and we were sweaty and thirsty just 20 minutes into the hike. The desert sucks the moisture out of you at an alarming rate, even in mild weather.

The Grandstand

The south end of the Racetrack gets fewer visitors than the north end; most people drive out for the day from the Ubehebe side, and stop at the small parking lot across from the Grandstand (the large group of rocks in the middle of the playa). We only saw one other couple out there, hardly a crowd. We took some pictures and listened to the silence for a while. It's a great place to listen to nothing, and one of my favorite places in the park.

Even though it's a remote and seemingly desolate place, the Racetrack has rules. Walking on the playa when it's wet is not allowed; it ruins the surface and the footprints it leaves take years to erase. Driving on the playa is absolutely not allowed anytime. But you know how people hate being told what to do. Someone (or someones, I suspect) had recently driven around on the playa, doing donuts and general screwing up the place for everyone else. The tracks are clustered around the parking area near the Grandstand, precisely where most people stop to take pictures. Some of the tracks looked old, but there were fairly fresh ones as well.

I'm not sure what motivates people to do this. Why here? There are hundreds of dry lake beds all over California and Nevada that are not in a National Park and are free for all sorts of mayhem. Why the only place known in the world where rocks slide across a lakebed all on their own leaving mystifying tracks in their wake? Is this a way of pissing on your territory? All I can say is it speaks volumes to your character if you're unable to visit a place without screwing it up for everyone else.

(Note to anyone considering doing this: I'm not usually prone to violence, but if I ever catch you I will not only make a note of your license number but I'd make sure you'd have to call a tow truck to get out of there. Your fifteen minutes of fame might turn into 6 to 12 months and a whopping fine not counting the 153 mile towing fee.  And geez, cell phones don't get much service out there, so you might even have to hike out to find help. Hope you brought water!)

The moon rises above Homestake Camp

We spent a gorgeous night at Homestake Campground. In a place known for it's wind and winter cold, it was calm and relatively warm. In the morning we drove to Teakettle Junction and out to Ubehebe crater. This part of the road is wide, corrugated and popular; we met several vehicles that were going much too fast for the conditions, and were even stopped by a few who were not sure where they were. (Note to anyone who wants to explore Death Valley: at the least, THE LEAST, invest in a map of the area and look at it!) We stopped to air up at the crater parking area, then hiked up to Little Hebe to stretch our legs.

Looking down into Ubehebe crater.

Ubehebe and Little Hebe craters were formed when magma burbled up close to the surface, hitting groundwater and setting off a steam induced explosion. Cinders from the craters have been found as far away as Lake Rogers, 50 miles to the south. It's a nice little hike, and from the top there's a nice view of the Funeral mountain range and the valley.

We found ourselves back in Furnace Creek that night, and since it was Mark's birthday, we all gussied up the best we could and went out to the Wrangler Steakhouse for dinner. We might not have been the best dressed patrons there that night, but I'm pretty sure we had more fun than all the other diners combined. Roughing it makes for a great adventure, but letting someone else cook while you have a cocktail out of the wind is pretty awesome too.

The birthday boy stands on the Racetrack Playa. I'll take a wild guess and say his birthday wish was to stay out there exploring forever.