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The Racetrack shim John & Kristie

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travel :: Thursday, October 22, 2009
The Racetrack
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, CA :: Kristie attended another education conference in Los Angeles, which we somehow magically coordinated with U2's concert at the Rose Bowl (photos soon). I tagged along on this trip as usual to support her, but also to spend a couple days in Death Valley prior to the concert. I'm not sure if most people consider a stark and deadly desert to be an exciting destination, but I was thrilled! After making sure Kristie was settled in at the hotel, I loaded up the rental vehicle with my backpacking gear, several gallons of extra water, and a couple cans of fix-a-flat and then set off on the 300 mile roadtrip from the City of Angels to the Valley of Death.

We lucked out with our rental. I had reserved a 4X4 SUV for the rough terrain of Death Valley's backcountry, but upon arriving at LAX, the only vehicle the agency had remaining that fit the requirement was a brand new Escalade. Wow. I didn't mind cruising through the streets of LA in an ostentatious car - in fact, it was kind of fun! - but I would look foolish hauling that 3-ton luxury ride off-road! My suspicions were confirmed as I pulled into the Stovepipe Wells entrance of the park and asked to have my vehicle assessed for the 120+ miles of rocky and sandy terrain I intended to travel. Upon seeing the Escalade, a couple rangers pretty much laughed at me and told me to stick to the paved roadside attractions.

I thanked the rangers for their advice, but respectfully and recklessly ignored it. Onward to The Racetrack Playa, my first destination! This required a cruise up to Ubehebe Crater on approximately 45 miles of paved road, and then 25 miles on some pretty rough dirt road. The road is embedded with sharp rocks, bumpy channels, and sandy washes. I averaged about 15 miles per hour, so it took me about 90 minutes to traverse. I was being especially careful on my thin road tires. A lighter SUV with off-road tires could cruise through here in half the time or less. However, this part of the park is very isolated, and a traveler should always be prepared to survive the desert for a day or two on his own in case of a breakdown. I'm very, very glad I made it through without incident.

The Racetrack is famous for those mysterious boulders (the "sailing stones") that seem to move across the dry lakebed on their own, leaving twisted tracks in the dirt as evidence of their journies. Some claim magical or extraterrestrial powers are at play here, but the movements have been replicated in windtunnels with rain and 90 mph wind conditions, which suprisingly are not too uncommon in this region of the desert.

I was enchanted by the unique and stark landscape. The lakebed is about 2.8 miles long and perfectly level across the entire expanse. I parked at the north end of the lake, where an outcropping of boulders 73 feet high (The Grandstand) pokes above the surface. I then leisurely walked the length of the lake and back, enjoying the silence, solitude and strangeness of the scenery. As the sun set, I carefully made my way back up the dirt road to my next destination and campsite: Eureka Dunes.

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