The Mystery of the Moving Stones
After giving it some thought, I decide to give it a try, to reach The Racetrack which is a salt flat with stones on it that seem to move over time. The evidence of movement are the tracks directly behind these stones, but up until today, the moving process remains a mystery to be unraveled. It can be caused by wind, water, ice, any combination of these or something else…
It will take an hour to reach the dirt road, followed by an estimated two hours to reach The Racetrack. Sunrise is around 07:00 today, meaning an early wake-up of around 04:00 at least. Wake-up is difficult and I almost fail to do so, but promising photography is longing a bit stronger than the comforting warmth of the bed. With the warnings about the road condition from the previous days still ringing in my head, I take the necessary precautions before heading out.
I fill up the fuel tank as I have discovered that the fuel station in the north is closed and have bought around 35 liters of liquid (water and drinks). In Death Valley one can easily consume 11 liters of water per day, as the dry air literally sucks the fluids from your body. The average evaporation rate at the bottom of the park is 380 centimeters a year, while rainfall averages around 5 centimeters…
Furthermore, I leave a note at the ranch desk with my intentions and when I expect to return, including instructions what to do if I do not turn up (i.e. warn the park ranger). As I will stay another night at the ranch, people will definitely miss me if I am not there and I also leave the same note in my room.
Maybe this all seems a bit overdone, but people have died in remote areas because they got stuck and nobody knew about their location. This can easily be prevented by these kind of precautions.
A Teeth Rattling Road
The road before the dirt road is reasonably easy, dark but doable. The hazards of the dirt road uncover themselves quite quickly. I’m shaken out of my pants completely and constantly have to avoid sharp stones. It seems a lottery with very high chances to ruin the tires. After a kilometer or so I stop and think for a bit about this exercise. I will have to drive for more than 40 kilometers (26 miles) and back like this, while risking multiple tire punctures. It does not take me long to realize that I do not want to continue this way. Sometimes you just have to follow your feeling. I turn the car which proves to be rather difficult, as the road is very narrow and embedded in a meter deeper gulley, and return to the hotel.
All things considered it should be doable to drive on this road safely, but the foresight of being rattled like this for hours while avoiding the sharp stones, does not seem to measure up to the possible photographs I can make, at this point in time. The intention has been to photograph The Racetrack during sunrise and early morning and then to continue to the Eureka Sand Dunes for photography in the afternoon until sunset. This will add another 90 miles of driving on this type of road and because driving will be so slow, I will even have the risk of running out of fuel.
If I would do both on the same day I probably would have to drive back all the way to the Ranch in between, for refueling. Both The Racetrack and the Eureka Sand Dunes remain high on my list of things to see and photograph and I will definitely return better prepared, some other time. A Jeep with big rough high profiled tires would be my vehicle of choice together with an extra jerrycan of fuel. The four wheel drive vehicle I am driving now, is not really up to the task, as it is quite heavy, does not have a low gear option and has low profiled tires, increasing the risk of puncturing. Another thing is that Death Valley roads are being improved constantly and it’s only a matter of time for these dirt roads to become much more easy to drive on.
Not only Water Evaporates in Death Valley
Back at the hotel I return to the desk to remove the note I have left there only hours ago. One thing you don’t want, is for rescue parties to start looking for you while you’re eating a steak somewhere (-; I discover that someone else is running the desk now who does not know anything about a note! It has simply vanished. This is exactly the kind of reason I leave a note in my room as well.
I continue to visit places I have planned to visit the day after. The first on the list is the Artist Drive. Although the sun is already getting higher making the colors look less vivid, it’s still a nice place to visit.
The next is Badwater Basin which is the lowest place in the USA, lying 85 meters below sea level. Mount Whitney, being the highest point in the lower states, is only 76 miles away.
Salt, that is dissolved from the rock above, emerges in this area and forms hexagonal honeycomb patterns, caused by repeated freeze and evaporation cycles.
The pool of water next to the road is so salty, that it’s undrinkable for mammals, although some plant and animal life does seem to cope. Around noon, I’m getting very sleepy and return to the range for a good sleep of 4 hours.
Maps, Charts & Downloads
GPS Map with color coded altitude information
Color coded distance/altitude chart
Download the original gpx file here.