Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Death Valley Backroads, Day 2: Racetrack and Hunter Mountain
Day 1 here, more pictures here.
Our first day's itinerary was to drive up the main road to just short of Scotty's castle, which is already a 50 mile drive, then loop back past the Ubehebe Crater and down a parallel valley to the famous Racetrack. I'd previously wondered whether this would be possible with a normal car, since it doesn't involve any difficult hills or passes. Now I know: no. You probably could do it, but the risk of blowing a tire would be very high. It would definitely be a bad idea. In the Jeep it was easy, driving at a steady 25 mph or so, occasionally slowing down for a damaged area.
Racetrack is a large playa, a dried-out lakebed filled with very fine mud. When dry - which means most of the time - it's hard enough that you can walk on it without leaving marks. In one corner, a handful of rocks have fallen onto the playa and then have travelled across it, leaving tracks in the mud. Nobody knows how this happens. The general idea seems to be that when it rains - not often, but very hard when it does - the mud becomes semi-liquid with very low friction. The area is also very windy, enough to blow the rocks along the slick mud, leaving a track which remains when the playa dries out again. Nobody has ever seen them move - not only would it require good luck to be there in the right conditions, but in the pouring rain, thick mud and 50+ mph winds, you wouldn't see anything anyway. Another plausible explanation involves sheets of ice. In the aerial picture, the moving rocks are at the top left (south-east) corner.
From the Racetrack, the road continues down a notoriously difficult road, the Lippincott Grade, into the Saline Valley, famous for its clothing-optional hot springs. From there a loop is possible through the South Pass out of the valley and back onto the main road near Panamint Springs. The pass was so badly damaged during the floods that the Park's daily bulletin says it is closed. Richard said he'd driven it but it would be tough to climb out. And as it turned out, someone had managed to wreck their truck somewhere along the road that day, so it was blocked anyway.
Lost Burro Mine. That really is a Jeep track - narrow, steep, full of good-sized rocks, and washed out in places to less than the width of the Jeep so you have to place the wheels delicately into a gully a foot down towards the steep drop into the void. It requires a few moments of concentration and careful driving!
It's worth it, though, to see the mine. Today there's not much left, a hut which is still used by hikers, a few other wooden buildings, and the framework for some kind of mill. You have to stop and think that all of this, including the massive metal mill as well as the provisions for the 300 men who worked here at one time, had to come up that same track on the backs of mules, hauled from the railhead 50 miles away across the desert. It just seems impossible. Even now with modern trucks, not to mention helicopters, it would seem pretty difficult.
We looked around the mine then hiked a few hundred yards to the top of the ridge where there is a truly magnificent view down into the valley, and ate our lunch. Other people carry coolers, barbecues, tables and chairs. We were very happy with a box of crackers and a tub of cream cheese. In the half hour we were eating, a total of eight other vehicles showed up. This is pretty amazing, because during the rest of our drive we saw almost nobody.
At the end of the valley, the road climbs Hunter Mountain. This part is spectacular and very enjoyable, with occasional glimpses into Death Valley to the east as it twists and turns, with many hairpins and sheer drops should you forget to pay attention. Then comes perhaps the amazing thing of all: a forest! Yes, right there in the Death Valley National Park, famous as the hottest, driest place in the country, there's a very green forest.
Soon afterwards we came to the junction with the Saline Valley road, where we met a couple of guys on motorbikes. These were the first vehicles we'd seen since leaving the mine - and they weren't planning to go on our route either. It's pretty sobering - if we'd broken down, there probably wouldn't have been another vehicle along the road that day. We might even have been the only vehicle on it the whole day. Fortunately, Farabee's Jeeps come with a "Spot" satellite/GPS gizmo, that lets you report your position and status (OK/help/HELP!) no matter where you are. So even if the worst happens, you're unlikely to suffer the horrible fate of the German tourists. (Briefly, in 1996 they got horribly lost driving a rental Plymouth Voyager in some very difficult trails, the car got stuck, and all four of them died of heat and dehydration in the June heat. Their car was found three months later, but the bodies weren't found until 2009, four miles from the car).
From here there is an amazing view down the Panamint Valley, Death Valley's western neighbour. After that it's a long but easy drive, though a horrible and uncomfortable road surface covered in small rocks, through an even denser forest of Joshua trees, until finally we reached route 190 and a very welcome stop at the Panamint Springs Resort. And from there, another 55 miles of spectacular desert driving back to Furnace Creek, arriving just in time for sunset. We'd driven about 180 miles during the day, nearly half on gravel or worse, and enjoyed every minute.
Day 3 is here.