Death Valley Trip Part II

After traveling North in the park, we stayed the night at Stovepipe Wells. I was surprised to find a small cell tower in the parking lot, which provided the opportunity to call home and check in. The tower wasn’t very tall and when you drive a couple of miles away, you promptly loose your signal. It was nice to have the ability to call home at night and check in. We arose early with the promise of a nice sunrise and headed down the road to the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. This trail takes you off the main road West onto the Salt Flats and ends in a small parking area next to the Salt Creek. As we approached the parking area I was surprised to see that there was water in the creek. I know that sounds counter intuitive, but this area is typically very dry. The recent rains to the west setup just the right circumstances for us to have a small amount of flow heading towards the low point in the basin. I picked out a spot along the creek and waited for the sun and clouds to do their morning dance. The air was cold and there was a slight breeze. I had a few moments to enjoy the scene before me as I waited, looking out over the expanse of the basin.  After a few short minutes, the clouds began to light up & we were rewarded with a gorgeous sunrise. 

Daybreak - Salt Creek Interpretive Trail
Daybreak – Salt Creek Interpretive Trail

After the sunrise, we headed over to the dunes at Stovepipe Wells and parked along the road about a mile past the parking area. I wanted to hike out to the dunes into an area that wasn’t littered with hundreds of footprints. While I’m not entirely opposed to having footprints in my images, I prefer to shoot the landscape untouched by man. If I do choose to create an image that has footprints, It will likely be just a single set walking off into the expanse. We explored the area for a couple hours, climbing to the tops of a few of the taller dunes. 

Stovepipe wells sand dunes
Stovepipe wells sand dunes

The rest of the day was planned for visiting the Racetrack Playa, long on my list of places to visit & the location of the fabled sailing stones. The Racetrack is an extremely flat dry lake bed which only has about 1.5″ of elevation change over its 2.8 mile length, sitting at over 3700′ tucked up between two mountain ranges in a very remote area of the park. Short of a helicopter ride, there are two ways to get to the Racetrack: From the North near Ubehebe Crater, or the South near Panamint Springs. The Southern access is via Lippincott pass that is marked on most maps as extremely difficult true back country 4 wheeling with steep grades and very uneven terrain. I wouldn’t attempt it without a high clearance 4WD with heavy duty off road tires. We were already in the North end of the park and were not going to take the chance to see if our rental could make the South pass access, so we decided on the access road from the Ubehebe Crater. This is 27 miles of unmanaged dirt road with numerous washed out areas & sharp rocks. It took us a little over 2 hours to drive the distance mainly because you can’t drive more than 10-12 mph without vibrating your wheels right off of your vehicle. There were several areas where flash floods have washed out part of the path, but it was still passable. If you decide to take this trip, make sure your vehicle has good ground clearance to make sure you don’t end up bottomed out or with a punctured oil pan. There is no cell phone service and help can be 4 hours to days away depending on the weather. During the trip out, we only saw one other vehicle heading back. At about 6 miles away, you will come upon Teakettle Junction, which is where you can take the road due East up into the Cottonwood Mountains. At the junction, there is a sign where past travelers have been leaving their tea kettles hanging – an interesting landmark in a desolate area.  Upon arrival, to our surprise there was a minivan parked on the side of the road, but no one else around. After a short period I went to check it out and found a note in the windshield stating they would be back in a few days. Not sure if they broke down or if they were doing some real back country camping. 
We explored the playa looking for recent evidence of sailing stones but did not have any luck. This phenomenon is seasonal and the conditions need to be right for it to happen. The rains over the summer form a thin sheet of water on the playa turning the hard surface to a soft mud. Any tracks from previous activity are erased as the water evaporates and the soft mud flattens out. The playa will continue to dry where the hexagon shaped cracks will form again. The playa will remain this way until some rains, freezing temps and wind come along to get stones moving again.

Last light on hexagonal patterns on the Racetrack Playa
Last light on hexagonal patterns on the Racetrack Playa
Future sailing stone on Racetrack Playa
Future sailing stone on Racetrack Playa

We planned on camping out at the Racetrack in hopes of taking some images lit by moonlight, but the winds were so strong that there was no way I was going to get the tent setup. With a front moving in, we decided it was better to head back before it got dark, so we began the 2 hour drive back to the main part of the park. After a total of 4 hours of being jarred around in the SUV, we were both exhausted. Jenn’s fitbit logged 30k steps and 180 floors all due to the rough trip.

We stayed the night at the Furnace Creek Inn and planned the last day of the trip, which would include sunrise at Badwater Basin from West Side Road followed by another attempt at Ibex dunes before heading home. I settled on a spot a couple of miles onto West Side road and scoped out the landscape. There were no clouds in the sky facing East, so I decided to shoot away from the sun hoping that we would get some nice color on the Cottonwood Mountains. The area I stopped at had some really large hexagonal crust formations and made for a really interesting foreground. The salt deposits pushed up 6-8 inches, something I hadn’t seen here before. 

Sunrise over the Panamint Range
Sunrise over the Panamint Range

After sunrise, we headed South on our route towards the Southern tip of the park. The first day we visited, we noticed an ATV park called Dumont Dunes, which is outside of the park, but right across the road. Once we got into the area, we decided to check out these dunes to see how they would look compared to Ibex. It was largely empty except for a few campers and riders, and you could drive right up to the edge of the dunes. I decided to shoot here for the afternoon. There is something about the intricate patterns in the windswept dunes that intrigues me. I have been drawn to them since my early days with a camera. The patterns are both chaotic and systematic at the same time. I’m sure Jenn saw her fill of dunes, I could have spent the whole week photographing them.

Dummond dunes in the afternoon light
Dummond dunes in the afternoon light

After a while, the winds started picking up and we experienced our first true sandstorm. The winds were blowing so hard that I could not even get out of the vehicle and visibility was down to about 50 feet. We decided to call it a day and start heading back to Las Vegas to fly out the next morning. I was able to come away with some great shots during our couple of hours in the park. 

The trip was a great experience that I hope to repeat in years to come. I’ve logged plenty of miles and learned the lay of the land very well, which will make future visits much easier.

Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed…