Sunday, April 18, 2010

Death Valley and the Racetrack Playa

This weekend I headed out to Death Valley with some friends from work, and a few others who thought hanging out with my coworkers sounded like a fun time. Our plan was to meet up at Wildrose campground as our schedules allowed and then head into Death Valley and hopefully on to the Racetrack Playa.

tl;dr: yes you can make it out to Racetrack Playa in your family sedan. We made it fine with a Mazda 6, Prius, and Audi A4. We also saw a few Subarus and Toyota Carolla out there. Take extra precautions and pack extra supplies but don't let the hype scare you out of driving out there. Just go slowly. We had fun.

Friday night good times were had around the Campfire-In-A-Can. We were the most obnoxious group at the campground with our outbursts of laughter, but nobody actually yelled at us though so we must not have been that bad. Topics covered included how the tent 50 feet away looked like a Storm-Trooper, and that it would be cool if it sprouted mechanical spider legs and started moving around. Also for some reason unsavory internet memes from 3 years ago received unwarranted discussion. Anyway you get the idea, lots of laughs.

The Racetrack Playa, and specifically the drive out to the Racetrack Playa were debated ad nauseam. The road is rumored to be littered with razor rocks that will surely shred your tires.(tires were fine) Numerous web resources, and people within the park warn that you must have a high clearance 4x4,(not true) and that the washboard will break your suspension,(it didn't) and that the tow out is quite expensive due to AAA not covering you when you're off road. This discussion went around in circles for quite sometime. After making a compromise to leave some of our excess gear at Wildrose campground we headed out.

Link to map of our in park travels: google maps route

Video clip of the drive to Mosaic Canyon from wildrose (click to play):
From DeathValleyDrive

We hiked Mosiac Canyon and checked out some of the neat geology. We ate our picnic lunch at Stovepipe Wells and then went on to Scotty's Castle. We didn't take the tour at Scotty's Castle as we wanted to get on the road to the Playa before any more time passed. Doing it over again I wouldn't have hiked as far into Mosaic canyon and would have spent that time with an earlier start up to Scotty's Castle and the Racetrack. After one final debate about the road conditions we finally set out for the Racetrack Playa...

...and everything turned out better than expected. We took it slow, 5-25 mph averaging about 13mph. It took us a bit over 2 hours to cover the 27 miles on the way out. We were something of a motley crew as our carvan consisted of a Mazda 6 sedan, Prius, and my Audi A4 wagon. We were passed by several faster moving SUVs and jeeps, and Subaru WRX that wasn't concerned about taking it slow. But we plodded along at an even pace, and avoided the troublesome looking spots. The road is not that bad, really. Yes, if you go speeding along at 40mph you'll probably get a flat or break your suspension on the washboard sections. But if you can take your time you can even get a lowered Audi out there with just a few scraps along the floor boards as you pass over the higher rocks. I felt pretty comfortable about the drive esp after the first few miles, knowing that I had a full size spare, donut spare, full set of tools, and a tow strap helped as well. I also had the memories of what we did with our Oldsmobile station wagon in Baja back in the day, and the more recent memories of abusing Subaru's in the Walla Walla and Montana hills with cousin Brian. Normal cars can accomplish a lot if you're just a little bit careful with them.

Link to map of our in park travels: google maps route

We got to the Racetrack Playa and we all spread out in search of rocks with tracks. On the first attempt we didn't find anything too impressive. We had fun, walking around the lake bed, soaking in the setting, and then climbing on "the grandstand" rock formation in the middle of the playa. We drove to the south end of the playa and a guy there to do some serious photography told us that the rocks were way at the south end of the playa. By this time it was dark, and I only got a not so great picture of one of the rocks with a good trail with my flash on the point and shoot. Hopefully the others captured some good shots with their real cameras. We left a business card and granola bar for the photographer in hopes that he will email us some of his pics or maybe a link to his flickr profile. I was a little bit let down that I didn't get to see the rocks with good tracks in the light, but really just being out there and running around on the playa at night with all the stars out is a really fun time. Kevin and Missy cooked up an excellent spaghetti and broccoli dinner for all of us at the south end of the playa. Kevin has the foresight to bring a little extra food for dinner, and even after I foolishly attempted to talk him into cooking less of the spaghetti no body went hungry! Thanks again for handling the food Kevin!

We drove the 2 hours on the gravel road back out to Stovepipe Wells for gas, and then finally back to Wildrose Campground around 1:15am. Jeff and Mary split off to try a new campground out and then head to Badwater the next day. Thankfully the trip remained free of mechanical problems and everyone seemed to have a good time.

On Sunday morning we made some breakfast and my car headed home, while the others went on to hike Wildrose peak. Hopefully they had fun with that. It was a really fun trip, thanks to Jeff setting it in motion!

Frisbee on the Grandstand clip: here

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