It is Day 2 of the road trip to Death Valley – and specifically the Racetrack Playa.
(All photographs in the post are taken using my Nexus 5X cell phone.)
As a quick recap, with only a loose timetable to arrive in Death Valley by Day 2, we (myself and dog co-pilot) car camped on the Volcanic Tablelands outside Bishop, CA on Day 1. What I did not realize was how low the temperature would be overnight. Luckily with all the cold weather sleep gear packed, staying warm overnight was not the issue, it was the complete lack of motivation to shoot any night photography. Once I have all the sleep gear setup and am cozy, it is really hard to pry myself into the 20 degree F night. What also occurred overnight were ice chunks forming in the water bottle that was in the car.
By the morning (6am), the thought has crossed my mind to get on the road quickly, with a quick stop at the city park in Lone Pine to prepare breakfast or lunch, before heading into Death Valley. This plan would give me the more options once I was in the Valley. What ended up happening is a bit of morning photography, mainly inspired by the lenticular clouds towards the south, followed by filling up the gas tank in town ($2.79/gal). I should also note my doggy co-pilot Tokala gets more than his fair share of attention and smiles wherever we go. A couple at the gas station was excited to see that Tokala has his own dog seat which he is using as a boost to see where I am at all times.
When all is said and done, we are on the road to Lone Pine by 10am. Though the drive along Hwy 395 from Bishop to Lone Pine should take only an hour, I do stop along the side of the road on occasion to take photographs of the mountains as Mt. Whitney looms larger. As planned, we are stopping at the Lone Pine city park. For a park in a vary small town in the middle of nowhere, I am impressed. A heavily tree-shaded park with a small creek that runs through the middle along with basketball and tennis courts. Tokala finally gets to stretch out his legs after being bundled up for the night. By the way, a 1-person sleeping bag has only enough room for 1-person. Sure, a tiny dog can worm his way into the sleeping bag, but I then have no means to move at all without the fear of squashing him. So after a little walk, some breakfast, and top-off of the gas tank ($3.09/gal), we were back on the road. The idea is to keep gassing up where the prices are relatively cheap in case gas is ridiculously expensive once we are in Death Valley.
Right outside of Lone Pine, at the junction of Hwy 395 and the Hwy 190 (route to the west entrance to the park) is the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center and worth a visit. Along with information displays, a bookstore, and a native plants garden, there are rangers from various agencies there to answer questions and provide advice (in my case). I had requested a Wilderness Permit to stay overnight at Homestake Campsite near the Playa. At least I read online I need a permit to camp there. Ranger informs me otherwise. We have a chat about driving out to the Playa and the time needed about 4-5 hours. With it being noon at this point, arrival would be +/- 30 mins of sunset, which may not be the best idea in case of a car breakdown. The ranger relays that the minimum cost to get towed out from the Racetrack Playa Road is $2000 and he heard of an $8000 tow cost once. Now all of this information has me convinced to camp out in the Valley for the night and head to the Playa on Saturday…until I ask about the weather forecast of 45 mph wind Saturday night with a possibility of rain on Sunday. That changes my mind.
From this Visitor Center, it is an hour drive to get into Death Valley. Early on, the mostly dry Owens Lake comes into view. (You’re welcome Los Angeles. Enjoy the water.)
The get to Death Valley, the road takes you over two mountain ranges. The first range drops you past the Paramint Springs Resort (and $4.59/gal gas) and into Panamint Valley. A strange wildlife encounter before that though. I noticed a coyote in the middle of the road and had to stop. It got out of the way just enough to stand 6 feet from my car door and look at me while I stopped and looked at it. It seems like the coyote was waiting for me to throw out some food. (Soapbox time: I have always had an issue of people throwing out banana peels or apple cores out the car window. Sure, animals will eat it. Now animals expect there to be food scraps near the road and it greatly increases they chances of being hit by a car.) After a few seconds I start slowly driving away and now the coyote is trotting after my car! Pretty soon it is a convey of my car, the coyote, and now a car behind it.
Fast forward 2 hours of driving later and I am at the start of the Racetrack Playa Road. I make the decision to drive slow. Too many stories of flat tires and broken axles. The dirt road itself is not horrible, mostly 1-1/2 vehicles wide with 2′ berms on each side of the road. The worst part is the washboard road, which is about 95% of the 26 mile journey.
Two miles into the road, I encounter the first broken down vehicle. A white full-size pick-up is off the road with driver’s side front end damage and a wheel bent out in a way wheels should not. Two guys are out of their car and on their phones. A little past this point, I let a faster convoy of 5 vehicles pass me. Like I said, taking it slow. I see what appears to be evidence of the front end damage a mile further up the road. Maybe there was contact with another vehicle as they were attempting to pass each other on the steep section of the road.
About 18 miles into this Racetrack Road, I see these same 5 vehicles parked off to the side, drivers milling about. At one point they were 30-45 minutes ahead of me. While they did not have any issues, the road was BLOCKED. A Toyota SUV heading towards the Playa had the driver’s side wheel completely snap off. The Toyota was a one point in the middle of the road. A second incident developed where a red full-sized pick-up truck heading away from the Playa was attempting to navigate around the incident by driving over the berm only to now be stuck on the berm. Attempts to the truck were fruitless until 2 Jeeps also heading out arrived with winches and managed to free the truck. Finally we were all on our way (except for the Toyota), but with some valuable time lost.
With 6 miles left to go, I pass Teakettle Junction with its famous decorations of, what else, tea kettles left by previous visitor and inscribed with names and messages from visitors. Then there is the first glance of the Racetrack Playa, a large white flat surface surrounded by mountains with a black mass (known as The Grandstand) towards the north end.
The idea was to make it out to “moving rocks” on the Racetrack Playa with light left in the day to take some initial shots and identify specific rocks and rock trails for night photography. The plans were out the window with the late arrival. The walk from the parking area to the rocks is about 1/2 mile. The distance was not as big of an issues as the time it takes to walk out there with decreasing light. Let me tell you, trying to find randomly scattered rocks in the dark with a headlamp is no easy task. With the continued decrease in temperature and futility in finding good rocks with tracks for an hour plus, I decided to head back to the car for the night with the possibility of heading back out later in the evening (which did not happen). Why?
The 5 vehicles that passed me earlier were all part of a group of photographers out of Southern California who met only through Instagram and now plan photography trips together.
Only two of them went out shooting that night, while the remaining three setting up a propane fire pit and chatting back at the parking area. Within an hour, everyone was back from shooting and had invited me to join. Tokala stayed true to form. I held him wrapped up in a blanket. They others commented on how mellow he is. Soon enough he was asleep and loudly snoring. Tokala is always good for a laugh through even his most mundane activities. We stayed up chatting until about 10pm before some needed sleep. Their plan was to be awake before sunrise, scout rocks and trails to photograph, and starting shooting while hoping to also catch the first light hit the western mountains.
So some rest (and repeated attempts by Tokala to get into the sleeping bed – he made it halfway in) and an up in the morning to get my first real experience with the rocks on the Racetrack Playa. Day 3 coming up…