Exploring Racetrack Valley
Yosemite › Racetrack Valley
Added by Greg Owens
- Racetrack Valley's famous moving rocks
- A fun hike/scramble
- Incredible desert views from Ubehebe Peak
Death Valley National Park is home to some remarkably surreal landscapes, none stranger than Racetrack Valley and its famous moving rocks. For decades, the mechanism of the rocks’ movement was unknown and the subject of much speculation, some scientific and some not, but the mystery was finally resolved in late 2013/early 2014 by researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. No matter exactly how the rocks move, the Racetrack is an incredible landscape, a truly unforgettable place, that can be explored on a day-trip or an overnighter.
The single biggest obstacle to exploring Racetrack Valley is undoubtedly the drive there. From the Visitors Center at Furnace Creek, the drive begins innocently enough on the paved CA-190 highway to Ubehebe Crater. Just before you get to the crater, you’ll see a sign pointing the way to Racetrack Valley on a dirt road. This road is notorious for chewing through tires, and getting towed from this area may very well cost at least a thousand dollars. Unless part of the road has been washed out, it is generally passable with 2WD. High-clearance is a good idea, but robust tires are even more important. At least one spare tire is a must, and if you blow a tire, you should head back toward the front country immediately. Don’t pass Go, don’t collect $200, and if you haven’t already reached The Racetrack, don’t try to continue; get back to the paved road immediately. The road is 26 miles from Ubehebe Crater to the southern end of the playa (dry lake bed), where the rocks are. When I go out there, I tend to keep my speed around 15-20 mph. Anything more than that is asking for trouble.
Things to know:
Absolutely no water is available anywhere near The Racetrack, so be sure to take plenty with you. The air is extremely dry, the elevation here is 3000’+ higher than Death Valley itself, and of course, it can be scorching hot.
You absolutely should not walk out onto the playa if it is wet, as your footprints will remain for years, decades, or worse. The phrase “Take only pictures and leave only footprints” does not apply here; your footprints can ruin the experience for those who come after you. Please be respectful of the landscape and its visitors. Winter is the wet season at Racetrack Valley, so plan your visit for the spring or fall. Though it’s not as hot here as in Death Valley, summer can still be unbearable and dangerously hot.
Camping is not allowed at The Racetrack, but there is a dry camp just two miles south of the southern end. The pit toilet at the dry camp is the only one I know of in the area.
As The Racetrack comes into view, you’ll see a prominent, dark rock formation sticking out of the dry lake bed. This chunk of dolomite is known as The Grandstand, and there’s a small parking area on the west side of the road. It’s just a short walk but one very much worth taking to The Grandstand, but the real fun is on the road’s west side by the parking area. The faint path you’ll see there leads to the summit of Ubehebe Peak, which towers over The Racetrack on the west side. The hike is about 3 miles one way with an elevation gain of 2000’, and getting to either of the two summits is a fun, Class 3 scramble. You can get utterly terrific views of Racetrack Valley and Saline Valley, though, even without getting to the summit(s).
To reach the moving rocks, drive south from The Grandstand another couple of miles, where you’ll see a large parking area on the road’s east side. To find the rocks, just park and start walking east toward the crumbly hillside, the source of the rocks, in front of you. Most of the rocks are concentrated in this area, though some outliers can be found farther north. The nearest rocks are within half a mile of the parking area.
- A vehicle with robust tires and at least one spare is a must
- High-clearance is a good idea; high-clearance and 4WD is optimal
- For a trip of any duration: lots of water
- For camping: extra clothes; it can be surprisingly cold at night
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More
Camping, Hiking, Photography
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Great spot being ruined
This is an incredible area of DVNP that is somewhat of a hidden secret and in my opinion should remain so, or become even more difficult to access. While out here we saw many signs of mischief - rocks removed from tracks, smaller rocks than the tracks, or rocks at both ends of tracks. When the racetrack is wet people have obviously wandered out and left deep footprints in the lakebed, as well as obvious signs of driving onto it. This road is easily accessible by any 4x4 vehicle with 10 ply tires, potentially even LT tires - the rocks aren't what will give you a flat - it's the washboarding and driving too fast. Not only does this exacerbate the problem of washboarding, it also degrades your suspension and control of your vehicle. Please, if you choose to visit this area, do so respectfully and above all in a safe manner.
This is definitely a must see if you're in the Death Valley region. A bit out of the way with the 4x4 trek, but that's also part of the adventure. There is a dry campground just outside the playa if you're wanting a "home" close by. Night time photography is priceless if you plan it when the moon is out of sight.
Night photography here is unreal. Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to scout for your favorite rock during the day and never walk on wet playa. Just like it says, the main road in is horrible and will make you never want to drive again. The mountain pass road is longer but definitely smoother.
The drive is no joke, but unquestionable worth it. Most people who visit Death Valley do not make it out to The Racetrack, which is a shame, but it means you'll find some solace. Once you park, expect to spend hours reveling in the oddities and wonders. Don't forget to bring a camera!
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