Friday, February 5, 2016

Off to the Racetrack

Racetrack Playa 

Racetrack Playa in Death Valley is home to one of the world's most perplexing and intriguing phenomenon. This perfectly flat dry lake bottom has stones the size of bowling balls that move across the lake bed leaving trails of their movement in the dried mud.

Many theories have been postulated as to how the stones move. But, no person has ever seen them move. The Playa is a three hour drive from Furnace Creek, Death Valley, the hub of the national park. Half of that time is spent driving 27 miles on a washboarded gravel road that will jar the fillings or crowns from one's teeth. And the gravel is not just any rock, it is chirt. Chirt is the rock Native Americans used to make arrow and spear heads. When broken, it is sharp as a razor and can shred a tire quicker than you can say "flat".

While our Ford F250 is off road and 4x4 capable, we decided to rent a Jeep. Tearing up just one tire would cost more than the rental fee. Also, I had no problem driving the Jeep's shock absorbers into oblivion. Had I been driving my Ford the trip would have taken three times as long.

We added an extra fifty miles to the trip by driving out of Death Valley towards the town of Beatty then driving back into the park through Titus Canyon. The road is a steep and narrow gravel road with hellish drop offs. But, the views were spectacular as we traversed the pass above the snowline. Along the way we encountered the old ghost mining town of Leadfield and some questionable petroglyphs.
Switch back road climbing from Beaty to Titusd Canyon
At the pass, heading down into Titus Canyon
Leadfield, a boom and bust town in 1926
Old mine shaft in Leadfield

Questionable petroglyphs. 
Once through Titus Canyon, we drove another hour to Ubehebe Crater where the pavement ended and the 27 miles of harsh gravel road would lead us to Teakettle Junction and on to Racetrack Playa.
Teakettle Junction, wish we had known to bring a pot

The road rises continually from below sea level in Death Valley to 4,000 feet before beginning the descent to the Racetrack 200 feet below. From a bluff about 3 miles away, we caught our first glimpse of the expansive dry lake bed. The mud at the lake bed is said to be over 1,000 feet thick.

Passing the Grandstand, a large outcropping of quartz monzonite rising from the center of the "lake", we drove on to the Racetrack. We were happy to see that the water from the rain of the previous week had finally evaporated and we were able to walk out onto the perfectly flat lake bed and observe the eerie tracks left by the movement of the rocks across the muddy bottom. I was especially happy to see that previous visitors had refrained from walking on the Playa while the mud was still wet.

The Racetrack is an area of dry lake bed onto which rocks from the eroding hills surrounding it have fallen. These rocks move across the lake bed leaving tracks in the soft mud. Their movement has been the subject of great speculation. Some said that hurricane force winds following a rain was the force, others said it was the ice that moved them, still others claimed there was an alien force behind the movement. In the end, it was those who believed the ice caused the movement who were proven correct. Researches attached GPS units to rocks and placed them on the Playa. They showed that after a substantial rain in the winter ice would form entrapping the rocks. As the daytime temperature increased the ice cracked. And, as it typically happens following a cold front, high winds would develop pushing the broken ice sheets along the playa carrying with it the stones leaving trails in the soft mud.
This bowling ball sized rock has moved over 600 feet

Bigger than a basketball.

We drove back to Furnace Springs after clocking 200 miles on the rental Jeep and enjoyed a fine dinner at the Furnace Creek Inn.
Panamint Mountains reflected in Death Valley
Because of the exceptional rain five days earlier and the warm weather that followed, the desert burst into a bloom of colors. They were especially profuse at the southern end of the valley. We drove 45 miles south of Furnace creek to Ashford Canyon where we were excited to find Sarah's favorite flower, Lupines, in bloom.

Arizona Lupine
The predominant flower is Desert Gold. A brilliant yellow, daisy shaped flower. It's subtle fragrance permeated the air.

The Desert Five Spot is sparsely interspersed among the Desert Gold 

Brown-eyed Evening Primrose

Lining the canyon washes are natural rock gardens featuring Notch Leaf Phacelia (purple) and Lesser Mojavea (yellow)

Stay tuned

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