though the mystery of the moving rocks and their
even more mysterious tracks has been solved, the
Racetrack is still a huge part of the lore of Death
Valley National Park.
VALLEY NATIONAL PARK — It took me several trips here to
realize this, but if you know where to look and time it
right, Death Valley is one giggle after another.
it’s vast, wind-raked, sun-baked and empty-seeming. Yes,
it will confirm your puniness in the universe. And it
might kill you if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong
time without water or cover.
there’s plenty of weird science, quirky history and
plain fun in these 3.4 million acres of dry lake beds,
towering dunes and wind-scoured mountains, which have been
a national park since only 1994. The last time I made the
215-mile drive from Los Angeles to Death Valley, in
December with Los Angeles Times photographer Mark Boster,
seemed especially revealing.
of this was the weather. The first storm in a year had
just dumped a burst of rain, leaving puddles and green
stubble in a place that’s famous for lacking them.
other factor was where we went. This time, between visits
to well-known spots such as the salt flats at Badwater
(the lowest spot in North America, at 282 feet below sea
level) and Dante’s View (where the wind threatened to
blow us into Nevada), we spent hours in a Jeep on back
roads in Titus Canyon and Racetrack Valley.
narrow, rocky, twisting routes weren’t especially
comfortable, but they allowed us to see the landscape in a
Day 1, following California State Route 190 from the Owens
Valley and down into Death Valley, we fell into a race
with the setting sun and reached Badwater in the nick of
of water gleamed on the crusty salt flats. Snow shone on
Telescope Peak, about 10 miles west. Half a dozen French
tourists took turns hollering "echo!" at the
mountains rising abruptly in front of us — audio selfies.
Affixed to the rock more than 280 feet above us, a small
white sign marked sea level.
the purple sky darkened, the distant ridgelines seemed to
sharpen. The French fled for dinner. Suddenly it was very
quiet, and I felt as alone as one of those golf balls the
Apollo astronauts left on the moon in 1971.
you’re carrying a camera, sunrises and sunsets matter
here. Photographers scheme endlessly to capitalize on
every one of them (especially in winter, when the sun
comes up at a more civilized hour). But distances change
those ambitions. Badwater is 41 driving miles from the
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Which are 65 miles from Dante’s
View. Which is 96 miles from Scotty’s Castle. Which is
29 miles (mostly gravel) from the Racetrack.
you’re not careful — or even if you are — you may
end up the way we did on Day 2, rushing from Scotty’s
Castle to the dunes at Mesquite Flat but arriving too late
to catch the last of the golden light.
that was forgotten on Day 3, when we turned off the
pavement at Ubehebe Crater and rumbled onto 27-mile
Racetrack Road. People mostly talk about the road’s
eerie destination. But if you’re a driver who likes
kicking up a little dirt and a few loose rocks (in the
right kind of vehicle), the road alone is notable.
away, a wild valley opens up. A washboard path winds
through a Joshua tree forest as sprawling and Seussian as
any in Joshua Tree National Park. At mile 20, you reach
Teakettle Junction, a strange metallic oasis of dangling
cookware where dozens of campers have autographed their
kettles and hung them on the sign. At mile 27, you park
you had asked me that night, I would have said Racetrack
Road was the most fun I’d ever had driving in the park,
even though we never got over 25 mph.
but then came Day 4. Titus Canyon Road, another unpaved
27-mile wonder, is a one-way route that begins just west
of the park boundary and the Nevada state line. Once you’ve
reached the gravel turnoff on Nevada State Route 374, you
head straight across a flat patch of desert for several
miles, then disappear into a canyon as the Grapevine
Mountains rise around you, steadily taller, steeper and
this is the busiest backcountry road in the park, but
traffic was light on this early December weekday, and in
three leisurely hours we saw just a handful of other
vehicles. As I slowed from 20 mph to 10 and then to 5, the
road fell and rose and the turns tightened into a series
of hairpins above steep drops. There were limestone
formations and petroglyphs.
turnout on a rare straight stretch, we stopped to inspect
Leadfield, a ghost town that never really lived. Finally
we squeezed through Titus Canyon Narrows, a 1½-mile
stretch where the canyon walls come within 20 feet of each
other, and emerged just in time to catch a pink sunset.
if you had asked me that night, I would have said that
sunset was the happiest surprise of the trip. But then
came Day 5.
was our last morning in the park. We had decided to shoot
dawn on the dunes at Mesquite Flat. Sure enough, by 6:30
a.m. the horizon had begun to burn red in the east,
despite clouds overhead. We stood under a pair of skeletal
came the raindrops, a strengthening drizzle dappling dunes
that get perhaps 2 inches of rain per year. The sun was
brighter now, but I had to look away because in the west,
beyond the limbs of those skeletal trees, a rainbow arched
above the darkened dunes.
went nuts with his cameras, of course. I snapped too, but
gave up after a while. In Death Valley that morning, there
was more going on than any camera could capture. So I did
the next best thing. I stood there, grinning like an