Our trip to Death Valley and Playa Racetrack was the highlight on our tour to west coast. The plan was to escape the biting February cold of the mid-west. We had visited LA, Vegas and Death Valley was the last leg of our trip.
I was very excited and have been very much eager to visit Death Valley for years. We had all the plan sorted out days ahead of time. We left early morning from Vegas. The drive was about a 100 miles, which took less than 2 hours to enter Death Valley. We had rented a Nissan Murano and it was super comfy, nothing to complain except the gas mileage! 😛 We visited many places around Death Valley – Zabriskie Point, Artist’s Drive, Badwater (lowest point in North America!), Artists Palette, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Mosaic Canyon, Devil’s Golf Course. Finally we started off to Racetrack Playa around 3 pm which was much later than what we had initially planned out.
The drive from Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes to the Racetrack was about 2.5 hours and I wanted to make it to the Playa before sun down. I was actually surprised when Google maps said it would take over 1.5 hours to cover 30 miles. The road to Scotty’s castle was excellent and it had very less traffic throughout. Once we reached the Ubehebe Crater – the last 26 miles of our journey to Racetrack absolutely not what we expected.
Paved road stopped and there was a tiny board saying ‘4 * 4 recommended’. At first we were not sure if this was the correct road. But the GPS said so and so we started the journey ahead. Below video shows how the road looks like. The condition was so bad that I was unable to maintain even 20 mph. It was getting dark and I was blaming myself for not starting earlier.
We reached Racetrack Playa around 5:45PM. It was already getting dark. We spent some time, initially hunting for the moving rocks & the tracks. We were able to see a few and captured a few cool pictures. Soon it became completely dark by the time we returned back to our car. It was a new moon day and the sky was beautiful. There was absolutely no one around. We had the leftover food we bought in the morning. We were not exactly hungry, but knew we had to eat something as we were hours far from civilization.
Seven miles to Tea-kettle Junction
We headed north towards Tea Kettle junction. I made a decision not to drive like crazy on a rough terrain and risk a tire blowout. It was completely dark and no one would come for help if our car broke down. We had absolutely no signal on our cell phones. I took the rough portion (over 90% of the so called road) with lot of caution and never going over 20-25 mph. It seemed to take forever to reach the junction. Throughout the way, I kept asking Preethi – ‘Are we there yet?’ And most of the time her answer was ‘Nope, not even close’. I think it took about 30 mins to travel 6 miles. Finally we were at the Tea kettle junction and I turned right to go south.
As expected, the roads were much better and even if it had many twists and turns, I was able to maintain a decent 40 mph at many stretches. Preethi opened the map (from Visitors Center) and started looking for the route. I, in the meantime was just enjoying the drive. I have always wanted to drive on a lonely stretch of road with no one around and this was a dream come true for me. It was a new moon day and we could see a million stars. My only gripe was the car should have had a moon roof to enjoy the beauty. There were puddles of water in the middle of the road and I enjoyed splashing the water around like on WRC.
I was in my own world when Preethi interrupted my thoughts by telling me that the road we are currently traveling in is marked as continuous line on the map, but there is a stretch marked with broken lines and with text ‘In Winter carry chains’. It did scare me a bit, but coming from Wisconsin and facing extreme weather, I didn’t think of much. We were in California!! How bad can it be? I drive on snow at least 4-6 months in one year. Both our phones were out of coverage, but thankfully Preethi had Google maps opened when she had coverage and she was able to navigate the roads using the offline map (this would turn out to be one of the key thing for our survival!)
Our first Challenge
We continued ahead not thinking about it much. Then we had our very first challenge of the night. The road split into two. I came to a stop, not knowing what to do. Preethi also looked confused as there was nothing in the map showing a diverging road. Just taking a shot, I turned the car to the road on our right. I started driving a bit slower and strained my eyes to look ahead and try to see anything, maybe a sign saying we were on the right route. But it was all desert with cactus and rocks everywhere.
Then I saw something far ahead which looked to be like a small board. Preethi saw it too. I approached the board and what I read there immediately sent shivers down my spine ‘LOST BURRO MINE’. The movie ‘Hills have eyes’ crept into my mind. Just imagine, a very dark night (new moon) with no soul around and having just a board mentioning some old mine was really terrifying.
It was a bulky SUV, so I couldn’t take a U-turn without getting off the road (even more off-road, I mean) and I didnt really wanted to infront of Lost Burro Mine and be lost forever or be eaten by cannibals! I had to go on reverse till the junction where the road split. I rolled down my window, engaged reverse gear. With the minimal brightness of the reverse light, I backtracked slowly. Once, at the junction (which seemed to take forever), I did not waste any time switching the gear to drive and flooring it down. I just had to make distance between us and the ‘Lost Burro Mine’.
There were few more similar diversions, but with Preethi’s expertise in judging the terrain and the road direction, we were able to take the correct road and continue ahead. The muddy pool water was present every once in a while and each time it was a bit deeper and it started pulling the car to one side. So, I was no longer able to enjoy the ride, I was becoming nervous just thinking if the condition of the road is bad here, how will the stretch marked ‘In Winter carry chains’ be? Anyway, I did not share my thoughts with Preethi, I definitely didn’t wanted to get her scared. But she is a very brave person who I very much admire. She kept cool till the very end and was very supportive.
Drive through the Hidden valley
We passed through a narrow canyon where our road was between two huge hills(I dont know how big it was, I was just able to see it from the range of my headlights). It went on about a few minutes and we were finally out. I was getting used to driving in this road condition. The road became a lot twisty and we were still keeping up with it.
The temperature dropped down to 40 F by now. I stopped dead seeing a big rock in the middle of the road. Murano has a pretty good ground clearance, but I was sure I will not be able to make past it without moving it out of my way. I put the car in ‘Park’ and engaged the brake and hopped out. It was chilly, I rushed to the rock and moved it. It took a lot of effort but eventually it was out of our path. I jumped in shivering and carefully moved ahead.
On the next turn, my headlight gave a glimpse of my surroundings for a moment. We were on a hill and the drop was pretty steep. And the road edges were corroded due to rain. A small pressure on the edge, we both will not see another day. I just prayed that Preethi did not see what I saw. (But I later found out that she did!)
The road became more twisted and when I took one of the corner, I saw something glittering on the road. I thought it might be glass and forgot quickly about it. The next corner, there was more. Then it hit me – it was not glass, I said it out aloud – ‘ITS SNOW!!’. Then it all came in, I remember seeing snow at the top of the mountains when we visited various spots in Death Valley that morning. We were surprised to see it and didn’t think of it much. Now we are in the middle of it and it could only mean we are in a very high altitude. The snow started covering up the trees and cactus plants around us and the roads turned white.
Epic of heart rate
The muddy water pools turned into icy pools and the top layer frozen. I had to take them with much care. The silver lining was a set of SUV tracks were fresh in the snow. My job was to drive over the tracks. It looked as if the other car too had lot of problem navigating through and it was a bit relaxing for me just thinking that there was someone at the same place, hours (or mins ago). But on every icy+water puddle, the car was weaving in and out and the traction control lights were going crazy. My heart was pounding and I was trying my best to keep the car under control.
Preethi kept saying it was just a few miles more and we have covered most of it. My mind was already working on the extreme possibilities which could happen. One being we getting struck. There definitely wont be any other vehicle crossing during the night. But the good news was someone would come the next day, it being a Sunday. If we do fall off from the mountain, I just prayed for a quick death!
In every other puddle the car’s velocity started slowing down heavily and it used to barely make out in crawling speed. My nightmare came true in one of the heavily snowed patch, the car crawled to a stop. Even shifting to lower gear did not help. I panicked and didn’t know what to do. Preethi suggested to backup and try going on the right edge of the road. I put the gear in reverse scared the car will not move back. Thankfully it did and I went back a good 50 feet before throwing the gear to low. Thinking about the moment, I would have loved multiple cameras pointed on me and the car, filming the live action. I gave enough gas to go over normal crawl pace (not stupid enough to floor it, though). We made it safe!
The next icy water puddle was my scariest experience ever. This looked like the usual puddles, but a bit longer. Right after I entered it, the car tilted towards left and it kept pulling down. The car was barely moving when we hit the mid of puddle. What I saw out of the driver’s window just stopped my heart. The water was inches below the window level!!!
My immediate reaction was – ‘Oh no, the water is going to get in!’ The next thought was even much worse – What if the car gets struck here, we would not able to get out in this cold without becoming fully wet and it is freezing outside! And if I reduce my throttle, the water would definitely go inside the engine and shut it down immediately. I just put my foot down praying we make out of it. We did and all thanks to the Murano!!! The other puddles were not as scary or tough as this one.
A phantom on the hill
We finally made it to the top of the mountain and things looked easier. I was a bit relived and was looking forward to get down the mountain. Just when I thought everything was over (at least the difficult level was crossed), a thick mist covered us.
The mist came from nowhere and blinded us instantaneously. One moment everything was clear and the next – I couldn’t see anything. I immediately turned down to low beam and slowed down to about 5 mph. I still could not see the road clearly. Lowering the windows and looking out helped a bit. The mist would at least disappear if we descend, but it didn’t seem to me that we were going down anytime soon.
At a distance, something shiny caught our eye. Moving a bit closer, I was able to see a silhouette of a large tractor. I don’t know why, but I got scared seeing it. Maybe I still had the images of ‘Lost Burro Mine’ and ‘Hills have eyes’ flashing in my head. I later found out from Preethi that she actually felt good there might be people nearby who could come for our help, if at all it came to that. I guess she is the rational and sane person of the family!
Finally we started descending and I kept the previous car’s track as reference and carefully descended. Soon the mist disappeared and it was a big relief to us. The snow on and around the road started disappearing too. we were getting a bit relaxed.
Through the South pass
I thought that soon we will be on flat lands as we were descending. But weren’t technically. So I asked Preethi about it. She said “we have to cross the South pass to get into flat road. Its just few miles”. She kept saying “just few miles” every time I asked.
We saw a sign board saying “CAUTION: FALLING ROCKS”. Soon after a couple of turns, there was a huge rock on the road! Come on, is this a test or something? I stopped the car, made sure it wont roll back or forward and hopped out. The air was chilly at 34 F and as I walked closer to the rock, I realized it was too big! Anyway, I put in all my strength and I couldn’t even move an inch. Preethi got down too to help me out. We tried for a while without any luck. She found the SUV tracks and it was going around the boulder, dangerously close to the edge.
Preethi suggested we do the same. I was not very confident, but had no other option. I just wanted to be on the CA-90 (the paved road) as soon as possible. We got on the car, I lowered both the windows and had our heads sticking out. Me looking over the edge and Preethi looking if its clear on the boulder side. I tried to match the tracks, I went around and when everything looked ok and I started to get back to the road. A loud THUD! There was a scraping sound from the rear passenger side. I stopped and got out to investigate. Once around the car, I was horrified to find a metal rod attached to the front passenger side running throughout the length of the car. The other end was on the ground.
This was the one causing the scraping noise. My first thought was something important broke – was it the axle? I slowly kneeled down to see what it was. Surprisingly it was not a metal, it was plastic! Realized it was the strip which should protect from scrapes and stuff. I picked it up, showed to Preethi and explained what it was in a shaky voice. She just said – ‘Throw it away, let us go!’. I did as she told me to! 😛 . That ‘few miles’ she said was really long. Later I came to know that ‘the few miles trick’ was to comfort my driving mind. That did kept me going.
Towards the LEE FLAT:
We finished our descent and were on the final phase to catch CA-190. It was rough, but boy was I relieved to be out of the nightmare. Once we saw the paved road, we just stopped for a minute in front of the ‘stop’ sign. It was fifteen minutes past midnight. A full 4 hour drive from Racetrack. We took a long breath, gave high-five, hug and laughed as if we climbed Mt.Everest!
Stars of the night:
– The awesome navigator who kept her cool – Preethi
– The car – Nissan Murano – The star which saved us
– No storm that night which was originally predicted.
– The track left by someone who traveled the same route a few hours before us
– Our decision to leave Racetrack Playa at 8pm, instead of delaying there.
– Finally the driver!
I am just waiting to go back to Playa Racetrack and driving through the same route again, but in the daytime. I just have to do it. Cant wait!!!
A piece of advice for fellow travelers who are going to Death valley first time for adventure / Moral of my story:
- Before you start, always research well about the routes you are gonna pass through in places like this.
- Carry food more than you always need.
- Take appropriate vehicle/accessories and abundant fuel.
Click here to view the full death valley map.
Update: Guess what?!! We were so impressed with Nissan Murano that we bought one! And also visited the same place in October 2016 and took same return route from Playa race track via hunters mountain ridge, but in daylight to pacify our curious mind. The views were stunning. This time we took full video of the drive. Will post soon! Until then, below are few pics…