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Death Valley Off-Road Trip - Three Days In The Valley

Posted in Features on September 8, 2006
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Photographers: Ken Brubaker

(Editor's Note: Part 1 of this two-part Four Wheeler adventure began in the August 2006 issue.)

It had been a day and a half since our modern-day mule team, consisting of the Four Wheeler staff and a select group of friends from the industry, arrived in a Valley known as much for its history of hardship on explorers and travelers as for its amazing geology and trail system. We had kept ourselves busy exploring backcountry roads in and around the Panamint and surrounding ranges in search of abandoned mining towns and notable Death Valley attractions. We even managed to visit the notorious Barker Ranch via Goler Wash, continuing on to Mengel Pass, where we gave our respects at Carl Mengel's grave in hopes we wouldn't meet his fate along the trail.

After recharging for the evening, we awoke the next morning with a plan to visit the massive Ubehebe Crater, an awesome geologic feature of Death Valley. Ubehebe is not only fun to say out loud, but is a Native America word for "big basket in the rock." The crater is a remnant of one of several hydrovolcanic events in northern Death Valley, caused several thousand years ago when underground water came in contact with molten rock. The resulting steam pressure caused a massive explosion and blew this 770-foot deep crater in the ground, spreading debris hundreds of feet in the air, littering the surrounding landscape with volcanic rock. At just over a half mile wide, this is the largest crater in the region.

Project RangeRunner turns up the dial a few notches on Racetrack Valley Road.

From the Ubehebe Moonscape, we turned on to the Racetrack Valley road, which would take us south to our next destination-the mysterious moving rocks of the Racetrack Playa. This rough and severely washboarded road gave us a chance to stretch out project RangeRunner and put its suspension through its paces, while the faster vehicles tried to catch up. If you ever find yourself traveling in this part of the Valley, be sure to stop at Teakettle Junction, a famous intersection of roads that is adorned with various (and constantly changing) teakettles from travelers. It is a popular spot for photos and a break from the trail.

Teakettle Junction is a famous intersection where teakettles hang like ornaments from the sign.

Six miles down the road from Teakettle Junction, we finally came across the intriguing Racetrack Playa. An ancient lakebed, the Racetrack features a hardpack surface and a slew of mysteriously moving rocks. No one knows how the rocks, some of which are several hundred pounds, move, and no one has ever seen them move, yet they leave sometimes straight, sometimes squiggly, telltale trails all over the lakebed. The longest of these trails is nearly 3,000 feet long. Theories of how the rocks move range from the paranormal and UFO activity to Black Helicopters. The theory that makes the most sense is that during periods of heavy rain, the surface gets slick enough for the high winds to move the rocks. However, none of the rocks move in a uniform way that might suggest being pushed by the same gusts of wind at the same time. Being simple magazine guys, we were content to just enjoy the rocks.

PhotosView Slideshow
Our project RTCC Frontier takes on the Death Valley terrain.

Continuing south on the Racetrack Road, we soon arrived at our lunch stop-the abandoned Lippencott lead mine. This mine was one of the few mines in the region that produced lead as its main ore; while most other mines often had lead only as a byproduct. When it was first put in to operation in 1906, it was known as the Lead King Mine, but was changed to its current name when George Lippencott took over operations for 13 years. With a nice wide pad to park vehicles and stunning vistas of Saline Valley, this was an ideal spot to take a break from the trail. There are plenty of ruins still worth exploring in and around the area.

We left the boundary of the park via the infamous Lippencott Mine Road (sometimes referred to Ubehebe Road), at times so treacherous that it is not even listed on the official Death Valley National Park Map. It is less of a road for Jeeps and more of a trail for llamas. Some of us had traveled this route before and promised a challenge to those who hadn't. Unfortunately, on this trip the road was in better shape than the warning sign that guards its entrance. Usually pocked with washouts and steep drop-offs, we were welcomed with a smooth road surface with minimal damage or trail repairs present.

Before heading out, everyone airs up for the highway ride home.

After our fairly quick descent on Lippencott Road, we connected with the fast and smooth Saline Valley Road, which winds through varying scenery as it loses elevation on the way toward Owens Valley. Good time can be made on Saline Valley Road, and evidence of a sprawling wildlife population is all around.

Losing sunlight fast, we arrived at the intersection of Saline Valley Road and Highway 190, which offered our group easy access to Owens Valley and points beyond. Before parting ways, we spent time airing up and saying our goodbyes. Amazingly enough, we traveled hundreds of miles in the dirt and no one suffered any flats or breakdowns, practically unheard of when you are traveling through the clutches of Death Valley National Park-one of the most spectacular and challenging wheeling destinations in the country.

Special thanks to all of our industry friends who made the trip enjoyable, including:, ARB, Bilstein, Desert Racing Concepts, Fabtech, KORE, Off Road Warehouse, and Tera Flex.

Our favorite guidebook for any of our backcountry exploits in Southern California and Death Valley is Backcountry Adventures: Southern California by Peter Massey and Jeanne Wilson. Full of history and trail information, the guide offers explorers step-by-step trail directions and includes GPS waypoints. We also carry along the invaluable DeLorme Southern & Central California Atlas and Gazetteer, which is the most comprehensive map book we have run across. Both books are part of a series that includes other regions and are available at online retailers, such as, or from your local bookseller.-Sean P. Holman

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