Death Valley Grand Loop Part II
If you're reading about the Death Valley trip for the first time, you may want to begin with Part I by clicking here.
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Saline Valley Road to Lee Flat
After buying more ice and fuel at Olancha, we head east on CA 190 towards Panamint Springs. After about 30 miles, we leave the pavement and head north on Saline Valley Road. My plan has been to go all the way to Racetrack Playa but given the lateness of the day, we decide instead to camp at Lee Flat and keep our pace relaxed. And Lady Luck favors us - the impromptu campsite we find is pretty darn nice.
Battered sign at the junction of Saline Valley Road and CA 190 (click image for full size version).
Since there's no shooting in the National Park; this is a non-bullet hole bullet hole.
Much of the Saline Valley Road is straight, flat, and thoroughly covered with washboards, little sand ripples that can cause an exceedingly rough ride. There are essentially two choices: 4 or 40. At 4 mph or slower, each bump is traversed individually, in a gentle up and down, "slow as a tortoise" kinda way. At 40 mph the vehicle skims over the top of each bump, producing a gentle vibration and a relatively smooth ride. Anything in between these two speeds will shake you six ways to Sunday.
Death Valley washboard road; we go 40 mph.
After 10 speedy, dusty miles we arive at Lee Flat, a nice open area at about 5200' in elevation. We quickly establish our camp off a side road, right next to a big Joshua Tree. The afternoon is warm, and we kick back for an afternoon beer.
Arlo kicks back, Coors in hand.
As the day wanes, I get started on dinner: Camping Quesadillas. I'm not sure if this recipe qualifies as authentic Mexican fare, but the results are well received. I chop up ingredients, organize the assembly line, and start kicking out quesadillas. I keep cooking, people keep eating, and by the end of the evening there's nothing left. Hot food sure tastes good in the outdoors!
David at work.
Lee Flat to Lippincott Grade
The sun arives the next morning and we are eager to get on the road. Today we visit Racetrack Playa, home of the sliding rocks. Our route ascendes the Lippincott Grade, a 7 mile section of supposedly challenging jeep trail leading up to Racetrack Valley and its famous playa scrapers.
Arlo gets up early and snaps this pre-dawn picture.
And Agnieszka snaps Arlo a few minutes later.
After hitting the road we meet up with another Jeep Cherokee. Graham chats the driver up, and they spend a few minutes swapping jeep-talk. I listen in but the words are unfamiliar, the dialect strong.
Mojave Rubber Rabbitbrush, with Panamint Valley and Telescope Peak (11,143') in the background.
We pass the Hunter Mountain Road turn off, and descend the north side of the Nelson Range via Grapevine Canyon, soon noticing a trail of what looks like oil in the middle of the road. It continues for several miles and we wonder what we'll find ahead. Sure enough, we round a bend and there's a VW sedan with a note on the windshield. We wonder what combination of clunks and flashing lights the driver ignored before their car died. We don't know for sure, but it's a decent bet the engine is now a lump of useless metal.
This VW lost its oil and could go no further.
Lippincott Grade to Racetrack Playa
At the bottom of the canyon the terrain opens up and we get a great view of Saline Valley. We stop at our turnoff and snap a few pictures. Wide vistas reach out in all directions, the landscape bleak, yet inspiring.
Jeeps at the Lippincott Grade Turnoff.
View north into Saline Valley.
After crossing the southern end of Saline Valley, we get our fist good look at the Lippincott Grade. The road climbs almost 2000 vertical feet in a tad less than 7 miles, via a narrow and rocky shelf road. Before heading up we check out a nearby mining prospect and find marble, azurite, malachite, and other minerals we can't identify.
Looking up the Lippincott Grade; Graham leads us on a short side trip to an un-named prospect.
David gets out the geologic map, points out some "Paleozoic non-marine" strata (whatever that means).
The old Death Valley National Monument sign; the park is much bigger now and we've been inside its boundary since yesterday.
David nears the top of the grade, which proved fun but not challenging; Saline Valley in the background.
David and Graham pose with the sign at the top of the pass; abandon all hope ye who enter here.
After snapping a few pictures at the top of the pass, we find our campsite, have a quick lunch, then head on down to Racetrack Playa and the moving rocks. The playa is a dry lake bed, its wide flat surface covered entirely with polygonal mud cracks. Playas are fairly common throughout the desert west and usually occur wherever a closed basin prevents runoff from flowing elsewhere. Playas with moving rocks are rare; only a handfull exist in the world.
Polygonal mud cracks.
Walking around on the playa is like nothing else. The dried mud absorbs our sounds and the flatness is very evident. In fact, the playa is one of the flattest surfaces on Earth. It does have a very slight slope, dropping about 2 inches in 3 miles, a slope of 1:63,360. Like I said: FLAT.
Graham, David, and Agnieszka; the south summit of Ubehebe Peak 3000 feet above us in the background.
We find our first moving rocks right away and stop for photos. I should be clear - we don't see them move, only tracks that indicate they have. The afternoon is getting late and as the angle of the sun gets lower, the lighting gets more interesting, throwing the rock tracks into relief; everyone takes LOTS of pictures. In fact people come from all over the world to take pictures here.
Arlo dodges a couple rocks.
These rocks can really cover some distance!
This is quite a fantastic place, hundreds of tracks zig-zagging back and forth, the rocks mum to how they move. The most popular theory is that when the playa fills with an inch or so of water, and the wind blows hard, the rocks get shoved around on a slippery clay layer. In must be said, however, that nobody has seen them move. You can read more about Racetrack Playa by clicking here. Another interesting site can be found here.
Get out of the way 'cause this rock is big!
Y'all come back now, hear?
Lippincott Lead Mine
The next morning we head south for a short side trip to the Lippincott Lead Mine. While founded in 1906 as the Lead King Mine, this mine saw most of its activity from 1940 to 1953, when it was leased to George Lippincott. We didn't know it at the time, but in 1969 Charles Manson and some followers torched a park service grader here. As there are passable jeep roads to most the mine workings, we take the morning to drive around the area, and find an old washer, several foundations, an old Buick, and many blocked off mine shafts.
David and foundation; written in the cement: Lippincott Mill Site.
Can you say "Little Phillip Lippincott" three times fast?
Lippincott Lead Mine.
Agnieszka makes a colorful miner-lady.
Yessir, we won't go inside any mines.
See? I'm not inside the mine!
A little later we explore an old Buick. Graham is all over the ancient vehicle, explaining the primitive systems to us, making the rusted hulk come alive. The number "214610" followed by "M-2" can be read on the cylinder head. Graham's later research indicates that it was built between 1925 and 1928. Even though it was fairly advanced for it's time, old style features include rod actuated breaks (not hydraulic), external drum brakes, and a magneto ignition.
This old Buick has seen better days.
Wooden spoked wheels - can you say horseless carriage?
The Grandstand to Teakettle Junction
After having lunch at the mine, we head north to Teakettle Junction and points beyond. Along the way we stop to check out The Grandstand, a 73' high outcrop that pops up through the playa surface. Composed of metamorphic granite, these weathered boulders provide a nice vantage of the surrounding playa.
Another nice panorama from Arlo, looking south over the Grandstand and Racetrack Playa.
The Grandstand is composed of metamorphosed granite with large elongate crystals, perhaps an amphibole type mineral.
We spot this loser tourist in the distance, must've lost his map.
After an hour at the Grandstand, we climb back into the Jeeps and head north, aiming for Teakettle Junction and the turn-off to Hidden Valley and the Lost Burro Mine. Teakettle is an interesting spot, complete with many ... you guessed it ... teakettles. People come from all over the world and while participating in an arcane ritual, hang teakettles from the sign post at the junction. The kettles themselves are inscribed with many things, including dates, from which we conclude that the park service removes them regularly. I wonder: do they have a back room full of kettles somewhere?
Worshipers from all over the world pay homage with teakettles.
The Lost Burro Mine
No, we never found the burro, but we do enjoy the mine, which got its name when in 1907 prospector Bert Shively picked up a rock to throw at his wandering burro. Then he noticed that said rock was laced with gold. The mine was worked on and off, depending on the price of gold, all the way into the 1970s, with the most productive period being between 1912 and 1917; the Montana-Tonapah Company's 5-stamp mill processed ore using water piped in from Burro Spring, 8 miles to the east.
Cabin below the mine.
Inside the cabin we find artifacts of years gone by.
From left to right: bunker, outhouse, stamp mill (in the distance), and Jeeps.
Graham molds a fighter jet from wax; Arlo channels his inner jet-jockey.
After setting up camp and hanging out for an hour, Graham, Arlo, and I spend the afternoon exploring the mine's workings.
This water driven stamp mill pounded raw ore, making big rocks into little rocks.
Stamp mill from above; that looks like some kind of fancy grinder aparatus on the top; "Hey there mister miner-man, brew me a cafe latte please?"
The intention is clear ...
... yet not terribly effective.
Rough timbers keep the roof from falling on us; except - are those piles of rubble on the floor?
After we explore the mine, Arlo makes his trademarked spaghetti dinner; we fall to our knees in apprecation.
Graham chanels his inner retard.
I wake up early the next morning and take a quick hike up the ridge west of our camp. The view is beautiful, especially in the early morning light.
The stamp mill at first light.
Looking west above the Lost Burro Mine, early sun creeping across Racetrack Playa.
On the way back to camp I drop a big rock into this vertical shaft; it causes crashing and banging sounds that last for 10 seconds - must be DEEP.
After breakfast the next morning we load up and head out to Ubehebe Crater and Stovepipe Wells, where we'll get more gas and ice. We spot several tarantulas crossing the road, but each time we stop and walk back, they're gone; little buggers walk FAST. Ubehebe Crater is a very young geologic feature, barely 2000 years old. We try to imagine the magnitude of the blast that produced this giant hole; I wouldn't want to be nearby...
David and Graham chat; Ubehebe Crater in the background.
Since we'll be on pavement for the next while, I air up the Jeep's tires and notice that one of the Land Rover's rear shock absorbers has come loose. Graham and I combine forces (literally) to push it back into place and re-secure it to the axle. Lucky I have a spare bolt that fits well enough to do the job, proving that you can never bring too many extra parts when traveling in the desert.
The Land Rover's shock absorber has come loose.
Graham and David push it back into place.
After re-securing the errant shock absorber, we pile back into the Jeeps and head to Stovepipe Wells, 45 miles away. As we gas up and madly consume ice cream and other treats. Graham and Agnieszka decide change course and scoot over the Sierra to Sequoia National Park, home of the giant trees. Arlo and I both agree that while we'll miss their company, we're eager to begin the third leg of our journey. Eureka Dunes, here we come!
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