Death Valley Overland Adventure Part 2: Ubehebe Crater, Teakettle Junction and Racetrack Playa

Exploring the rugged road thought Titus Canyon and visiting the ghosts in Leadfield wasn’t adventure enough for one day (see Death Valley Overland Adventure Part 1: Bailey’s Hot Springs and Titus Canyon). After hitting the asphalt of Scotty’s Castle Road we soon found ourselves at the north end of Death Valley National Park staring into the depths of Ubhebe Crater. As our Death Valley Overland Adventure continued, we hopped out of our 4Runners and explored this desert volcano.

Ubehebe Crater

Ubehebe crater, and the several smaller craters in the vicinity, are Maar Volcanos. If you’ve ever neglected Mac-N-Cheese on the stove, you know what a Maar volcano is. As recently as 300 years ago, magma migrating through the earth’s crust beneath Death Valley met ground water heating it to steam and the force of the expansion blew out the rock and earth leaving this 600 foot deep hole in the ground.

Gazing into Ubehebe Crater

Gazing into Ubehebe Crater

Here there is a trail that circumnavigates the rim of the main crater, and several others that line the south east side. You can also descend into the pit to the bottom sliding down the loose pumice trail. Climbing out is much more effort, so plan accordingly.

Race Track Road

Race Track Road is another of the ominously signed roads of Death Valley. At one point it may have warranted 4×4 and high clearance vehicles, but now there’s nothing stopping a minivan or crossover SUV from navigating the rough washboard. It is a really rough 30-mile though, and the track is littered with jagged tire murdering rocks.

racetrack road

And this is where a proper 4×4 overlanding vehicle departs from your standard car. Many mini vans and crossovers have temporary spare tires. I wouldn’t expect those to last long on a road like this. Some don’t even have a spare at all and you must rely on a can of fix-a-flat and a 12v compressor to get you back to civilization. So if you do hit this road, in any vehicle, make sure your tires are up for it and your spare is capable of backing them up.

Teakettle Junction

The intersection if Racetrack Road and Hidden Valley Road is known as Teakettle Junction due to the proliferation of ornate Teakettles hung from the sign by travelers from all over the world. The tradition is to leave a teakettle here with a note on it for luck and to connect with fellow travelers. Originally, a teakettle hanging here may have indicated the presence of water nearby. Now it’s a strange tradition, and the park service comes out periodically and removes some of the older teakettles to make room for new one.

teakettle

Homestake Dry Camp

Camping in Racetrack Valley is prohibited from Teakettle Junction on. There aren’t any signs or indications on the map that it’s there, but Homestake Dry camp is at the south end of the valley just past the intersection with Lippencott Pass Road.

Sunrise at Homestake Dry Camp

Sunrise at Homestake Dry Camp

There are spaces for 10 to 15 tents in a small loop. When we were there during spring break it was nearly full. There are no services at Homestake. No water, no tables, no trash, no toilet. There was an abused and neglected port-o-potty when we were there, but it was unusable. That’s probably why all our neighbors had cleared out before we were done with breakfast.

A trail leading up the steep hill beside camp will take you to an amazing vista where you can see down into Saline Valley on one side and Racetrack Playa on the other. Photographers who get up there for sunrise or sunset will get some great panoramic images.

Racetrack Playa

True mysteries are getting rarer and rarer. Sure, most of the universe is made up of something we know nothing about and can’t see, but here at Racetrack Playa is a mystery you can walk out and see and touch.

Racers on Racetrack Playa

Racers on Racetrack Playa. Photo by Carrie Busha

Out on the playa are stones of all sizes, some weighing hundreds of pounds, that have moved there pushed by the wind leaving wake in the damp mud that has dried to a hard signature in the playa. For many years after their discovery, no one could explain exactly how they moved, or replicate the condition to scientifically prove any of the various theories. I remember watching some show in the 80’s like Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, where the mystery was dramatized and theories were espoused that aliens, strange magnetic fields, or even government experimentation moved the stones against all known laws of nature.

Racetrack Playa Stones

Racetrack Playa Stones

Now, if you google it you can find the answer. But before you do ask yourself, am I the kind of person who breathes a sigh of relief when “No Service” appears in the corner of your phone? Am I the kind of person who hears intelligent noises in the wind? Am I the kind of person who will drive to the most remote places and revel in the beauty and wonder of what I find?

I wouldn’t do it. My advice: lower your carbon foot print, get your kids vaccinated, don’t worry about GMOs and let this mystery move along.

-Mike

Death Valley Overlanding Maps and Guides

Death Valley Road Conditions