The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park is famous for its “moving” rocks--- no one seems to know exactly how, but wind and water (perhaps as ice) push rocks, which must fall onto the playa from nearby cliffs, for certain distances (sometimes quite long) across the playa, leaving trails. Many visitors to the Racetrack wander the playa in hopes of finding and photographing such trails.
But another outstanding geological feature here is the Grandstand, an outcrop near the northern end of the Racetrack that is visible from many miles away and which looks like a fantastic ship afloat on a vast gray sea. Starkly interrupting the uniformity of the Racetrack, the Grandstand beckons, and it is almost impossible not to be drawn to it if you so much as step outside your car.
There are several different ways to get to the Racetrack. The one I will describe in the most detail begins from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and is passable to almost any vehicle. The going is sometimes rocky and washboarded, but I have made the trip in both an SUV and a regular car with ease.
From the visitor center, follow CA 190 northwest for 19 miles to a junction where a road heads northwest to Grapevine and Scotty’s Castle (CA 190 bears west and soon passes Mesquite Flat en route to Stovepipe Wells and beyond). Drive 33 miles to Grapevine and a junction. Turn left (northwest) for Ubehebe Crater. The pavement ends 5 miles later at the crater, the remnant of an ancient volcanic eruption. Follow the now-unpaved road, marked on maps as a high-clearance road but passable to most regular cars, south for 20 miles to Teakettle Junction, where you must turn southwest for the Racetrack. Along the way, you will drive through a nice Joshua Tree forest and will have excellent views of Tin Mountain, the Cottonwood Mountains (to the east), and the Last Chance Range (to the west). In winter and early spring, there will probably be snow on these peaks and maybe even in or around the Joshua Tree forest. From Teakettle Junction, where teakettles actually do hang from the road sign, it is 7 miles to the southern end of the Racetrack. There is a small parking area near the north end of the Racetrack, and the Grandstand beckons about a half-mile to the east. Directly above you to the west looms 5678’ Ubehebe Peak .
Option 2--- From Big Pine, follow the CA 168/Big Pine Road east for almost 75 miles to the turnoff for Ubehebe Crater. From there, follow the directions above. This route is passable to most cars.
Option 3--- Enter the park from the west via CA 190 and drive to the junction with the road leading to Scotty’s Castle. Then follow the directions for the first option. This route is passable to most cars.
Option 4--- REQUIRES 4WD: From Big Pine Road, head south on Saline Valley Road for over 50 miles to the junction with Lippincott Road. This rough road joins Racetrack Road near the Racetrack’s southern end. This route may be impassable in winter or after rainstorms.
Option 5--- REQUIRES 4WD: From CA 190 at the western edge of the park, follow Saline Valley Road to Lippincott Road. Then follow Option 4. Alternate: take the Hunter Mountain Road, a 4WD route, to Teakettle Junction. This route may be impassable in winter or after rainstorms.
Hike for about a half-mile along the flat playa, which glows pink at dawn, until you reach the Grandstand. Unless you are blind, it is impossible to get lost. Then hike up onto the Grandstand; near the center of it on both the north and south sides, little use trails lead to a “pass.”
From the “pass,” numerous options are available. You can stroll around for a little, maybe finding a nice perch for relaxing and enjoying the scenery. This is Class 1 hiking, but we’ll be proper and call it Class 2 since there are no actual trails here. More fun awaits scramblers and climbers. Pick a rock and climb it. You can find Class 3, 4, and 5 pitches here. The summit block itself is an easy Class 5 climb, and people with sticky shoes and good hands probably won’t want to bother with rope, but if using it makes you feel safer, especially since you are far from aid, use it.
Keep in mind that you’re doing this for fun; you will not be getting much in the way of views that the casual hikers are not getting, as the summit of these rocks only rises about 80’ above the Racetrack. This is just a fun, neat place, and you can practice your rock moves without long approaches and great exertion.
Red TapeDeath Valley National Park has no entrance stations, but you are expected to stop at the first visitor center you reach after entering the park and pay the admission fee ($20 for 7 days).
This area is accessible all year, but summer temperatures around 110 degrees Fahrenheit are not uncommon. Consequently, I recommend going in spring, fall, or winter. Fill your gas tank at the closest station before heading out here. The nearest gas was at Scotty’s Castle, where you can also buy food, drinks, and other supplies, but as of 3/22/07, gas was not available there until further notice; thanks to LISAE for that notice. The nearest gas stations, then, are at Stovepipe Wells and Mesquite Flat, both nearly an hour's drive from the start of Racetrack Road, and in Beatty, Nevada, about 30-45 minutes east of Scotty's Castle.
BRING AT LEAST TWICE THE RECOMMENDED AMOUNT OF WATER (one gallon per person per day); THERE IS NONE OUT HERE! MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A GOOD SPARE TIRE AND THE ABILITY TO MOUNT IT!
Carry sunglasses! It's usually sunny here. Add that to the bright playa all around and you have some potentially serious glare issues.
Driving on the Racetrack is illegal! In fact, driving off the established roads anywhere in Death Valley National Park is illegal.
CampingThere are no established campgrounds near the Racetrack, but Death Valley has a very liberal dispersed and backcountry camping policy--- no permits or registration required, practice Leave No Trace ethics.
About 35 miles away, back near Grapevine, is the Mesquite Spring Campground.