Death Valley National Park is far away enough from cities that it requires a three day weekend to go visit. But that’s the point, Death Valley has some of the most amazing sky you will ever see. That’s because there is no light pollution, the air is very dry, no clouds, perfect for some night photography. Our plan was simple, leave Friday night from the Bay Area and come back Monday night, lodging was also simple: we would camp. We’ve been to Death Valley once before and specifically to the Racetrack, so we had a good idea of what to expect. This time I was interested in getting deeper into Death Valley by following some of the off road trails. In order to do that and being safe, we had two 4WD cars with high clearance and we would follow each others (just in case).
I should point out that the rangers at Death Valley N.P. insist clearly that those roads are for high clearance vehicles only and that getting towed out of it is very expensive. Towing can cost several thousands dollars. If you think those are the usual warnings, yes you are correct but we did confirm that towing a vehicle out of the Racetrack trail would cost more than $1000. Here was our original plan (you can guess that we did not do that):
View Photo Spot series: Death Valley National Park in a larger map
Luckily we did escape the Bay Area before 3pm and avoid the mad traffic of millions of people trying to leave the same area at the same time. Our friends were not so lucky. It takes almost 12 hours to drive from the Bay Area to the park, so we spent the night in Bakersfield in a cheap hotel. Looking on Yelp, we found this great carribean restaurant called Mama Roomba (the chicken palliard was fantastic).
We left Bakersfield early (just before sunrise) and drove west to Mojave. We did a quick stop at Red Rock Canyon State Park. The weather was overcast and it was hard to see the color of the Canyon. The camping was packed and we did a quick scouting trip. I think the area has great photographic potential but it will have to wait.
From there we drove directly to Olancha, where we got gas, firewood and ice. This is the last place where gas is cheap, after that you are in no man’s land and gas price is about $5/gallon. Our drive to Stove Pipe was not eventless (something about a bus being on fire on the side of the road) but we pressed on as we were on a tight schedule to be at the racetrack for the sunset.
It took us roughly 7 hours to get to Stove Pipe and we had another 3 hours to go. Stove Pipe is your last point for gas (there is no gas at Scotty Castle anymore). It’s also a great place to check with the Park Rangers for the condition of the off road trails and learn what to expect. The interesting portion of our discussion with him was to be careful because the rocks on the road to the Racetrack are quite sharp and towing would cost you more than $1000.
We drove to Ubehebe crater where the off road trail to the Racetrack begins. We were making good progress until about one mile from the Racetrack (we could easily see the Racetrack and the grand stand) when we puncture both tires on the left side. Having one flat tire is bad, but two at about 20 miles down the dirt road is really bad. At that time, I was still hoping to get to the campsite that is 2 miles after the Racetrack.
We had several of those Slime cans (of course I never used one before), so I tried it, no luck. We could re-inflate the tire to full pressure but as soon as we drove it would leak again rapidly. With the sunset approaching rapidly, my wife told us to go to the campsite, set up the camp while there was still light and then come back to our truck with an empty car to unload it. While we were doing this, she would stay with the truck and try to drive to the campground by re-inflating the tire and then driving as far as the tire would let her.
It took us one hour to find the campground and setup the tents and everything, by then it was almost dark. We went to Death Valley to do some night photography and guess what, it’s REALLY dark at night there!
We drove back to pick up our stuff from my truck and found my wife about 4 miles from the campground. She had been able to drive 3 or so miles by re-inflating the tire twice. We transferred our gear to our friend’s car and left the truck on the road for the night.
The mood was a lot more optimistic after a couple glasses of wines and a good meal (including a raspberry crumble).
Our plan for Sunday was to do a sunrise on the Racetrack, get back to the camp, have breakfast, sleep a bit, and then go and try to fix the truck.
The morning light was nice and we had fun. I was hoping to get some images of the milky way but we were too late and the sky was already too bright (we got there more than 1 hour before sunrise).
After breakfast and our morning nap, we fixed the truck, at least temporarily by swapping the back tire with the front tire that was also punctured and using the 2nd slime can. The hole on the front tire looked smaller and the Slime did a reasonable job. We were able to inflate the tire and drove all the way to the campground.
Suddenly things were looking better, I though I had a working truck and one spare flat tire. One hour later, the truth was more obvious, I still had two flat tires. We read the manual about using the Slime repair tire kit and I went to work. The instructions are quite easy to follow and after a couple hours I did repair both tires.
And the pressure was holding. I was a happy camper. Obviously our original plan was out of the question, so we decide to stay put and try again the next morning to take some night pictures.
We woke at 3am, in order to avoid the moon and being early enough to have a dark sky. The results were not as good as I was hoping, clearly I need to practice more. Once the sun was rising, I was able to get this image where the stars and a little bit of the milky way was still visible.
After the breakfast and our morning nap, it was time to pack up and drive back home. First we have to remember that the closest tire shop is in Lone Pine, 155 miles away, including 22 miles of off road with sharp rocks! We drove slowly until Ubehebe Crater, as we arrived on the asphalt, the back tire leaked air again. Once more I did change the tire with the second repaired tire and off we were to Miller towing in Lone Pine, CA. We arrived there 10 minutes before 5pm and we learned that both tires could not be repaired. Fortunately for us (and not for my wallet), they had the tires in stock. In one hour, they replaced both tires. It was now 6pm and we were leaving Lone Pine,CA.
I had to be at work Tuesday 8am, as I had a very important all day meeting. So we drove (well, actually my wife did all the driving) back to the Bay Area.
We got home at 3am, tired, dirty, but quite happy about being able to pull ourself from this adventure. Clearly Death Valley is not for the unprepared. Today, I bought the same repair kit than my friend. I know I will go back to Death Valley.