Backcountry driving in Death Valley

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Several of the areas we had wanted to check out last time we were at Death Valley in December 2011 have a 4-wheel drive vehicle requirement.  Since our time then was limited, we vowed to visit those sites when we went back.  This time we merged those excursions into a one-day trip and rented a Jeep from Farabee’s Jeep Rentals in Furnace Creek. We think there is no better way to experience the beauty and wildness of Death Valley than driving a Jeep through the backcountry.

Steve all set to go through the canyon.

Death Valley is massive (remember – the largest national park outside of Alaska) with 95% of its area protected in roadless wilderness.  Yet there are ample miles of paved and dirt roads for exploration.  Of the 31 opportunities for backcountry roads we chose two – Titus Canyon and the Racetrack Playa.  We took a fairly typical one-day trip and wanted to share our experience as it might be helpful if you’re interested in going there.

Here we go, lets go !

First off, the Jeep was fairly new and in excellent condition.  The cost amounted to about $300 for the day, which included refilling the 3/4 tank of gas.  Although Farabee’s states there is a 200-mile limit, they are somewhat flexible with that and also allow you to return the Jeep well after their closing time of 5:00pm.  You also receive a GPS tracker in case something happens requiring assistance.


Our device to call for help, fortunately, we didn’t need it

Our plan was to visit Beatty, NV, then the ghost town of Ryolite just down the road from there.  Next, we would catch the 26-mile gravel road near Ryolite and drive over the mountains and through Titus Canyon.  At that point, we would exit into the northwest end of the valley and head out the grueling 28-mile road to the Racetrack Playa where the “moving rocks” mysteriously slide across the desert floor.  We had to see that!

Our impressions of the trip:

1)  Beatty – A small town in Nevada on highway 374 near the state border.  We didn’t feel it was worth visiting in a 4-wheel drive rental when we could have done it in our car.  However, their gas prices were a dollar cheaper than in Death Valley 🙂  Too bad we didn’t need gas yet!

Amargosa Valley

Amargosa Valley

Welcome to Nevada sign

Let’s go to Nevada (for a while)

2)  Rhyolite – A beat-up ghost town near Beatty, also not requiring 4-wheel drive access.  However, the beginning of the road to Titus Canyon is near both Beatty and Rhyolite so at least they were not far out of the way (10 miles total).

Glass House at Rhyolite

Glass House in Rhyolite


What’s left of a bank

3)  Titus Canyon – FANTASTIC!  Although you can hike in a ways from the canyon mouth at the Death Valley west end, you would miss most of the awesome beauty of the colorful rock deposits and backcountry section.  We drove on the one-way road east-to-west over 27 miles of rough, steep, narrow roads with drop-offs.  It took us two hours to navigate, including several stops for photo ops.  The highest point on the road was at Red Pass (5250′ elevation), and the view at the top was breathtaking.  The pictures don’t do justice, you have to be there to really appreciate it.  This excursion by itself is worth renting a vehicle for!

Switchback Road with drop offs

Narrow switchback road with drop-offs

Narrow Canyon

Narrow Canyon

Multicolored rocks

Multi-colored rocks

Red Mountain Pass

View from top looking down

Look, the rocks are ready to fall…

Leadfield Ghost Town

4) Ubehebe Crater – 4-wheel drive not required but this attraction is on the way to Racetrack Playa and we stopped for a quick lunch.  It is a huge crater measuring a half mile wide and 500 feet deep with orange hue fanglomerates.

UbeHebe Crater

UbeHebe Crater

4)  Racetrack Playa – Factor in almost 2 hours of driving down a brutal gravel road, then 2 hours back, not to mention tons of dust!   Probably worth it to go “once in a lifetime”.  I wish those rocks would slide a little closer to civilization!  So you wonder why is this place called Racetrack Playa and how could rocks move by themselves?

Racetrack Playa

Racetrack Playa

Theories abound, so we had to investigate for ourselves.  What we saw when we arrived is a very large, very dry lakebed with a beige-colored floor.  There are rocks of various shapes and sizes strewn all over the place.  Indeed, as we walked around we noted tracks of these moving rocks along the lakebed.  They have moved across the almost perfectly level surface leaving trails as records of their movements.  A lot of theories have been suggested to explain the mystery of these movements, one of which is that a rare combination of rain and wind conditions enable the rocks to move – some as far as 1,500 ft.

Moving Rock

This rock has moved about 50ft!

Nobody has ever seen the rocks moved.  How cool is that?   The name “Racetrack”  is due to the moving rocks perhaps competing to go somewhere.

Racing Rocks

Racing Rocks

This was a very full day of driving and exploring.  We picked up the Jeep right at 8:00am when they opened and didn’t get our tired bodies back there until 7:00pm.  Definitely a fun experience, though!

It’s a rocky situation at Glass Mountain

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After talking about scenery,  lava tubes and caves, it’s time to show some rocks that really rock.  Volcanic rocks, that is.  In our first two blogs about the Lava Beds National Monument we explored the hidden world of the lava caves and the rugged surface encompassing the monument.  This time we highlight the naturally occurring volcanic glass – obsidian rock.  It’s a form of Rhyolite that has the highest content of silica.  It is a volcanic glass prized by Native Americans for making arrowheads, knives, spear points and other tools.


Is this really sharp?

Obsidian Roc kFile

A huge pile of Obsidian Rock

This excursion took us about 30 miles south of the Lava Beds as we continued our geologic adventure at Glass Mountain.

Glass Mountain has been designated a Special Interest Area in Modoc National Forest because of its geologic formations.  The area is a 4,210 acre lava flow of glassy black obsidian boulders ending suddenly in white pumice soil.  Wandering around at the top of  Glass Mountain, we encountered prehistoric obsidian mines along a glass flow and were amazed at the ancient quarry remains evident today.  Being there was kind of surreal and made us wonder what it must have been like when this amazing landscape was being formed.  Estimates are that the most recent flows of pumice and obsidian at Glass Mountain occurred less than 900 years ago.

Glass Mountain

Glass Mountain

Ancient Rock Quarries

Ancient Rock Quarries

We are not geologists or rock hounds, but this place rocks!

The drive took us through the Modoc National Forest were we also saw Ponderosa Pines for miles covered with lichens.

Lichens covering trunks of Ponderosa Pines

After wandering through the quarries we drove to Arnica Sink, a dry basin in which water-worn cobbles and pebbles are mixed with sub-angular boulders covered by a washed mantle of pumice.

Arnica Sink

Arnica Sink

Our final stop was at Medicine Lake, which was once the center of a volcano and is over 150 feet deep.  It was quite a beautiful day and only a few folks were enjoying the serenity and beauty surrounding the area.

Medicine Lake

Medicine Lake

Yellow Rabbit flowers were in full bloom and dotted the landscape with yellow and orange glow. Simply beautiful!

Yellow Rabbit Bloom