With WayOfLife and WayOfLifette away at SEMA in the days leading up to this trip, we continued the tradition of putting the details of this run together at the last minute. What was originally planned as a three-day run over a holiday weekend ended up as a two-day run due to some schedule conflicts, and many of the regulars had to miss the trip due to the flu that was going around. We still managed to gather seven JKs for a fun weekend of easy trails and some of the best scenery that the California desert has to offer.
TrailBitch (Bill) and I hooked up with WayOfLife (Eddie) and WayOfLifette (Cindy), their son Andrew and Tessa the trailpup and FunN4Lo (Tim) and his younger brother Bobby here in the O.C. for the ride up to meet with the rest of the gang. We made a quick stop for breakfast where JeepCacher (Tim) came to pay us a visit, but no sooner did he arrive than he got a call and had to leave. He didn’t even have time for a donut from the stash I had brought to bribe him with in case he decided to take out his ticket book.
We met up with jkjeep (John), Trailbud (Doug) and his son Ryan, JKTyrant (yet another Tim) and his friend (I’m sorry I forgot his name), and driley (Devon), who has recently moved into the area and is a newcomer to our group, at the trailhead off 136 in Keeler, known as the ghost town that refuses to die.
We started up Cerro Gordo (a.k.a. Yellow Grade) Road. This well graded road looked deceptively simple and played a mean trick on everyone driving an automatic. It climbs over 5500 feet in 7.5 miles. I think there were three of us driving an automatic, and as we attempted to climb this road our transmissions were not happy. We would ease on the gas and our jeeps wouldn’t move, so we would give it more gas and they still wouldn’t move. So we gave them more gas and all of a sudden the tach would jump to 4000 and we would inch up. We tried every gear combination possible with the same results. Then there was the mysterious chime…no lights on the dash, but all of us were getting a chime. Then we could smell something burning. Not realizing that the others were having the same problem, we were each mentally computing the cost of a blown transmission in the middle of nowhere. When we finally made it to the top WayOfLife got out of his jeep and said if we smelled something burning it was him because something (transmission fluid?) was overfilled…Phew! Big sigh of relief, especially once we realized that we all had the same problems getting to the top and we had all heard the chime. Strange because we’ve all climbed steeper hills and never had that problem before…
We made it to the ghost town of Cerro Gordo mine. Cerro Gordo is Spanish for “Fat Hill”, and this mine was once the greatest producer of silver and lead in California’s history. The mine closed in 1949 and it is now privately owned by Mike Patterson, who is restoring it as funds permit. WayOfLife warned everyone that it is private property, but that we could take some photos from the county road while we let our jeeps cool down.
As soon as I took a photo of the fence I was approached by a charming elderly gentleman, apparently Mike Patterson himself, who asked if he could help me. I told him that we just stopped for a minute to stretch our legs and take a few photos. He informed me that he owns the land and is restoring the town, and that we were welcome to look around as much as we wanted, that there is a guest register he would like us to sign, and that there is a fee schedule! I politely told him that we had just stopped for a minute and would be on our way and I started heading back toward the rest of the group to let them know the proprietor wanted money. Everyone went back to the jeeps, and I’m not really sure what happened after that, but apparently the guy decided to hunt us down. He raced over to us in his truck and started screaming at us to get off his land (what happened to the charm he was pouring on to me a few minutes ago?). The guys thought he was about to take a shotgun out of his truck, and there was some debate about having a standoff or getting out of dodge. I missed most of what took place when Patterson came after us to start trouble, all I know is that the Wild West is alive and well.
After our memorable stop at Cerro Gordo, we headed down through Saline Valley, made quick snack stop at a spot overlooking the dunes down below in Death Valley and then headed for Lippincott Mine Road. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any photos on Lippincott Mine Road because I was too busy keeping my eyes on what was left of the trail. This was a very narrow steep climb with very tight switchbacks and major sections of washed out trail. The Death Valley website and other trail reports warn of the “high pucker factor”, but actually, it was much better than I thought it was going to be with only two spots that made me a little nervous…one where I thought I was definitely heading down into the abyss but my jeep didn’t even notice that there was no road beneath it, and then the spot where I tried to climb up the wall (but if WayOfLifette didn’t get it on video there’s no proof and I can deny it).
We arrived at the area we decided to camp and quickly set up our tents so we could drive down to the south end of the Racetrack playa to grab some photos before sunset. The surreal Racetrack playa is nestled between the Cottonwood Mountains to the east and the Last Chance range to the west. It is a dry lake bed with a surface of polygonal cracks, and is best known for its mysterious moving rocks which leave distinct trails behind them. No one has ever seen the rocks move and scientists haven’t been able to determine how they move. We had a lot of fun developing theories as we explored and took photos. Some tracks are straight, some have right angles, and still others are curved. We saw Z-shaped tracks, S-shaped tracks, and tracks where it looked like the rock couldn’t decide what direction it wanted to go in. Some of the rocks appeared to travel hundreds of yards before deciding to make a turn and heading off in a different direction.
At sundown we headed back to camp to start dinner. We were lucky enough to get a campsite with a firepit, but other than one Duraflame log that jkjeep fortunately brought, no one brought any wood because we didn’t think we’d be able to have a fire. It got dark (and cold!) around 5:30…we huddled around the lanterns to keep warm while we ate dinner, but someone finally gave in and decided to light the Duraflame log. I’m sure it was more mental than the actual temperature, but we all believed that it was incredibly cold and that we were going to freeze in our tents while we slept. Everyone took turns scrounging for dead twigs (literally – think tumbleweeds) to keep the fire going as WayofLife made it worse by calling out the time every five minutes. “Okay, we kept it burning another five minutes guys; it’s 7:10 now.” Hehehe. We managed to stay warm with a little help from Trailbud’s Jamesons and JKTyrant’s Bushmills, but by 9:00 there wasn’t a dead twig left within a mile radius of camp so we decided to call it a night.
The Grandstand, a 70-foot high bedrock outcropping at the northern end of the Racetrack, is the only disturbance on the surface of the playa and so it has the appearance of an island in the middle of nowhere. Some of us had fun climbing the rocks while others took advantage of the early morning light for more photography.
Back at camp for breakfast FunN4Lo made me proud by cooking omelettes in a bag for himself and his brother Bobby, and jkjeep put me to shame with his super-deluxe version of my omelette in a bag. Trailbud cooked up what looked like a six-course meal for him and Ryan, and I did more omelettes for us and the WoL family while they cooked up the bacon, We also enjoyed the doughnuts I had brought along to bribe jeepcacher and some incredibly wonderful pumpkin bread made by WayofLifette.
After the traditional group photo we took Racetrack Road down to Teakettle Junction. Teakettle Junction marks the intersection of Racktrack Road and Hidden Valley/Hunter Mountain Road and for some strange reason that only the desert understands, people leave teakettles, many of them elaborately decorated, on the signpost. The park rangers remove the kettles from the signpost on a regular basis so the collection is constantly evolving. All of the teakettles on this trip appeared to be dated no earlier than October.
At Teakettle Junction we turned on Hidden Valley/Hunter Mountain Road. We started with some high speed racing through powder so fine it was like talc. We had to spread far apart because the dust was so bad it was like being in a white out! Even though we had a good wind to blow the dust, one minute everything would be fine, then as soon as you rounded a bend you wouldn’t be able to see a thing.
WayOfLife raced off in the distance to drop off WayOfLifette so she could film us racing past. I certainly didn’t envy her that task because I don’t know how she could breathe!
From here the road continued climbing to 7200 feet. We had stripped down to t-shirts on the valley floor below, but up on Hunter Mountain it was time to break out the fleece as we reported the temperature drops over the CB. In addition to the elevation gain, the forecasted storm front had started moving in bringing colder temperatures.
The drive over Hunter Mountain was smooth with steep climbs and tight switchbacks and the scenery was beautiful. The vast elevation differences in Death Valley make it possible to experience a wide diversity of climate and terrain, and the sharp, crisp air and coniferous forests of Hunter Mountain was a stark contrast to the hot, barren valley floor we had left below.
We reached pavement at Highway 190 and aired up. By now the storm started coming in and it was overcast and cold. We could see blue skies in the distance in the direction we were heading, and we hoped we would be able to stay in front of the storm.
We decided we had enough time to make a quick run over to the Trona Pinnacles, but first we made a quick stop here for a look at the view into Panamint Valley from an overlook.
Our final stop was the Trona Pinnacles. This landscape consists of over 500 tufa spires, which are calcium carbonate rock formations that rose from the bed of Searles Dry Lake. The Trona Pinnacles have been the backdrop of many popular movies, including Lost in Space, Planet of the Apes, and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Our timing couldn’t have been better; the storms clouds in the background and late afternoon sunlight made the pinnacles look almost magical, and it was easy to see why this is a favorite spot for filming science fiction movies.
After outrunning it all day long, the storm finally caught up to us right after we left the pinnacles and we did have to drive part of the way home in the rain. But we had no carnage on this trip, got to see old friends and meet new people, and visit some of the greatest scenery and coolest locations in Death Valley. As the absent Toad would’ve said, “It’s always an adventure!”
— Lori Carey (aka - OffTopic)
Photos for this article were provided by Lori Carey. To see all her photos, please visit her website at: www.careyphoto.com
And, if you would like to see all the Project-JK.com photos from this trip, you can see them in our gallery here: Project-JK Death Valley Racetrack Run 2007