Christian Kemp's USA travelogs

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For the third time already, I was sleeping at the base of Eureka Sand Dunes and planning to hike to the top dune to witness the sunrise over the Last Chance Range. For the first time, I had brought a thermometer, which indicated -5°C (23°F) at around 6am.

Sunrise on Eureka Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park I seemed to be the first person up, and my hike up was a solitary and strenuous one. Still, I made it to the top on time (with several minutes to spare), and could first see the valley light up, then the smaller dunes to my left, then the top of the other high dune, then gradually the rest of the dune system. About an hour after I had started my hike, I caught my first glimpse of the sun.

I stayed another half hour, and then started my hike back down to the car, and to my breakfast. By this time, it was almost half past nine, and the other party camped out at the base of the dunes had invited me to join them for breakfast - they were two women in their early thirties (by their own admission) - an artist and a (former, apparently) photographer. We chatted for a while (an hour and a half in total, I think), and then went separate ways - me trying to exit the valley via Steel Pass, them going back to Big Pine road and heading to Crankshaft Junction for the more traditional Death Valley access from the North.

I had ventured towards Steel Pass in a Chevrolet Cavalier a year and a half ago, but had had to turn around after just a few miles - so would the Jeep get me further this time? Initially, I looked like it would; but then I came to a rocky section in a canyon at the end of the valley, and I had to re-evaluate.

Just around the bend from here, at the South end of Eureka valley, the road got more challenging and after a visual inspection I decided to turn around While the section ahead of me wasn't that challenging, and two guys in a big Japanese SUV (with similar clearance, but better off-road tires) had made it up without too much difficulty just ahead of me, I looked at the puny street tires on my Jeep and realized that it would only take one sharp rock to slice the side-walls and leave me in a really bad spot to change a tire. So reluctantly, I chose the safe path, and decided to turn around, even though the guys suggested they wait around until I mastered the rough spot. "Better safe than sorry" was my motto, and after one guy followed me down to the Jeep to look at the tires, he agreed. [My assessment of the tires would later on be validated when one tire went flat and the spare turned out to be almost useless, so I suppose I made the right decision.]

So back it was to the dunes, and back North on Eureka Road and the washboard that I'd grown to hate already. At least I got some good shots of the back of the dunes, and went as far as it was possible for me to go on my own, in my rental - I suppose to get any further, I'd need to be in my own 4x4, with decent tires and a backup-plan in case something went wrong.

The detour cost me at least an hour, and so it was almost noon by the time I got back to Big Pine road. It would be paved for a mile or two, up Hanging Rock Canyon, and then I'd suffer through more washboard... but first, I stopped at what has become a favourite spot of mine, the overlook just before the road heads down to Crankshaft Junction, which is the first time the main valley, and namesake of the park, is visible.

After a brief stop at Crankshaft Junction, I followed Big Pine road south, driving many more miles of washboard and already getting thoroughly fed up with that. Still, I made fairly good progress, so that I arrived at Ubehebe Crater at around 1:20pm - which was still early enough to not have half the crater covered in shadows already.

I took some panoramas from the rim of the crater, and then set off for... more washboard. Specifically, heading towards the Racetrack. Except for the washboard, the road was in a pretty good condition, and less than an hour later I arrived at Teakettle Junction. I stopped to take pictures of the teakettles hanging on the road sign, and then drove the last remaining miles down to the Racetrack.

I arrived at the southern corner of the Racetrack playa shortly after 3pm, and prompty proceeded to hike out on the dry, flat surface in search of some "moving rocks" that I could photograph - the Racetrack's claim to fame is rocks that supposedly move and leave behind a trace... most likely after rain or ice covers the playa, although I'm still not entirely convinced that it isn't just someone running an elaborate hoax (although it'd be pretty hard to pull off, I guess).

I had been planning to hike across the playa at its Southern tip - this was where most of the moving rocks are supposed to be, and I read about mining remains being on the opposite side of the valley.

While I did find some stones and their traces and got away with some nice pictures; I climbed around the opposite side of the valley for a while without finding any remains whatsoever, except for some wooden poles and maybe some rocks that had been dug up. But still, it was a worthwhile excursion, since this (east) side of the valley was lit up by the setting sun, and the colours were pretty nice. In total, I hiked 2.8 miles and climbed about 300ft of elevation.

Within a half hour after I had arrived back at the car, it was completely dark. My options were to spend the night close to the playa (not next to the playa, because that's a day-use area) and basically sit there for a few hous until I'd be tired enough to sleep; or get some more driving done. I opted for the latter, and drove back to paved roads in the dark, ending up at Emigrant Canyon campground. I left the Racetrack at 16:52, was back on pavement at 18:20, and at the campground at 19:13.

Miles driven: 168mi (270km)

Accommodation: Emigrant Canyon campground (Death Valley National Park): $0

Written June 13th and 14th 2006 in Luxembourg