Racetrack Playa And Ubehebe North Ridge
Racetrack Playa in the northern half of California's Death Valley National Park (DVNP) is famous for a phenomenon where rocks move across the dry lake bed (playa) leaving tracks of varying lengths in their wake.  The "sailing stones" had baffled scientists for over a century, and it was not until the winter of 2013 when careful studies finally revealed the true causes of the phenomenon.  Here is an excerpt from the interpretive display at the south end of Racetrack Playa:

With enough rain, this end of the playa becomes a shallow lake.  In winter, cold night temperatures freeze the surface of the lake into a sheet of floating ice, embedding the rocks.  The morning sun causes the ice sheets to break up.  Steady breezes catch the floating ice sheets, pushing them along with their embedded rocks.  This explains why so many of the rocks leave parallel tracks.  Eventually, the ice melts and the water evaporates, leaving the rocks in new locations, until the next event, perhaps years later, moves them again.

The impetus for my recent holiday road trip with Zosia Zgolak was to specifically visit Racetrack Playa and see the famous sailing stones, but long before arriving at DVNP, we had concerns about the weather and road conditions.  Access to Racetrack Playa is not easy and entails a long drive of over 40 kilometres on a rough road into a very remote part of the park.  Zosia and I actually postponed our visit to DVNP by a couple of days because of an inclement weather forecast, and even when we arrived on 26 December 2019, some roads in the park were temporarily closed due to snowy conditions.  In fact, the staff at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center could hardly provide any reliable information about the paved highways in the park let alone the more remote back roads.  We would just have to see for ourselves when we got there.

Fortunately, the weather in the park was sunny on 27 December 2019, and Zosia and I spent the day hiking elsewhere in hopes that the back roads would dry out a bit before we ventured onto them.  After enjoying an early dinner with Zosia inside my Honda CR-V at Ubehebe Crater parking lot (located at the end of pavement 10 kilometres west of Grapevine Ranger Station), I started driving along Racetrack Valley Road at around sunset.  We did not get very far before the dirt road began to deteriorate.  Ruts, bumps and washboard surfaces forced me to slow down considerably, and at best, I could never drive any faster than about 20 kilometres per hour.  The road climbs over a low pass, and although I knew that there was a recent snow storm in the area, I was still shocked by the abundance of snow that had accumulated.  In fact, we were quite lucky that there had already been a fair amount of traffic on the road before us.  Had the track not been broken, I might have been inclined to abandon the drive for fear of getting stuck in snow.  At one point, a couple of jeeps passed us going the other way, and I pulled over to the side as far as I could on this narrow section of road to allow them to pass.  One of the jeeps stopped beside my car, and the driver checked to see if we were doing okay.  He also gave us an update on the road conditions further up the valley, and it was reassuring to know that he did not think we would have any problems getting to Racetrack Playa.  Once I drove down the south side of the low pass, the snow disappeared, but unfortunately, the bumps and ruts did not.  By now, I was perhaps getting used to the constant shaking and wobbling of my car, and the rest of the drive was more tedious than nerve-racking.

Zosia and I eventually passed Teakettle Junction where people have left behind fitting "ornaments" hanging from the sign beside the road.  Teakettle Junction is also the last place where random camping is allowed before Homestake Dry Camp at the end of Racetrack Valley Road (ie. camping is forbidden anywhere near Racetrack Playa).  After passing the pullout for accessing the south end of Racetrack Playa, we encountered snow again as I drove the final three kilometres to reach Homestake Dry Camp.  The camp consists of about half a dozen sites and a single porta-potty (I never actually used the porta-potty, but Zosia sadly reported that it was nearly overflowing).  Somewhat surprisingly, most of the sites were occupied when we arrived, but I still managed to grab a decent parking spot for my car.  The 47-kilometre drive from the end of pavement near Ubehebe Crater to Homestake Dry Camp had taken me a whopping three hours, and although Racetrack Valley Road is by no means the worst road I have ever driven, it ranks right up there amongst the most arduous in terms of length and sustained bumpiness.  Although we survived the drive, we now had to endure perhaps the coldest night of camping on our entire road trip.  According to my car's thermometer, the temperature at Homestake Dry Camp was a frosty -11 degrees Celsius upon our arrival.

As always, Zosia was up well before dawn on the morning of 28 December 2019.  When she eventually roused me from my slumber, we quickly re-organized our gear and then warmed up the car while eating breakfast in the front seats.  As far as I could tell, none of the other campers had yet stirred when we drove out of Homestake Dry Camp to the pullout at the south end of Racetrack Playa.  Most of the south end of Racetrack Playa was covered with a thin sheet of ice on this day, and although it was not how I had imagined seeing the sailing stones, I think this was a blessing in disguise.  Given the amount of moisture the area received recently from winter storms, had the playa not been frozen we likely would not have been able to walk out and see the rocks up close.  As it turned out, we only spent maybe about 45 minutes poking around the south end of Racetrack Playa, but in that short time, it felt glorious to have the entire playa all to ourselves.
Brrrrrrrrr!!! Sonny's car is warming up on a frosty morning at Homestake Dry Camp.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

It's so nice to have the entire playa all to ourselves! Zosia strolls out onto the southern end of Racetrack Playa.
Look at it go! Here is one of the "sailing stones" and its associated "racetrack".
We should have brought along ice skates! Much of Racetrack Playa is covered by a thin sheet of ice on this day.
A moving rock question mark? Zosia is pleased to finally get some warm sunshine on the playa.
There! Did you see it move?! Some very specific conditions (ice, sun and wind) are required for the rocks in the playa to move.

I think we should test the rock for steroids...

Sonny and Zosia race against one of the sailing stones in the playa.


Not satisfied with just seeing the sailing stones, Zosia and I quickly turned our attention to Ubehebe Peak, the prominent mountain which rises to the west of Racetrack Playa.  A Class 3 ascent route for this peak is described in, and the approach utilizes a well-maintained trail which starts from another pullout near the north end of the playa.  This is also the same access point for The Grandstand, a large rock outcrop that sits out in the middle of the playa.  Initially, we had no difficulties hiking the easy trail all the way to a high saddle along Ubehebe Peak's north ridge.  Turning southward, I had a tough time route-finding especially with a skiff of snow covering the increasingly steep terrain.  We muddled partway around the west slopes of a sub-peak known as Little Ubehebe Peak only to see more snow plastering the entire north side of the main peak.  From our perspective, the Class 3 route looked rather sketchy under all the snow, and since we were carrying neither crampons nor ice axes, we decided to pull the plug on our attempt.

Somewhat disappointed, Zosia and I carefully worked our way back to the high saddle, but before descending to the trailhead, we scrambled up a few easy and relatively snow-free bumps to the north.  I dub these bumps collectively as "Ubehebe North Ridge".  We had no problems ascending any of the bumps, and the views from the top of the highest one were still very satisfying and a nice consolation for our failed attempt on Ubehebe Peak.  After backtracking to the saddle, we descended the same trail we came up and returned uneventfully to the pullout near The Grandstand.
Likely apocryphal, "Ubehebe" apparently means "woman's breast" in the Paiute language! Zosia starts hiking along a well-defined trail in front of Ubehebe Peak.
We would see lots of other cars at the trailhead throughout the day. A view of Racetrack Playa's northern half unfolds as Zosia climbs higher up the trail.
Looks like a battleship in the playa! The prominent rock outcrop in the middle of Racetrack Playa is known as The Grandstand.
No far! The trail traverses this slope and rises in a series of switchbacks to the notch at centre.
Hmmm...I don't like the looks of that slope with all that snow... The peak at left is a false summit and is unofficially known as Little Ubehebe Peak.
Should we go north or south? Zosia arrives at a high saddle along Ubehebe Peak's north ridge.  Behind her is the north ridge's first high point (UN1).

This is another part of Death Valley NP that I wanna visit in the future.

Low clouds linger in Saline Valley to the west.  Keynot Peak and Mount Inyo are visible on the left horizon.


Too dicey for me without an ice axe and/or crampons. The entire northern side of Ubehebe Peak is plastered with snow on this day.
I guess we're going with Plan B! Aborting an attempt on Ubehebe Peak, Zosia turns her attention to the considerably drier bumps along the north ridge.
Too easy...we should continue to the next high point! Zosia stands atop UN1 (1547 metres), the first high point along the north ridge of Ubehebe Peak.
Looks a bit technical, but it's not! Zosia heads for the next bump (UN2) along the north ridge.
Very enjoyable scrambling with little or no exposure. Some easy scrambling is required to surmount UN2.
Still some slippery spots--watch your step! From the top of UN2 (1559 metres), it is a short and easy traverse to the third and highest bump (UN3).
Nice consolation prize! Sonny and Zosia pose just below UN3 (1563 metres), the highest bump along the north ridge of Ubehebe Peak.
Nice looking peaks--might motivate me to return someday... This is looking south from the top of UN3 toward Little Ubehebe Peak and Ubehebe Peak.
I had planned on bagging Tin Mountain on this trip, but I will have to save it for another day when there is far less snow. The view to the north from UN3 includes Dry Mountain (left horizon) and Tin Mountain (leftmost snowy bump on right horizon).  Racetrack Valley Road is also visible and runs past Tin Mountain behind the low ridge which is right of centre in the distance.
I think the battleship is on the move! The amount of moisture on Racetrack Playa is more evident later in the day.

Let's go to the beach!

Racetrack Playa looks like a full-fledged lake from this perspective not far from the trailhead.


If I ever return for Ubehebe Peak, I'm bringing a rental car! Total Distance:  7.0 kilometres
Round-Trip Time:  4 hours 3 minutes
Net Elevation Gain (UN3):  439 metres

GPX Data

When Zosia and I returned to the pullout near The Grandstand, there was already a steady stream of cars arriving and stopping briefly to allow passengers to get out and stretch their legs a bit although no one we saw bothered to hike up the same trail we had just come down.  Furthermore, we did not see anyone venture out onto Racetrack Playa for a closer look at The Grandstand or to scramble on its rocks.  The playa was just too wet and muddy to walk on which underlined how very fortunate Zosia and I were to get up close to the sailing stones earlier in the day.

It's a shame that it was too muddy to walk out for a closer look.

The Grandstand is partially reflected in some lingering moisture on Racetrack Playa.


Zosia and I took a lengthy break at the pullout before commencing the long and bumpy drive back to Ubehebe Crater.  Traffic on Racetrack Valley Road was far busier than the previous night, but perhaps because of better visibility during daylight, our drive back out took less than two hours.  We would later learn that one of the tires on my car had developed a slow leak.  This was perhaps not too surprising given how much mileage I already had on my tires and how much abuse they must have absorbed on Racetrack Valley Road.  I would ultimately have to replace all my tires a few days later at great cost, but to me, the visit to Racetrack Playa was worth it.  If I ever return though, I may consider getting a rental vehicle with extra insurance coverage!
It's not the worst road I've ever driven, but it's the length (~45 km) that kills you! Racetrack Valley Road is notorious for causing flat tires.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

Judging from old photos of the junction, I think someone clears all this junk from time to time. Aptly named Teakettle Junction is located about 9 kilometres north of Racetrack Playa along Racetrack Valley Road.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

Unfortunately, one of tires sprung a slow leak... Zosia is happy to make it back to pavement again at Ubehebe Crater.