Hiking to the Race Track (Playa) in Death Valley

Notes by piero scaruffi | Back to California hikes
I describe two hikes that can take you to Race Track Valley (the "Playa") in Death Valley (the flat valley where rocks move by themselves) in one long day from a "parking lot". Both are only meant for super-experienced semi-suicidal hikers. Neither of these hikes was documented anywhere on the web or on the five books that i checked (i am writing this in october 2014).

(Warning: in the USGS topomaps that follow the elevation is given in "feet", an old Greek/Roman/British unit - multiply by 0.3 to obtain the elevation in modern meters: any map that is still using "feet" is likely to be one century old and usually contains tracks, creeks, etc that don't exist anymore).

1. From Lake Hill

Click here for details (Note: this is longer and tougher than #2 described below)

2. From Stovepipe Wells

Length: roughly 40 kms one-way

Starting Point: Stovepipe Wells on highway 190.

Trail-end: the Race Track, reached by cars from Ubehebe Crater on a very bad dirt road.

Description: This is a difficult (and potentially dangerous) hike because the trails/roads are in terrible condition and easily missed/lost and there is a long stretch with no trail and no major reference point. Count on absolutely no water, even in the rainy season. The general direction of the hike is from east (Stovepipe Wells) to west (Race Track).

From the Stovepipe Wells' campground a dirt road, Cottonwood Canyon Rd, leads to the airstrip. Keep following it as it becomes worse and worse. The road is sandy but usually passable with low-clearance vehicles (of course not if it has just rained or after a sand storm!). The main problem for low clearance vehicles is that in some places the road narrows and you can't make U-turns. If you meet another car coming from the other direction, good luck. When the road gets wider and cleaner, you are almost at the end (of the drivable section). Most likely your car will only make it about 13 kms (8.4 miles) into this dirt road (GPS coordinates: N36.642721 - W117.270705) just before a steep dip. There is a wide parking lot on the right with spectacular view of the valley down below.

See the note on "Driving on Death Valley's dirt roads".

(If you belong to the elite of rich tourists who can afford an SUV, you can drive to the fourth narrow of Marble Canyon, but then what's the point of hiking it?)

From there you walk 30 minutes to the other side of the first narrow, where you go left (90 degree left). In 15 more minutes you reach the Marble-Cottonwood split (N36.63143 - W117.29580): this is a very wide area and you are unlikely to see the sign unless you look for it. Make sure that you turn right where you can.

It takes 15 more minutes to the second narrow and then 30 more minutes to the third narrow. Within two hours you reach the fourth narrow, which is also where all vehicles must stop. You are likely to see vehicles parked here. This is where the canyon gets narrow and interesting in earnest.

Note that so far you have been walking mostly south and, at best, southwest, which might be confusing. In between the sequence of narrows there are very wide open spaces.

That's the beginning of the real hike (in case you were wondering "what's the big deal"). The canyon shrinks and it gets a lot more interesting. The fourth narrow dead ends at a tilted horseshoe-shaped rock. The chockstone behind it can easily be bypassed by climbing to the right of the "horseshoe" (2h15'). After 20 minutes the canyon opens up again for a while. About 2h40' into the hike you reach another narrow at the end of which you find petroglyphs on both sides of the canyon. The canyon opens up again immediately after the petroglyphs and heads south (the wrong direction) for an unnerving long time.

You reach the junction with the Dead Horse Canyon about 4h30' into the hike. Beware that Dead Horse Canyon looks like the natural continuation of Marble Canyon. You need to turn right (90 degree right) into the lesser canyon of the two. If you are lucky, you will notice the sign sculpted on a rock behind you that says "Goldbelt Spring 4 mile". This split is at N36.583158 - W117.371445.

Note that from this point onwards there are precious few accounts of anyone having hiked Marble Canyon to its upper end (Goldbelt Spring).

15 minutes later you will enter another narrow with really white walls. When the canyon opens up again, there is a small split that can be confusing, but the right branch goes up north and it is rocky: ignore it. 20 minutes later you hit vegetation. 5h30' into the hike you get to a prominent split. Go right. It's bushwhacking either side but the right side takes you to your destination more quickly. This canyon climbs a bit and at some point there will be a waterfall on your right (no water most of the year) with a giant yucca on top of it (as of 2014). On your left you will notice a group of Joshua trees (6h45').

Do not underestimate the bushwhacking section. It is easily half of the adventure up Marble Canyon.

There is another junction with a named canyon at N36.59670 - W117.43809, but you are unlikely to get confused there.

You will know that you almost arrived at Goldbelt when you see a man-made stone wall on your left (7 hours into the hike). The canyon makes a sharp left turn and within a few minutes (N36.59887 - W117.44709) you hit a dirt road (no more bushwhacking!). In not even 30 minutes you reach Goldbelt, announced by an overturned vehicle to your right, and an abandoned truck up the hill. This is near where in 1904 Shorty Harris discovered gold and triggered the first Death Valley rush.

If you can't find Goldbelt, just head west and you should hit the roads of the "Quadrangle".

After spending 30 minutes perusing the ruins, walk up the road that dead ends here and continue about 300 meters: you get to a fork which is the southeastern tip of the "Quadrangle". You can take either road. The left one goes west and then north; the right one goes north and then east. They both join again at the northwestern tip of the "Quadrangle". If you take the right one (which first goes uphill), make sure you don't end up in a mine (your general direction has to be northwest). From this northwestern tip (9 hours into the hike, N36.61599 - W117.46214) keep going west towards the Ulida Flat.

The road will continue pretty much straight between two ridges and eventually turn north (right) and head for the Ulida Flat that becomes very visible. It is downhill into the flat (10h15' into the hike).

Now you have multiple choices, none of them too exciting. You need to climb the ridge that separates the Ulida Flat from the Race Track. I used a sandy canyon that looks like a road. I left the road and headed for N36.659320, W117.525874. It is a steep climb but then you find yourself in this sandy canyon that heads north. From here the canyon feels like a road (except for a couple of "waterfalls"). This sandy canyon makes a sharp left turn and flows into the Race Track at N36.68871, W117.55008 which is roughly at the level of the Grandstand.

(If you ever want to explore this canyon, drive to Ulida Flat and park at 36.65474, -117.50444. From there it's a short walk to the entrance of the canyon.)

Grandstand: N36.69238 - W117.56635. Parking lot near the Grandstand: N36.69445, W117.57166.

If you are headed for the southern part of the Race Track, or Homestake Campground, the southern parking lot is at N36.66567, W117.56815. There are probably many ways to cross the ridge earlier from the Ulida Flat and arrive in the southern part of the Race Track. Particularly tempting is the road marked on old maps that seems to connect Homestake Campground with a mine at N36.644956, W117.554059. I have scouted in vain that section of the Race Track rd between Race Track and Homestake Campground and not found that road. If it exists, one could leave Ulida Flat by taking a left at the junction N36.636695, W117.502051 and leaving the road at N36.636695, W117.516556 to climb the ridge towards that mine.

The easiest but longer option is to head for the little canyon. As you enter the Ulida Flat, leave the road and head northwest cross-country amid low brush (nothing that will slow you down) to the obvious saddle across the flat, slightly uphill (11h20' into the hike). Walk downhill from the saddle until you find a relatively easy way to cross over to the left (west) into the northern section of Race Track. This is probably the trickiest part of the hike. Use common sense to estimate when is a good time to cross over (if the ridge to your left is steep and tall, it is not a good time). You should enter Race Track approximately 14 hours into the hike.

Note that Race Track can be very cold at night. If you need to camp for the night, Race Track is not the best choice.

From the parking lot (13kms into Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Rd):

  • End of first narrow: 30 minutes
  • Marble-Cottonwood split: 45 minutes
  • Second narrow: 1h
  • Third narrow: 1h30'
  • Fourth narrow and "end of the road" sign: 1h45'
  • Chockstone: 2h15'
  • Petroglyphs: 2h40'
  • Junction with Dead Horse Canyon and "Goldbelt Spring 4 mile": 4h30'
  • Vegetation: 5h
  • Split: 5h30'
  • Waterfall and giant yucca: 6h5'
  • Joshua trees: 6h45'
  • Wall on your left: 7 hours
  • Goldbelt: 7h30'
  • 30 minute of sightseeing in Goldbelt
  • Southeastern corner of the "Quadrangle": 8h15'
  • Northwestern corner: 9 hours
  • Ulida Flat: 10h15'
  • Saddle: 11h20'
  • Race Track' eastern side: 13 hours

For what it's worth:

  • Marble Canyon trailhead: N36.642721 - W117.270705
  • Cottonwood fork: N36.63143 - W117.29580
  • Dead end for cars: N36.62091 - W117.32927
  • Junction with large northwestern canyon: N36.609981, W117.350440
  • Junction with Dead Horse canyon: N36.583158 - W117.371445
  • Junction with Shorty Harris canyon: N36.59670 - W117.43809
  • Goldbelt Spring road: N36.59887 - W117.44709
  • Northwestern corner of Quadrangle: N36.61599 - W117.46214
  • Dirt road in Race Track: N36.64325 - W117.54922
  • or northwestern canyon N36.65667 - W117.52390
  • Homestake Dry Camp: N36.63755 - W117.57328

Death Valley/ Race Track 2006