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

Length: roughly 40 kms one-way

Starting Point: Lake Hill/ Big Four Mine Road just north of Lake Hill. Go east 7 kms on highway 190 from Panamint Springs, past the junction with Panamint Valley Rd, and turn left into the Lake Hill road (also known as Big Four Mine Road). Lake Hill Rd is not marked at all. After you pass Panamint Springs (famous for expensive gasoline) you will soon reach a junction with Paradise Valley Rd. From that point it is 3 kms to Lake Hill Rd (1.9 miles if your car uses the ancient imperial system). An easy marker to find (in 2014) is the sign "Avoid Overheating": Lake Hill Rd is almost exactly on the opposite side of the highway. In 2014 the road was passable to small low-clearance vehicles (not sure about "full-size" cars because there are some short dips). See the note on "Driving on Death Valley's dirt roads".

Realistically, the road dead ends after 9 kms at a sharp right bend (beyond that point you need a 4WD vehicle). (topomap). From this "road bend" the dunes are very visible. The walk to the tallest dune takes about 2 hours.

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 you are not following any trail or, for that matter, any well-known route. Be aware that this is also mountain lion area. The general direction of the hike is from south (Lake Hill) to north (Race Track). Hike from Lake Hill Rd to Panamint Sand Dunes for about 1.5 hours (6 kms).

If you don't feel comfortable driving Lake Hill Rd, just start hiking from the Panamint Springs campground, coasting the mountains. Your hike will only be 3-4 kms longer.

Then up Mill Canyon. Mill Canyon is not easy to identify from Lake Hill Rd. You need to walk staying south of the sand dunes and heading against the mountains to the west. Approximately head for N36.49410 - W117.51422. Mill Canyon is a wide canyon flanked by high walls (as high as 5 meters) that snakes towards the mountain, but you are likely to enter and exit several other canyons as you walk west from the sand dunes. My pictures may help identify it.

There are also several (smaller) canyons north of the sand dunes that enter the Hunter mountains but those would take you off route (and be much harder to climb).

(If, instead, you are coming down Mill Canyon headed for Lake Hill Rd, don't follow it to the very end because you'll get too far into Lake Hill. Climb its eastern ridge and keep an eye on the sand dunes. When you see them, it is time to leave the canyon and head east towards Lake Hill Rd, passing south of the sand dunes.)

Mill Canyon is mostly a very easy walk except for one major waterfall that you need to bypass using the nasty slope to the right. The very (steep) end of Mill Canyon can be confusing: keep a general northern direction when in doubt. The canyon basically becomes a generic ravine near the top. You should hit a dirt road either before or after the junction between Saline Valley Rd and Hunter Mountain Rd (a junction known as South Pass). If you are lucky, you will hit that junction: N36.52684 - W117.54596.

Once you identify which one is Saline Valley Rd (the other one, Hunter Mt Rd, heads east) walk north on it for about 8kms. There are at least three natural springs along this stretch of the road (easily identified by the lush vegetation by the side of the road) and in the right season there is running water, if not enough to drink at least enough to soak your hat so you don't dehydrate during this 2-3 hours of shadeless walking. The next major task is to find how to enter the canyon that is marked as Quail Canyon. on the old topomaps A good place to leave the road is past a tiny junction with a northern deadend road near 36.567908,-117.602384; or whenever you see this view:

(If you are looking at the topomap, i am sure you will notice a shorter route from Saline Valley Rd into Quail Canyon via Grapevine Canyon, which is not the Grapevine Canyon of Scotty's Castle. I couldn't find this one, but, if you find it, it looks indeed like a shortcut).

After you went through this gap, start coasting the ridge staying to its left (in the general north direction) and continue doing so for about one hour (with increasing views of Saline Valley to the northwest) until the wide mouth of Quail Canyon will become obvious. This is a gruesome walk through a rocky plateau which is slightly downhill towards the canyon. When you hit the canyon, it will be heading east from Saline Valley (N37.586932 - W117.595217).

(If you are coming down the canyon and looking for Saline Valley Rd, turn 90 degrees south/left and walk slightly uphill this rocky plateau coasting the ridge to the right, staying as close as possible to the ridge heading through the gap at N37.586932 - W117.595217).

Google Earth:

Continue up Quail Canyon to its dead end for about 2-3 hours. This canyon has several (dry) waterfalls that you need to bypass, and one in particular can be challenging. Usually the easiest bypass is on the eastern side of the canyon (right side if you are going up, left side if you are coming down). I lost count of how many waterfalls there were. There are a couple of splits that might look confusing: at any major split, go left. The most confusing split comes relatively early into the canyon, when one would be tempted to follow the water that trickles down from a southeastern tributary. Don't do it because that canyon sends you in the opposite direction of Race Track Valley. (But this might be Grapevine Canyon, the shortcut from Saline Valley Rd).

The very last of the confusing splits is actually quite close to the Race Track (i left a cairn there in 2015). Go left again. A gentle slope takes you to the top of the ridge and from there you do see the Race Track in the distance.

Now you just have to walk straight north down into the ancient drainage that fed Racetrack. This is a gentle downhill slope with countless white sections that look like washed-out roads. In about 2 hours you should reach a dirt road at or near Homestake Dry Camp (N36.63755 - W117.57328) which is not really a campground but a good reference point and a good place to have your friends pick you up (low-clearance vehicles should make it to here in the dry season, but, if not, there is a parking lot a few kms north that is usually accessible).

Race Track Valley proper is further up north (GPS coordinates: N36.67720 - W117.56224), about another hour of walking from the camp on a very sandy road. (topomap).

The distances below are mostly "as the condor flies" (except for the section on Saline Valley Rd). Actual hiking distance is usually twice as much because of zigzagging and bypassing obstacles; hence the estimated time is much more than it would normally take to cover that distance if it were a straight line.

For what it's worth:

  • Road bend N36.42069 - W117.41119
  • Mouth of Mill Canyon N36.49410 - W117.51422
  • Junction between Saline Valley Rd and Hunter Mountain Rd: N36.52684 - W117.54596
  • Leave the road near 36.567908,-117.602384
  • Mouth of Quail Canyon N36.586932 - W117.595217
  • Southern tip of canyon leading into Race Track: N36.61248 - W117.56861
  • Homestake Dry Camp: N36.63755 - W117.57328
Time estimate:
  • Lake Hill to Sand Dunes: 6kms 1.5h
  • Sand Dunes to Mill Canyon: 5kms 3h
  • Mill Canyon to Saline Valley Rd: 5kms 6h
  • Saline Valley Rd to Quail canyon: 8kms 9h
  • Quail Canyon to Homestake Dry Camp: 12kms 13h
Total: 36 kms

Accurate time of a 2015 hike from Race Track to Lake Hill (opposite direction):

  • Homestake Dry Camp
  • First major split (go west) 2h
  • First major waterfalls to bypass 3h
  • Water from eastern tributary 3h15
  • End of Quail Canyon 3h30
  • Saline Valley Rd 4h30
  • Last view of Saline Valley Rd 6h30
  • Junction between Saline Valley Rd and Hunter Mountain Rd 7h
  • Mill Canyon's waterfall 9h30
  • Getting out of Mill Canyon 11h30
  • San Dunes 12h30
  • Lake Hill Rd 14h
A note on shade and water. There is a reason if this place is called "death" valley. I did this hike in 14 hours carrying less than a liter of water and no food (and i have a witness) so it is possible to survive with minimal water, but i ended completely dehydrated and took me three days to return to normal. My hiking partner was carrying three liters of water and she too got dehydrated. Don't count on the springs. There might or might not be running water. And, as usual, the bigger you are the more water you need to carry. The good news is that there is plenty of shade in Quail Canyon and Mill Canyon. Even at noon we were able to walk along one or the other wall of the canyon and be mostly in the shade. There is absolutely no shade along Saline Valley Rd. You can take short breaks in the shade at the springs: leave the road, climb down and enjoy the few trees. If there is any trace of water, soak your hat into it (i even soak my tshirt). There is absolutely no shade and no mercy in the section between Lake Hill Rd and Mill Canyon. Ditto in the section heading into Race Track Valley. Basically, the beginning and the end have no shade. Best is to leave before sunrise so one of these sections is done when the sun is very low. And probably best is to wait for sunset before walking the last section.

We heard and then saw a big rattlesnake in Mill Canyon and we found several skeletons of bighorn sheep in both canyons. Whether these animals died of natural death or eaten by mountain lions is impossible to assess.

2. From Stovepipe Wells

Click here for details
[Alas, in March 2015 someone stole the tent that we had left at the end of Lake Hill Rd with all our emergency water. Can't help mentioning this, one of the saddest moments of my hiking life. Someone stole that tent knowing that he was leaving us with no tent and no water in a place called "Death" Valley. Don't worry about rattlesnakes and mountain lions: worry about humans].
Death Valley/ Race Track 2006