My destination was Death Valley, but I wanted to ride through the Bakersfield area on my way there. I’d worked on a rig west of Bakersfield for a couple months back in 2007, so I wanted to see if the area still looked the same. And yes, it looked just as desolate and post-apocalyptic today as it did in 2007.
I rode through Death Valley on my Kawasaki Z1000 a few years back, but it was August, and hot as hell (126F/52C), so my only reason for stopping in the park was to drink a couple liters of ice cold water, which I promptly sweat out as soon as I put my riding gear back on.
This time around, the temperature was much more tolerable (the hottest I saw was a brisk 94F/34.5C), so I wanted to actually stay a few days and check the area out.
On my way through Bakersfield, I’d stopped to get a few day’s worth of groceries, and somewhere after that, a car in front of me must’ve kicked up a rock, which punctured a can of mango juice that I’d just bought and left a nice sticky coating over the back left side of my bike.
My next stop was Badwater Basin
This is the lowest point in North America, at 282ft/86m below sea level. A small spring supplies water to the tiny basin, and salts around the area make in undrinkable, hence the name. Whoever first happened upon this apparent oasis in the middle of the dry hot desert, only to find out that it was salt water, must’ve been pretty pissed off.
Just up the road from Badwater Basin is Furnace Creek, which is home of the highest reliably reported air temperature ever recorded on Earth. 134F/56.7C on July 10, 1913.
Death Valley also is tied for the world’s hottest low temperature (107F/42C on July 12, 2012) and on the same day set the world record for the hottest average temperature (117.5F/47.5C).
I spent a day riding around a couple of the dirt tracks around the park. First up was Titus Canyon.
Along the canyon road, you pass the remnants of an old mining camp called Leadfield. 300 people came to the town in August 1926, hoping to strike it rich (after hearing claims about all the mining possibilities, which turned out to be false), and by February 1927 everyone was gone.
Next I headed down toward the Racetrack Playa.
Along the way, I made a quick stop at Scotty’s Castle.
Walter Scott (aka Death Valley Scotty) was a prospector (and con man) who wanted to set up shop in Death Valley, so he scammed a rich businessman named Albert Johnson and convinced him to invest in his bogus gold mine (I feel like this is becoming a common theme for Death Valley). During their many trips there, Johnson and his wife decided to build a vacation home in Death Valley. After the scam was exposed, the two somehow remained friends, and the Spanish-style villa was named in honor of Walter Scott.
The dirt road to the Racetrack Playa starts right after the Ubehebe Crater, and about 3/4 of the way there, you pass Teakettle Junction. I’m not really sure where the name came from, or when the tradition of hanging actual teakettles on the sign started, but as you can see, thats the thing to do.
I found a couple sailing stones, but neither of them had the deep, clear tracks that you’ll find on a google image search.
From this angle, it’s a little easier to see the trail (curving up and to the right) that it followed
And at the leading edge of the stone, you can see a small accumulation of sediment, which gathered as it was moving.
Until recently, no one knew exactly what caused the sailing stones to move. Early theories said that wind pushed the rocks around very slowly, or perhaps with the aid of thin ice sheets that can occur on the playa, which would reduce the friction between rock and ground, the wind could cause larger movements. The latter made more sense, as during some studies, they found rocks that moved large distances in relatively short periods of time (like 200+ meters in 1 or 2 months).
The latest study, which was just published in August 2014, used GPS tracking and timelapse photography to show the actual cause of the movement. In the winter, rainwater can accumulate (to a depth of a couple millimeters) and then freeze at night. As the temperature rises in the morning, and some of the ice starts to melt, wind will blow the remaining ice, which is floating on top of the water, and that ice, in turn, pushes the rocks.