Sailing Stones – The Racetrack, Death Valley National Park, California

No one knows for sure why boulders move around a gorgeously vacant area of California’s Death Valley National Park called The Racetrack, but they do. Big rocks, small rocks–they all creep around the incredibly flat expanse leaving a clearly visible trail behind to mark their mysterious path.

One theory is that the rocks sail across the land when the right amount of water slicks up the clay and the right amount of wind propels them across it, hence their nickname: sailing stones. We don’t really care what the explanation is we just wanted to see them for ourselves but that turned out to be easier said than done.

To reach The Racetrack you have to drive 27 miles down Racetrack Road, a vehicle busting dirt track. We blew out a shock absorber on our way to The Racetrack but we still fared better than the poor sod we saw on the side of Racetrack Road who had not one but two flat tires.

Worth it? You bet. And if you hurry you can check it out for free. National Park Week 2012 is in effect until April 29 with free admission to all national parks, national monuments and national historic sites.

Race Track Road - Death Valley National Park

The reach The Racetrack (aka Racetrack Playa) and its amazing moving rocks you have to drive 27 miles down Racetrack Road past the Ubehebe Crater and over enough bumps to bust a shocks absorber (we did).

 Teakettle Junction on Racetrack Road - Death Valley National Park

Teakettle Junction on Racetrack Road is marked by one of the more free-form national park signs you’ll ever see.

Panorama of Racetrack Playa - Death Valley National Park

Panorama of The Racetrack, a dry lake bed in Death Valley National Park, where scientists are at a loss to explain how or why rocks appear to move around by themselves.

Racetrack Playa from the Grandstand

The Racetrack from atop a rock formation called the “Grandstand” in California’s Death Valley National Park.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

One of the so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around a dry lake bed called The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

One of the so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around a dry lake bed called The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park leaving trails behind them.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stone - Death Valley National Park

One of the so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park leaving weird, smooth trails behind them.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

More of the so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

One of the so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around The Racetrack  in Death Valley National Park in California.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

A group of so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park leaving trails behind them which sometimes create intricate designs in the dry lake bed.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

A group of so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park leaving trails behind them creating intricate designs in the dry lake bed.

Ubehebe Crater - Death Valley National Park

Your journey to The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park begins here at Ubehebe Crater.

 

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Extremely Beautiful – Death Valley National Park, California

To say that California’s Death Valley National Park is a land of extremes is to enter yourself in the Understatement of the Century contest.

Death Valley National Park is the hottest park in the nation. On July 10, 1913 a temperature of 134 °F (56.7 °C) was measured at Furnace Creek Inn, the highest temperature ever recorded in North America. Daily summer temperatures of 120 °F (49 °C) or greater are common. On the other hand, the mercury can dip well below freezing at night in the winter.

Death Valley National Park is also the driest park in the US. In some years the bottom of the valley, at Badwater Basin, is teased with 1.5 inches (38 mm) of rain. Some years it registers no rain at all. Badwater Basin, at 282 feet (-86 meters) below sea level, is also the second lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and the lowest point in North America. Nearby Telescope Peak, by contrast, is the highest point in the park at 11,049 feet (3,368 meters) above sea level.

There’s even an area where the rocks move on their own.

Death Valley National Park is also the largest National Park in the lower 48 states. Part of the Mojave and Colorado deserts UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve, the sprawling park is sandwiched between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Nevada border and contains valleys, canyons, sand dunes, salt flats, playas (dry lakes) and mountains.

In our continuing celebration of National Park Week 2012 (April 21-29), when admission to every National Park, National Monument and National Historic Site in the country is free, we present the extremely beautiful Death Valley National Park.

Death Valley National Park sign

Entering Death Valley National Park in California.

Death Valley panorama from Dantes View

This sunrise panorama of Death Valley National Park was taken from Dantes View. The Badlands Basin salt flats, the lowest point in North America, is seen 5,757 feet (1,755 meters) below. Telescope Peak, the highest point in the park at 11,049 feet (3,368 m), lies directly across the valley.

Death Valley 200 feet below sea level sign

Much of the valley bottom in Death Valley National Park lies below sea level.

Road to Badwater Basin Death Valley National Park

The road snakes its way to Badwater Basin salt flats, seen in the distance, which is the lowest point in North America.

Lowest point, Badwater Basin Death Valley

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park is 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in North America.

Badwater Basin salt flats, Death Valley National Park

The surreal landscape of Badwater Basin salt flats in Death Valley National Park in California.

Badwater Basin Death Valley National Park

Karen at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, the lowest point in North America. The point we’ve highlighted on the rock wall is 282 feet up and marks sea level. The spot doesn’t look that high up in this photo, but that’s because the top of the mountain directly above it is 7,857 feet high, or 8,139 feet (2,481 meters) above sea level. Land of extremes, indeed.

Badwater Basin Death Valley 282 feet below sea level

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park in California.

View from Zabriskie Point Death Valley National Park

Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park in California.

Formations in 20 Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley

Formations in the fabulously-named 20 Mule Team Canyon in California’s Death Valley National Park.

Titus Canyon Road Death Valley

Titus Canyon Road is a one-way 4×4 road that drops more than 5,000 feet from outside the park near the art-filled ghost town of Rhyolite into Death Valley through this slot canyon. We got a flat tire at the beginning of this road.

Borax was mined in Death Valley in the 19th century at the Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek. It was very difficult to get the valuable commodity out to market so Frank M. “Borax” Smith created a 20 Mule Team to transport the product. This is what remains of his wagons.

Death Valley Ranch or Scotty's Castle Death Valley

Death Valley Ranch, aka Scotty’s Castle, was once a private home. Now it’s an unexpected sign of human habitation in this harsh environment. 

Mosaic Canyon slot canyon

Karen hiking through Mosaic Canyon slot canyon in Death Valley National Park.

Road through Death Valley

A ribbon of road through Death Valley National Park in California.

Death Valley road

Paved, but still gorgeously desolate in Death Valley National Park.

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National Park Week Inspiration

If you ask us, it ought to be National Park Year but, for now, we’re happy to be celebrating the annual National Park Week (April 21-29, 2012) put on by the National Park Foundation, the official charity of the National Parks (see the story we did about park funding for National Geographic Traveler to learn more about why our national parks need an official charity).

The locations included in the United States National Park System represent some of the most spectacular and largest (87 million acres) tracts of protected land on the planet. During National Park Week (April 21-29) entry to all 397 national parks, monuments and historic sites across the United States (and Puerto Rico) is totally free. So, there goes that excuse.

The first two years of our Trans-Americas Journey were spent in the United States where we  visited 123 National Parks, National Monuments and National Historic Sites. The photo montage, below, includes shots taken as we entered 68 of them.

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Valley of the Dammed? – Cangrejal Valley, Honduras

We arrived in the Cangrejal Valley at a bad time. A company called Hydro Honduras had their eye on the Cangrejal River which is the heartbeat of this valley outside the grotty town of La Ceiba in Northern Honduras. For more than a decade businessmen had been sniffing around the valley with plans to dam the river in order to produce hydroelectric power. A fresh batch of greased palms had suddenly spurred the project into overdrive and concerned locals were circling the wagons.

Congrejal Valley, Honduras

The Cangrejal River–target of hydroelectric dam builders–in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras.

 

Damn the dam

Local children in the Cangrejal Velley, Honduras

Local children in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras.

We sat in on a meeting of hotel and tour company owners as they shared the latest information and consolidated their position against the dam which would alter the  Cangrejal River and would include diversion pipelines that would cut through adjacent jungle.

The tourism business owners (a mix of locals and long-time expats) worried that the dam would mean the end of rafting trips, a primary source of tourist income in the region. A dam would change the natural dynamics of the Pico Bonito National Park, through which the Cangrejal River currently flows. A dam would affect access to fresh water and fish for the people living in the scrappy little villages in the valley.

Up to this point the dam project in the Cangrejal Valley had progressed pretty much like dam projects everywhere: the dam’s proponents had all the political sway, cash and organization while the dam’s opponents struggled to have their voices heard (mainly alleging that the Cangrejal dam project did not meet environmental sensitivity standards). The meeting we attended seemed like a turning point with valley residents putting their money where their mouths were, pooling funds to retain a lawyer to help level the playing field and keep them in the loop regarding developments in far away board rooms.

We hope a reasonable outcome can be reached, but it might be best to move the Cangrejal Valley up a bit higher on your travel to-do list if you want to enjoy all of its watery fun.

Your own private waterfall

Las Cascadas Lodge - Congrejal Valley, Honduras

The pool at Las Cascadas Lodge in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras is lovely, but it’s over-shadowed by the waterfalls on the property.

Las Cascadas Lodge - Congrejal Valley, Honduras

Privacy and a lovely natural plunge pool make this waterfall, on the Las Cascadas Lodge property, an ideal skinny-dipping spot (Karen kept her clothes on for this picture, don’t worry).

If you had a rich uncle with a vacation spread in the Cangrejal Valley it would probably be something like Las Cascadas Lodge. This elegant retreat near the head of the valley has a main house (originally built as a residence) with an open kitchen/dining/living area and two rooms. An adjacent thatch-roof bungalow with a screened patio, built-in tub and outdoor shower was built later.

The place is aptly named. There’s a cascada (the Spanish word for waterfall) tumbling and rumbling just a few feet away from the main house. A 20 minute walk up a pleasant trail delivers you to another waterfall with the privacy and natural plunge pool that make it perfect for skinny dipping.

 

 

Riverside yoga

Built on the banks of the Cangrejal River, Casa Verde uses the valley’s tumbling water as a backdrop for their yoga and raw food retreats. Through a series of serendipitous, meant-to-be “accidents,” Wendy Green (a successful yoga instructor from New Jersey) purchased Casa Verde, then sold her home to the previous owner.

She now offers yoga classes (200L or about US$10) and full-on yoga/raw food/wellness retreats with her partner Garth. Casa Verde has a supremely peaceful setting, a wonderful outdoor shower constructed like the inner spiral of a conch shell, loads of fruit trees and the best composting toilet we’ve ever seen.

We took an early morning yoga class with Wendy and she managed to give even lapsed beginners like us a glimpse of the benefits she’s offering on the banks of the river. It didn’t hurt that our hour-long class was quietly observed by a toucan in a nearby tree.

Over the river and through the woods

Swinging bridge - Pico Bonito National Park, Honduras

This swinging bridge above the Cangrejal River is a dramatic way to enter Pico Bonito National Park in Honduras.

It’s always fun entering a national park, but the Cangrejal Valley entrance to Pico Bonito National Park, home to 7,988 foot (2,435 meter) Pico Bonito and a mind-boggling list of wildlife (including jaguars), takes the cake.

To enter the second largest protected area in Honduras you have to walk across a 395 foot (120 meter) long swinging bridge suspended across a gorge above the roiling Rio Cangrejal. Before the bridge was built the only way into the park at this entrance was in a bucket pulled across on pulleys.

 

 

 

 

River rafting pioneers

Twenty years ago a big German rafter named Udo came to the Cangrejal Valley to scout the Cangrejal River to determine if rafting trips could be run on it. The answer was yes and Udo and his wife Silvia decided to stay. They started Omega Tours and pioneered river rafting in the Cangrejal Valley.

Rafting - Cangrejal River, Honduras

Rafting on the Cangrejal River in Honduras with Omega Tours.

Udo and Silvia’s river trips are still the most popular in the region. When we were there water levels were slightly low but guides kept the rafting trip adrenaline level high by incorporating canyoneering, bouldering and dramatic jumps into the river as well as traditional rafting. We also loved the fact that Udo and Silvia are working hard to train valley locals as river guides instead of just hiring guides from overseas.

Canyoneering - Cangrejal River, Honduras

Bouldering and canyoneering up the adrenaline level of river rafting trips with Omega Tours in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras. That’s Eric leaping into the Cangrejal River.

Boulder jumping - Cangrejal River, Honduras

We climbed up this house-sized boulder then jumped off into the river as part of our rafting trip on the Cangrejal River with Omega Tours.

Over the years Omega has expanded to include a wide range of accommodations (from super-clean dorms to two fancy two-story bungalows), a delicious (if a bit pricey) restaurant, a lively bar and a wonderful river-fed swimming pool (no chlorine!).

If rafting isn’t your thing, Silvia also keeps a small stable of horses and she loves to lead rides through the valley.

Omega Tours Rafting - Cangrejal River, Honduras

Eric and his brother Jeff, ready for the rapids. 

Though the word cangrejal means crab in Spanish, we didn’t see any when we were in the valley. We did see a lot of toucans, however, including one sitting next to the dirt road which runs through the valley–by far the closest sighting we’ve had.

The nearby Lodge at Pico Bonito was undergoing a management shift and general overhaul when we were there but the place was still a bird-watching hot spot. We saw dozens of species and, yes, more toucans including a nesting pair which we were able to observe as they used that massive bills to clean out the mess made by a nest full of toucan chicks.

Toucan Nest - Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras

This toucan was busy cleaning house on the bird-filled grounds of the Lodge at Pico Bonito hotel in Honduras.

Northern Potoo - Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras

Yes, those two drab lumps are birds. Northern potoos, to be exact. Just one of the fabulous bird species we saw on the grounds of the Lodge at Pico Bonito hotel in Honduras.

 

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