The Racetrack is a mysterious and fascinating location in Death Valley National Park – a flat dry lakebed playa in a remote desert valley where large rocks seem to have moved around by their own volition, leaving random tracks in the dry mud revealing their path. How did these rocks move?
The theory is that given just the right conditions, rain will flood the playa, then freeze, and then once the ice starts melting a little, strong winds will blow the ice-bound rocks around on the slick mud underneath. It’s hard to believe, but the tracks are there – something made these rocks slide all around the playa!
These particular tracks – illuminated by the setting moon – are especially interesting. At first glance I assumed that they were car tracks – that some idiot had driven his car out there. Upon closer inspection, it’s clear that no car in the world could make tracks like this! Even more mysterious is that about a hundred feet away from these tracks are an almost exactly identical pattern, but aligned facing a different orientation. It boggles the mind!
After leaving Bishop, we headed to Eureka Dunes in Death Valley National Park. These dunes are just about as tall as the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, but are basically one single big dune, instead of an endless repetition of them. Another striking characteristic of the Eureka dunes is their absolute pristine remoteness – there is nothing out there in that valley! No lights, no distant towns, just one dirt road and absolute silence. Very cool.
Any regrets about leaving the cold and snowy Sierras vanished as we enjoyed a perfectly calm and warm desert evening atop the highest dune, with our bottle of wine and my camera of course.
If you’re wondering why I haven’t posted here in a while, it’s because we just got back from a 3-week desert road trip! Our main reason for the trip was to visit my grandma in California on her 100th birthday! And the late October timing was perfect for extending the journey into a long road trip to some desert locations between here and there. Over the next days I will post a bunch of photos from each adventure.
Our first little adventure was a quick hike through the popular Little Wildhorse Canyon in the San Rafael Swell in Utah just off I-70 on our way towards California. This is a great little canyon hike with some really interesting, fairly sustained narrows and slot sections.
I thought this hike was kind of popular when I first did it a couple years ago. But that was nothing compared to the crowds we encountered this time! I’ve never ever seen this many people on one hike in the desert, except maybe in Zion NP. We happened to time our hike the same as seemingly every boy scout group in the state of Utah, and there were hundreds of boys running up and down the narrow canyon. Kind of annoying at first, but also pretty neat to see all the kids enjoying the awesome canyon.
Because we still had to hit the road for another long drive that day, we turned around after the most interesting narrows and backtracked to the trailhead, instead of doing the usual longer loop hike. We soon realized that this was probably a bad idea, since we were then going against the flow of the mobs of hikers through the narrow slots! This meant lots of waiting while we let group after group pass us by.
Anyhow, despite the crowds, this canyon is always a fun one for a quick dayhike. And, thank you Claudia for your patience posing for all my pictures!
After our trip in Robbers Roost Canyon, we headed to Escalante for another backpacking trip into one of my favorite canyons of all – Coyote Gulch in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. It’s been about 12 years or so since I’ve been here, but I still remembered how awesome it was.
Last week we went back out to Utah for a couple backpacking trips – the first was a two nighter in Robbers Roost Canyon in the Robbers Roost country along the Dirty Devil River east of the town of Hanksville. This little known and seldom visited area is full of wonderful sandstone canyons reminiscent of the Escalante area further southwest.
After two months of being more or less glued to the computer, I was thrilled to head out into the desert and finally get outside again! Our destination: the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, south of Moab, Utah. Above you can see the La Sal Mountains towering over the canyons in the distance.
Walking to the glow, in the narrow slots of the Joint Trail.
We’ve spent the last few days relaxing in Iquique, a city in northern Chile. Along with it’s renowned beaches, Iquique is famous for its perfect paragliding winds, especially this time of year (spring) when the winds blow consistently off the ocean and up the enormous hills that loom above the city. We met a Chilean paraglider in our hostel who a few days before had flown 160 km down the coast from Iquique to Tocopilla!
Driving into Iquique from the east was spectacular. You don’t really realize that you’re driving in along a high plateau until the road gets to the edge, and all of the sudden you see the city and the ocean thousands of feet directly below! If that wasn’t enough, there’s a gigantic dune called Cerro Dragon that totally dwarfs the city. Of course, we had to hike up that dune one evening for sunset! I know I’ve used the word “surreal” way too much on this blog the last few weeks in northern Chile, but how else can you describe a scene like this, with an enormous dune towering over a city?! This planet seems to hold endless surprises.
Speaking of surprises, our plan to spend the next few days camping on the beaches down the coast is probably thwarted since somebody broke into our truck last night! Fortunately the vast majority of our important stuff was in our hostel room, but now we’ll have to try to replace the things we did lose and then probably just go back to Antofagasta and return the truck asap. Anyhow, once this headache passes we’ll catch a night bus back down south past Santiago to continue our journey! We’re excited to see trees again!
To be honest, I expected the drive back from the altiplano highlands of Salar de Surire towards the coastal city of Iquique to be a barren, boring affair. So we were surprised when about 50-100 km west of Colchane we started seeing a plethora of incredible rock formations along the sides of the highway!
Some of more fantastic looking of these eroded geological sites proved to be inaccessible by roads and would have required a backpacking trek, along with leaving our truck unattended on the side of the highway – both of which we weren’t willing to do at the time. But finally we came upon a section of surreal formations that we were able to access with the truck.
After finding a nice spot to hide the truck and camp, we went on a scouting mission on foot through the convoluted canyon network. With lots of fun scrambling around over rock ridges and through little slots, we eventually found a particularly fantastic area full of surreal formations and even a number of arches!
We stayed around there until sunset, having a blast climbing around and photographing the formations. This unknown, unsigned geological wonder would probably be a designated national monument back home in the States, but here it’s just a bunch of rocks and canyons along the highway. I love these kinds of surprises that you sometimes stumble upon when traveling!
Stocked up with spare tanks of gas and plenty of water, we headed south from Lauca National Park through Las Vicuñas National Reserve, which gets its name from the many herds of wild vicuñas that roam the desolate landscape. Vicuñas are related to guanacos, llamas, and alpacas, though they are smaller and much cuter!
The scenery along the bumpy dirt road through Las Vicuñas National Reserve is constantly exciting, with colorful mountains, steaming volcanoes, isolated sun-baked villages, oasis riverbeds, and the ever present herds of vicuñas everywhere you look.
We drove to the Salar de Surire, a large salt flat sitting in a broad basin surrounded by colorful but barren peaks. The first thing we did was to go straight to the Polloquere hot springs at the far end of the salar. This hot spring is a nearly scalding hot sulfur-smelling turquoise lake, which we enjoyed for as long as we could bear!
Intense dusk colors in the sky over Salar de Surire.
Salar de Surire is a wildlife photographer’s paradise, with large herds of vicuñas and huge flocks of flamingos. One thing I realized for sure, however, is that I am not much of a wildlife photographer! First of all, I need a longer lens – 200mm just doesn’t cut it! Secondly, I think I’m too lazy to properly stalk the animals, and I usually just end up scaring them away and then feeling bad about that.
Flamingos are especially difficult to photograph, as they are very wary of humans and must have good eyesight because they fly away when you even begin to approach them hundreds of meters away. I quickly gave up trying that – until the next morning at sunrise when I found them standing with their legs frozen into the lake! Since they were trapped in the ice I finally had a chance to get within suitable photo range from the side of the lake. They must have still been sleepy – or resigned to their predicament – because they didn’t seem to mind my presence then. Once the sun rises higher and the air warms up enough, they are able to kick their legs out of the ice and continue on with their day.
Though the wildlife is surprisingly abundant in this desolate high altitude region, people are hard to find. We passed through a number of old villages along the way, including the village of Isluga which has a particularly photogenic 16th or 17th century iglesia. We stopped for a while to admire it and take some photos, but we didn’t see a soul there. Desolate…
Last week we spent several days in Lauca National Park. This area includes without doubt the most stunning landscapes we’ve seen in northern Chile, with the twin Payachata volcanoes rising above two broad lakes, all surrounded by well watered altiplano full of grazing vicuñas, llamas, and alpacas.
I had one of those special moments of awe late one night when I walked to the shore of Lago Chungará, seeing the volcano’s black silhouette reflected in the calm water, with millions of twinkling stars all around, while listening to the chorus of Andean coots, geese, and flamingos that live at the lake.
Though Lago Chungará is generally considered the gem of the area, I thought that the neighboring Lago Cotacotani is really the most special and unique part of the park. Supposedly about 7,000 years ago, Parinacota erupted and the entire bulge of the volcano collapsed in a massive landslide, leaving all the debris that later eroded into the convoluted maze of hills seen above. Lago Cotacotani is located amongst all these volcanic hills, and its numerous islands, inlets, and lagoons create a highly unique landscape that I would consider to be amongst the most special on the planet.
Unfortunately, not everything is postcard-perfect in Lauca National Park. Since 1962, before the area was designated as a national park, the water of Lago Cotacotani has been drained through the Lauca canal for hydroelectricity and irrigation for the Azapa Valley. This has significantly lowered the water level of the shallow lake, leaving entire lagoons barren and dry, causing irreparable damage to the fragile ecosystem. It is difficult to appreciate the remaining beauty of the lake without feeling a deep sense of shame and disappointment about how it looks now compared to how it might have looked before the plunder. The scale of the tragedy would be like draining Lake Tahoe or Crater Lake in Oregon… unthinkable!
Worse yet, Lago Chungará, the jewel lake of the park, has also been on the chopping block. Plans were made to drain that lake as well, even so far that the giant pumps were already installed. Fortunately in 1985 the supreme court forced the project to be abandoned in a landmark environmental step for Chile. But with the ever increasing thirst of Arica, it sounds like the fate of the lake still remains in a precarious situation, despite its national park protection.