The 3 most challenging roads in Death Valley are popular with off-road enthusiasts and other adventurers. Their relative rank changes often with the varying conditions. Currently, based on what I read in the related online forums, Lippincott Road is probably number 3. The other 2 difficult roads are: (1) Goler Wash and over Mengel Pass (this goes past the Barker Ranch where Charles Manson was captured) and (2) Steel Pass and Dedeckera Canyon (south of Eureka dunes). I've wanted to drive these remote routes just for the fun of it, and now I have a car that might just survive such a trip.
Lippincott road connects the Saline Valley with the Racetrack playa (where the famous moving rocks are found). My off-road trail books report that it's about 7 miles long and should take 1.5 hours to drive (an average speed of less than 5 mph). Hint of things to come: there was a long stretch where I was driving slower than walking speed.
To get to Lippincott road, I drove up 395 to highway 190 and turned east heading up the hills toward Death Valley. Just before Father Crowley Point, I turned north on the well signed Saline Valley Alternate road. This deteriorating asphalt road is so rough that I had to drive slowly. You can see from the photo that it was raining very lightly.
The western end of Lippincott Road is on the southern end of the vast Saline valley and is marked by a large cairn (read: 4 foot tall pile of rocks). The park service does not sign the road here, or put it on their maps, in order to help reduce the chances that a tourist might take it. As I sat there preparing for the adventure, a pair of F-18s roared overhead, maybe 100 ft AGL. They use the Panamint and Saline valleys for training flights.
That straight section crosses the valley and was surprisingly difficult. I'm not sure my old Acura MDX could have made that section, but could have easily handled 80% of the rest of the route. I hoped to speed across that straight road, but about every 50 yards I encountered a wash. Not the nice sandy washes that I find in the Mojave desert, but 12 to 18 inch drops into boulder filled gullys cut out by water runnoff.
After crossing the valley and beginning the uphill climb, most of the road looked like this (3rd pic). Not hard at all. But the occasional boulder or rut keeps you from going too fast or getting too complacent.
Soon I started coming across the famed washouts that make sections of the road very narrow. This is one reason why it's recommended that wide and long wheel base vehicles not be driven on this road. The photo shows how previous drivers have made a new route around the washout. I had to make a 3 point turn in that turnout and then there's a 2 foot rise behind that small bush. Most of the washouts are like the one shown next. You're required to fit between the washout and some large immovable thing (boulder). For each of these, I got out and walked the route first to make sure my car would fit.
Then the road got a little rougher. Still easy enough that my Acura could have handled it. I drove most of this road with my suspension set at normal street height (7.3 inches of clearance).
More boulders. Notice the steep sides. That promotes falling rocks that can easily make this road impassable. I followed the worn trail around the boulder to the right, but that was banked a lot and made the car tip over to the left toward the "nice boulder".
Then the road started getting more interesting. There didn't seem to be an "easy" route through the boulder filled road. I got out and walked part of it and realized that it didn't stop anywhere within sight. It seemed to cross several sharp switchbacks. So I returned to the car and decided to put it in its most capable mode (super transformer mode): off-road suspension height, "rock crawl" mode, and low gear.
Since I couldn't find an easy path, I decided to just drive right over the rocks. That kept me from taking very many pictures of this section. I didn't want to stop on a steep hill driving over pointy boulders. It was amazing how easily the LR3 handled it. It didn't slip/slide a bit. Just drove right over it all. The entire length of this challenging section was probably about 100 yards.
Somewhere in that fun, I noticed that my dashboard display was showing something I hadn't expected. I emailed the pic afterward to the sales guy so he could tell me what it was about.
Next came the steep section. It doesn't show up well in the photos.
Finally I arrived at the top. The sign might be a bit of an understatement. I've seen photos on the internet of the previous sign that was much scarier. I don't know why they tamed it down a bit. Overall, I enjoyed the drive. It wasn't too challenging, and it didn't damage my car. I'm glad I drove up it, instead of down. It would be less fun riding my brakes for over an hour and sliding down over all them boulders (and probably gashing something underneath my car). My old Acura MDX would not have been able to make that road.