Monday, May 26, 2008

Lippincott Road in Death Valley

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.


emolition said...

Nice entry! We did this road in March of 2008 with a Ford was hairy, though our driver was up for it. The corner you photographed was particularly questionable, with the chicken wire and rebar...beautiful views though. Do you know who, if anyone, maintains this road? Think you'll ever go back?
~Emily, NH

michael said...

Thanks for the kind comment! I agree that the corners required some caution. I think that the road is maintained by the park service - but they intentionally do only the bare minimum to deter the average person from driving on that road. I'll definitely be going back - in the spring of 2009. I want to drive the loop: up Lippincott to the racetrack, then around Hidden Valley and down Hunter Mountain road. If you liked that, then you'd probably also enjoy the back way to Darwin Falls (via Darwin).

SOL said...

Nice post, do you think a yukon XL 4x4 would make it through that road?


michael said...

OL: Yes, it probably can. HOWEVER, there are 2 tight turns that will give you pause. They are centered on this map. You will have to make a 5-point turn. I had to lineup my LR3 carefully for the one on the left (that looks easy). Be sure to have good tires, full-size spare, and patience. I prefer west to east - because i don't like to go downhill across very sharp pointy rocks.

Michael said...

SOL: Your truck might be ok. There are 2 turns that will be the hardest. I had to line up my LR3 (shorter than your truck) for one of them. They are centered on this map. Be sure to have good tires and a full size spare. I prefer driving west to east, uphill, over the sharp pointy rocks - but that's a short section anyway. Check road conditions on the NPS website if you plan to exit/enter via Saline Valley Rd (north or south pass are sometimes closed). I've driven roads that are steeper roads or with more "exposure", but this is a fun adventure.

solarias6 said...

What are your thoughts on a Tacoma trekking through there? I was on the top end this past weekend, at the pass, went down about a mile and decided to enjoy the view at the lookout. That's as far as I went for various reasons, lack of time being one of them. But I had the nagging urge to continue. I'd like to take the route you took. I'm just worried that a Tacoma might have too long of a wheelbase for those tight turns. Your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

It's doable. You might have to do a 5-point turn or jimmy it a bit on the 2 tightest turns. The biggest problem is the varying conditions. This winter hasn't been too dry and it's early in the season, so the conditions now are probably not attractive. I prefer doing it uphill. I imagine (no science here) it's easier on my tires, and it's much easier on the brakes. Be sure to check the DV forums for any news on conditions before you go.

michael said...

the above post is by me. i forgot to enter my name. am not logged in right now so using the "Name/URL" option for posts.

solarias6 said...

Thanks for your input. I will look into the forums before heading out the next time. What does "jimmy it" mean?

michael said...

Sorry for the old and localized slang. I was referring to the action where you alternate between forward and backward driving very short distances (inches) in order to align the front or rear tires so they do, or don't, hit something of interest. I had to do this with my rover on one sharp turn: taking part of the turn, then backing up against the uphill side so i could line up the front so the tires (front and back) would largely avoid a washed out gully.

If you have an older Tacoma, then you'll have no problem, they've go a wheelbase similar to my rover.

solarias6 said...

Thanks much for the info. Hopefully I will get through without a hitch.

John said...

I'm interested in taking this road, from the Saline Valley side up to Racetrack. I have a 2011 Toyota Tacoma 4x4, TRD Off-Road package & BF Goodrich All Terrain tires. I've ventured into Saline Valley 50+ times over the years, so I have the off-road experience, just haven't tried this road. It sounds like my Tacoma should handle it without too much difficulty, so long as I'm careful. Any further thoughts?

michael said...

You guys with your Tacomas will have few problems. That's a great truck. Unless you have the XL version (that'd be very tight in a couple turns).
I had the hardest time crossing Saline Valley, actually. I hit a couple washouts with 12-18 inch drops that visually blended in with the background. Had to slam on the brakes. So be a bit cautious there.
Enjoy. If you hike up Ubehebe Peak, let me know how it is. I plan to do that on my next trip there.

John said...

Mike, I appreciate the tips & response. I have the short bed version so that will work to my advantage, though I'll be sure to watch for drop-outs in the valley nonetheless.

In April I saw an entire 10 car caravan headed up that road, but have no idea how far they made it. I'll report back to this thread with the results of my adventure.

John said...

On May 28, 2011 took my '11 Tacoma up and down the Lippincott Road without too much trouble. There were a few 100yard segments where having the 4x4 Low Gear option paid off, but the truck never bottomed out and we only had to stop and get out to clear a few small pointed rocks which looked like they might cause flats. Most importantly: no flat tires!

Going down the road was much much easier than going up, and you could certainly do this in 2x4 so long as your vehicle clearance was adequate.

As mentioned in Mike's post there are a few segments which are almost washed out, but have been kept up by travelers passing by. If there's been a recent storm, I'd suggest travelers be prepared to do a little road work in these sections if no one has been through recently.

Have fun!


Traveled in 2011 Toyota Tacoma double-cab short bed w/ TRD Off Road & BF Goodrich Rugged Trail T/A tires.

Anonymous said...

We just did this road on Nov 20 2010 in a 4Runner. Scary but fun. Very slowgoing. Need high clearance. Might be more enjoyable to take the ride up instead as down as we did.

greg soc said...

I drove this road in April of 2013. What a blast! You can see a portion of it here: