This route will take you from Panamint Valley, near the Lone Pine entrance to Death Valley national park via the salt lake over a 4×4 – only mountain pass to the high plain near Racetrack. You will need off road experience for the mountain pass, but any vehicle with reasonably high clearance can easily get to the salt lake. We were travelling through Death Valley in a camper van, so we rented a 4×4 from Farabee’s Jeep Rentals next to the gas station in Furnace Creek for this route.
The start of the trail is about 6 miles outside the entrance to Death Valley national Park, and is well marked. You need water and fuel before you pass this point (the nearest Services are at Panamint Springs).
It’s a fairly easy dirt road for about 15.5 miles, with Joshua trees after the first 8. You then turn left into Grapevine Canyon. This should be drive-able for 2wd with reasonable clearance, but take care if there has been severe weather, as the surface can get washed away. When you emerge onto the valley floor you can continue to follow Saline Valley Road to the Salt Lake (about 12 miles), the hot springs (another 20 miles after the Salt Lake) and eventually Big Pine. This, or of course just heading back, is your only option in a 2wd and unless you have off-road experience.
If your going for the full off road experience, look for the turning to the right that heads towards the mountains. There is nothing marking it, but it is quite clear to see if you are looking for it. The first 3 miles are rougher track with some corrugations (washboard). The next 2 start the climb. The final 2 miles of this section, through the Lippincott Pass are the most difficult of the trip. There are some fairly steep grades, loose rock, narrow ledges and bends where some of the track has washed away.
Really you don’t need a spotter, but if you decide you want one there will be limited times where it is possible to get in or out of the vehicle due to the cliff edge on one side and the rock face on the other.
If you have the chance to look down there are some incredible views down to the valley floor. Finally after much grinding of rock (and, for me anyway, of teeth) you will emerge onto an incredible high plain with more amazing views. If you are following the trail in reverse (and going down through the Pass) there is a clear sign marking the trailhead.
By turning left you will very soon arrive at the popular Racetrack pullout. It’s 9.5 miles to Teakettle Junction, which makes you feel that you are in the Andes rather than the USA, and then a further 20 miles until you reach tarmac at the Ubehebe Crater. This section is again suitable for most 2wd.