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I've been shooting DEVA for something like 15 years now. I've been to the Racetrack a number of times, and I've visited many other areas of the park, though there are still a few blank spots on my map.
Your mid-sized SUV should probably be fine, though not all SUVs are created equally. I've driven out there in a huge, highly modified, old-school 4WD Suburban, a 4WD Dodge Durango (older model), and two versions of the Subaru Outback. To my way of thinking, if conditions are typical, 4WD/AWD is not really all that critical, but good ground clearance and good tires are — and decent driving skills and knowing your limits are also important.
The main technical challenges include:
- some sections of rather deep gravel, including the first section rising up the broad valley just beyond where the gravel road starts at Ubehebe crater.
- many miles of bone-rattling washboard road
- some areas that can be deeply rutted, creating a high-centering risk if you aren't cautious, especially if you have limited clearance
A bigger issue, I think, may be people who drive outside of their experience zone. There are some who know what they are doing and have vehicles that are more appropriate for surviving such an approach who will drive sections of this road at high speeds, often pointing out that this is one way to flatten out the jarring from the washboard. (An unfortunate side-effect for others is that if they don't slow down when they approach you, the rocks they throw up have the potential to damage your vehicle. Fortunately, most people realize that they should slow down when encountering other vehicles.) Some less-experienced drivers who see this approach seem to think that either it is macho to drive that way or that it is normal, and they may make the mistake of going faster than they should. The problem is that once things go slightly wrong on gravel at high speeds, they can quickly go very, very bad before you realize what has happened.
So, go slow. Plan on perhaps two hours to drive the road each way.
If you are unsure about your own vehicle, you can rent capable jeeps in the Valley.
Are you going out there in the summer? All I'll say is to be prepared for this rather tough environment. The Racetrack is at a higher elevation than Death Valley, so it is less hot... but still quite toasty in the summer. The late fall through early spring is the more ideal time to visit.
If you are going in the summer, the following is probably so important... but if you go at other times, the playa can be very wet and even flooded. Do not walk-on the playa in those conditions, since the damage from footprint tracks, which can extend for as much as a mile, lasts a long time. Also, be aware that the playa is no longer a virgin, undamaged place. Unfortunately, in the past few years the increasing number of visitors has led to increasing damage and vandalism of sorts I will not describe here. (This is one reason I rarely go there any more.)
The best light is typically late in the day and in the early evening. Midday light, especially in the summer, is rarely conducive to photography in this location.
(If you stay at Stovepipe Lodge, you'll see my photographs in the rooms, and a new Death Valley book features one of my photographs of Mesquite Dunes on the cover with more inside.)