Driving off designated roads is illegal in Death Valley, but it still remains one of the greatest threats that the park faces. Learn more about how big this problem is, what effects it has on the environment, and what work has been done in response by reading below.
A Park-Wide Problem:
Extensive Damage Poses a Major Challenge
Thousands of miles of paved and unpaved roads provide unique access to Death Valley’s 3.2 million acres of wilderness. While wonderful for the desert explorer, this access also means more opportunity for illegal off-road driving.
The park is working towards documenting the extensive damage. Being the largest park outside of Alaska, and facing increased visitation each year, this task is proving to be a difficult one. The following numbers are how many tracks and how many miles of track were documented each year since this project started.
2018: 366 disturbances (87 miles of track) recorded.
2019: 487 disturbances (118 miles of track) recorded.
2020: 381 disturbances (100 miles of track) recorded.
These numbers do not represent all the damage in the park. This is an ongoing project and not all areas have been documented yet.
Driving off a designated road can cost you. Visitors cited for illegal off-road driving can be subject to fines up to $5,000 or 6 months in jail. Should your vehicle get stuck, the cost of a tow (which can be thousands of dollars) would also be at the drivers expense.
If you see someone driving off designated roads, report it to a ranger.
More Than Just an Eyesore:
Damaging Effects of Off-Road Driving
The desert landscape can appear stark and empty, as if nothing is living here. In reality, this ecosystem is full of life! The desert can also appear hardy due to the extreme conditions, but the desert plants, animals and geology are actually very fragile.
This fragile landscape and ecosystem is impacted by illegal off-road driving in many damaging ways.
Driving on the desert landscape creates long lasting scars. The soil that has taken many years to settle, erode, react to water, and create the ecosystem that you see today, becomes impacted by the disturbance. In wetter environments, tire tracks and soil disturbance can fade away more quickly. But the arid nature of the desert means that those tracks will be present for a long time. Think about the wagon travelers of the mid-1800's- the tracks can still be found in the desert southwest over 150 years later!
Photographers come from all over the world to take pictures of the iconic, pristine landscape of Death Valley only to find many of the flat playas now scarred with tire tracks. The scenic value can be lost with just one vehicle driving off road.
In an environment with so little vegetation, every plant is vital to this ecosystem. Plants provide food and shelter for wildlife, stabilize the soil with their roots, and help reduce the reflective heat of a scorching Death Valley sun.
Plants with shallow root systems are especially vulnerable when driven over but even deep-rooted plants will die off after multiple passes. Plants are often not able to reestablish in these crushed areas due to soil compaction. Read more about that below.
Driving off designated roads further threatens already sensitive endangered and endemic plant species that live in the park.
Vehicle tires and undercarriages can also carry invasive and non-native species that can push out native species.
Driving over wildlife or their habitat is not the only concern with driving off designated roads. Vehicle use increases stress in animals which can lead to displacement, premature death, and/or reproductive failure. The noise can affect the specialized hearing of small mammals and reptiles that use their hearing to protect themselves from predators or to find prey themselves. Studies have shown that for Kangaroo Rats, noise from vehicles can cause frantic behavior, ear bleeding, and temporary loss of hearing.
Burrowing animals have adapted to living in the desert by spending much of their life underground to avoid the extreme conditions. This makes them nearly impossible to notice or see and can be crushed easily by a vehicle. Desert tortoises are on the list of threatened species due in part to illegal off-road driving.
In a harsh environment like Death Valley, wildlife depends heavily on the available food and water sources. When those are threatened by off-road driving, so is the wildlife.
When soil crusts and the layers beneath them get crushed by vehicles it can cause many changes to the surrounding area. Water and roots may no longer be able to penetrate the packed soil, preventing plants from growing there. Desert soils are made up of a algae, lichen, chemicals, minerals, and soil crusts that took thousands of years to find the perfect balance. This balance supports life in the desert and prevents erosion. Without the root systems of plants and other organic soil material to keep the soil in place, the soil will erode at a faster rate and blowing particles can reduce air quality.
Tire tracks also affect the hydrology of the soil. The ruts and smoothed surface increase the speed at which water will runoff, which can increase erosion. These changes can even shift the overall direction of water runoff, preventing water from reaching areas it previously did and possibly increasing erosion in new areas.
Driving off designated roads near sensitive water sources like springs can leave them susceptible to pollution from gasoline and motor oil. With such limited water sources in Death Valley, polluting just one can have a detrimental effect across the whole ecosystem. Many animals, including bighorn sheep, pupfish, and migrating birds, rely on scant water sources for survival.
Death Valley is a park that is over 91% federally designated wilderness. This area of non-mechanized travel begins in most places, just 50 feet from the designated roads. This means when driving a vehicle or riding a bicycle, you must stay on the paved and dirt roads and park adjacent to the road, on the shoulder.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 established the National Wilderness Preservation System “In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.” Keeping vehicles and tire tracks out of wilderness areas is essential for preserving these wild spaces.
The rich human and geologic history of Death Valley National Park spans millions of years. This history is recorded in fossils, petroglyphs, mining claims, and more features that litter the landscape. Driving off designated roads could cause irreversible damage to these irreplaceable items.
Management and Restoration:
An Uphill Battle to Protect Your Park
When left unattended, the Death Valley landscape does little to change. With little rain to wash them away or vegetation to cover them up, tire tracks and their damaging effects, could persist for hundreds of years. Active restoration of tracks aims to assist the natural processes by relieving the compaction and stabilizing the soil. Treatment methods also aim to minimize and obscure the visual scars in the short term, to discourage repeat behavior.
Restoration: Before and After
Tire tracks scar the desert landscape.
Restoration has obscured the tire tracks.
Death Valley’s landscape is varied, including delicate desert pavement, stark salt crusts, and playas that are soft when wet. Because of this variation, each restoration project must be customized for its specific location and severity of disturbance. Park professionals consider factors such as soil composition, crustal thickness, and moisture levels when planning restoration. The amount and type of vegetation, as well as the natural hydrology of the location, also is part of the planning process. Staff limit restoration crew size where necessary so as to avoid further damage to sensitive landscapes with a lot of foot traffic.
Once a plan is in place and work is approved, crews and volunteers begin the hard work of raking, aerating, brushing, and/or watering the soil. It's not just doing the work that is challenging, getting people and supplies out to each remote area of the park takes time and effort. The harsh climate also limits outdoor field work to the cooler winter months. In 2020, the park, partners, and volunteers put in 1108 hours of work and cleaned up just 5.8 miles of illegal off-road tire tracks from the landscape.