Like most of her neighbors in Pahrump, Nevada—a dusty town of 36,000, just 60 miles from the entrance to Death Valley National Park—Donna Cooper had driven through the valley many times. But one Thursday morning in July 2010, the 62-year-old retiree decided to explore a corner of the park she’d never visited: Scotty’s Castle, a Spanish-style mansion built in the 1920s. Her daughter Gina, 17, and Donna’s friend and houseguest from Hong Kong, Jenny Leung, 19, joined her.
The trio arrived at the mansion around 1 p.m. and spent two hours touring the place. As they left the parking lot on the way home, they saw a sign for the Racetrack—a dry lake bed, where shifting boulders have left skid marks in the cracked mud. “I’ve always wanted to check that out,” Donna said.
The other two women went along with the idea. Gina, who was driving, pointed their Hyundai west on Route 267, then turned south on a dirt road. The temperature outside the tiny car was over 125 degrees. After about an hour, they reached an intersection, but the sign indicating the way to the Racetrack was unclear. Gina turned left. After ten more miles, she realized she’d made a wrong turn. She tried to reverse course, but they were soon climbing into the high country.