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March 29, 2011

National Parks: Death Valley, Racetrack Playa

Filed under: National Parks, Southwest United States, The List, Travel, United States — anotherheader @ 4:06 pm

You might wonder what Death Valley, a National Park, has to do with a racetrack.  Relax; NASCAR has not expanded its brand into America’s wilderness, at least not yet.  “Racetrack Playa” refers to a dry lake in the northern region of Death Valley.  This dry lake is noted for a peculiar attribute; the rocks on surface of this dry lake move, or so it seems.

Teakettle Junction on the way to Racetrack Playa

Dozens of large bowling ball-size rocks litter the surface of the bone dry Racetrack Playa.  Many of these rocks rest at the end of grooves carved into the hard dirt.  The tracks affirm that the rocks have been dragged dozens of feet across the playa.  But how could such heavy stones relocate?  There’s no apparent means of propulsion.  And indeed, no one has observed the rocks moving.  Yet the boulders change position every couple of years.

So how do the Racetrack’s rocks move?  It is a good question and a topic of some debate.  Several theories have been presented to explain the rocks translocation.  Of the proposals that don’t involve alien spacecraft, most evoke strong winds and a wet or partially frozen lake surface that has become slick.  The sailing rock theories seem reasonable enough.  But for me it’s magic until I see an actual rock skidding across the playa’s surface on YouTube.  It’s not true until you can find the video on the Internet.

Ubehebe Crater

When we learned of Racetrack Playa and its magical sailing rocks, we had to visit.  The story of the rocks seemed improbable; we had to see it for ourselves.  To reach the playa, we drove north towards Scotty’s Castle, where we stopped in for a quick visit.  A short backtrack from Scotty’s mansion is the turn off for the volcanically formed Ubehebe Crater.  The dirt road to the Racetrack Playa starts just before the crater overlook.  With the crater so close, it is simple to stop for a visit before heading out to the playa.

Ubehebe Crater is large.  The crater, ringed with pulverized rock, is about a half-mile wide and 700-feet deep.  Several smaller craters of the same ilk are clustered nearby.  Yet the area around Ubehebe shows no other obvious signs of recent volcanic activity.  Indeed, the crater’s walls show sedimentary strata and not igneous rock.

The shadows of the setting sun reach The Grandstand on Racetrack Playa

How can a volcanic crater not be built from volcanic rocks?  Ubehebe crater was formed around 2,000 years ago by a phreatic eruption.  Phreatic eruptions occur when underground water reaches a pool of molten magma.  A powerful steam explosion results. Pulverized rock rather than volcanic ash are projected high into the air.  In the case of a crater the size of Ubehebe, it must have been a tremendous blast.

After visiting Ubehebe we turned the truck onto to the desert road to the playa.  We knew before we left that road to The Racetrack was rough.  Perhaps we had been delaying the inevitable vehicular battery with stops at Scotty’s Castle and Ubehebe Crater.  Now we could delay no longer.  It was time to take the dirt road to Teakettle Junction and on to The Racetrack.

Twenty-six miles of rugged dirt road connect Ubehebe Crater to the Racetrack Playa.  Sometimes 26 miles of dirt road passes quickly.  This was not one of those cases.  The road into Racetrack is about as far from NASCAR’s smooth ovals as you can get; the roadbed varies from rough to torturous.  Along the road we encountered some of the long sections of the most perfectly formed washboard we’d ever seen.  That was unfortunate, very unfortunate.  When we encountered a stretch of “vacas costillas” or cows ribs, as the Chileans call dirt road washboard, we had no choice but to slow and creep along.

It was slow going.  Next time, if there is a next time, we vowed that we’d rent a jeep for the trip out to The Racetrack.  With a rental four-wheel drive vehicle, a freshly inked collision damage waiver, and a mouthpiece to hold our teeth in place, we might have scooted through the rough sections at top speed.  But this was not how we rolled this day.  All told the marathon length trip out to Racetrack Playa’s Grandstand in the F-150 took us a tedious hour and a half.  Recall that it only takes elite distance runners 40 minutes more to cover the same distance on foot on a paved road.  Yes we were going slow.  Inevitably we reached the playa just as the sun was dropped below the hills.

Racetrack Playa is an amazing place.  The location is secluded and eerily quiet.  How could it not be with that road leading in?  Only the sound of an occaisional military jet screaming by overhead on a training mission broke the purity of the solitude.

The lakebed itself is perfectly flat and rock hard.  Rounded geometrically-shaped grooves give the surface a tile-like appearance.  In the middle of the lake, the weathered-round boulders of the large rock formation named The Grandstand rise abruptly.  The jutting Grandstand in the middle of the flat lakebed looks like a naval ship cutting the ocean’s surface.

A faint track left behind one of The Racetracks famous sailing rocks

With the sun setting behind the mountains a sharp shadow line crept quickly across the flat dry lake.  At first the Grandstand was spot lit by the sun.  Soon the rock formation was a dark shadow set against a back drop of the glowing hills.  The contrast of the desert light at the end of the day is dramatic.

On the lakebed near The Grandstand, there are the famous rocks.  Some of these rocks sit at the end of their taletale tracks.  None of these tracks were as dramatic and distinctive as you see in others pictures.  We figure that the section of lakebed near Grandstand is a high point.  It gets wet less often or less completely than the southern end of the playa.  Or maybe this area is more sheltered and the winds aren’t as strong.  Who knows?  In any event, we’d guess the best view of the “sailing rocks” is at the far end of the lake from the Grandstand.  We wish we’d known that before we visited.  Unfortunately for us, the setting sun did not give us the opportunity to visit both sides of the lake.  Perhaps we now have reason for a return visit.

Was the long rough trip out and back to Racetrack Playa worth it?  Sure it was.  The playa amazes even without the seeing the best of the legendary sailing rocks.  Next time though, if we venture again to Death Valley’s Racetrack, we’ll rent a Jeep and buy a mouthpiece.


  1. Love the show with Gigi’s long shadows.

    Comment by surlypeach — March 29, 2011 @ 6:15 pm

    • Whoops. “show” => “shot” Typist anomaly.

      Comment by surlypeach — March 29, 2011 @ 6:17 pm

  2. Bob Sharp, Caltech geology professor, spent a lot of time at Racetrack Playa hoping to see the rocks move. Many imaginative experiments were done, but he never saw the rocks move. As far as I know, it is still an open question.

    Comment by bob — March 29, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

  3. A reasonably good hypothesis for the sailing stones is described by some guy named “david” who has a blog on WordPress:

    I have seen shallow water on flat dry lake beds move miles due to wind shifts. Thin sheets of ice moving along with the water and bumping into stones would probably move them.

    Comment by bob — March 29, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

    • Thanks for the link. That was one of the non-alien intervention theories I alluded to. Seems reasonable enough, but I still want to see it in action!

      Comment by anotherheader — March 29, 2011 @ 9:30 pm

  4. […] Valley […]

    Pingback by The List « Another Header — July 22, 2011 @ 9:15 pm

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