Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park
Fellow local desert rat Mike Garrison and I did this trip in November 2002, when daytime highs in the Mojave can be quite comfortable for hiking, though the days are short. We 'boondocked' two nights in this area of Death Valley NP, and in addition to visiting Racetrack Playa we also did some other hikes, one of which yielded some pretty good rock art, the other some really remote route-finding through beautiful desert hills.
Map of the north end of Death Valley NP. Racetrack Valley occupies the really empty space on the map in the NW end of the park. To give you an idea of scale if you're unfamiliar with this region, the distance from Lone Pine to Furnace Creek is 105 miles. Our drive from Lancaster is 210 miles to Stovepipe Wells, then a further 70 miles to Racetrack Playa. The last 30 miles is on rough washboard gravel and that alone takes about 1.5 hours. It takes most of the day to get here, with gas stops, a lunch stop and another stop to 'just poke around' some interesting-looking lava caves by the road.
Teakettle Junction, at the north end of Racetrack Valley. For whatever reason, folks drive way out here, and hang old teapots on this intersection sign, or sometimes trade for one they like better. I think it's a really old tradition, but if anyone alive remembers why I don't know.
Looking south at Racetrack Playa. It's 2.8 miles north-south by 1.3 miles east-west, at an elevation of about 3700'.
That 'rock island' is called The Grandstand, it's actually an outcropping which has over time been filled around by the playa.
From the south end of the playa, looking north toward The Grandstand.
I'm standing by a block of dolomite which has tumbled down the hillside behind me and ended up resting on the lakebed. Can you see anything in the photo that's out of the ordinary?
Heyy.......a rock with a trail behind it...? As in, a MOVING ROCK?
These rocks are what we came to see. This rock's track looks fresher. Tracks are made by the stones actually sliding across the Racetrack's lakebed.
So just how could rocks move by themselves across a dry lakebed?.......Is it some sort of frat prank, or what?
A closeup. Most rocks are about 6 to 12" across, but some are way bigger, some as small as pebbles. Nothing unusual about them. No two are shaped alike. They're just rocks. But they really do slide across this lakebed.
The lakebed surface, by the way, we found to be utterly hard. Dry lakebeds are the flattest natural features on earth, and past surveys have shown that the north end of this playa is only 5cm higher than the south end, where most of the rocks start their weird trip. Pretty flat, but that's what you'd guess.
Waitaminute: here's FOUR rocks on parallel paths.
So just how's this work,? Well as it turns out, nobody's ever seen any rock move on Racetrack Playa.
Just to make things REALLY interesting, here's some tracks without rocks. Can you figure it out?
At the end of our long day driving out here, we set up our chairs in 'the living room' and Mike and I enjoy a Rolling Rock (of course!) and watch the sun set below the hill.
The moving rocks of Racetrack Playa
have been known since the mining days of Death Valley. They've been formally
studied since the 1940's. But nobody has ever documented actually witnessing
a rock move, and nobody has yet presented sufficient evidence to conclusively
show precisely how they move.
Some might make claims about paranormal forces, involving little green men (and have!), yet I find improbable the prospect that astronauts from some planet light-years away have journeyed across the vastness of interstellar space, and now that they've arrived, their chosen method of communicating their existence to us, INEXPLICABLY, is to visit a remote place like this and secretly move rocks around by some unknown magic.
Here are some other really cool pictures that I poached
off some other websites:
And for a cool 360-degree Quicktime VR, click here
So, have you figured out how rocks could ever be made
to move across a dry lakebed?
If you give up, for a summary of formal studies conducted at Racetrack Playa, go here.
Also this article from Earth magazine is good reading.