The Magical Traveling Stones Of Death Valley

Sailing Stones in Death Valley

Racetrack Playa is home to one of Death Valley’s most enduring mysteries. Littered across the flat, dry surface of this dry lake, also called a “playa’, are hundreds of rocks –some weighing as much as 320 kilograms (700 pounds) –that seem to have been dragged across the ground, often leaving synchronized trails that can stretch for hundreds of meters.

What powerful force could be moving them? Researchers have investigated this question since the 1940s, but no one has ever seen the process in action –until now.

 

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What and where  is Racetrack Playa?

Death Valley National Park is located approximately 130 miles from Las Vegas, it is about a 2 hour drive from the Strip

 

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Death Valley National Park wants to remind people that the Racetrack is located in a remote area of the park and road conditions are variable at best, requiring high clearance vehicles and heavy duty tires.

Do not attempt a trip to the Racetrack without a plenty of fuel and water. There is no cell phone service in the area. Be prepared for the possibility of spending the night if your vehicle becomes disabled.

 

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A more easily-accessible location to observe the tracks of sliding stones is the Bonnie Claire playa east of Scotty’s Castle–

between the park boundary and Highway 95. The south shore of the playa runs right along the north side of Highway 72.

The area is administered by the Bureau of Land Management. There is abundant evidence of sliding stones at this playa, which is believed to experience the same rock-moving conditions as the Racetrack.

 

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Racetrack Playa is a large, dry lakebed located in Death Valley National Park. It is fairly large, about 3 miles long (north to south) and 2 miles wide (east to west).

It is extremely flat, with the northern end only being 1.5 inches higher than the southern end

 

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Though the closest airport to Death Valley is McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, you’ll be driving a lot no matter what. Located 120 miles from the airport, Death Valley is easy to reach — there are just four main roads to follow — but it can be desolate.

 

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Why is it called Death Valley?

Death Valley was given its forbidding name by a group of pioneers lost here in the winter of 1849-1850.

Even though, as far as we know, only one of the group died here, they all assumed that this valley would be their grave.

Sailing stones (also called sliding rocks, walking rocks, rolling stones, and moving rocks) are part of the geological phenomenon in which rocks move and inscribe long tracks along a smooth valley floor without animal intervention.

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The movement of the rocks occurs when large sheets of ice a few millimeters thick and floating in an ephemeral winter pond break up on sunny days. Frozen during cold winter nights, these thin, floating ice panels are driven by wind and shove rocks at speeds up to 5 meters per minute.

 

Trails of sliding rocks have been observed and studied in various locations, including Little Bonnie Claire Playa, in Nevada,[1] and most famously at Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park, California, where the number and length of tracks are notable.

 

 

Mystery of Death Valley’s ‘Sailing Stones’ Solved

 

sailing stones
Heavy rocks like these seem to slide across the surface of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park.

For years, scientists have been puzzled by the mysterious “sailing stones” of Death Valley.

 

Located in a remote area of California’s Death Valley National Park, the heavy stones appear to move across the dried lake bed known as Racetrack Playa, leaving a trail behind them in the cracked mud.

Muddy footprints will disrupt the rocks’ movements and leave unsightly scars for years.

 

The rocks’ apparent movement has been blamed on everything from space aliens and magnetic fields to pranksters. But no one has actually seen the rocks move, which only adds to the mystery.

“It’s very quiet out there, and it’s very open — and you tend to have the playa to yourself,” park ranger Alan van Valkenburg told Smithsonian.com. “And the longer you stay out there, it just takes on this incredible sense of mystery.”

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THE BEAUTIFUL LASHES

The dry lake of sailing stones

Death Valley, California

When no one is looking, the rocks on the dry lake bed of Racetrack Playa move. Some have only traveled a few inches. Others have journeyed half a mile. All of them leave telltale trails — some straight; some curved; others erratic and jerky, as if the rock changed its mind along the way.

Until December 2013, no one had ever witnessed the rocks in motion, but plenty had offered theories to explain their movement. A 2010 NASA study concluded that melted snow had streamed from the surrounding mountains and flooded the playa. At night, according to NASA, the water froze around the bottom of the rocks, creating an “ice collar.”

Over the next month, more water from the mountains arrived, creating a slippery surface and allowing the ice-collared rocks to float on the playa. Fierce winds of up to 90mph sent the stones skidding across the plain.

 

It was a sound enough theory, but actual evidence was hard to come by. No one is allowed on the playa when it is wet, as their footprints would scar the ground, and research must be noninvasive — meaning rocks can’t be disturbed and cameras must be hidden in the landscape.

Then in 2013, paleobiologist Richard Norris and his cousin, research engineer James Norris, happened to be in the right place at the right time. In front of their eyes, wind pushed an ice floe across the playa, causing one of the rocks to slide along the slick surface of the lake bed. From their position on the mountainside next to the playa, the Norris cousins began taking photos. The evidence was in and the mystery solved.

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Last updated: November 29, 2020

CONTACT THE PARK

Mailing Address:

P.O. Box 579
Death Valley, CA 92328

Phone:

(760) 786-3200

Contact Us

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ENJOY THE VALLEY!

CHRIS

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