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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
JEEP RENTALS IN AND OUT OF DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
Great Company but as expected a bit pricey due to the operation is within the State Park
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, and most famously at Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park, California, where the number and length of tracks are notable.
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.
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.”
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.
EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT
Winter/Spring: October – April
Furnace Creek CG takes reservations and often fills during the busy season. You will likely find a spot at Sunset CG or Stovepipe Wells CG as they rarely fill up, even during busy times or on weekends.
Reservations are only available for Furnace Creek Campground; all others are first-come, first-served.
You can arrive anytime and pay at the campground with an automated machine (credit or debit card needed).
Summer: May – September:
There are only a few campgrounds open in the summer months due to the extreme temperatures (midnight temperatures can still be over 100 degrees!) so most visitors find these sleeping conditions unfavorable.
Due to the limited number of campgrounds open it can be very busy over HOLIDAY weekends (Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day), and campgrounds may fill. The higher elevation campgrounds can be full on most weekends throughout the summer.
Open campgrounds are ALL first-come, first-serve, and they are not staffed. You will need to travel to the campground to find an empty spot, and then you can pay your campground fee at the automated, self-help kiosk with a credit or debit card.
View the park map for location information for the following campgrounds:
Accessible to vehicles no longer than 25 feet.
Accessible to high clearance vehicles no longer than 25 feet. 4-wheel drive may be necessary.
Reservations for Furnace Creek Campground
Reservations for the Furnace Creek Campground are available for the camping season of October 15 to April 15 by calling 1-877-444-6777 or visiting recreation.gov.
Reservations must be made at least 4 days in advance, but can be made up to 6 months in advance.
All unreserved walk-in sites are open first come/first served for a period of 1 night up to 4 nights depending on the next incoming reservation. These opportunities are available in person at the kiosk only.
All other National Park campgrounds are first come/first served year round (no reservations), however the National Park Service reserves the right to reserve sites for management needs for all campgrounds.
Hookups- RV sites
Furnace Creek Campground has only 18 sites with full hookups. These are 30/50 amp hookups and water/sewer.
There are multiple dump stations located within the Furnace Creek area.
It is very rare to have the opportunity to stay in on of these sites without reservations. In the case where a hookup site is not reserved, it is open for a very brief period before the next incoming reservation arrives.
Number of People/Vehicles:
Campsites are limited to no more than eight people and two vehicles or one recreational vehicle plus secondary vehicle per site.
Larger groups wishing to camp together can reserve group sites at the Furnace Creek Campground (UPDATE: group sites closed until 4/15/21).
Campfires: All vegetation in the park is protected. Firewood is available at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells General Stores, or you can bring your own supply.
Charcoal producing fires may only be made in NPS fire pits.
All stoves and grills must be gas burning.
Fires are prohibited in the summer months (June 15-September 15) or other periods of high fire danger at Mahogany Flat, Thorndike, and Wildrose Campgrounds.
Furnace Creek Campground has a limit of 14 days per calendar year.
The rest of Death Valley National Park has a 30-day per calendar year camping limit.
From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., unless otherwise posted.
Generators are prohibited in Texas Springs Campground, except from April 16 to May 15 in the upper loop from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Pets: Pets must never be left unattended. There is a maximum limit of 4 pets per campsite and pets must be kept on a leash no longer than 6 feet at all times. Pet owners are responsible for cleanup and cleanup supplies.
Check-out Time: Furnace Creek Campground check-out time is 12 pm noon.
RV length restrictions:
Mahogany Flats Campground, Thorndike Campground, and Wildrose Campground have a length restriction of 25 feet in total length.
Emigrant Campground is a tent-only campground.
Texas Springs Campground, Mesquite Springs Campground, and Furnace Creek Campground can be difficult to maneuver into with longer RVs.
Sunset Campground and Stovepipe Wells Campground do not have limitations that would restrict RV length.
Wildlife: Coyotes and ravens are scavengers – keep your campsite clean! Do NOT feed or disturb wildlife.
Interested in dispersed or backcountry camping? It is permitted in some places within the park – find out more about the Backcountry Camping Rules. Death Valley is a large, remote place without cell phone service in most areas. Backcountry camping is a great option for those who prepare properly and follow Leave No Trace principles.
Last updated: November 29, 2020
ENJOY THE VALLEY!