Death Valley: The Racetrack


Tucked away in the remote northern end of Death Valley is a strange, lonely place: the dry lakebed known as The Racetrack.  It’s lonely, because getting there requires a jarring, 27 mile drive on a washboarded dirt road.  It’s strange because of what the rocks on a dry lakebed do, when no one is watching.

I’ll tell you more about what it takes to get to The Racetrack in just a moment.  But let’s start with those rocks:

The rocks that litter the Racetrack’s perfectly-flat surface, somehow, move around.  No one has ever witnessed it happen, but the evidence is everywhere.  Not every rock has a trail, but many of the stones that litter the dry, cracked playa have scraped a path into the hard sediment, showing that they do, indeed, move.  Some have moved only a few feet, while others appear to have traveled a much longer distance.  A few rocks travel in straight lines, but most tend to zigzag in seemingly random patterns.

There are only theories as to what causes this.  Early on, at the beginning of the 20th century when the phenomenon was first discovered, some people believed magnetic forces would pull or push the rocks along.  Now, it’s believed that strong winds that rush through the valley move the rocks — but only on the rare occasions when the playa is wet and slippery.  Playas are the flattest, most level surface in nature, so you can rule out gravity.

Before arriving at The Racetrack, I had seen incredible pictures of rocks with long, meandering trails.  To be honest, I didn’t find very many.  Most of the rocks I found…

… had no trails at all.  Don’t get me wrong, they still made for nice pictures, but I expected trails to be everywhere.  Apparently some rocks move, and others don’t.  Or maybe they somehow slide along the playa without leaving a mark.

I saw other rocks that only left a path a few inches long, and others still that were accompanied by a path, but the rock was several inches away from the end of the trail.  I spent a lot of time wandering the playa, looking for that perfect picture, but I didn’t find it.

An interpretive sign at the Racetrack says that most of the moving rocks can be found at the playa’s southern end.  I took a picture of that sign, but didn’t read it until just now, as I write this page.  Had I known it at the time, I probably would have driven another mile or so down the road to the southern end of the lakebed — but I didn’t know, so I didn’t go. UPDATE: In 2016 I visited again, and this time I found plenty of roaming rocks near the southern end of the playa.  You definitely need to go all the way to the southern end, then spend some time wandering the playa, but you will find them!

You’ll find most of the rocks on the playa near “The Grandstand”, a small mountain in the middle of the dry lakebed.  If the lake was actually filled with water, this spot would be an island in the middle of it all.  I didn’t have time to climb around on the rocks, since it was getting late and I needed to leave.  However, I did see other people climbing all the way to the highest point, and I’m sure they found a good viewpoint of the entire Racetrack there.

If you make it out to the Racetrack, only to discover that the playa is wet, you must not walk on it. If you leave footprints in the mud, they will dry, and remain there for years. I noticed a few footprints in the dirt, near the road, but they didn’t go very far. I imagine the mud isn’t very fun to walk in.
After about an hour at the Racetrack, the sun was already falling behind the mountains to the west, and a shadow had fallen over the edge of the playa, all the way to the Grandstand.  Time was working against me, and I had no choice but to abandon my hunt for moving rocks.


Now, let’s take a minute to talk about the 27 mile dirt road that leads out to The Racetrack.  This is, by far, the roughest, bumpiest, most body-jarring and suspension-rattling road I’ve ever traveled.  On the way out, there were dozens of times when I nearly turned around.  Everything inside my car was bouncing, shaking, and falling to the floor.  My body was rattled to the bone.  I wondered if my car would still drive in a straight line once I was back on pavement.  But mostly I wondered if I would even make it back to a paved road in one piece.  This would be a horrible place to break down, and I wondered if the wheels themselves would stay attached.

The road to The Racetrack begins at Ubehebe Crater, which is already a long way from the center of the park, along paved roads that go from good to crumbling.  The 27 miles of gravel and dirt begin with a warning, that says only 4-wheel-drive cars should attempt the drive.  There’s no real reason this road couldn’t be driven in a regular sedan — it’s not steep, there are no sandy holes or water crossings.  It’s just washboarded — horribly washboarded.

It took me an hour and a half to drive the 27 miles from Ubehebe Crater to The Racetrack.  I had hoped to drive it in half that time.  Even now, I’m amazed that I somehow managed to average 18 miles per hour.  It seemed like every few hundred feet, I would grind to a near-stop, when I hit a rough patch that nearly shook the car apart.

Even though it’s a long drive, the path is relatively simple.  First you go uphill, passing through a basin with a nice range of hills (including 8,953-foot Tin Mountain) on the east side of the road…

… then the trail tops out as is passes through a Joshua Tree forest for several miles.  From there, it drops down towards The Racetrack.

Check out that washboarding!   This picture shows the road as it heads downhill, perhaps a mile or two before Teakettle Junction.

There’s only one manmade landmark on the entire drive — the kettle-adorned sign for Teakettle Junction.  From here, The Racetrack is only six more miles away (or 20 more minutes, given the speed I was driving).

Just a mile or two after the junction, the Racetrack comes into view.  From here, you can barely see the “Grandstand” in the middle of the playa.  On the way in, this was a joyous sight.  For the first time in more than an hour, I had hope that I might actually make it.

I made the trip back to Ubehebe Crater in exactly one hour, 20 minutes — ten minutes faster than the trip out.  On the return trip, I drove a little bit faster over the bumps.  The strange thing about a washboarded road is, the faster you drive, the smoother it seems — yet it’s quite difficult to hit the gas, not the brake, when the shaking starts.

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