For the 50+ Traveler

Nestled inside of Death Valley National Park is Racetrack Playa. This dry lakebed is home to one of the strangest phenomena on the planet. Large rocks varying in size and weighing up to 700 pounds move and slide across the ground as if they are under a magic spell. We know they move thanks to the tracks they leave on the lakebed below, but it’s taken a surprising amount of research to determine just what is making the stones move. After nearly 60 years of study, researchers finally have an answer.

You can visit Racetrack Playa, and there are several different things to see and do while you’re there. However, getting there can be tricky, and you’ll need to be properly equipped for an adventure in Death Valley’s grueling environment.

Two sliding rocks at Racetrack Playa.

Where Is Racetrack Playa?

There are two locations in Death Valley National Park with similar names. First, there’s the Racetrack. This location is on the way to Racetrack Playa, but is far from your final destination. The Racetrack is home to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, a restaurant, and a few lodging options. To get to the Playa, leave the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center and follow the signs for Ubehebe Crater. This portion of the drive is over paved ground and stretches for 56 miles. The next stretch is more treacherous. You’ll need to leave the comfort of paved roads and head onto a rough unpaved road that extends for 27 miles before you reach your destination. There are postings recommending that only four-wheel-drive vehicles with high clearance attempt the journey. Remember, there’s no cell service in the area, so proceed carefully. Expect the journey to take between three and three-and-a-half hours one way.

There are two key landmarks to see at Racetrack Playa. The first one you’ll arrive at is called The Grandstand. It’s a large rock outcropping in the northern part of the lakebed. The sliding rocks are on the southern end of the lakebed. There are two parking areas for each, so you don’t need to hike across the entire lakebed.

A photographer capturing the rocks at Racetrack Playa.

Answers To The Sliding Rock Mystery

It’s no hoax that these stones have moved on their own. Many of them are too heavy to push and vehicles are not permitted onto the Playa because tire tracks leave lasting scars on the terrain. The ban on vehicles, and the absence of tire tracks, means that pranksters aren’t coming in and moving the rocks mechanically. There are very high winds in the area, however, they’re not strong enough to push some of the larger stones.

Researchers at UC Davis set up an experiment to capture the rock movement in action. They brought new stones outfitted with GPS monitors and cameras to the park. They knew that the stones moved as infrequently as once per decade, so they prepared for a long project. Two years into the project, researchers visited the playa to find a few inches of water and thin sheets of what they called “windowpane” ice in the lakebed. And before their very eyes, the stones were moving. They witnessed some stones traveling over 200 meters -- thanks to the thin ice and shallow water -- before coming to a stop again.

Racetrack Playa in Death Valley.

Visiting Racetrack Playa

Death Valley National Park is open year-round, but there are some things you should keep in mind and pay attention to when planning your visit to Racetrack Playa.

Here are a few other things to keep in mind when setting out on your journey to Racetrack Playa:

  • Pack plenty of water and supplies to repair your vehicle in case it gets a flat tire.
  • Spring is one of the most popular times to visit Death Valley National Park thanks to the appearance of wildflowers. School vacations are in full swing during this time as well, which can make finding reservations more difficult. Book in advance!
  • Check the forecast leading up to and during your stay. Temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees, which can put a strain on you and your vehicle.

Thanks to some unbelievable luck during a research project, the mystery of the sailing stones at Racetrack Playa has been solved, but the massive sweeping trails carved by huge stones are still an incredible sight to see. If you’re planning a trip to Death Valley National Park, add a visit to Racetrack Playa to your to-do list.