Death Valley – Racetrack Playa


What? : The Racetrack Playa is a large dry lake valley feature with unique intriguing phenomena of "moving stones". You can clearly see large rocks that inscribe "racetrack" imprints in the mud, like they were moved by invisible force. The answer to this puzzle was fully discovered only at 2014.

The Racetrack Playa is located at remote northwestern area of Death Valley National Park.


Where? : Located deep in the Death Valley wilderness is hard to get to.

From Furnace Creek drive north on 190 road 17.4 miles until you will reach Scotty's Castle Rd. turn right and drive 33.5 miles north on Scotty's Castle Rd.

Additional 5.3 miles will bring you to Ubehebe Crater, from this point the 25.5 mile long dirt road will take you to the Racetrack Playa.

Drive time from Furnace Creek is at least 3.5 hours each way.

Google Map Link


When? : The recommended time to visit here is late fall, winter and early spring, summer is just too hot.


Due note 1: This drive is recommended for high clearance 4x4 vehicle, the road is usually kept in a good condition, but some sections can get eroded after rain. When I visit here, early March 2022, the road was in very good condition and practically can be done by any vehicle (no real need for AWD). The main problem is flat tire, this is 25.6 miles on un paved dirt road !

Standard rental vehicles are not recommended and towing from this remote location can be VERY expensive.


Due note 2: Do not take lightly any off-road driving in this environment, there is no cellular reception.


Due note 3: Always have enough fuel before heading into the drive !
Although this is easy to navigate with a clear road you always need to plan for more fuel than needed. From off-road driving perspective this is 51 miles drive but you must take into account its remote location in the park, far from any gas station.

If you are driving from and back to Stovepipe Wells this is total of 140 miles drive.


Due note 4: Off-road driving is prohibited as the desert is very fragile and vehicle tracks can remain for years.


Due note 5: As in any other desert area activities, always bring enough water with you. I do not recommend doing such drive at 120-130f in the summertime…


Due note 6: This drive is in remote park section but usually you can see other cars on the road or near the Racetrack Playa (there is a campground on the remote (south) side of the dry lake valley.


Due note 7: There is very little shade anywhere in Death Valley so use Sunscreen even in winter months.


Due note 8: When visiting or hiking at the Death Valley use several layers as clothing. You can start your day with cold temperatures during early morning sunrise to a very hot midday (even at fall, winter, and spring). At the afternoon it can warm but at sunset temperature plumage and it can be near freezing.


Due note 8: Please do not disturb the rocks or their tracks.

Do not walk on the Playa when it wet and when you can leave your footprints in the mud !

Defiantly any kind of driving off the main roads is forbidden; this is correct anywhere else in the Death Valley but especially correct here at playa.


My thoughts: One of the most amazing and interesting places to visit at Death Valley National Park. I visit here at mid-day, so this was not the best time to take good pictures. The sun was high at the middle of the sky without any shade and minimal contract to highlight the track.



The Drive:

You will start your offroad drive at Ubehebe Crater, here exactly when the road turns up to the volcano there is a clearly marked road to the right.

From this point it is 25.6 miles of unpaved dirt road to the north side of the Racetrack Playa. The road is usually wide so cars can drive in both direction with enough space on both sides.

The road start climbing slowly but constantly up the wide valley toward the south lower section mountain pass. As the road gains elevation, the dry and almost no vegetation desert change into a Joshua trees forest along the way. Joshua trees (actually, this is a type of yucca plant) typically growing in high elevation in the Mojave Desert.

Here you can see, mainly on the left side of the road, the forest at it best.

Twenty miles into the drive you will reach Teakettle Junction.

This junction got it name from all the Teakettle travelers left on the road sign. Turning left here will lead you to Hidden Valley and Hunter Mountain Road.

Take few pictures and keep driving straight ahead to the Racetrack playa.

After traveling 26 miles you reach the north end of the Racetrack and the grandstand parking area.

Park your car on the right side of the road and hike to the Playa.


Other way to get to Racetrack Playa:

There are 2 other offroad 4x4 high clearance road that can bring you to Racetrack Playa:

1.      From Saline Valley through Lippincott Pass: This road section is 6.7 mile long. There is serious climb up the mountain through Lippincott Road. Most of the road is ok but there are some sections that you need a real 4x4 car with good tires, especially where there is a large rock located in the middle of the trail.

2.      Hunter Mountain and Hidden Valley: It is 24.8 miles long road from Hunter Mountain, through Hidden Valley to Teakettle Junction. I did not drove this road so I do not know how it is but there are clear signs not recommending crossing Hunter Mountain at wintertime when it can cover with snow.



The visit:


The Racetrack is a playa (dry lakebed) is about 3 miles long and 2 miles wide. At least 10,000 years ago the climate changed, and the lake evaporated and left behind light brown colored mud, at least 1,000 feet thick.


The Grandstand is a “island” of large rock and boulders in the middle of the Playa. It is fun walk across the dry lakebed to watch the Grandstand from all its directions and to see moving rock tracks.


Once you are done here, I recommend driving another 2 miles down the road to the south section of the playa.

Here you will see another parking spot and place to enter the playa.

From this point walk at least a half mile toward the southeast corner of the playa for the best views of rocks and their tracks on the playa.

The rock that are on the playa are origin from the surrounding mountains, there is no mystery on that. The rocks break because of freezing water that enter cracks and then they tumble down the slopes all the way to the surface of the playa.



Moving Rocks:


Some of the rocks that are spread over the playa dry lakebed move on their own.

You can clearly see how they moved and left their tracks in the mud (when it was wet). The sailing stones have been observed and studied since the early 1900s, this was a mystery for many years, where no one can give a good explanation how the rock, some are few hundred pounds, are moving in the mud for long distance that can reach up to hundreds of feet???

This can’t be earthquake shake that cause rock rolling because this is a flat surface, and you clearly see that the rock did not rollover…

No human or animal move them, no other footprints near the rocks.

The rocks are too big to be moved by the wind, you need hurricane-force winds for that…


Researchers have investigated this question since the 1940s, but no one has ever seen the process in action.

In 2014 researchers discovered a rare combination of events that move the rocks. When the playa floods, once every few winters, and cold winter nights freeze the shallow water into a thin layer of ice. As sunrise break the ice into large floating panels, high winds drive the ice pallets on the surface of the water and this move the rock forward across the surface, which leave trails in the soft mud below.

The rocks moved slowly, only 2-6 m/minute, a speed that is almost barely visible at a distance without stationary reference points.

This is also explaining why we can see tracks in the shape of arches or even part of the circle, the wind changes it direction, pushing the ice and the rock on arch shape.








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