Death Valley National Park covers a vast area and, despite the word “valley” in the name, a wide range of topologies. It has mountains, hills, plains, valleys, and even sand dunes within its borders. There is one area that particularly stands out, the Playa, commonly known as The Racetrack, notably because of its ultra-flat surface and sailing rocks. The Playa is a lakebed, almost always dry, but now and then rains turn it back into a shallow lake, at least for a few hours. The lakebed isn’t the most notable thing, however, as we shall soon see.
Before we can explore the Racetrack, we first need to get there. On the surface, this is as simple as driving out the 26 miles on a rocky road. The road is flat, has minimal elevation gain, and doesn’t require any problematic navigation, save going straight at a well-marked intersection. Simple, right? Appearances are deceiving as they say.
The road looks easy enough at first blush. But its rocks are not round, nor are they easily driven over. Although relatively small, the stones are exceptionally sharp and quite fond of puncturing tires. You think to yourself: “how bad can it be?” The answer is, “beyond your imagination.” The experience is an exercise in careful, precise driving, choosing what looks to be the least worrisome section to traverse, and hoping you miss the worst of it. Hint: you won’t. In addition to worrying about routine punctures, you also have to worry about tearing your sidewalls out should you venture too close to the edges.
If the rocks don’t do in your tires, the constant vibration of 26 miles of washboards and bone-jarring bumps will shake something important loose or cause an engine component to fail. As for your suspension, it is unlikely to be the same after this experience. Far too many people have decided the laws of physics do not apply to them, and far too many people have learned the hard way that retrieving your vehicle is not quick, inexpensive, or uncomplicated. It is quite the opposite.
In any event, I made it to The Playa in a few hours. There isn’t a lot to see, and even less to photograph along the way, except for Teakettle Junction, which is the only possible turn on the entire route. Just behind the sign, you can see what passes for the road. Legend has it that teakettles were left at this location by early settlers to indicate water is nearby. Although this may indeed be true, I suspect it is more of a myth than actual fact. Today, some consider it good luck to leave a teakettle, sometimes inscribed with a message, at the junction. The Park Service occassionally clears most of them out, and the collection slowly begins again. Water or not, myth or reality, it is a welcome waypoint on the way.
And truly, despite the hazards, the journey itself is a pleasant, albeit slow, excursion through the desert.
Near the end of the track, you can catch a glimpse of the entire Playa sprawling in the distance. It looks small, but it is almost a mile wide and nearly three miles long. Distance and size are not always easy to gauge in the desert.
Finally, we get to the Playa itself, and it certainly is worth the effort. This ancient lakebed is flat as a pancake across its entire surface. I don’t mean that it has ripples in it, or small swells not worth mentioning. I mean, it is perfectly flat everywhere from edge to edge. It is featureless, too, except for its sailing stones.
The sailing stones are the main attraction. Scattered across the lakebed are numerous rocks, some of which are quite large, and behind them their trails as they moved across the lakebed. Some tracks are small, others long, some straight and some curved. Until recently, it had been a mystery how they moved. The Playa, with its sailing rocks and their trails, in the middle of the Death Valley, make an interesting juxtaposition.
Because the lakebed was bone-dry, I spent hours wandering about it, examining every rock and every trail I came across. I bent down and looked from their point of view to see where they might be going. Peering around them, I wondered if they would move, but they remained stubbornly in place for me. I looked at small rocks, and I looked at the largest ones. I examined every rock I could find.
The spectacle of the sailing stones is not one soon forgotten. Alas, it was eventually time to leave, but I’ll certainly be back soon!
Oh! You wanted to know how they move? Several things have to happen all the same time: the lakebed has to fill up, just enough to cover the bottom, but not too much, plus ice has to form just right at night, the next day has to be sunny, and finally, there have to be light winds. If everything lines up correctly, the ice is capable of moving the rocks, little by little. Over the years, they sometimes leave trails in the mud.
Explore more of Death Valley
Want to explore more of Death Valley? You can visit Zabriskie Point and places beyond!