Is it possible that a large expanse of dry brownish mud attracts thousands of visitors every year? The answer is yes, especially if there is a phenomenon that has been happening there for years that science has been unable to explain. We’re talking about Racetrack Playa, a dried-up lake in the Death Valley where dozens of rocks seem to move independently and leave tracks behind.
The mysterious origin of the phenomenon of Racetrack Playa’s sliding rocks has made this isolated place not only a tourist destination, but also a place for scientific research. If you also want to see this unusual place for yourself, here are some recommendations and suggestions to consider before you include this stop in your California itinerary.
Directions to Racetrack Playa
How to get to Racetrack Playa? Unfortunately, we must start by telling you that it will not be easy to reach this corner of Death Valley. The road will be very bumpy and out of the way, as well as unpaved. Therefore, you will need a 4×4 vehicle (or at least with a higher than average height above the ground), otherwise, you will have no hope of reaching Racetrack Playa. In addition, due to the materials that compose the road (mainly volcanic rocks and sharp rocks), you will need to make sure that the wheels of your vehicle are in excellent condition.
In addition to the condition of the road surface, there is another important factor to keep in mind. Starting from the Ubehebe Crater (where the dirt road begins) you will have to drive at least an hour and a half one way. As if that weren’t enough, there is no phone service on this road.
If you don’t have a suitable car, and you are still determined to visit Racetrack Playa, you could rent a jeep, which you can also do in Furnace Creek in Death Valley.
Things to See
Besides the moonlike landscape that will be the focus of your visit, there are basically two natural attractions in this area of Death Valley.
Before you reach your destination about halfway down the road you will find a junction called Teakettle Junction. On the sign, you will notice a large number of teapots with written messages left by visitors to this place over the years.
The origin of this practice is not well known, but it is assumed that initially it was done to indicate the presence of water in the area.
The first point that you will reach along the dirt road is a small parking area (Grandstand Parking Area), from which you can see in front of you a rock formation with a unique shape called Grandstand. This area is also the starting point for a very demanding and tiring trail (almost 4 miles round trip with over 2,306 ft of elevation) that leads to the top of the Ubehebe Peak.
The reason why you probably have come all the way to Racetrack Plaza is to observe up close these rocks in continuous and autonomous movement. These rocks have fallen from the surrounding mountains onto the ground of the Racetrack Playa and, for a reason that is still partly a mystery today, began to move, leaving tracks behind them. Considering that some of these rocks weigh more than 660 lbs, numerous theories, including supernatural ones, have been proposed to try to explain the origin of this phenomenon.
To get as close as possible to the rocks and the tracks they have created over time, you will need to head about 2 miles south of the Grandstand Parking Area and walk to the southeast corner of the Racetrack Playa.
On August 27, 2014, research conducted by some scientists seems to have at least partially solved the mystery behind the movement of the rocks. Thanks to constant video monitoring over time, the scientists discovered that the movement is a result of a particular (and rare) combination of events.
First of all, when it rains in Racetrack Playa on cold nights, the water must reach a certain level (do not forget that we are more than 3,281 ft above sea level) to form a layer of ice that leaves the rocks exposed at the same time.
The ice that is formed will start to melt during the day and break up into smaller slabs that, exposed to strong gusts of wind (which in this area can reach almost 93 mph), begin to move together with the rocks that are “trapped” along the surface of the Racetrack Playa, leaving tracks behind.
Although the mystery of the stones may have been solved, they remain the main attraction of this place. Nevertheless, when you visit Racetrack Playa, you will have to pay particular attention not to disturb, even unintentionally, the delicate natural ecosystem.
Driving or walking outside the established routes is prohibited, as is, of course, also touching or moving stones. When mud is present on the Racetrack Playa, it is also recommended not to walk near the stones, because the footprints you would leave behind could ruin their path.