Sunday, September 30, 2012

Death Valley - Racetrack Playa

The Amazing Sliding Rocks

Welcome to the Racetrack Playa at Death Valley National Park, home to a most peculiar natural phenomenon - rocks that apparently move around by themselves.

The flat, clay-like surface of the playa was once the bottom of a mountain lake.  Rocks tumble from the surrounding slopes onto the playa as a result of common erosion. But here is where the mystery begins - the rocks continue to move along the level surface of the playa.

Mysterious Sliding Rocks!

Pebbles will slide across the playa with the slightest breeze. But much larger stones - some the size of a microwave over and weighing hundreds of pounds - will move under certain conditions. Even more surprisingly, the rocks leave behind mysterious trails that mark the direction and distance of their travels.

a photo of a sliding rock at the racetrack in death valley
Rocks Fall From The Mountains...And Keep Going!

Trails in the playa can be up to a mile in length, but no one has ever seen any of the larger rocks move.

a photo of long trails left by sliding rocks on the racetrack in death valley
Long Trails, Racetrack Playa, Death Valley NP

What's the secret?  How do rocks move unassisted along a level surface?

In rainy weather, the playa becomes soft and slippery.  Visitors are asked not to walk on the playa when it's wet, because the impressions left by their footprints can last for years. (Unfortunately, some visitors fail to follow these guidelines.) This explains how the moving rocks leave an impression in a normally rigid surface.

Does the moistened playa become slippery enough to allow the wind to push heavy rocks across its surface?  No one knows for certain, but this would seem to be the most reasonable explanation.  The surrounding mountains form a channel where wind is accelerated.

a photo of a rock making a curved path at the racetrack in death valley
Ha ha! I bet you didn't see me move!

Would you like to explore the Racetrack Playa for yourself?  Some preparation will be required.  Firstly, as with most of Death Valley, exploration in the summer months is strongly discouraged.  The heat is extremely dangerous, and distances are significant.  It can take a long time for help to reach a stranded hiker or motorist.  Perhaps too long.

Secondly, you'll need a sturdy vehicle.  To reach the Racetrack Playa you'll need to drive thirty-plus miles on one of the roughest washboard roads I've ever encountered.  The rocks on this road will quickly shred the tires on your rental car.  Your best bet is to rent a Jeep with the right kind of tires.

a photo of photographer daniel south at the racetrack playa in death valley national park
I Could Go For A Nice Hot Shower About Now

I need to add a cautionary note here.  Keep your camera, lenses, phone, tripod, water bottles, food containers, and all other supplies in tightly closed bags while driving along the washboard roads.  The dust in this area adheres to everything, and your vehicle will kick up a lot of dust.  It stuck to my water bottles as though it had been glued on.  Don't expose your valuables and your tech gadgets.  Keep them in cases, and wrap the cases up in heavy garbage bags.

After 26 miles of pounding washboard, you'll arrive at a curiously decorated sign post known as Teakettle Junction.  Only six more miles to the playa, but it's the roughest part of the trip.

a photo of teakettle junction in death valley by daniel south
I Wonder Why They Call It Teakettle Junction

There are no comfort facilities at the Racetrack, but there's a campsite a few miles down the road.  There, you'll find a lone portable toilet which I've fondly nicknamed 'The Outhouse of Last Resort'.  You would be well advised to bring along your own supply of toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

a photo of an outhouse in death valley
The Outhouse of Last Resort

If everything goes well you can enjoy one of the world's great mysteries, grab a number of memorable shots, and look forward to another long drive on washboard roads, all in a day's adventure.

a photograph of a brilliant sunset at the racetrack in death valley
Racetrack Playa at Sunset, Death Valley National Park

        Canon EOS 5D Mark II

        Canon 24-105 f/4L IS
        Canon TS-E24 f/3.5L II

Light happens.  Be ready.  Shoot hard.

Copyright © 2012 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved


  1. Your ability to enter into relashionship with the landscape is part of what makes your photography so beautiful and meaningful for the viewer.

    1. Thanks for this eloquent and thoughtful comment. I appreciate it, and I do try to get to know the landscapes that I photograph as much as time permits.