If you have a taste for adventure and don’t mind brain-rattling washboard roads, head out to Death Valley’s Racetrack, one of the national park’s most famous sights.
It’s a playa, or dry lake bed, about 3 miles long and 2 miles wide. Death Valley’s mysterious wandering rocks roam along the Racetrack.
Small stones to large boulders have made deep, long tracks on the playa’s surface, without help from anyone beyond Mother Nature. The tracks are mostly arc-shaped, but some turn at right angles and other directions, creating geometric patterns.
From the hub of the park, Furnace Creek, you’ll need to drive about 56 miles on paved roads and then 27 miles on a rough gravel road, usually an exercise in patience. Because of the danger of being stranded, this is strictly a trip for the cooler months.
Once you reach the upper end of the Racetrack Playa, stop in the first parking area and walk out to what’s called the Grandstand. This massive natural formation of quartz monzonite is a great vantage point to see the entire playa.
Back in your vehicle, go a couple of miles to the end of the playa and the parking area there. To see the rocks and their tracks up close, walk out about half a mile. Never drive on the playa, and do not walk on it if it’s damp or muddy — doing either will cause damage that could last decades.
Until 2014 no one could agree on what caused this natural phenomenon. Then a research group announced findings that seemed to solve the mystery.
With time-lapse photography and a lot of patience, they found that when the lake bed is covered with about 3 inches of water and it slightly freezes, it creates a thin sheet of ice. Next, the ice breaks up and the wind comes into play, pushing ice floes around the surface of the remaining water. Rocks embedded in the ice floes are dragged along, leaving trails in the mud below, which remain after the ice melts and the water dries up.
Elevation is 3,718 feet at the Racetrack parking area, so expect temperatures about 10 degrees cooler than in Las Vegas, and plan your visit accordingly.
There will be no services at all once you leave the Furnace Creek area. Always stop at the visitor center before embarking on the trip. You’ll need to get a map and an updated road and weather report. If it has been raining or rain threatens, save this trip for another day.
For more detailed information, contact the Furnace Creek Visitor Center at 760-786-3200 or visit nps.gov/deva.
If you go
Rough ride: You must have a high-clearance vehicle, preferably four-wheel drive, with good off-road tires. Be sure to fill the gas tank and have a reliable spare tire and the tools to change it. If you have an extra spare tire bring it along, as it’s common to have two flats on this trip, usually from sidewall damage.
What to pack: Bring more food and much more water than you think you will need for the day, in case you unexpectedly have to spend the night. Bring blankets, warm clothes and headlamps. Cellphones are not reliable in this area of the park, and don’t be surprised if you are the only traveler out there.
Length of stay: Allow a full day to explore the area and drive round-trip from the Furnace Creek area of the park.