Years ago I remember seeing an awesome photo of rolling dirt hills and in the center was a stone sitting on patterned sand and behind the stone was a smooth trail. The photo was featured in an article about how these stones move, leaving a trail behind them and scientist where unclear on how that happened. The photo and the story were so original that I knew that one day we would have to visit.
These sailing stones are located in a remote area of Death Valley National Park in California called the Racetrack Playa (playa meaning dry lake bed). It’s not an easy trek to see the stones as the drive is long (83 miles from the Furance Valley Visitors Center) and the last 27 miles are on a rough, unpaved and unmaintained road. But it’s not an ordinary unpaved and unmaintained road, the washboard road has huge rock chucks that are rough and uneven covering every inch plus the road is narrow only allowing one vehicle at a time. Researching about the road makes one even more nervous as it suggests having a spare tire, flares, fit a flat and extra food and water in case you get stuck overnight plus just this part of the road takes 2-3 hours! Due to all these reasons, not many people venture out to the area.
Brad and I decided one afternoon in January that we just had to do this soon so we reached out to our RV friends that not only love weird adventures but are totally cool with driving a crazy amount of hours to see some stones. It was decided we would go in February, before it got too hot in Death Valley so one Saturday afternoon, Brad and I took off for an almost 8 hour drive to the park. It was a long but pretty drive that took us further and further away from the urban area. By the time it was nighttime we were in the dark desert and were grateful for the full moon. The next day was the big adventure day and we all were excited as we set up camp that night.
The best decision we made about the trip was renting a Jeep because a vehicle like that is much easier to maneuver on the type of road we would be driving on (would recommend the one and only Jeep rental in Death Valley Farabee Jeeps). Getting up early, we ventured out with the Jeep, stuffed with water and food. It was suppose to be sunny and warm that day but it ended up being mostly cloudy with a wind advisory. It was unbelievably windy plus no sun which made it feel like winter. All four of us didn’t bring enough layers so we just toughed it out (this was a first for not having enough warm clothing as we normally always bring too much).
The first destination we hit on the drive was Ubehebe Crater, a large volcano crater that is a half a mile wide and 600 feet deep. We decided to wait until after seeing the stones to stop there.
After the crater is where the road is no longer paved and it marked by this nice sign:
We all knew what we were getting into at this point so we just buckled down and started. Now, was the road bad? Yes. Was there huge rocks that we had to avoid? Yes. Was is bumpy? Yes. Was there parts that the road felt like a roller coaster ride? Yes. Was the road narrow? Yes. Was the road as bad as we though it was going to be? No. Don’t get us wrong, it was a far cry from a walk in the park and the drive is not something one any of us would want to repeat anytime soon but because of the Jeep and following the guidelines by the Jeep rental guy, it was doable. It took us an hour to get to the racetrack from the Crater, as opposed to 2-3 hours. If one had a small car or any vehicle that wasn’t made for that type of off roading than definitely that road would be horrendous and long. Would we all go again in a Jeep? Yes we would.
There are two parts to the playa-the Grandstand and the racetrack. The Grandstand is a very large rock island in the middle of the playa where one can climb and explore. Past that is the racetrack, where the sailing stones are. The day we went the playa was dry enough to walk on so we wouldn’t leave any footprints. The unfortunate part is not everyone that goes to the playa is respectful.
If the playa is wet, they will walk on it, leaving footprints in the sand. We saw a few footprints and couldn’t believe we saw tire tracks that were over a year old! It takes years for the playa to recover from the damage so please be respectful and leave without a trace.
It was fun to wonder around looking for stones and when one was found someone would yell “over here” and we all went running over. This experience was a bucket list activity and for us, was worth every penny. It would have been a dream to spend the whole day there, getting photos and taking in a once in a lifetime experience but the wind was just too bad and we all toughed it out as long as we could but after a couple of hours we left.
Why is this place so special? Maybe because it’s not well known or that it is in a remote area. Or maybe it’s because of the mystery behind the stones moving. It wasn’t until recently that the discovery of the stones movement was solved. Scientists have studied the playa since the early 1900’s and it wasn’t until 2014, two years into the research project, that the sailing stone mystery was solved. Researchers discovered that a very thin layer of ice sometimes covers the dry lake bed and when the ice begins to melt due to the morning sun, the ice breaks up making floating ice panels. The floating ice panels push the stones thus creating a trail. During the research, some stones moved once, some multiple times and a few stones moved 200 feet before reaching its resting point. Stones went straight, some curved and some did both. This phenomenon only happens every 2-3 years and the marks only last 3-4. So maybe now you understand why it was so awesome to see stones in dirt.
Hope everyone is doing well and staying healthy. Happy Trails!