Wanted: Racetrack Playa’s Missing Stones
By: Talor Stone February 2nd, 2018
There exists a place where rocks come to life and race one another on a dry lake bed with nothing but the peaks of mountains to cheer them on. The evidence of their escapades is engraved on the surface of the playa – leaving no doubt about the exploits, yet revealing little explanation to the “how,” “why,” and “when.” You see… no one has ever witnessed the show. For over 100 years, how exactly the phenomenon of the Sailing Stones occurred remained a mystery until 2014 when a team of scientists finally discovered the truth. The trails are created during cold winter nights following a rare heavy rainfall when ice forms a sheet on the surface of the playa. The next morning, sun heats the playa causing the ice to break apart and slide in the breeze dragging the entrapped stones with it.
Accessing Racetrack Playa alone is no small feat. It requires a certain kind of determination and preparedness which is surely not entirely accidental. The deterrence of the rough roads are adequate to turn around many fair-weather travelers which protects this fragile space from mass tourism. The 27 mile trek requires a vehicle with high clearance and heavy-duty tires (do NOT attempt this road with street tires!). The drive is uniquely stunning in its own way – the high desert is simultaneously barren and yet full of life and there are a wide variety of cacti as far as the eye can see with mountains in every direction. Assuming you survive the 2 hours of concussion-inducing rattling down roughshod roads, you will crest a hill and be rewarded with a stunning view of Racetrack Playa unfolding before you with the epic and surreal Grandstand rock formation at its center.
When I arrived, there wasn’t a soul around and I immediately gave into the urge to park and run right onto the hardened, cracked surface of the playa. Its perfectly level surface was surreal in the context of the rocky and mountainous landscape surrounding it, and at that moment I perfectly understood why a rock would wish to race here. The looming Grandstand formation sits at the center of the north end of the playa, and the way it rises abruptly from the level field begs for you to climb it. But soon the hunt for the Sailing Stones urged me onward. At the south end of the playa, you need only take a few steps onto the mosaic plane to discover the first of many Sailing Stones. I spent two days watching the light change and exploring the unique landscape near and far. Sadly, the light was not particularly great and I never had the opportunity to shoot a gorgeous sunrise or sunset (I’ll just have to go back!). Despite this, the experience was truly magical and surreal and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to escape the crowds and see a different side of Death Valley.
Despite how much I enjoyed my recent visit to Death Valley’s Racetrack Playa, the location was missing something glaringly obvious. Some of the famous Sailing Stones were missing! In all, I counted five trails with their apparent maker unaccounted for – leaving nothing but an empty indention in the earth at the trail’s terminus. With so few Sailing Stones present, the loss of five (or possibly more) is a significant blow to a remarkable and rare phenomenon.
This begs the question: Why must people ruin nice things?! I can’t begin to fathom what would go through someone’s mind that compels them to steal one of these precious stones. The stones only have value in their natural context with the playa before them and their trail behind. Without the playa and their time-worn trails, they are just plain old rocks. Most of the stones (including the ones stolen) are fairly large and could not have been stolen without genuine effort and intention. This makes it highly unlikely they were accidentally kicked out of place or moved by an unchaperoned child.
In addition to the missing stones, there were a number of tire tracks and footprints encrusted in the gorgeous playa left by careless visitors who failed to heed the numerous signs about not straying from the designated roadways and not traversing the playa when it is wet. Because it can be more than a decade between rains significant enough to repair the surface of the playa, these are lasting marks which can negatively impact years of visits. Making the situation even worse, my time in Death Valley was during the latest government shutdown and, all politics aside, I found myself repeatedly disappointed by the things I saw. I have never seen so many drones in a national park before. Or so much trash on the ground next to overflowing dumpsters. Or so many people driving off roads despite clear signs. It seems that without the watchful eyes of the caretakers of our natural places, the humans have instead become the animals.
All of these factors culminate in a lasting urgency to remind you to leave no trace…not even footprints…and take nothing but pictures. In fact, do better than the ‘leave no trace’ mentality. Pick up trash when you’re hiking (I always carry a repurposed grocery bag for this), and politely offer to help or assist those breaking the rules to return to where they should be.
I don’t want this to feel like a lecture, so I’ll just leave you with this final thought. These lands are for all of us, so be sure to proactively take steps to act as a good steward so they can be enjoyed in the future. With just a little effort we can instead leave these places better than when we first arrived and that is the true spirit of conservation.