Racetrack Playa & The Mystery of the Sailing Stones

Last Updated on: 11th November 2023, 09:00 am

Racetrack Playa and its sailing stones have mystified scientists and adventurous travelers alike for over a century. Situated in a remote and hard-to-reach part of Death Valley National Park, the playa is a flat, dry lakebed that’s home to dozens of rocks that seemingly move on their own – but only when nobody’s around.

In the following guide, we’ll be covering how to visit Racetrack Playa and a detailed account of the mystery of its sailing stones – a mystery which many now claim has finally been solved.

Also be sure to check the end of the article for specifics on transportation, tour options, and the best places to stay in Death Valley.

Getting to Racetrack Playa

The journey to Racetrack Playa is anything but easy. First, you’ll have to make it to Ubehebe Crater, about 90 minutes from Furnace Creek. And right by the crater is the start of the infamous Racetrack Rd.

Racetrack Rd is 27 miles long and one of the park’s roughest roads. While some sections are relatively smooth, much of the road is filled with jagged, sharp rocks.

While park rangers occasionally inspect it and do close the road if conditions get especially bad, they have no intention of paving it. The rough road helps protect Racetrack Playa from the masses, while the difficult journey only adds to its mystique.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Stopping for a break

If you plan on visiting Racetrack Playa on your own, note that a regular AWD SUV won’t do here. You’ll definitely need a 4×4 with very high clearance, while you’ll also need to take into account all the risks associated with this journey and plan accordingly. Be sure to check out more tips below.

Not keen on the idea of potentially getting stranded out on Racetrack Rd for a day or two, I decided to take a tour for this excursion.

The main (and probably only) operator in the area is Farabee’s Jeep Rentals and Tours. Though the family business began in Moab, Utah, they now operate exclusively in Death Valley and have an office right in Furnace Creek.

Again, check the end of the article for specifics on taking a tour.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Teakettle Junction with just a single teakettle

Taking a break from the bumpy journey, we stopped at Teakettle Junction on the way – about seven miles out from Racetrack Playa.

The early settlers traversing these hostile lands used to place teakettles which served as arrows to help guide future travelers. As an homage to the old tradition, many modern visitors now bring teakettles of their own to hang on the sign.

While there are typically tens of teakettles hanging from the sign, the NPS has recently been taking them down and throwing them away. And at the time of my visit, only one lonely teakettle hung by itself.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Approaching Racetrack Playa

Getting back into the Hummer, it wasn’t long before we reached the playa – a long and oval lakebed that measures 2.8 miles long by 1.3 miles wide. Approaching from the north, we could see a unique formation known as the Grandstand, though we’d end up saving that for last.

We continued onward to start the visit at Racetrack Playa’s southern end, as that’s where most of the sailing stones can be found.

Exploring Racetrack Playa

Racetrack Playa and its mysterious sailing stones have been known about since at least 1915. The rocks were discovered by Joseph Crook, who was looking to start a mine in the area.

And ever since, scientists and tourists alike have been eager to solve the mystery of the sailing stones. While many of them have left behind tracks and appear to be racing, a hundred years went by before anyone witnessed them move.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
A short but thick trail

Walking out onto the playa from the designated parking area, it won’t be long before you see some stones. They vary in size and shape, while there’s little consistency to the trails they’ve left behind.

Some trails are perfectly straight. Some show evidence of a sharp turn at some point, while others are smooth and curvy. The trails also vary in length, and some are much more pronounced than others.

But if these rocks are inanimate objects without minds of their own, how did they move?

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
One of the Racetrack Playa's curviest trails

The Wind Theory

Geologists began seriously studying the sailing stones in 1948. And since then, one of the most popular theories has been that the rocks are being pushed by extremely strong wind – the type that creates dust devils. 

Things can indeed get very windy at Racetrack Playa, reaching up to 90 mph on some days. But some of these rocks are heavier than people, and wind alone would not be enough to move such heavy objects – especially on dry days.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones

Therefore, proponents of the Wind Theory decided that conditions on the playa had to be wet and muddy if wind were to push the stones.

When the playa is wet, the upper layer is slippery mud, underneath which remains a hard surface that’s firm enough to prevent the rocks from sinking. The sediment here, in fact, is up to 1000 feet deep beneath the uppermost layer!

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones

Another popular early theory suggests that the rocks move due to some type of magnetic pull. The rocks, however, don’t contain enough iron for that to be the case. 

Around 92% of the sailing stones are dolomite, while a small percentage are quartz monzonite or granite.

As we’ll cover below, there’s long been yet another prominent theory about the sailing stones which is now widely regarded as the one that’s finally solved the mystery for good.

Leave No Trace

When visiting Racetrack Playa, in addition to experiencing the mystery and wonder of the place, you’ll also sadly witness evidence of terrible behavior from past visitors. 

For example, there have been incidents of people driving their vehicles over parts of the playa shortly after rain, leaving marks that will last for decades. You’ll also see footprints embedded into the playa as well.

While the area is far too remote to be guarded by rangers, there are now at least fences along the playa’s edge which discourage people from driving onto it.

But while the tracks and footprints on the playa may have possibly been done out of ignorance, the worst cases of vandalism involve the displacement of some of the rocks. 

Apparently, some people thought it would be funny to remove certain rocks from their original trails, placing them at the edge of tire tracks instead. It goes without saying, but this hampers the experience of researchers and travelers alike for years to come.

On the bright side, as far as I could tell, the tracks, footprints and vandalism are restricted to one general area. And if you know where to go, there are plenty of rocks that remain undisturbed.

While the displacement of some rocks has undoubtedly occurred, it’s also worth noting that researchers now believe that some rock-less trails did indeed form on their own! This is a topic we’ll touch on shortly.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
One of the playa's most clearly defined trails

Depending on which time of day you’re visiting, many of the trails can appear rather faint. But there are some especially thick trails that are prominent no matter when you visit.

As we’ll cover below, the trails are best seen when the sun is lower in the sky, but this won’t be possible for most people due to logistical reasons.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones

The Nursery

While the question of how the sailing stones have been able to move has long baffled researchers, it’s long been known where the stones originated: a cleverly-titled part of the playa called the ‘Nursery.’

Reading other online reports about visiting Racetrack Playa, it appears that many people have missed the Nursery entirely, only spending their time at the rocks near the parking area. But the Nursery is by far the best place to admire the sailing stones.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones

Ordinarily, I’d be happy to share exactly how to find the Nursery. But given the terrible acts of vandalism mentioned above, I won’t go into detail here. If you’re really determined to figure it out, it shouldn’t be too difficult.

It’s from the dolomite cliffs of the Nursery that most of the sailing stones first fall onto the playa. And it’s in this area especially  that they appear to be racing each other, with many of the stones having parallel tracks.

And these parallel tracks are often cited by proponents of the current dominant theory on the sailing stones: the ice theory.

The Ice Theory

Together with the Wind Theory, the Ice Theory has been postulated since as far back as the 1940s. And just like the Wind Theory, proponents of the Ice Theory have long believed that the rocks are pushed by wind when the playa is especially slippery – albeit due to ice rather than mud.

Given Racetrack Playa’s elevation of 3,708 ft (1130 m) above sea level, it can indeed get cold here during winter. So cold, in fact, that following rare instances of rain, the water can even freeze at night.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Rocks which appear to be racing from the Nursery

The Ice Theory isn’t quite as simple as there being a layer of ice directly over the playa that the rocks just slide over. Rather, following rain, a large layer of ice forms atop the water, meaning there’s still a layer of water in between the ice and the playa floor.

But by late morning the next day (if it happens to be sunny), it will be warm enough for the huge ice sheet to partially melt. The ice then breaks up into multiple smaller ice sheets which are then pushed by the wind. 

And when the floating ice sheets make contact with the rocks, it produces enough force to drag them across the playa, leaving trails behind them.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones

While long speculated, it was finally proven by researchers Richard Norris and James Norris, who claimed to solve the mystery in 2014. 

But first, in the beginning of the study, they placed fifteen of their own rocks on the playa that contained GPS trackers. And they also installed a weather tracker to measure the wind. 

Throughout the study, they were able to document various movements of the playa rocks, with as many as 60 moving at once during a particular instance. But they still hadn’t witnessed it themselves.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones

But finally, in January 2014, they saw with their own eyes what visitors had been hoping to witness for a century!

The fact that they happened to be there when some rocks moved was largely a matter of luck, as they’d later determine that the sailing stones will only move under the perfect combination of circumstances.

The event happened on a winter day when Racetrack Playa was covered in a lake about three inches deep. And the team also confirmed that the moving rocks were indeed surrounded by broken ice sheets.

While we don’t have video, several images put together as a time-lapse clearly show one of the stones gliding across the playa. You can see the time-lapse here, while their research paper can be found here.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones

As mentioned, the Ice Theory has been around for a long time. But it was generally believed that the ice would have to be very thick and that the wind would have to be very strong for the rocks to move.

But according to Richard and James Norris (who are cousins), the ice was only an eighth of an inch thick (3-6 mm)! They also found that the wind only has to be blowing 4-5 m/s (around 10 mph) for the rocks to move.

Notably, rather than these being the minimum requirements to make the stones move, it seems like they can only move when the rare combination of these specific conditions occurs. That’s why it could be years to decades in between spurts of movement of a particular rock.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones

Mystery Solved?

After nearly a century of bewilderment, the mystery of the sailing stones has finally been solved. Or has it? 

As you walk around Racetrack Playa yourself and read more on the topic, you’ll realize that there are still plenty of unanswered questions.

One thing I wondered during my visit was why the paths don’t begin at the Nursery. But this is likely because they eventually faded over time. The rocks then probably formed new paths in the middle of the playa, and those will eventually fade, too.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones

While researchers have finally observed the movement of smaller rocks, none of the bigger rocks moved on that day. Some of the heaviest rocks, in fact, weigh up to a staggering 700 lbs, or 320 kg! 

Can we be sure that these rocks are also being pushed by thin ice sheets and light wind?

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones

Yet another mystery is the fact that it’s not only the heavy rocks creating the trails. While I spotted a tree branch with a trail behind and assumed that some prankster had placed it there, I later read that it is indeed real!

Furthermore, scientists now believe that ice alone can form trails without needing to push other objects! While there’s no doubt that some rocks have been interfered with, it’s possible that some of the rockless trails were actually that way from the start.

But how could such thin layers of ice form a trail that looks just like those left by the heavy rocks?

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
A sailing ... branch?

To me, the largest unsolved mystery is the great variation in the outlines of the trails. For example, the seemingly parallel trails near the Nursery are often cited as evidence for the Ice Theory being conclusive. 

But when visiting, it’s clear that a majority of the rocks are not moving parallel to one another at all. Some of the paths, in fact, crisscross and intersect, while some rocks look like they’re about to collide.

A small stone leaves behind a curvy trail, which intersects with another
Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Yet another curvy (but faint) trail

And what about all of the smooth and curvy trails? Did the wind really change directions so suddenly? If these wavy trails are actually a composite of different movements over time, wouldn’t it result in trails with jagged, sharp edges (which do indeed exist) rather than smooth, curvy lines?

Interestingly, the original dust devil theory actually does a better job at explaining this, as unlike tornadoes, they can spin in either direction. But as they’re most common in summer, dust devil winds combined with ice likely never occur.

I also wondered if a slight variation in the slope of the playa may have contributed to some of the unusual paths. But no – the Racetrack Playa, in fact, is regarded as one of the flattest natural surfaces on the planet.

The difference between the south and north ends of the playa – which are 2.8 miles apart – is only a mere two inches!

A traffic accident?

While we’ve certainly come a long way in regards to understanding Racetrack Playa and the sailing stones, science is never truly settled. And with numerous unanswered questions remaining, it may be premature to claim that the mystery has been completely solved.

Mystery or no mystery, these sailing stones are still fascinating to contemplate. No two stones’ journeys are exactly the same, with each one moving in its own way and at its own pace – an apt metaphor for travel itself.

The Grandstand

Finished with admiring the sailing stones, it was time to move on to the northern part of the playa, home to the Grandstand. This large outcrop, which reaches up to 66 ft (20 m) high, appears as an island in the middle of the flat desert terrain.

The formation is comprised of quartz-monzonite, an igneous rock that cooled beneath the surface of the earth before rising up millions of years ago.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones

Racetrack Playa is surrounded by the Cottonwood Mountains, some sections of which have unique and beautiful color patterns. 

Standing at the right angle, you can see the playa, the Grandstand and the mountains all in one view, which makes for a stunning sight.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones

Given how far the northern end of the playa is from the Nursery, there are hardly any sailing stones out here. Unfortunately, though, some pranksters placed a couple of rocks at the edge of more tire tracks.

If you’ve already been to the playa’s southern end, you should immediately be able to tell that it’s fake.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones

You don’t only have to admire the Grandstand from afar, as it can also be climbed. And from the top, you can enjoy a surreal view of the long, oval playa stretching out for miles.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones

Despite a relatively short time at Racetrack Playa, it was already getting late, and we had to start the long journey back to Furnace Creek. I took one last look at this unique and enigmatic place before getting back into the vehicle.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones

Additional Info

Regardless of how you plan on getting to Racetrack Playa, always make sure to stay up-to-date on whether it will even be accessible during your visit.

Flash floods are becoming increasingly common these days, and it sometimes takes months for Death Valley’s roads to be rebuilt or repaired. And given its remote location, Racetrack Rd is often one of the last places to be reopened for visitors following a disaster.

GOING ON YOUR OWN

To get to Racetrack Playa, you’ll first need to drive to Ubehebe Crater. The one-way journey from Furnace Creek takes about 90 minutes. Stovepipe Wells is a bit closer, with the journey taking about 75 minutes. Fortunately, the road to the crater is entirely paved.

But Racetrack Rd, which begins just next to the crater, is an entirely different story. As mentioned above, if you plan on getting there yourself, you’ll need a high-clearance 4×4. Your tires should also be special off-road tires, and it helps to slightly deflate them before driving over the jagged rocks.

The Racetrack Road is 27 miles long, and people’s driving times will vary greatly depending on how careful they are.

In case you get a flat tire, be sure to have a spare and know how to change it. But I’ve even heard stories of people getting multiple flat tires at the same time!

There’s no cellphone reception out here, so if you get stuck, you’d have to be prepared to spend at least a night or so in your car under harsh desert conditions. And then you’d probably have to pay for expensive towing. And if you’re in Death Valley on limited time, you can forget about the rest of your itinerary.

If you don’t have your own 4×4, you can rent one from Farabee’s Jeep Rentals and Tours located in Furnace Creek. At the time of writing, a daily Jeep rental costs $345.

They even provide you with a satellite GPS messenger with which you can contact them in case of emergency. If you’re traveling with your own vehicle, you might also want to consider buying such a device to stay in touch with your loved ones in case you get stuck somewhere.

TAKING A TOUR

As mentioned above, I opted to take a tour with Farabee’s in order to avoid any potential mishaps. The price of the tour is $345 per person for the first two adults and then $275 per person after that. While quite pricey, I have no regrets.

In addition to being driven by someone who’s very familiar with the route, our guide also explained a lot of fascinating geological facts about Death Valley as a whole. And without a guide, I wouldn’t have known exactly where to go to find many of the undisturbed stones pictured above.

Before booking, you should be aware that you’ll only have a short time at Racetrack Playa itself. Considering what a long journey it was to get there and back, we were only able to spend about 90 minutes on the playa in total.

The trails behind the sailing stones are most visible when the sun is lower in the sky. But in order to avoid making the journey in the dark, you’d only be able to catch the Racetrack Playa in early morning or late afternoon by spending a night in your car, which technically isn’t even allowed at the playa. 

At the very southern end of Racetrack Rd (past the playa), however, is the Homestake Dry Campground.

But what if you’re taking a tour? Most tours run by Farabee’s depart early in the morning. But when making my reservation, I asked them about the most ideal time for photos.  They then suggested an alternate schedule which had us departing at 10 am instead. 

Therefore, while still not the most ideal timing, I’d at least be able to explore the playa when the sun was slightly lower in the sky. And we’d ultimately get back to Furnace Creek around 16:30.

If you’re going independently but don’t want to spend the night out there, I’d recommend departing around the same time or perhaps around eleven. A great way to spend the day would be to arrive at Ubehebe Crater in the morning, do the hike there for an hour or two, and then proceed to Racetrack Playa.

In my case, immediately following the Racetrack tour, I drove all the way to the Mahogany Campground (the base for Telescope Peak), a couple of hours away from Furnace Creek. We then just barely managed to set up camp and cook before it got dark. While a very hectic schedule, it all worked out in the end.

Figuring out where to stay for your Death Valley trip can be stressful and challenging. Given the park’s massive size, the most convenient base would be at one of the hotels within the park itself.

Unfortunately, however, all of the hotels and restaurants within Death Valley are owned by the Xanterra Corporation and they don’t come cheap. The different options include The RanchThe Inn at Death Valley and The Oasis.

If you don’t have the budget to splurge on those hotels, you’re left with two options: stay in a city outside the park or camp. First, let’s explore the best bases outside of Death Valley, all of which are located in Nevada.

Las Vegas

Las Vegas isn’t ideal for those doing longer adventures in the park. But if you only have a day in Death Valley, it serves as a fine base. The city is about two hours one-way between the city and the eastern pay station.

Tourists into gambling, nightlife and an all-around typical Las Vegas experience tend to stay on or near the Strip. This area is home to a myriad of hotels and casinos, many of which are household names, such as Mandalay Bay or Luxor.

Las Vegas, however, is a fast-growing city with new residential areas being built each year, and much of the greater metropolitan area feels surprisingly normal.

Some good choices outside of the strip area include Tahiti All-Suite ResortSouth Point Hotel or Aloft Henderson, just to name a few.

Pahrump

The small city of Pahrump is arguably the best base for Death Valley. It’s right in between Las Vegas and the park, or an hour each way from either.

It has lots of shopping and restaurant options, while many of the local casinos also feature hotels. My only experience was at the Saddle West Hotel Casino. While the rooms were nothing special, they did have all of the essentials and were reasonably priced.

Beatty

Beatty, Nevada is another convenient base for Death Valley, being only 50 minutes from Furnace Creek. Compared to Pahrump, however, it’s harder to reach for those coming from afar.

All in all, Beatty is much more charming than Pahrump but it also has fewer shopping and dining options. I stayed once at the Exchange Club Motel, which was fine as far as motels go. It seems to be run by the same management as the nearby Death Valley Inn (not to be confused with The Inn at Death Valley inside the park).

If you’re still considering camping, read more below.

Death Valley is home to numerous campsites, with the most popular one being right in Furnace Creek near the Visitor Center. I spent a night there during one visit and it only cost $22 per night. But would I recommend it?

While the campsites themselves are cheap, consider the fact that the gas stations at Death Valley cost around double what they cost in Pahrump or Beatty.

Also keep in mind that the campsites lack showers. So if you’re hoping to shower after a long day, your only option will be to buy a pool pass from one of the Xanterra hotels which will grant you access to their showers. But at the time of writing, these passes go for a whopping $14 per person per day!

And if you want to eat at a restaurant within the park instead of cooking at your campsite, you’re going to spend more than double what you would at a restaurant in a nearby city.

Taking all of this into consideration, you may even end up spending more by camping at Death Valley compared with booking a cheap hotel in Pahrump.

Another issue to consider when camping is that it can sometimes get extremely windy without warning in the desert. And the ground is so hard at the lower elevation campsites that you can’t use your tent stakes.

If you have an RV, of course, some of the issues above can be averted. (If you don’t have your own, consider renting one on a site like Outdoorsy.)

Despite all of the issues, there’s still one major reason to camp at Death Valley: getting an early morning start for a hot low-elevation hike, such as the Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch loop hike.

In the end, the best way to enjoy a longer stay at Death Valley is to mix things up by camping and staying at hotels outside the park on alternate nights.

At the time of writing, Death Valley costs $30 to enter (learn more here).

If you’re visiting from abroad, note that in contrast to many other countries, US parks typically charge per vehicle rather than per person. However, if you’re traveling by bicycle instead, they’ll charge you for an individual pass which costs $15, while those on motorcycles will be charged $25.

Considering how many National Parks and National Monuments there are to see in the Southwest alone, the best option for most will be to buy an ‘America the Beautiful’ Annual National Parks Pass.

These cost $80 for the year. In most cases, you’re already saving money by just visiting four National Parks/Monuments anywhere in the country within a full year.

What’s more, is that only one person in your vehicle needs to have the pass. Additionally, seniors can buy the pass for just $20. So if you have someone over 62 in your party, just have them get the annual pass and everyone else will be set.

As for where to get the pass, you can purchase it in person at most National Parks or Monuments. But you can also order it in advance online.

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