To the uninitiated, the name Death Valley conjures an inhospitable landscape, suffocating heat and an uneventful drive to Las Vegas. At best, you’ll casually notice a misleading sign near Baker about its proximity. Located in eastern California and bordering southern Nevada, Death Valley National Park is 100 miles long and 40 miles wide (at its widest point) and is the lowest, driest, hottest place in the Western Hemisphere. Getting there is also inconvenient. Death Valley National Park is 295 miles from Los Angeles and 120 miles from Las Vegas.
But the trip is more than worth the effort.
After driving for hours through the desert, the moment you begin to make that final descent into the valley, you’ll be struck by an almost alien landscape that while certainly remote, is deceptively barren. Simply put, Death Valley is a geological wonderland where every conceivable geological formation that exists on planet Earth can be found. With hundreds of canyons, massive mountain chains, four enormous sand dune fields, and dozens of square miles of salt flats, the options available for exploration are virtually limitless.
It is here, in a remote corner of the middle of nowhere that one of the last geological mysteries has finally been solved. At the far north end of Death Valley lies Ubehebe Crater, a volcano that blew its top approximately 6,000 years ago, the remains of the pyroclastic flow still visible for miles around. Not far from the crater is a turnout leading to a dirt road, a rough dirt road, 25 miles of alignment destroying, back jarring washboard heading ever deeper into the wild. The road leads west and bends south behind the northern Cottonwood mountains through hidden valleys of pristine desert wilderness. Eventually, and past the humorous teakettle junction, the road terminates at the Devil’s Racetrack, a playa (dry lake bed) and home to the legendary sailing stones whose dried tracks suggest independent movement across the lake bed.
With some weighing more than 700 lbs, the stones originate south of the valley along the face of a craggy cliff from which rocks are prone to fall. From this craggy cliff (also known as the “Nursery”) the rocks begin their mysterious uphill journey north and through the playa. Although the rocks mostly move in a straight line, they can also carve arcing paths. Even more fascinating are the instances when they exhibit changing directions multiple times.
Many theories tried to explain this strange phenomena, among the most popular being either high wind, a slick lake bed, or thick ice as the culprits. Since the 1940s, scientists have been attempting to discover what force could possibly be responsible for moving these stones. Unfortunately, they have always come up empty handed. Until now.
A team led by Richard Norris, a Geologist from U.C. San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography, used a combination of time lapse photography and GPS linked rocks to crack the case. In the science journal PLOS One Norris documents their discovery, stating that it’s a combination of several conditions that lead to the stones’ movement. Since periods between movement events can take decades, the scientists were ready for a long and protracted experiment, but as fate would have it, last December the conditions were perfect. “Science sometimes has an element of luck,” says Richard Norris. “We expected to wait five or ten years without anything moving, but only two years into the project, we just happened to be there at the right time to see it happen in person.”
The stones move when a rare combination of events are present; one of the most important elements is rain, which is very rare in this part of the desert. Enough water must be on the playa so that 3-6 mm thin sheets of ice called windowpane ice can form and float on unfrozen water below it. Also, the water must be shallow enough (10 cm maximum) to leave the tops of the rocks exposed. As the sun warms the ice begins to melt and break up into large panels. Next, wind must be present. Interestingly, previous explanations theorized that gale force winds would be required to obtain the results seen in previous move events; however, the wind recorded was surprisingly light. These winds drive the large slabs of thin ice and the rocks across the playa, leaving their trails in the mud behind them. “On Dec. 21, 2013, ice breakup happened just around noon, with popping and cracking sounds coming from all over the frozen pond surface,” said Richard Norris. “I said to Jim, ‘This is it!'”
The rocks’ speed was only a few inches per second, a speed that is almost imperceptible from a distance and without stationary reference points. The rocks remained in motion for anywhere from a few seconds to 16 minutes. At one point, they observed rocks hundreds of yards apart moving simultaneously, travelling over 60 meters (200 feet) before stopping. The researchers also observed trails forming without the presence of rocks by grounding ice panels, features that the Park Service had previously suspected were the result of tourists stealing rocks.
If you feel inspired to head out into the Death Valley backcountry then definitely go, but remember, this place is dangerous. Do not visit the backcountry during summer, and use detailed maps, not GPS (your life could depend on it). Relying on GPS alone can lead you down a road that has been closed for almost 100 years, which Rangers dub “death by GPS”. Read this if you want to experience nightmares.
While this may conclude the mystery of the Devil’s Racetrack, perhaps all this media coverage will inspire thousands to explore this geologically rich part of our world.
(Featured image: the author at the Devil’s Racetrack, 2012)