Death Valley National Park: The Racetrack, or The Mystery of the Moving Stones

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So here’s the thing about North America: we haven’t been here that long. We really haven’t. Likely Native Americans have been here longer than history and science have traditionally thought. The thirteen-thousand-year-old bones found at Channel Islands National Park hint at that. But in particular, we who descend from peoples who didn’t cross the Bering Land Bridge have been on this continent hardly any time at all. And so there are still mysteries here. There are still things we don’t understand about how this place we call home works. How just the right barometric pressure and just the right wind velocity and just the right thin skein of ice or frost on just a flat enough surface like a dried lake can cause solid rock to skid across the land and leave a trail like a snail, a long footprint like a snake that twists and spirals and doubles back on itself. Because there are mysteries left on this continent.

And one of those mysteries is Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park, a mysterious that place exists in 2017 is a testament to the legacy of a century and a half of conservation in North America. And so we went, three Catholic boys as if to church, on the morning of Sunday, February 26, to a place full of magic.

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Racetrack Valley

Sean and Andrew and I, caffeinated but not fed, hopped into Andrew’s wonderful Jeep and drove up Hidden Valley, through Lost Burr Gap, and into Racetrack Valley. Just past Teakettle Junction, Andrew pulled over, and the three of us hopped out. There to the south was the flat flat flat expanse of Racetrack Playa, 3,700 feet above sea level, nestled between the Cottonwood Mountains and the Nelson Range. Rising from it, dark brown, was the improbable rock of the Grandstand. Uncaptured in this image is, in the distance, the snow-covered battlement of the Inyo Mountains visible to the west. The aridity, the snowy ridge of the Inyos, it just fires the imagination.

I would place this vista and the enticements and rewards of exploration that it offers against any vista in the National Park system. It’s one of the great, magical places on our continent.

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So down we drove, another seven miles, past the otherworldly formation of the Grandstand, to the parking area for the Racetrack on the western side of Death Valley National Park.

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Here in this valley there was once a lake. The remnant lake is not what makes this place unusual. Hidden Valley, adjacent to the east where we had spent the night, also once would have held a lake. Both the lakes here and there would have been dwarfed by Panamint Lake that once filled Panamint Valley and Lake Manley that once filled Death Valley. All of the basins between these ranges once held lakes. We were lucky enough to be visiting after a nearly unprecedented winter of precipitation. There had been so much rain that part of the flats in northern Panamint Valley were wet with a few inches of standing water. Here at Racetrack Playa, there was a channel of standing water. And, as we would see firsthand the following day, even Badwater Basin, the lowest, hottest, driest place on the continent, was wet with the the death throes of the Amargosa River.

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A desert playa is among the flattest surfaces that occur in nature. As the lakes dried up all-but-permanently the water and deposits of sand established an equilibrium so that the inches deep water settled over the flat deposits before drying up. What was left was an incredibly flat lakebed of sandy mud that had dried and cracked into patterns.

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This is a landscape that is supernaturally flat, particularly with multihued peaks and ridges rising on either side.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

And then there are the rocks.

You see, the thing about Racetrack Playa…and not even all of Racetrack Playa…just the southern end of Racetrack Playa…is that large stones, small boulders at least twice the size of your head, have clearly traversed the flat, dry former lakebed.

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How is it obvious that the stones and rocks have done this? They’ve left telltale tracks in the surface of the playa. This rock has traveled all the way from the edge of the playa to where it rests, for now.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Some of the rocks have been downright companionable, pursuing parallel tracks despite a difference in size and weight. Which when you think about it is absolutely baffling.

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Image: Andrew Zalewski

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It is quickly obvious that the source of the rocks is the scree field at the southern end of the playa, which makes the rocks that have clearly most recently traveled from north to south all the more mind-blowing.

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And then there are the trails that clearly indicate changes in direction and even reversals and doubling back on previous tracks. What?!

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Andrew and I decided that Sean looked like Papa Smurf that morning with his blue torso, red cap, and white at the chin.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

Surprisingly enough, we were not alone on the playa when we arrived that morning. One of our fellows was a photographer with a seriously old-timey camera. But by and large those who had apparently been there for sunrise were departing as we three walked farther out onto the playa.

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Again, a playa like this is among the flattest naturally occurring surfaces on the planet.

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So the wind blew two rocks along a virtually parallel track, barely five feet beyond each other…and the wind blew those rocks across a the path of another rock. Or another rock blew across the path of those rocks. But why didn’t all three rocks blow the same direction? What is this place?!

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Image: Andrew Zalewski

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Image: Sean M. Santos

And why, if two rocks were blowing the same direction, did the larger one travel so much farther? And if the answer to that is bobsled velocity…heavier bodies sliding farther on ice…why on other parts of the playa did the smaller rock clearly travel farther than the larger rock? And why again did the two rocks at top travel to the same point on two visible parallel tracks even though one was twice the size of the other?

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Andrew Zalewski

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Sean Santos contemplates the mysteries of Racetrack Playa…or makes friends with a rock.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Andrew Zalewski

And why have large rocks…that’s a large rock next to Andrew…traveled the same distance as small rocks?

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Ultimately, the three of us made our way to the point where the playa ran right up to the bottom of the scree field. Here were the rocks that would eventually travel their own paths out onto and across the playa.

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Among the litter of scree, the tracks of the already departed rocks were clearly visible.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Also visible was the discoloration that betrayed the edge of recently standing water.

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The rock above is just beyond the edge of the scree field. It’s almost impossible not to anthropomorphize this rock and give it a voice saying, “I’m next! I’m going on an adventure!”

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Andrew, our own adventurer, spotted a social trail up to an overlook above the playa.

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Image: Andrew Zalewski

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From that vantage point, the paths of the rocks were clearly parallel. But even here there was a mystery: In the three parallel trails pictured above, the middle one has a large stone at the northern (top) end and a small stone at the southern (bottom) end. Why? Did one stone split? And the track at the right mirrors this. But the track at the left is missing the large stone at the top. But there is clearly a track where that stone kept going out of the frame. Then there’s the anomalous track at the left that parallels the track of the missing top rock, but not the others. Nor does it parallel the other tracks generally. What is going on here?!

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And then there’s the above where parallel tracks suddenly move in totally perpendicular directions.

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Meanwhile more rocks wait to skid out across the playa.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

In 2011, a team led by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography set out to solve the mytery of the moving rocks. In December 2013, researchers were lucky enough to observe the rocks move firsthand.

Their observations show that moving the rocks requires a rare combination of events. First, the playa fills with water, which must be deep enough to allow formation of floating ice during cold winter nights but shallow enough to expose the rocks. As nighttime temperatures plummet, the pond freezes to form sheets of “windowpane” ice, which must be thin enough to move freely but thick enough to maintain strength. On sunny days, the ice begins to melt and break up into large floating panels, which light winds drive across the playa pool. The ice sheets shove rocks in front of them and the moving stones leave trails in the soft mud bed below the pool surface…

These observations were surprising in light of previous models, which had proposed hurricane-force winds, dust devils, slick algal films, or thick sheets of ice as likely contributors to rock motion. Instead, rocks moved under light winds of about 3-5 meters per second (10 miles per hour) and were driven by ice less than 5 millimeters (0.25 inches) –too thin to grip large rocks and lift them off the playa, which several papers had proposed as a mechanism to reduce friction. Further, the rocks moved only a few inches per second (2-6 m/minute), a speed that is almost imperceptible at a distance and without stationary reference points. “It’s possible that tourists have actually seen this happening without realizing it,” said Jim Norris. “It is really tough to gauge that a rock is in motion if all the rocks around it are also moving”.

Individual rocks remained in motion for anywhere from a few seconds to 16 minutes. In one event, the researchers observed that rocks three football fields apart began moving simultaneously and traveled over 60 meters (200 feet) before stopping. Rocks often moved multiple times before reaching their final resting place. The researchers also observed rock-less trails formed by grounding ice panels –features that the Park Service had previously suspected were the result of tourists stealing rocks.

National Park Service

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On the other side of the playa was a multi-hued slope that had a layer so dark that every time I glanced at it, I assumed that there was a cloud passing over and casting a shadow. But it was an absolutely cloudless morning.

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After our view from above the Racetrack, we headed back to the parking lot by walking near the southern edge of the playa.

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Here sandbars from the rare occasions when the playa had water were evident.

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We climbed into the Jeep and drove the short distance to near the northern end of the playa. Here there were no mysterious rocks, but there was the Grandstand, an intrusion of dark dolomitic rock rising 250 feet above the surface of the playa.

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The first thing we noticed as we got out of the Jeep was tire tracks across the playa, despite clear signage not to drive off-road and certainly not to drive on the playa. We assumed that they were recent. But we later learned that the incident occurred in September and this is what it still looked like in late February. Good grief!

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We wandered out to the Grandstand.

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It would have been an island when the playa was a proper lake, and it even came with a “beach” of fine gravel at the base of the formations.

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There were flecks of shiny rock embedded in dolomite. I don’t think they were some sort of fossil.

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There was no question that we would climb the Grandstand. Although there is no established route up, the shape of the formation makes it quite easy to climb. Unsurprisingly, Andrew led the way.

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Image: Andrew Zalewski

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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I assumed that the Grandstand was volcanic, but it is dolomite, which is sedimentary. Some parts of it sound hollow, which you can hear in the video above. That too was baffling to me. I’d have thought that something that sounded hollow would have been formed in violence and not over eons of sediment build up.

Everything about Racetrack Valley is mysterious.

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The recent rains had obviously dampened this portion of the playa, and the moisture was still slowly evaporating.

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From our perch up on the heights of the Grandstand, we watched two fellows throw a frisbee around near the parking area.

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And Sean, far below, spotted a lizard.

Desert Side-Blotched Lizard. Video: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Andrew Zalewski

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After two and a half hours in Racetrack Valley, for large portions of which we’d had both the Racetrack and the Grandstand totally to ourselves, we climbed back into the Jeep for our return to our campsite in Hidden Valley. We had worked up a powerful hunger for breakfast.

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2 thoughts on “Death Valley National Park: The Racetrack, or The Mystery of the Moving Stones

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