Racetrack Playa (Death Valley National Park)


What can possibly be said about the Racetrack Playa, that hasn’t already been said? When it comes to the Death Valley backcountry, the Racetrack Playa sees more visitation each year than any other backcountry site. Geologist, photographers, and tourist alike make the 26 mile journey along what many consider to be the nightmare road.  While the Park Service recommends a high clearance vehicle, it is not necessary, however a number of things should be taken into consideration before attempting this trip in a vehicle not intended for rough off-road driving.

Expect the drive to take you several hours in each direction. The road is severely washboarded, your vehicle will shake non stop for the duration of the drive. Street tires are not designed for this type of terrain, so go slow; and make sure you have a full size spare tire in your vehicle, along with all the necessary tools to change it. If you have a rental vehicle, check with your rental company to make sure that these items are included in your vehicle. If you don’t know how to change a tire, save everyone a headache, and don’t even bother. Bring along extra bottled water, and food. If you get stuck out there you will be happy that you did. It may also be a good idea to go over my list of essential items for desert travel. I only add these words of caution to this post because I know how popular the Racetrack is with people who have no desert experience what-so-ever.

The Racetrack Playa is located between the Cottonwood and Last Chance Mountain Ranges, with the Nelson Range to the west. Like Death Valley proper, Racetrack Valley is not a valley, but rather an endorheic basin. An endorheic basin is a closed drainage basin that retains water and allows no outflow to other external bodies of water, such as rivers or oceans, but converges instead into lakes or swamps, permanent or seasonal, that equilibrate through evaporation.


Racetrack Playa - Death Valley National Park - Trails made in the playa from the mysterious moving stones. The Grandstand can be seen in the distance.

Racetrack Playa – Death Valley National Park – Trails made in the playa from the mysterious moving stones. The Grandstand can be seen in the distance.


Racetrack Playa - Death Valley National Park - The Grandstand

Racetrack Playa – Death Valley National Park – The Grandstand


During wet months, rainwater flows off of the surrounding mountain ranges down into the playa creating a very short-lived endorheic lake. As this short-lived lake evaporates the surface of the playa becomes covered in a layer of slick mud. Scientific research in recent years have shown that during this muddy period, the rocks on the playa could have the ability to slide across it due to the slick conditions and high wind speeds that are notorious within this valley (basin). This is only a theory however, which has been tested in controlled environments. Since the early 1900’s when study began on this phenomenon, nobody has actually seen a rock move on the playa.

The best place to see the moving rocks, and their tracks is to drive to the third parking area after reaching the playa. Walk a half-mile out onto the playa, and you’ll find several tracks. Follow these tracks to the rocks that made them.  Many of the rocks are small to medium-sized weighing just a few pounds to 30 pounds. There are larger boulders that have moved, including a 700 pound one, which has been nicknamed Karen.

Please do not pick up and move the rocks, or take them! Since 2013 there have been several reports of people stealing the rocks off of the playa. These are just ordinary rocks, they will not move once you remove them from the playa. There have also been reports of photographers moving rocks to different tracks, so that other photographers can’t get the same shot. This is just rude, and disgusting…here’s to wishing you many flat tires.

The Grandstand is another very cool feature of the playa. The Grandstand is two mounds composed of Quartz-Monzonite, it is the only other feature of the playa besides the sliding rocks. Because of it’s dark color against the light tan color of the playa, it can be seen from great distances. The mounds rise 66 feet above the playa floor.

Due to a recent circumstance, it is important to relay the message, DO NOT walk on the playa when it is wet! Because of the fragile environment, it can take several (possibly hundreds) years for the scars of footprints to naturally heal.


About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.