Racetrack Playa in Death Valley is one of those places that make you realize how strange and mysterious the world can actually be. Walking along the cracked and dry lake bed, miles and miles from the nearest civilization, you come across strange, serpentine tracks left in the dry mud. Following these tracks bring you to the infamous “Wandering Stones” of the Racetrack, and the reason the playa received its name. These stones, some too heavy to lift, slide along the valley floor for reasons that, until recently, were a complete mystery to scientists and casual visitors to the area. While it’s now known that these strange tracks are created by periods of freezing and thawing of winter water cover, which buoys the stones along, dragging long furrows in the muddy ground, walking through this desolate and remote section of Death Valley is still one of the stranger experiences you can find in any National Park.
The first think I noticed about the Racetrack when I stopped there for a night in January of 2015, was the absolute silence that pervaded this strange valley. The air was utterly still, completely devoid of even the slightest breeze. There was no sound, other than the sound of my boots crunching on the gravelly sand along the Playa’s edge. It was beyond eerie, and combined with the pitch black of the desert night, being so far removed from any sort of light pollution, and the light of stars and moon shrouded by thick cloud cover, it was one of the most isolated experiences I’ve ever had.
I reached the Playa well after dark on a cold January night and set up camp at a parking area on the south end of the lake bed. While technically camping is not allowed around the Racetrack, there wasn’t another soul in sight, so my traveling companion and I gleefully made camp and cooked up a surprisingly tasty meal of sausage and peppers before tucking in after a long day exploring the massive desert park.
I set out early, around 3 am, trying to take advantage of a break in the cloud cover to seek out these elusive and mysterious stones. I wandered the playa by the light of my headlamp, chasing dark shadows on the ground, finding tracks and following them to their conclusion, and finding all kinds of stones that had made the long journey to congregate at the south end of the Playa.
It was an utterly strange experience, and one that has formed a lasting memory, cementing the Racetrack as one of my favorite places in Death Valley. I look forward to my next trip to the playa, preferably when the stars are out and I can take advantage of the night sky for some star photography.