Sailing Stones of the Racetrack Playa
Landscape image; Location: Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park; orientation of this view is south-to-north from near the southern edge of the playa. The Grandstand is visible on the horizon a little to the right of the center of the image, about 2 miles distant from the camera. Note the track through the dried mud behind the boulder. These tracks are left when winter storms deposit an inch or two of rain water on the surface of the playa, which consists of extremely fine grained, impermeable clay that becomes very slippery when wet. This water can freeze overnight into sheets of ice with the rocks locked into them, with a thin layer of liquid water trapped between the ice and the ground surface; if a windstorm then occurs, with speeds above about 50 mph, the ice can be moved by the wind, dragging the rocks along with it, which then gouge the tracks through the mud. The curvature, and abrupt changes in direction of the tracks, reflects changes in speed and direction of the wind, and collisions between different slabs of ice that deflect them, while the ice sheet was being pushed along. The rocks originate in the mountains surrounding The Racetrack, most of them from a specific steep bluff on the south edge of the playa, and there are usually several hundred scattered around at any given time, ranging in size from gravel to boulders a half-meter across that can weigh 300 kg or more. The cause of the movement of these rocks was a mystery for many decades until it was finally observed and photographed by eyewitnesses Richard and James Norris on December 21, 2013 – Lgcharlot, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the heart of California’s Death Valley, there lies a flat stretch of earth shrouded in mystery and silence, known as the Racetrack Playa. This is the stage where nature’s silent symphony plays out a perplexing ballet of stones that glide across the ground with no audience but the stars. The phenomenon of the sailing stones has captured imaginations and spawned countless tales since their discovery in the early 20th century. The vast, dry lakebed hosts this enigmatic performance, with each stone choreographing its own path across the cracked earth, leaving etched trails as evidence of their secret dance.

Imagine wandering onto this surreal scene, where rocks ranging from mere pebbles to hefty boulders appear to have meandered across the dust, some carving straight lines, others curving gracefully, and a few even making sharp turns. These stones, with no discernible means of propulsion, have stoked the fires of speculation and lore. Aliens, magnetic fields, and playful spirits have all been credited with this desert artistry.

The spectacle of the sailing stones is not a constant one; it’s a rare event that occurs under a specific set of conditions. The Racetrack Playa is an ancient lakebed, a perfect canvas that only reveals its secrets under the perfect brushstrokes of nature’s hand. During the cold winter months, the little water that collects on the otherwise parched ground freezes into thin sheets of ice under the night sky. As the sun rises and the ice begins to melt, gentle winds glide across the playa, nudging the ice-bound stones imperceptibly. The movement is slow, almost meditative, with the stones creeping at a speed that defies the human eye’s detection. Over time, these increments add up, leaving behind trails that can stretch for hundreds of feet.

This combination of ice, water, and wind creates the perfect conditions for the stones to sail. Yet, it wasn’t until recent years that the mystery began to unravel. Scientists equipped with modern tools and a touch of old-fashioned detective work camped out in the desolate landscape, documenting and measuring the stones’ every move. GPS trackers and time-lapse cameras finally caught the stones in the act, revealing the natural forces behind their journey.

The Racetrack Playa, despite its harsh conditions, attracts those who seek to witness this geological wonder. It’s a place where the silence is almost tangible, save for the whisper of the wind that has sculpted the valley for millennia. Visitors who trek out to this remote location stand in awe, gazing at the stones and their inexplicable trails. It’s a humbling reminder of nature’s capacity for wonder and our own thirst for understanding the mysteries of the universe.

The sailing stones are more than just a natural oddity; they are a symbol of the desert’s enigmatic beauty. They inspire a sense of wonder and curiosity, a desire to explore and understand the hidden corners of our world. Each stone tells a story—a narrative of time, elements, and the quiet persistence of nature.

As the sun sets over the Racetrack Playa, casting long shadows over the stones and their trails, one can’t help but feel a part of something larger, a timeless story written on the earth itself. The stones may have revealed their secret, but the allure remains. They continue to sail, driven by the subtle forces of nature, and we continue to watch, captivated by the silent ballet on the desert’s stage.

This is the tale of the Racetrack Playa’s sailing stones—a true marvel of the natural world that reminds us of the intricate and beautiful phenomena that exist just beyond our understanding, waiting to be discovered. It’s a dance that’s been going on for centuries, hidden in plain sight, in one of the most extreme environments on Earth. And as the night returns to reclaim the valley, the stones rest, awaiting the next winter’s freeze to set them adrift once more on their silent, unseen voyage.



Don Leith

By Don Leith

Retired from the real world. A love of research left over from my days on the debate team in college long ago led me to work on this website. Granted, not all these stories are "fun" or even "trivial" But they all are either weird, unusual or even extraordinary. Working on this website is "fun" in any case. Hope you enjoy it!