Travel

In Death Valley, These Giant Mysterious Rocks Move On Their Own

death valley
It's not just tiny rocks. It's really, really big rocks. | Caleb Weston/EyeEm/Getty Images
It's not just tiny rocks. It's really, really big rocks. | Caleb Weston/EyeEm/Getty Images

Death Valley is the hottest place on the planet, the driest place in North America, and, in the northwestern region of Caliifonia's Death Valley National Park, home to the eerie and at times haunted-seeming playa -- dried lakebed -- known as the Racetrack. Here, periodic rain forms a skin of cracked, dried mud on the parched earth. This is the part of Death Valley where things move on their own. And not just little things. Massive things. Rocks that weigh hundreds and hundreds of pounds.
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You might have heard of Death Valley’s famous sailing stones -- stones that slide across the surface of the Racetrack with nothing appearing to push or pull them, leaving sharp, eerie tracks in the mud behind them. But you haven’t seen them move -- no one has, not in person, though in 2014 the rocks were finally caught in motion via remote time-lapse photography.

You might have naturally assumed that these stones were small. In fact some weigh upwards of 500 pounds. You might presume they moved a few feet, maybe a few dozen feet, but scientists have found trails that measure well over 1,000 feet, leaving zig-zagging along the cracked landscape like erratic drivers. Perhaps the thing you were most likely to assume about these stones is that -- especially since no one sees them do it -- they move imperceptibly, maybe a few inches a day max. They can move more than 15 feet in a single minute.

death valley
They move faster than you think, too. | Micha Pawlitzki/Photodisc/Getty Images

These days, we do know what it is that makes them move. The sailing stones sail only under certain conditions: in the wintertime, with enough water, thin but extremely slippery ice can form on the playa. This allows sufficient wind to push even bison-sized rocks across the surface, leaving scars in the mud behind them. Perhaps not as fun an explanation as ancient Sisyphean demons or Gold Rush ghosts or aliens, but this is simply the way of things. Doesn’t make the stones any less fascinating or worth marveling at in person.
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How to see the sailing stones

You can drive into the Racetrack, but you should not assume you can do it with whatever four-door sedan you borrowed from your brother. To reach the parking spaces at the Grandstand, which is about two miles from where you’ll start to find sailing stones, you’ll probably need a high-clearance vehicle with four-wheel drive. Lest your sedan be claimed by the playa.
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death valley
Look all you want, but don't disturb them. | Andrew Kennelly/Moment Open/Getty Images

Always remember that this is a fragile place; try not to step onto muddy areas where you’d leave tracks. Absolutely no offroading! And hopefully it goes without saying that you shouldn’t disturb the stones themselves nor their tracks. Don’t ruin it here for other folks, y’know? Keep in mind there’s no cell service out here, so pick up (or download) a map before you go. The southeastern segment of the Racetrack generally makes for the best views. And be mindful of the fact that you’re in a very remote area; you should be prepared to spend the night if your car gets stuck for any reason -- don't worry, you (probably) won't see any apparitions shoving giant boulders around under the moonlight. 
MORE: You can see a different set of sailing stones on this wild Nevada road trip

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Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist's Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at kmedrano@thrillist.com, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.