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Meet the magically moving rocks of Racetrack Playa
Posted on 12/09/2019

NatureUnited States of America

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Racetrack Playa, a dried lakebed in Death Valley, California, is home to the curious phenomenon of the "sailing stones." Large stones and boulders located on the lakebed seem to move on their own, leaving ghostly trails in the ground behind them.

Dotted across the arid landscape of what's known as Racetrack Playa, boulders as heavy as 700 pounds seem to take on a life of their own. The massive rocks seem to have moved across the dried lakebed, leaving inexplicable trails in their wake. This section of Death Valley in California left researchers stumped for decades.

Elena Petrova/123RF

Even more curious, no one has ever seen the rocks move, and no two trails are exactly alike. Some of the paths are curved, and some seem to have moved in a straight line before creating a strange back and forth zig zag.

Theories circulated about what exactly caused the rocks to trace their way across the lakebed. The stones vary greatly in size, so there was no simple explanation. Some researchers suggested that maybe it was "dust devils," small whirlwinds that kick up over dry landscapes and create columns of dust and debris, that were the culprit. But there was no concrete evidence that this was the case.

Elena Petrova/123RF

A planetary scientist working for NASA named Ralph Lorenz took a particular interest in the sailing stones of Racetrack Playa. While researching weather conditions on other planets, he began to draw comparisons between the weather conditions of Death Valley and those of a hydrocarbon lake located on one of Saturn's moons.

But Lorenz didn't have to go to the moon and back to solve the mystery of the stones. He managed to crack the case while sitting at his kitchen table.

Paul Brady/123RF

He placed a rock inside of a Tupperware container and filled the container with water until it almost touched the top of the rock. Then, he placed the container in the freezer.

When the water had frozen solid around the rock, he removed the container from the freezer and tipped it upside down onto a tray of water with a layer of sand at the bottom. Lorenz found that the block of ice surrounding the rock caused it to float, and that he could send the floating rock across the sandy bottom of the tray with very little effort. The rock left a trail behind it in the sand, much like the rocks at Racetrack Playa.

The weather conditions in this part of Death Valley are hot and arid in the summer, but often wet and cold in the winter. Racetrack Playa is often covered with a sheet of ice and light dusting of snow in the winter, lending creedence to Lorenz's theory.

Paul Brady/123RF

The current theory is the most widely accepted to date. But not everyone is satisfied. Many people hold onto theories about paranormal activity, magnetic fields and even aliens intervening to create the phenomenon. There has even been a growing issue of people stealing the stones due to their perceived magical abilities.

Visiting Racetrack Playa

The Playa is only accessible via an unsealed road that is only suitable for 4WD and all-terrain vehicles. Expect between one-and-a-half and two hours driving time, and keep in mind that there's no cell service. Teakettle Junction is located just 7 miles from Racetrack Playa and is another curious spot to stop. While the precise history of the junction is largely unknown, some theories say that it was put in place to show early settlers where they could find water. Regardless of its origin story, visitors have been bringing teakettles to the junction with notes and letters inside and leaving them there. Bringing a new teakettle to add to the collection is considered good luck, so pack accordingly!


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