Julie United States 18 Comments

Death Valley National Park is filled with unusual spots to visit and the Racetrack Playa may be one of the most bizarre. This is the place to see those mysterious sailing stones…the large rocks that somehow glide over this dry, muddy surface, leaving imprinted trails behind them.

This is not a spot you can just visit on a whim. Getting here takes advance planning. The only way to get here is via long, rough, rocky roads through a remote landscape. On this excursion, the journey is part of the adventure.

Have you have been dreaming about a visit to Racetrack Playa? Find out how to get here and what to really expect once you are here.

What is Racetrack Playa?

Racetrack Playa is a large, dry lakebed located in Death Valley National Park. It is fairly large, about 3 miles long (north to south) and 2 miles wide (east to west). It is extremely flat, with the northern end only being 1.5 inches higher than the southern end.

The dry surface is covered with dried mud hexagons, which gives the playa its characteristic appearance. When it is dry, this surface is very hard and when you walk on it, you leave no footprints behind. However, during the brief periods when the playa is wet (it receives rainfall in the summer and winter months), walking on the wet surface creates unsightly, muddy footprints that can take years to erase.

Old footprints on the playa

Old Footprints

Mystery at Death Valley: What Causes the Sailing Stones to Move?

For years, there had been many theories behind what causes these rocks to move across the dry surface of the playa. Hurricane-like winds, people, ice, and animals were all on the list as potential causes.

The mystery was solved in 2014 when researchers monitored the rocks using scientific equipment. When it rains, the Racetrack Playa becomes a shallow lake. At night during the winter, the water freezes, trapping the rocks in the ice. The next day, as the surface warms up, the ice breaks up and a steady breeze pushes the rocks over this wet, slippery surface. These rocks can move up to several hundred feet in one day!

Moving Rocks Death Valley

How to Get to Racetrack Playa

Racetrack Playa is located in a remote area of Death Valley. From the Furnace Valley Visitor Center, it is an 83-mile drive to get here. 27 of these miles are on rough, unpaved roads.

From Furnace Creek, it can take 3.5 hours one-way to get to Racetrack Playa.

Racetrack Playa map

To get here from Furnace Creek, drive north, following signs for Ubehebe Crater. This part of the drive is on paved roads. It’s relatively flat, fast, and can make you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. We did this drive at 7:30 am and we could go as long as 20 minutes without seeing another car. It is a wonderful, beautiful drive.

Driving in Death Valley

The turn off for Racetrack Valley Road, the gravel road to Racetrack Playa, is located near the parking lot for Ubehebe Crater. If it’s early in the day, you can take a look at the Crater (it’s worth it!) or save it for the afternoon after your visit to the Playa.

From Ubehebe Crater, it’s just 27 miles to the Racetrack Playa.

Dirt Road Death Valley

Driving on Racetrack Valley Road

Racetrack Valley Road is very rough road. It is covered with gravel and sharp rocks. These rocks are notorious for causing flat tires. Expect to have a slow, bumpy ride that can take between 1.5 and 2.5 hours (one-way).

In order to do this drive, you absolutely must have a vehicle with high clearance. The National Park Service highly recommends having a 4×4. During our visit, we saw SUV’s without 4×4 doing just fine. But mostly, it is pick-up trucks, Jeeps, and large SUV’s with 4×4 that make the journey out here.

Driving to Racetrack Playa

We drove a Ford Explorer with 4×4 and had no issues at all. The biggest dangers on this road are the sharp rocks that cover it, the washboarding, and the narrow width of the road. These factors can cause flat tires and damage your vehicle.

In many places the road is only wide enough for one vehicle. In order to pass oncoming cars, you need to be prepared to drive up onto the gravel embankment or wait in a wider section of road to let oncoming traffic pass.

Racetrack Valley Road

Road to Racetrack Playa

You should also know that there is no cell phone coverage out here. Zero. Zilch. Nada. So, if you get a flat tire or you get stuck, it could be a long wait until assistance arrives.

Teakettle Junction

20 miles from Ubehebe Crater is Teakettle Junction. From here, it’s just 7 more miles to Racetrack Playa, or you can turn left for Hunter Mountain.

Teakettle Junction

For years, people have been leaving teakettles here, with notes written on them or inside of them. This is a great spot to stop and stretch your legs.

What to Expect at Racetrack Playa

The Grandstand

When we arrived at Racetrack Playa, we were the first ones here for the day. I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to see those mysterious rocks that travel across this barren land. Tim parked our vehicle and we ran out onto the playa.

We searched and searched around the Grandstand, finding large boulders with no trails, long trails with no boulders, and manmade trails with little rocks at the end. There were also old, muddy footprints and the slowly fading vehicle tracks from vandalism in 2016.

It felt like a bit of a letdown.

Here’s the thing. There are two parking areas for the Racetrack Playa. The first parking area is for the Grandstand. The Grandstand is a large, dark rocky outcropping in the middle of the playa. It’s fun to climb if you want to get a view out over the whole area and really fun for kids to explore.

Grandstand

Tyler and Kara Death Valley

Grandstand View

We did not see any of the sailing stones near the Grandstand. We did find a manmade trail, which had us fooled for a little bit, until we saw the real thing later. It seems like some people who travel here move things around and disturb the stones, ruining the experience for future visitors. It’s such a shame.

On Racetrack Playa

Mud Hexagons

Desolation

But it is still worth a visit to the Grandstand. It feels so desolate out here. And it’s absolutely quiet…there are no animals, no distant highways, and for us, no other people to make noise. You really feel like you are in the middle of nowhere.

If you walk south, out into the middle of the Racetrack Playa, you will be able to see a few of the sailing stones. But be prepared to walk a lot. Finding a sailing stone in this section of the playa takes a lot of searching.

The Sailing Stones

After you finish at the Grandstand, continue on Racetrack Valley Road to the next parking area. This is the best place to find those mysterious moving rocks.

Mystery Solved

Racetrack Playa Death Valley

Almost as soon as you step out on the playa here, you can see lots of rocks and their trails. Have fun taking pictures and exploring the area.

Once you are finished, drive back to Ubehebe Crater, and consider visiting the crater if you skipped it this morning.

Is Racetrack Playa worth it?

If you are doing this only to snap a few photos of some rocks with trails, you might be disappointed. Sure, seeing the sailing stones is very cool but for us, it was not as exciting as we thought it would be. The footprints, tire tracks, and vandalism all take away from this experience.

However, if the idea of this entire day sounds interesting, then this excursion will be worth it. This is one of those excursions where the journey is just as important as the destination. A visit to Racetrack Playa is not just about seeing some moving stones, but also about the bumpy, adventurous drive down Racetrack Valley Road and enjoying the isolation of this area.

Think about it, you’re going to spend about 6 to 7 hours in the car, bouncing along dusty, washboarded roads, with the potential for flat tires and engine trouble, just to see some rocks. If you are not excited about doing this drive, at least a little bit, is it going to be worth it for you to visit Racetrack Playa?

How to Have the Best Experience

Arrive early in the day. If you can be the first one here, it is an awesome experience. We arrived at Racetrack Playa at 10 am and were the first ones here, although it only took 15 more minutes for the next people to arrive. Even so, for 15 minutes it was such a thrill to have this place to ourselves.

Leave no trace. As a responsible visitor, leave no trace that you were here. Don’t move or disturb the rocks. And if it is wet, do not walk out onto the Racetrack Playa. It can take years for muddy footprints to disappear.

Tire tracks on the playa

Tire Tracks Racetrack Playa

The best time to visit Death Valley is between September 1 and June 1, when temperatures aren’t scorching. We did this on December 29.

Expect to spend one to two hours (at a minimum) on Racetrack Playa. The entire excursion can take up to 8 to 10 hours.

How to Be Prepared for Racetrack Valley Road

Know how to change a flat tire. If you don’t know how to do this, skip the visit to Racetrack Playa. Flat tires are a common occurrence on this road.

Bring extra food and water. We brought 24-hours worth of food and water, just in case we got stuck out here. Since we did this drive in December, we also brought blankets to keep us warm, just in case we had to spend the night here. It’s better to be prepared than not.

Make sure you have a full tank of gas before you leave Furnace Creek or Stovepipe Wells. Your car will be running for at least 6 hours today. You don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you could run out of gas. If you have plans to continue on the roads past Racetrack Playa, consider bringing extra gas with you.

What if you don’t have a 4×4?

If you don’t have a 4×4, you can rent a Jeep in Furnace Creek and drive this to Racetrack Playa. Farabee’s Jeep Rentals will rent 2-door and 4-door Jeeps that you can drive to Racetrack Playa. They also offer tours to Racetrack Playa if this is a place you want to visit but don’t feel comfortable doing the drive.

Where We Stayed

We spent two nights at Stovepipe Wells Hotel. Stovepipe Wells is an oasis in the middle of Death Valley. There are hotel rooms, a campground, gas station, general store, saloon, and a restaurant. It is very convenient to have everything you need in one spot. The rooms are nothing fancy but they are clean and comfortable. There are hiking trails nearby and just five minutes away are the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a definite must-see while in Death Valley.

Are you ready to plan your trip to Death Valley? Read Next:

2 Amazing Days in Death Valley: Our Itinerary from Las Vegas


Are you planning a visit to Racetrack Playa? Share your questions or comments below!

More Information for Your Trip to Death Valley & California:

Planning a trip to California? Read all of our articles in our California Destination Guide.

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Death Valley Racetrack Playa

 

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Comments 18

  1. Dear Julie & clan
    Thank you for a most interesting and informative brief. It looks like you had a truly great time.

    I am planning a summer break for the family in August 2020 and expect to be driving through DV on 28th. Staying over at Stovepipe and leaving on 29th for the second leg of the DV experience. A drive to the Racetrack and also the Lost Burro Mine, just 10 miles away, but 40 mins drive, each way. Sounds like a drive into London.

    I am really excited about visiting, but wondering just how realistic or safe it would be at that time of year as the temperatures get into the 50*C (130*F) and there is all the comments about cars breaking down and expecting many flat tyres. Speaking to the rangers they say they never patrol these areas and it could be days even weeks to find us if we do break down! The roads do not look in the photos and some videos I have seen to be very daunting. In case you hadn’t gathered I live in London, but my wife is from Italy and the Alps. They have many roads and paths that look far worse and drive ordinary cars along with them daily. Little Fiat Uno for instance, so a 4×4 (we have a Ford Edge or like booked), to me, it should be a sinch.

    I am wondering what the problem is, why the fears, bar the heat? Is there something I am not seeing in the videos and pictures and information? Is this over-caution? Are tyres in the US not as strong as EU for some reason – I can’t see why.

    Advice and thoughts are so welcome.

    We are unlikely to get another chance to see these as it is a bit of a way to go to get to DV from here!

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      Hello Jonathan from London. 🙂 We had a 4×4 and did this drive without any problems. As did everyone else we saw on the road when we did this. And yes, I think our tires are just as good as those in the EU – lol. And we have also driven a lot worse in Europe and have been fine. I would like to say that it is just being overly cautious, but there is the occasional person who runs into car trouble or gets a flat tire, and then gets into big trouble. There is no cell phone coverage out there so if you did break down, you’re stuck. And the temps can be dangerous that time of year, as you know. If you have seen videos online, and these photos, then you know what you are getting into. If you plan to go, be overly prepared. Know how to change a tire, bring tons of water and some extra food, and take your time on the roads. Rent a true 4×4 from a reputable rental car company (Hertz, Avis, etc). Good luck if you decide to go! Cheers, Julie

      1. Thanks, Julie,
        I think they are too. In this litigious age, if one doesn’t say don’t do it, you’re potentially liable. 🙂 Also good to know that US tyres are as tough as they are here 😀

        Obviously, IF, and I think today the IF is getting bigger as cars are so reliable, the car should break down, then yes, one has to be prepared for a long wait. I was thinking of taking a couple of large sheets, possibly camping ponchos and to use them against the car as a shelter/shade from the direct sun should we need it. Also water for 24hrs and some food. Drive with the aircon off and windows open so as to keep the strain on the engine down – learned that 30 years ago on my last visit. I don’t think that there is much else one can do. I did suggest to the ranger I spoke to that I would leave my details when we leave and an estimated return time so that should we fail to return in the allotted time then they would know we might be in difficulty. He liked the idea but seemed surprised. Said it had never been suggested before which surprised me. A common practice when doing long excursions into the unknown I thought. Might save lives and time.

        Our flight includes a 4×4 from Avis. It states a Ford Edge, SUV or equivalent, and the agent I spoke to has also put a note that it must be a 4×4, so fingers crossed on that.

        In your photos, is that the worst it gets? If so, they do not look so bad at all. And my only worry would be heat. As you say, off-road in the mountains in Europe can be much rougher than these.

        The other thing I have read that needs to be avoided is rain. If it rains then that would be dangerous as the roads get flooded and impassable. So I have come to the conclusion that in August the trip should be safe as long as it has not rained or is raining, and we take provisions with us, we drive with aircon off and bring a poncho and we prefer to be shaken and not stirred for 5 hours whilst being cooked! We’ll make the call the day we are due to go.

        Best wishes and many thanks for the honest tips.
        Jonathan – the shaken

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          You’re very welcome. Yes, those photos are an accurate representation of the road, at least when we did this. I took lots of photos along the road and posted the ones that looked the roughest. It’s a great idea to notify the park ranger. Our hotel, Stovepipe Wells, also took our name and number the day before our trip, and they knew to keep a lookout for us…if we didn’t return they would have notified the park service. You won’t be the only ones out there. If something happens, to you or to someone else, you will just have to help each other out. 🙂 Best of luck to you…it really sounds like you know what you are going into and you are taking the proper precautions. Cheers, Julie

  2. Julie&Family,

    Thanks a lot for the useful account of your visit to the Racetrack Playa! That’s the precise and honest rendering a potential future visitor will need. Thanks as well for the pictures of the road that give a good impression of what to expect and may (righteously so!) deter unwary travelers.

    Best,
    Markus

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      That’s funny, that’s the car I drive. Honestly, I’d be a little hesitant to take a Subaru Forester. Yes, it’s all wheel drive, but it just doesn’t seem “rugged” enough. The Subaru Crosstrek is more suitable for these rough gravel roads than a Forester. You might be OK, but if it were me, I’d rent an SUV with more ground clearance and thick tires for the day. Cheers, Julie

      1. I wouldn’t hesitate to take my Outback out there, and a Forester would do fine. The only thing is your tires, if you have high mileage highway tires you might have issues, I have some all-terrain SUV tires on that protect and give good traction. Subaru AWD can get these cars into and out of situations you wouldn’t believe.

  3. Great tips on the Racetrack. I wish this was posted before I made the trek on Dec 9, 2017. It was a Sunday and nobody was out when I got there after sunset. The temperature dropped real fast, by 2000hrs it was in the 40s and by moonrise it was below freezing. My water froze up in the camelbak, and my cameras failed due to the cold. At 3700 ft elevation this place can get real cold in the winter months. I plan to return tomorrow, but will leave early in the morning to get there. Nevertheless, I expect it to be in the low 20s for the overnight cold, and hope to get in some good photography before sunset.

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      Wow, it must be awesome to see the Racetrack in the moonlight! Good luck braving the cold and I hope you get those photos you want! Cheers, Julie

      1. Thanks for the info. I made the trip on Feb 16, 2018, and your information help me locate the rocks. It was a amazing experience, and a success for evening and twilight photography, video and time lapse. I just completed my video of the adventure. You can see it on YouTube, just google toxictabasco. Thanks.

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          1. Thank you Luciano. Sorry for the late reply. Yes, I have a Crosstrek, and it was a solo trip. It’s all stock; factory tires and suspension. And thanks to this article, I was able to plan for a successful adventure.

            If you take your Subaru, it’s best to go slow with stock tires and avoid any risk of damage. Best of luck, and have a great trip.

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