The mysterious moving rocks at the Racetrack Playa (a dry lakebed) have captivated visitors to Death Valley for years (or those of us who first learned about these mysterious rocks from some "top earth mysteries" special on TV). In August of 2014 a paleooceanographer (I didn't even know that was a job title!) from Scripps Oceanography published a paper that described the experiment they used to capture and explain the phenomenon of the sliding rocks (video and links to the paper can be found here). Needless to say, we were looking forward to checking out these slithering rocks in person.
After four nights of camping on Echo Canyon Road we packed up for our excursion to The Racetrack. We had a big breakfast at Furnace Creek, stopped at Ubehebe Crater, and set out for the 27 mile drive on backroads to reach the playa. The numerous Joshua trees were a nice diversion as we slowly made our way towards the Racetrack Valley and we stopped at Teakettle Junction for a picture. Not far after Teakettle Junction we got our first good look at the sprawling playa (three miles long and two miles wide) nestled in the valley between the Cottonwood and Last Chance mountain ranges. At first look it doesn't seem to fit, but its incongruity in the landscape just adds to its allure and mystery.
Twenty five miles in there is a sign and pull off parking for the Grandstand, an island of rock rising out of the playa. We parked and walked out to the Grandstand, admiring the neat patterns the lakebed made when it dried and cracked into polygonal shapes. But we were anxious to see the rocks, so didn't linger long. We continued our drive two miles down to the southern end of the playa where the majority of the rocks can be found. We walked out on the playa and it wasn't long before we encountered a few rocks here and there. The rocks became more numerous the further we walked (you really need to walk at least a half mile or so to get to the best bits). It became obvious why this was the hot spot when we could see the mountains at the edge of the playa that were crumbling and tumbling rocks and boulders down to the playa, to eventually be pushed around in the right conditions. We had fun examining the different rock trails; the longest ones, the deepest ones, the curviest ones. It really is a fascinating place.
After satisfying our initial curiosity, we returned to our car and drove two miles south to the designated camping area at Homestake Dry Camp. We set up our tent and Steve and Norah took a short walk to explore some old mining areas. We waited for the good afternoon light and returned to the Racetrack for more exploration and to watch sunset (some nice, soft colors, but overall the clear skies thwarted any amazing sunset action). It was very peaceful to be out on the playa at the end of the day.
Our mornings in Death Valley had been clear and I hadn't bothered with any sunrise picture attempts. I didn't think our morning at the Racetrack would be any different, so I will be eternally grateful that Norah woke up around 5:30 because she had to pee. Steve looked out the tent and said "there are clouds. I think sunrise is going to happen!". So we shook off sleep and hustled to the Racetrack to see what the morning sky would do. And what it did was put on one of the most amazing sunrises we have ever experienced. The sky was on fire with vivid pinks and oranges, which reflected on the playa and bathed everything in beautiful light and color. The Racetrack is a hauntingly beautiful and surreal place, and this was only enhanced by the stunning sunrise. This experience alone was worth the trip to Death Valley and one I will not soon forget!