Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Moving Rocks Of The Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park

I love Death Valley National Park. When I lived in California, I spent many winter days and nights exploring, hiking, and camping in it. It has a stark, harsh beauty that touched something deep within me. I know the park so well, especially the backcountry and off-road areas, that I could be a ranger there. I have told Di that I wouldn't mind having my ashes scattered in Death Valley after my death.

Death Valley is full of geological wonders, and perhaps none is so remarkable as the Racetrack Playa, a dry lakebed at the northern end of the park. Rocks move across the surface of the Racetrack Playa for reasons we don't yet fully understand.

The Racetrack Playa is reached via a 27-mile dirt road that begins near Ubehebe Crater. Below is a photo of my beloved 4Runner at the start of the road. While the sign says a 4WD vehicle is recommended, the road is generally well-graded enough for most passenger cars. However, the surface is very "washboardy" and a rugged vehicle with a robust suspension is a good idea.

An interesting stop on the way to the Racetrack is Teakettle Junction. For reasons now lost in history, visitors hang teakettles from the sign marking this junction. I didn't have a teakettle to leave, but I did get a kick out of the sign:

The Racetrack Playa is about 2.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide. In the middle of it is an outcropping of dark basaltic rock called the Grandstand. Below is a view across the Racetrack toward the Grandstand:

The surface of the Racetrack Playa is a hard-packed mixture of dried clay and silt. The drying process has produced a mosaic-like pattern of cracks. When I walked across it, I found the surface to be a little slick, even though it was dry, and remarkable free from dust and particles. I attribute this to the near-constant wind that was blowing during the day:

I walked out to the Grandstand. As you can see, there is erosion around the fringes of the basalt, and the rocks that travel across the Racetrack originate from here:

Here is one of the rocks as it moves away from the Grandstand:

The "trail" left by the rock above was clearly visible to the naked eye, although it came across as faint in the photo below. I've tweaked the color and contrast in the photo below to make it more visible, although the clarity will depend on the resolution of your display:

Here is one link telling more about the Racetrack Playa and here's the official U.S. Geological Survey page about the Racetrack.

A trip to the Racetrack Playa isn't a casual jaunt, but well worth the effort!