Mystery at the Racetrack

I always love a good mystery. Whether presented in cinematic or written form, I do so enjoy the experience of being drawn into a good plot. Theorizing, hypothesizing, predicting the outcome as you go along. I love the mystery in the unexpected and small surprises, the feeling of anticipation that comes with a little bit of unknown looming on your horizon. I enjoy the satisfaction of that single moment when the outcome is revealed. These things delight me. But it is the mystery in nature that truly astounds me.

Last weekend, Evan and I, having a nice, extra-long weekend for ourselves, decided to venture east to seek out some spectacular desert views. The road to Death Valley had finally opened up for travel after a lengthly period of closure due to washouts. Having a direct route into the park available, we settled on a destination: the Racetrack.

We had only been there once, years ago, and were not exactly anxious to travel that rough and never-ending washboard road into this remote and mysterious area of the park. However, when we conjured up images of the possible views and vistas – a full moonrise over the playa, racing rocks at sunrise, an unobstructed view from the Inyos to the Cottonwoods – we thought it just might be worth enduring the rough ride.

So, on Friday morning we rose before the sun and headed east toward Death Valley National Park. It was Valentine’s Day and I must admit to feeling a little sentimental and nostalgic. The last time (it was the first time, really) we ventured to the Racetrack was more than 10 years ago. It was just a few months before we settled ourselves in this little town known to be “the Gateway to Death Valley”. I reflected back on those 10 years, just me and E, wandering and wondering, reveling and exploring in this backyard of ours together. And a certain tenderness filled my heart as the soft morning light crept across the sky.

And as the sun began to rise, it slowly dawned on us that the sky was overcast and the day would be a little gray for photos. No matter, it’s part of the adventure after all. It was peaceful driving through the park, but as we took the turn-off for Ubehebe Crater we held our breath…here goes nothing.

The road into the Racetrack is a rough one. Twenty-seven miles of washboard that jars every joint in that poor old truck and leaves your head reverberating long after the car ride ends. With a surprisingly and relatively smooth ride we reached Teakettle Junction with a false sense of relief. We paused to photograph the junction marker, though we were disappointed to find just a few lonely teakettles hanging from a newer, bigger road sign. Last time we were here the old single-post sign dangled a diverse array of kettles, bringing that characteristic Death Valley personality to the spot. Ah, well. All things change with time, I suppose. Time to move on.

The last 6 miles were near torture with a small yelp of hallelujah as we reached the Grandstand pull-out at the north end of the Racetrack. We hopped out of the car and hastily headed up the old miner’s trail to Ubehebe Peak whose summit promised an expansive view of the area.

Though a bit gray, it was a beautiful day for a hike in the desert. It has been unseasonably warm lately, as Mama Nature seems to be in a state of confusion regarding the changing of seasons. It was downright hot at some points, but it felt good to be on the trail. It was a pleasant and fun hike and when we reached the summit we were awestruck by the view.

Ubehebe Peak stands above the Racetrack at 5,678 feet, offering an all-encompassing view of the area. To the south lies the Nelson Range (whose photo ops were unfortunately limited by the sun’s afternoon glare). Looking west the view stretches over Saline valley and beyond to the Inyo Range. Turn north and your eyes can travel all along the Last Chance Range. Then to the east the Racetrack playa sprawls below with the peaks of the Cottonwood Range in the distance. Wow. Simply…wow.


We spent some time soaking it all in, puttering about and taking pictures, then we headed back down the trail to explore the surface of that amazing playa and its mysterious moving rocks.

Death Valley’s Racetrack is an almost perfectly flat stretch of dry silt and clay covering an expanse measuring nearly three miles long and two miles wide. Stepping out on that flat, crackled surface I was bewildered by the very thought that this playa, in the middle of a vast arid desert, once lay at the bottom of an ancient lake. Throw in the enigma of moving rocks and this mystery-lovin’ mind was in a complete state of wonderment!

Apparently, there are several different theories as to why and how these rocks slide and travel about the playa (NASA has a good article about exploring the possibilities). Of course, E’s favorites include those involving UFO’s ;)

Whatever the explanation, it is a truly amazing phenomenon to ponder. We were so enamored with this valley’s hidden treasure, we lingered for hours wandering it’s surface, photographing rocks, waiting for the sun to set and the full moon to rise. And those were the most magical of hours.


We stayed until one-by-one the stars appeared, fading in and out, playing hide-and-seek with the clouds. It was not the night for starry sky photos, so we packed it up and settled in for a semi-sleep in the back of the car. And tomorrow we were hoping to catch a few moments of a beautiful sunrise, then off to explore a bit more.

Sometimes the appeal of a good mystery is in the pondering itself. Sometimes the not knowing is the draw. That sense of wonder, those moments of awe…that’s the magic of a good mystery.

Go on now. Wrap yourself up in a good mystery. Enjoy the magic.

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