The Sailing Stones, Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park is a national park in the U.S. states of California and Nevada located east of the Sierra Nevada, occupying an interface zone between the arid Great Basin and Mojave deserts in the United States. The park protects the northwest corner of the Mojave Desert and contains a diverse desert environment of salt-flats, sand dunes, badlands, valleys, canyons, and mountains. It is the largest national park in the lower 48 states and has been declared an International Biosphere Reserve. It is also a popular destination for photographers and astronomy enthusiasts, due to the amazingly clear view of the Milky Way.

Sailing stones, sliding rocks, and moving rocks all refer to a geological phenomenon where rocks move and inscribe long tracks along a smooth valley floor without human or animal intervention. Tracks from these sliding rocks have been observed and studied in various locations, including Little Bonnie Claire Playa in Nevada, and most notably Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park, California where the number and length of tracks are notable. At Racetrack Playa, these tracks have been studied since the early 1900s, yet the origins of stone movement are not confirmed and remain the subject of research for which several hypotheses exist.

The stones move only every two or three years and most tracks develop over three or four years. Stones with rough bottoms leave straight striated tracks while those with smooth bottoms tend to wander. Stones sometimes turn over, exposing another edge to the ground and leaving a different track in the stone’s wake. Trails differ in both direction and length. Rocks that start next to each other may travel parallel for a time, before one abruptly changes direction to the left, right, or even back to the direction it came from. Trail length also varies – two similarly sized and shaped rocks may travel uniformly, then one could move ahead or stop in its track.

The developers of photographic technology describe the difficulty of capturing the Racetrack’s stealthy rocks, as movements only occur one in three years—one millionth of a time—and last approximately ten seconds in duration. Their next identified advancement is wind-triggered imagery, which would enable cameras to snap photos during rock movement events. As of yet, the reason why and how these rocks move is still unanswered.

Death Valley National Park

Sailing Stones, Death Valley

Sailing Stones, Death Valley

Sailing Stones, Death Valley

Sailing Stones, Death Valley

Sailing Stones, Death Valley

Death Valley Map

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