Published: November 2007 Death Valley
Raising Heaven
Where rocks go wandering.
By Tim Cahill

Imagine the sight of Death Valley National Park is something akin to scientific pornography for hard-rock geologists. There are the obvious soaring mountains and abysmal valleys, of course. But in most other places on Earth, the folding and buckling of rocks, the colliding of crustal plates, the shores of advancing and retreating lakes, the evidence of volcanic activity, the scrape of glaciers across rock, the subtle and not so subtle effects of erosion are covered over in grass or dirt, in snow or ice. The Earth is a modest mother, but Death Valley is, for the most part, naked. It is also the only place on Earth where geology itself has made me laugh out loud. I am thinking specially of an area in the northwest section of Death Valley called the Racetrack, where, inexplicably, rocks as big as microwave ovens go zipping across the desiccated mud for distances of more than half a mile (880 m). The evidence is all there: deep tracks in the surface, with a rock at the end. One concludes, reluctantly, that the rocks somehow traveled a couple of hundred yards, leaving a telltale trail behind. There are over 150 of these roving rocks. But no one has ever seen them move.

The Racetrack proper, about three miles long (4.5 kilometers) and a mile wide (2 kilometers), is what is called a playa, a dry, smooth lake bed. The Racetrack is a mere two inches higher on the north end than the south. Flat as a pool table. The surface is sun-baked mud, hard as rock, and patterned in polygons the size of doughnuts. It is an otherworldly sight, and there is a sense on the playa of post-apocalyptic silence, broken only by the whisper and wail of the wind. This impression is compounded by the Grandstand, a 73-foot-high (22 meters) island of rounded bedrock at the north end that looks like the summit of a mountain buried in a sea of sediment. One supposes that observers—rock-racing fans—might sit on the Grandstand, as at a horse race, and observe stones zooming toward them from the southern end of the playa.

I had plenty of time to contemplate the Grandstand. I'd driven 30 miles (48 kilometers) from Ubehebe Crater, and the gravel road proved to be less brutal than expected, so I arrived at the Racetrack in the early afternoon. The best time to see the rock raceways is around dawn or dusk, when the slanting rays of the sun show the tracks to their best advantage.

To pass the time, I climbed to a ridge off nearby Ubehebe Peak for one of the most spectacular views in the park. On this February day, the temperature stood in the low 70s and made for pleasant climbing. When I reached the ridge, the slope dropped off like a cliff to the west, where I could see the sands and salt pans of the Saline Valley 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) below. Farther west, just out of the park, were the Inyo Mountains, in the Inyo Mountains Wilderness, capped with snow and rising to 11,000 feet (3,300 meters). They were beginning to cast their shadows into the Saline Valley. Beyond the wilderness, the Sierra Nevada, all snow from my perspective, towered over the Inyos.

And that is one definition of Death Valley: It is a land of intense vertical relief. This is true of most of southeastern California, a region torn by earthquakes, once flooded with vast inland seas, and eroded by wind and rain. Nevertheless, it is primarily rising mountains and falling valley floors that create the astonishing counterpoint of land that lies hundreds of feet below sea level guarded by peaks rising two miles above. Slow tectonic torture corrugates the landscape as two massive crustal plates meet and slide past each other under California: the Pacific and North American plates. The ridge on Ubehebe Peak was a good place to contemplate this ongoing process.

When I turned around, to the east, I was looking directly down onto the Racetrack and the Grandstand. In the desolate wind on the exposed ridge, the Grandstand rocks looked like the very tips of buried buildings, like an undiscovered city swallowed up in silt, like alien and interred skyscrapers.

At the far edge of the Racetrack a multigenerational Japanese family walking on the playa looked as if they were skating across an ice rink. Soon enough, I was walking on the flat, feeling a mild sense of vertigo, a bit of dizziness that suggested I might just fall off. How? Where? I don't know, but try talking sense to your inner ear.

At the south end of the Racetrack, where the playa abuts an 850-foot-high (259 meters) mountain face, rocks had tumbled from elevation out onto the playa. Some were the size of softballs, others suitcases. These rocks did not gather any moss. They were movers. Robert Sharp and Allen Glazner, in their book Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Owens Valley, explain the process. The playa receives three to four inches (eight to ten centimeters) of rain a year during winter storms and summer cloudbursts. Parts of the Racetrack flood. Fine, intensely slippery clay settles, and the winds, which may reach 90 miles an hour (40 meters per second), must overcome the forces of friction for the rocks to break free. Once that happens, it takes only about half the wind power to keep the rocks moving.

There were levees a fraction of an inch high on either side of the tracks, and mud had piled up in front of the rocks. Looking at it all, I had no doubt that the rocks had sailed before the wind.

Some rocks made straight paths, some curved. Some traveled a hundred yards (90 meters) in one direction, stopped in a muddy muddle, apparently thought better of their direction, and made a 180-degree turn to ramble off in another direction. Some trails were wide for a while, narrow, then wide again. Occasionally, half a dozen rocks took off at once from the base of the mountain and seemed to race straight toward the Grandstand like horses at the derby. The tracks often crossed one another. I followed dozens of them, and when I found the rocks at the terminuses of the tracks, they seemed almost sentient. Why this made me laugh, I cannot say.

Robert Sharp and Dwight Carey studied the rocks starting in 1968, concentrating on 30. The geologists put an erasable letter on each and, charmingly, gave the stones women's names: Hortense (R) moved 820 feet (250 meters) in one winter. Karen (J), a 700-pound (320 kilograms) rock at the end of a 570-foot-long (174 meters) track, didn't move at all during their seven-year study and disappeared years later. Karen showed up again in 1996, when Paula Messina, a geologist at San JosČ State University who had been mapping the paths of all the sliders on the Racetrack, found her far north of where Sharp had last seen her. "When I told him I had positively identified several of his original rocks, his reaction was a little like one would expect from a man who was just told I found his children."

Geology Underfoot was helpful in deciphering some of the tracks. Most rocks that sailed a straight course would have protruding lumps on the bottom, and you could see those striations in the track itself. Essentially, they'd been sailing with a keel. Perfectly smooth stones, without keels, might curl about in a graceful arc. Tracks might be wide where a rectangular stone sailed sideways against the wind, and they might narrow if the stone turned lengthwise.

It was getting dark on the Racetrack, and I walked back to the car, about half a mile away (800 meters). A Park Service sign near the car read: "Please do not remove the rocks; they become essentially meaningless when moved out of place."

I'd walked across Death Valley a quarter of a century ago. At the time, it seemed like a good idea: Walk from the lowest spot in the United States—Badwater Basin, in Death Valley, 282 feet below sea level (86 meters)—to the highest point in the contiguous states, Mount Whitney, 14,494 feet high (4,418 meters) and just less than a hundred miles (160 kilometers) away. It was summer, and my partner and I started off in the cool of the night. We would run into problems we had anticipated but not appreciated.

The valley is young. It was created by about two million years ago when the land between separating mountain ranges dropped along faults. The mountains, including Telescope Peak, at 11,049 feet (3,368 meters) the highest in the park, which loomed over us in the moonlight, catch what moisture reaches them. The water runs down steep slopes, causing erosion and mudflows, building alluvial fans, and eventually finding the lowest spot, as water will do.

There is no sign for Darwin Falls on the highway—you have to make the turnoff before you'll see a sign. This is because the Park Service hides signs for certain attractions. I think this is a good idea. But no one wants to miss Darwin Falls, which features an 18-foot (5 meters) plunge into a shallow pool surrounded by maidenhair fern, impossibly green under beige sun-scorched cliffs. The mist from the falls cools the air to, I'd say, ten degrees lower than the open desert, and there is watercress at the pool. The water itself feels cool.

Even in February, with temperatures in the low 70s—and low 60s near the pool—it is tempting to take a quick dip in the water, but this is the drinking supply for a nearby resort, and swimming is highly impolite. Also, in the post-9/11 world, messing with someone's water supply is not a good idea: The ill-mannered swimmer could be charged with terrorism.

From the falls, I drove several thousand feet up into the mountains on Highway 190, making for the Saline Valley turnoff. The pass took me to a forest of Joshua trees. They are widely spaced plants, and they often grow with four and five and even six arms, their branches festooned with green, bayonet-like leaves, reaching to the sun. Legend has it that Mormon pioneers saw in them a resemblance to the biblical Joshua raising his arms to heaven or brandishing his spear.

After the sun had set on the trees of Lee Flat, the western sky had that bruised, purple look of things to come, and I set up a tent and laid out a sleeping bag.

Dawn. And yes, as hoped, it was snowing lightly on the Joshua trees. I wandered about in the forest, as wet snow accumulated on the green of the growing leaves, on the autumnal brown of the dead vegetation nearest the trunks of the trees. Joshua trees are signature plants of the Mojave Desert, and the concept of desert flora in the snow contained within it a quiet thrill. I was alone, and I owned this view. And just as I began feeling especially blessed, the rising sun turned the snow into a cold, bitter rain. No matter: I'd had my half hour of beatitude.

At Telescope Peak trailhead, 8,133 feet up (2,479 meters), I prepared myself for the nearly 3,000-foot (910 meters) climb to the summit. Happily, I was stopped by snow almost immediately. From that point, I plunged down various roads, making my way north to the Eureka Dunes, which are up to 700 feet high (210 meters). They make groaning sounds as rounded sand grains slide down their steep slopes, playing them as a musical instrument.

Later, I hiked many of the canyons—one of the great pleasures of trekking Death Valley. Sinuous, shady walls make for cool walking in Fall Canyon, where rocks were laid down in light and dark layers. In places, these layers arched like an angry cat and eventually fell over on themselves, so that the striations looped over and under even as they rose into another peak that likewise collapsed. It is plain to see: The bandings, like the rocks in the Racetrack, have definitely moved. At this spot, on a looming canyon wall, geology itself appeared to be in a state of agitated frustration. This wall of naked rock, exposed for all to see, seemed to be blushing crimson in the light of the setting sun.