Death Valley National Park is truly a hypnotic and wonderfully bizarre place filled with mysteries. From surreal undulating landscapes to a 400-foot-deep crater, this national park features an endless array of otherworldly sights.
But, there’s nothing more mysterious than the fascinating Racetrack Playa.
Set in a secluded valley between the Last Chance Ranges and Cottonwood, the Racetrack is an unusual place of mystery and dramatic beauty.
It is here that you’ll find massive rocks that amazingly glide over this muddy and dry lakebed, leaving behind imprinted trails.
Unfortunately, getting to this spot isn’t as easy as buying groceries at the local market. Getting to this extraordinary place requires advance planning, especially if it’s your first time visiting Death Valley National Park.
And, that’s why we’ve created this Racetrack Playa travel guide.
Before heading off to Reacetrack Playa every visitor should stop in and talk to a National Park ranger at the main visitor center. They will be able to tell you current conditions, road closures and other up to date insider information that cannot be found online.
Your Guide to Visiting Racetrack Playa
What is the Racetrack Playa?
The Racetrack Playa is a mystical, dry and large lakebed set in the heart of Death Valley National Park. At two miles wide and three miles long, this lakebed is quite large.
Furthermore, it’s incredibly flat, with its north end just an inch and a half higher than its southern counterpart.
Its dry surface is thoroughly coated with dried hexagon-shaped mud, which gives the Racetrack its unique signature appearance. When the surface is dry, it’s quite hard. In fact, there won’t be any footprint left behind when walking on it.
Strangely, the playa gets wet in short spans, after receiving rainfall during the winter and summer months. And, when the Racetrack’s surface is wet, walking on it creates muddy and unsightly footprints that will take a few years to rub out.
We, however, don’t recommend walking on it when it’s wet since it will ruin the playa’s landscapes.
How do the playa’s rocks move?
Throughout the years, there have been endless theories on what causes these gigantic rocks to glide across the lakebed’s dry surface. Animals, ice, bored humans, hurricane-Esque winds, and even aliens were listed as possible causes.
In 2014, the mystery was finally solved when a group of researchers meticulously monitored the rocks through state-of-the-art equipment. According to their research, the playa turns into a shallow lake when it’s raining in Death Valley.
In winter, at night, the lakebed’s water freezes, which in turn traps these large rocks. The following day, when the surface is warming up, the lakebed’s ice slowly breaks. A consistent air breeze, then, pushes the rocks across this slippery and wet surface.
In just one day, these rocks move across the surface for hundreds of feet leaving tracks behind them.
Is the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley NP worth a visit?
The Racetrack Playa is definitely worth a visit. Not only will it impress you with its out-of-this-world landscapes and formations, but getting there is also an adventure in itself.
Sure, it’s not the coziest experience, but it’s a fun adventure that will give you a ton of fun and giggles. Please don’t do it if you don’t have a 4×4 though, no matter what you have read online, any blog post that states you don’t need a 4×4 is wrong.
Love adventures like this? Check out our Ultimate US National Parks Bucket List (All 63 Parks By State).
How to get to the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley NP
Getting to the Racetrack Playa can be a challenge. Perched in a secluded area of the park, this playa is an 83-mile drive from the Furnace Valley Visitor Center. And, 27 miles of the drive are on unpaved and rough roads.
On average, it takes 3 hours and 30 minutes to reach the playa via Furnace Creek.
The road to the playa – Racetrack Valley Road – is situated near Ubehebe Crater’s parking lot. Of course, you may include a quick stop to this crater in your Racetrack Playa itinerary.
After a short stop at Ubehebe Crater, you’ll still have to drive for around 27 miles to reach the playa.
Visiting Responsibly – This is so important!
We all visit these natural wonders because they are natural but each visit threatens what we all come to see. Some more than others.
Every visitor to Racetrack Playa should practice Leave No Trace.
It’s simple to do and you should do it naturally as an outdoor lover. Beyond that, we will highlight a few things that you should not do when visiting Racetrack Playa. Each one of these actions threatens this natural wonder and we saw them firsthand when we visited.
Never move anything – People come from all around the world to see this natural occurrence that can only be seen here and unfortunately, there are people who move the rocks. They do it to prevent others from getting the same photo. That’s insane and no one ever should move or mess with the stones, it’s that simple.
Don’t drive on anything but the actual road – This is another one that makes me itch my head. Why on earth would drive out on the salt pan to whip donuts? Do not drive on the salt pans. Please keep to the roads and park only in designated parking lots.
Don’t carve your name into the salt pan – You may have a romantic notion that you’re going to carve your name into the salt pan next to the moving rocks in Racetrack Playa but did you know it’s actually against the law to do so? Leaving graffiti on national park sites is subject to a $15,000 fine. Plus it’s insanely rude and shallow. Don’t do it.
Pack out what you pack in – take any trash you might have with you in the vehicle and dispose of it back at the visitor center or your hotel. DO NOT leave it on the ground. This goes for toilet paper too, ladies.
Don’t walk on the salt pan if it is wet – This will leave footprints in it and those footprints take years to disappear and for the salt pan to return back to its natural state. So if an area looks wet, please don’t walk on it.
These are just a few things that we saw that needed to be highlighted. For more information, we suggest checking out the main page for Death Valley National Park.
Responsible travel starts with you, please lead by example and educate those who may not know. After all, we all want to preserve natural wonders like this for future generations to come.
Racetrack Valley Road driving tips
With sharp rocks and gravel, driving this road can be a tough drive for visitors. In fact, these rocks have caused a lot of flat tires in recent years.
So, expect a bumpy and slow drive that may take around 1 hour and 30 minutes to 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Here are a couple of tips when driving on this road:
- Drive a high-clearance, 4×4 vehicle. While SUVs with no 4×4 do just fine, the National Park Service recommends using jeeps and pick-up trucks. (Sorry your rental car will not make it out there!)
- Bring a spare tire. There’s no mobile phone coverage in these areas, meaning it will take a long while for assistance to arrive if you have a flat tire. (Our jeep rental gave us a satellite phone because issues happen daily)
- Only drive on the established roads.
- Go slow.
- Watch out for other vehicles.
- You should start will a full tank of gas.
What to do if you don’t have a 4×4 vehicle?
Even if you don’t have a 4×4 vehicle, you’ll still have the opportunity to see and explore this surreal mystery in Death Valley National Park.
Here are a couple of options for those who don’t have a 4×4 vehicle.
Join a tour
There are tour operators, like Farabee Jeep Rentals, that offer day tours to the playa for a minimum of two guests. So, if you’re not confident with your driving skills, you might want to consider this alternative.
Farabee Jeep Rentals has a collection of four and two-door jeeps for rent. Truthfully, it’s not a cheap option, and prepare to pay $250 per vehicle per day. But, you can split the cost, and reduce the expense by traveling with a larger group.
We rented one of their jeeps for this adventure and we were glad we did, our rental car would have taken a beating!
We saw plenty of cars that made it 15 minutes down the dirt road, stuck with flat tires or having a domestic dispute because they had to turn around.
The jeep rental also comes with a few extras, including:
- A Spot device to report issues in real-time
- Cooler with water and ice
- Spare tire and equipment
To rent a jeep from this operator, you must:
- Have an insurance policy
- Own a valid driver’s license
- Be at least 25 years old
Racetrack Playa travel tips
Pumped up to visit? Slow down, folks! Before you start packing your bags, you might want to check out these tips and suggestions.
- Start your adventure early, and be the first one to arrive at the Racetrack Playa for the day. With no midday crowds, you can have this outstanding moonlike lakebed all to yourself.
- Pack some food and water before leaving for the Racetrack Playa. You’ll be in the middle of nowhere, so don’t expect any convenience stores and restaurants on your way to the playa.
- Bring sun protection. With no shade and dry conditions, the sun will be frowning and beating down on you in this playa. In summer, temperatures often soar more than 100°F.
Highlights to See at Racetrack Playa
There’s more to this playa than its uncanny, moonlike landscapes. As you visit you’ll have access to a few noteworthy attractions.
The Grandstand Parking Area is the first point you’ll reach after following the dirt road. Once there, you may admire or take a photo of the Grandstand, which is a uniquely-shaped rock formation.
Additionally, this area is the starting point to the tiring and demanding trail that leads to the summit of Ubehebe Peak.
If the salt pan is dry when you visit, we recommend walking out to the towering rock formations for a closer look. Just be sure to bring water with you.
The Sliding Rocks
The Sliding Rocks are the biggest and most popular sights of the Racetrack Playa. Drenched in mystery, these massive rocks fell from the towering surrounding peaks onto the playa’s ground.
Despite the recent findings and development, some people still find these rocks mysterious. Since most of these things weigh over 650 pounds, there have been several theories, like the supernatural ones, created to explain this strange phenomenon.
Keep in mind that you’ll likely have to walk over a mile to the far end of the salt pan to see them. Be prepared for this. Wear UPF clothing, a hat, and take plenty of water with you.
You’ll find this peculiar junction before reaching your destination. On the junction’s sign, you’ll see a ton of teapots with some written messages left by tourists who visited this place.
Like the Racetrack Playa, the origin of this practice is also a mystery. But, some people assume that it was done initially to indicate the availability of water in this uninhabited area.
The Ubehebe Crater is something that we suggest seeing on your way back from Racetrack Playa. It’s located at the start of the dirt road that heads to Racetrack Playa, it’s the last paved turnaround and the road is a oneway.
There’s a great lookout and also an easy hike that you can do if you have time. It can also be very windy here, so use caution around the exposed crater edges.
More on Death Valley National Park
Other Sites You Shouldn’t Miss
Death Valley National Park has a lot more to offer than the surreal and mystical Racetrack Playa. If you’re planning a multi-day trip to this national park, make sure to check out these superb attractions and diversions:
- Sand Dunes located near Stovepipe Wells
- Badwater Basin
- Zabriskie Point
- Dante’s View
- Artist’s Drive and Artist’s Palette
- Devil’s Golf Course and Artist’s Drive
- Harmony Borax Works
- Twenty Mule Team Canyon
- Keane Wonder Mine
- Father Crowley Point
- Ubehebe Crater
- Rhyolite Ghost Town
- Natural Bridge
- Spring Wildflowers
- Devil’s Cornfield
- Darwin Falls
- Wildrose Charcoal Kilns
About Death Valley National Park
Location – Death Valley National Park rests in eastern California. The closest airports are Las Vegas, Nevada (110 miles) and Los Angeles, California (220 miles).
Admission fee – You need to pay $30 for each vehicle (valid for 7 days), to enter the park. But, if you own an America the Beautiful pass, you may visit the park for free.
Death Valley is a bit limited when it comes to facilities and services. Still, it offers services that will make your park visit more convenient:
- Two gas stations: Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek
- Food is also available at Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek
- The Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station and Furnace Creek Visitor Center both have water refill stations and you should top off before starting your adventure!
Where to stay in Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is home to nine campgrounds. And, four of these campgrounds are available for free, while the rest cost around $14 a night. All campgrounds within the park are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
When visiting the park during the hotter months, you might want to skip the campgrounds, and head to any of these hotels.
- Panamint Springs Resort
- Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel (We stayed here for 3 nights and it was amazing!)
- Ranch at Death Valley
- Inn at Death Valley
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