They Will Rock You: Up Close with the Mysterious Moving Rocks of Death Valley

·Associate Travel Editor

Visit the Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, and you could be fooled into thinking you’ve stumbled upon a massive modern-art exhibit in the middle of the desert. The playa’s surface is impeccably flat, with cracked, dry mud that looks like a field of subway tiles, a black island placed to the side, and rocks that are standing perfectly still yet have long trails behind them. An artist’s obscure statement on life, perhaps?

Nope, the only artist here is Mother Nature. If the Racetrack looks like a dried-up lake, that’s because it is — the result of climate changes thousands of years ago. Like Stonehenge, the mystery of how the rocks actually moved on the playa has long remained unsolved. Until this year, that is, thanks to some resourceful scientists. (Click ahead to find out what they discovered.)
My friend Doug and I took a road trip to Death Valley recently, and we saved the Racetrack for last. Getting there may shake up your vehicle — and you — but you’ll be rewarded with a surreal landscape you’ll never forget. Stick around after the tourists leave at sunset, and you’ve got the playa all to yourself under a brilliant starry sky. You might feel like the only person on the planet — and that planet may not seem like Earth.

Here’s are some photos from our trip that will show you how unforgettable a visit to the Racetrack is, starting with a giant crater, then a signpost festooned with real teakettles, and finally the wonders of the rocks.