Moving Rocks of Death Valley

image On Flickr someone with the screenname "melastmohican" has uploaded a picture of a "moving rock" located in the Racetrack Playa region of Death Valley, California. The caption reads:
Deep in the heart of the California desert lies one of the natural world's most puzzling mysteries: the moving rocks of Death Valley. These are not ordinary moving rocks that tumble down mountainsides in avalanches, are carried along riverbeds by flowing water, or are tossed aside by animals. These rocks, some as heavy as 700 pounds, are inexplicably transported across a virtually flat desert plain, leaving erratic trails in the hard mud behind them, some hundreds of yards long. They move by some mysterious force, and in the nine decades since we have known about them, no one has ever seen them move.
I should have known about the moving rocks of Death Valley (after all, I live only a few hours drive from there), but I have to admit that, before seeing the picture, I hadn't known about them, and so immediately I thought the picture was a hoax

It reminded me of Dan De Quille's "Traveling Stones of Pahranagat Valley" hoax from 1867. De Quille, a newspaper columnist (and roommate of Mark Twain) invented a story about some stones which "when scattered about on the floor, on a table, or other level surface, within two or three feet of each other, they immediately began traveling toward a common center, and then huddled up in a bunch like a lot of eggs in a nest."

But unlike Pahranagat Valley's traveling stones, Death Valley's moving rocks are a real phenomenon. The mysterious force that moves the stones, scientists speculate, is most likely the wind. When the floor of the racetrack playa gets wet, the ground becomes extremely slippery, allowing strong winds to cause the stones to skid across the ground. Either that, or giants go bowling there.

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Posted on Tue Aug 14, 2007

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I am suprised you didnt know alex.This hasnt been news to me since I was a boy. Yes, there real, yes, the wind moves them. Though I liked he bowling idea. Maybe aliens move them around?
Posted by J  in  Death valley  on  Tue Aug 14, 2007  at  05:18 AM
This was in the Fortean Times about a year ago.
Posted by Nona  in  London  on  Tue Aug 14, 2007  at  09:02 AM
These stones are one of the classic 'mysteries', I'm surprised you haven't heard of them, Alex. They're in the same category with the monument stone in Marion, Ohio that turns on its pedestal.

They may have been on one of those Van D
Posted by Charybdis  in  Hell  on  Tue Aug 14, 2007  at  11:10 AM
I haven't heard of the monument stone in Marion, Ohio either. Now I feel really stupid. hmmm
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Tue Aug 14, 2007  at  11:19 AM
The explanation I always heard was something about iron rich rocks and the earth's magnetic field! If the ground is all soppy and the wind strong enough to push rocks about, wouldn't the ground harden with some sort of wave pattern?
Posted by Paul  in  Peterborough, uk  on  Tue Aug 14, 2007  at  01:29 PM
Didn't you watch trash television during the 70's and 80's? Great Saturday afternoon fare. LOL
Posted by Charybdis  in  Hell  on  Tue Aug 14, 2007  at  01:45 PM
Jeez! Don't you guys ever watch Star Trek???!
Posted by Craig  on  Tue Aug 14, 2007  at  01:51 PM
Link to Skeptoid, and the ice theory.
Posted by Charybdis  in  Hell  on  Tue Aug 14, 2007  at  01:53 PM
Looking at the larger picture, I doubt both the wind and the water aspect of hte explanation. If the ground had been wet when the rock moved, the debris would not look like it does. The plowed up dirt alongside the furrow looks like it was dry when piled up, if it had been wet there wouldn't be so many small chuncks. Same with the wind, the wind would have blown the smaller chunks away (especially if it was strong enough to move that rock) and the trail would have a more scattered appearance to it as the chuncks fell at various distances from the furrow.
Posted by Christopher Cole  in  Tucson, AZ  on  Tue Aug 14, 2007  at  01:58 PM
Has anyone tried to mark the rocks with some kind of illuminating paint and watch them with a time lapse camera.
Posted by Blackomne  in  Wyoming  on  Tue Aug 14, 2007  at  04:35 PM
Merchant Family Memorial (Ripley's Believe It or Not Ball)
In 1886 the Merchant family of Marion constructed what they thought would be a beautiful and fitting grave monument for their family burial plot in Marion Cemetery. Within two years after its construction, someone noticed that the 5,200 pound polished granite ball atop the pedestal had begun to rotate. The only unpolished spot on the ball was now visible, indicating the ball was on the move.The Merchant family, being concerned about this, brought the erection crew back to the site to re-set the ball. It was not long before the ball again began its now continuous movement. There have been many speculations, but there is no specific explanation for this.In 1929, the monument was featured in
Posted by Blackomne  in  Wyoming  on  Tue Aug 14, 2007  at  04:51 PM
When I was a kid in the 70s there was a movie that seemed to be shown at least once every summer, Saturday afternoons, and all I remember is some folks in an RV and they came out in the morning to find all the rocks had moved during the night. They implied it was aliens. Freaked me out! I'm sure it would be totally lame now. But I didn't realize this was an actual phenomenon until just a few years ago.

Does that movie sound familiar to anyone? I'd love to see it again.
Posted by kristen55  in  Seattle, WA  on  Tue Aug 14, 2007  at  08:05 PM
the rocks, like all of us, yearn to see beyond the far horizons of our limitations and foibles, ever reaching to that distant shore of our tomorrows. Like sand in an hourglass, these are the days of our lives, as the world turns like all my children amongst dark shadows... or some kid moved them. Brats
Posted by Hairy Houdini  on  Tue Aug 14, 2007  at  10:31 PM
That photo from the cemetery looks just like the design of countless fountians (as mentioned in the article). The one in my area is a huge stone (marble) sphere which must weigh tons, that is easily moved around because it is sitting on a water source in the base.

The mystery may only be a slick surface or something on the base that the sphere is just righting itself on, albeit slowly.
Posted by stopeatingmysesamecake  on  Thu Aug 16, 2007  at  03:40 PM
What about simple expansion and contraction of the lakebed as an explanation? Desert temperatures fluctuate significantly between day and night. The cracks in the lakebed offer the perfect condition to create a treading effect with the right atmospheric conditions. The odd movement (and absence of it) can be explained by varying densities of earth. Dirt doesn't pile up in front of the rocks, so they are not "dragging" as suggested by the wind theory. Wind doesn't even explain away the lack of piled up dirt because if THAT were happening then there would be wind evidence such as sand ripples (as someone previously posted). I live in Colorado where 60 mph winds are not uncommon. If wind were enough to drag 700lb boulders across mud I'd expect to dodge a hail of much smaller rocks during every heavy storm- especially when an endless arsenal of rocks sit at the top of our mountains where there are even faster winds.
Posted by Roger  in  Colorado  on  Mon Sep 10, 2007  at  01:21 PM
I'm a geologist, and I remember there was a blurb about these things in my first year geology book. The genneral name for faceted desert stones like the one shown is 'ventifact.' The faceting is made by bombardment by wind-borne sand. As for the 'trail' behind them, it is probably not because the stones themselves move, or so said the blurb. Rather, each stone acts as a wind break, causing an area of 'dead air' on the lee side of each stone, where dust settles. In areas where the wind direction and intensity is very constant, the trails can get quite long. The phenominon is much more common in aquatic settings. The link below shows similar features in a stream bed. The current is more turbulent there, so the marks are a bit less linear and well defined, but the principle is the same.

Posted by Don  on  Sun Sep 16, 2007  at  01:55 AM
The geologist's comments previous would make sense if the "paths" behind the rocks were in a straight line, but they are not. In fact, many of these phenomenon reveal long, curvy paths. Also, a "dead air" phenomenon would not create exceptionally long effect behind the rock but would be much shorter. In my opinion, these observations easily cancel out the "dead air" speculation. Maybe God is just playing in His sandbox? wink
Posted by David Yeubanks  in  Pasco, WA  on  Thu Jul 10, 2008  at  06:33 PM
I wonder if the clay surface of the dry lake bed contains the mineral called Kaolin? Kaolinite is a clay.It is a soft, earthy, usually white mineral (dioctahedral phyllosilicate clay), produced by the chemical weathering of aluminium silicate minerals like feldspar. In many parts of the world, it is colored pink-orange-red by iron oxide, giving it a distinct rust hue.It is widely used as a replacement for talc.It is also used as a lubricant.It is what gives glossy paper it slick shiny appearance.
If kaolinite is leeching out of the clay when it is wet or submerged with water the surface would become very slick!
Posted by Tim  in  USA  on  Sun Aug 03, 2008  at  12:57 AM
It doesn't look to me as though the trails were made on wet clay, but on dry dusty earth. It looks as though the stones "plowed" through the dirt instead of sliding upon the surface. I wonder if anyone has tried to do serious scientific research on this (time lapse photography, charting the stones' positions over time) I'm also wondering if this could be a hoax or if that has been dis-proven. If it is a true scientific mystery, and the pieces are all there for research, then the anomaly should be either resolved or debunked.
Posted by Roy Dixon  in  Burlington, Iowa USA  on  Tue Sep 09, 2008  at  10:52 PM
Okay, now seriously...if this is a hoax then surely it would have been exposed by now. What I can't understand is how nobody has documented the rocks while they are moving. With so much interest, and our technology, (GPS, etc..)its like tagging a polar bear on it's migration habits. There is no reason why there shouldn't be any hard evidence. Nobody has documented or filmed these rocks moving?..REALLY?!?!?..I find it hard to believe there is just speculation after all this time. This is not the Lochness Monster, we can see and touch these marvels. I'm in South Korea now and wish I had the time to travel to Death Valley and study these rocks. Just to see them move would be the answer to all our questions. So why hasn't anybody seen them move???
Posted by J.  in  South Korea  on  Mon Oct 06, 2008  at  03:09 PM
It's not wind.How could it? Like the passage said, some rocks are 700 pounds in weight. If winds were really that strong to move such rocks, then we would be in serious trouble. My parents are geologists,and we went there to study the rocks. My parents think that the rocks move because at night, temperatures drop very low in deserts. Ice forms underneath the rocks, and the rocks slide. Ever put a plastic bowl or cup on a wet surface, and it moves a little? I like to relate it to that.
Posted by Random  in  America  on  Mon Oct 26, 2009  at  10:53 PM
Also, the reason why nobody has seen them move is because they move very slowly.
Posted by Random  in  America  on  Mon Oct 26, 2009  at  10:54 PM
It is not wind alone that moves them, as that would require winds of several hundred mph, which is not possible on this planet. But, when cold, the dried out lake can freeze over, so a combination of wind and cold may move them. Yet if it is frozen over then how would it leave a trail?
Posted by Adam  in  England  on  Tue Nov 17, 2009  at  12:36 PM
The reason the stones move is due to a common phenomenon known as frost heave. As ice lenses form under the surface of the playa, they form slopes for the rocks to slide down. Any rainfall while ice lens formation is present would be enough to make the rocks move. Frost heave is an incredibly powerful force capable of lifting homes and fracturing foundations. A 700 pound boulder would be nothing out of the ordinary. The frozen subsurface also explains why the rocks leave a roughly uniform depth of track no matter how much the stones weigh. It is far more believable that stones are sliding downhill as opposed to wind blowing them uphill.
Posted by Mark  in  Ohio, USA  on  Thu Jan 21, 2010  at  07:56 PM
The reason the stones move is due to the common phenomenon of ice lens formation, otherwise known as frost heave. As ice lenses form, they heave the ground upwards creating slopes for the rocks to slide down. Any rainfall or snowmelt while ice lenses are present is enough to set the rocks in motion.
Posted by Tarzan  in  Ohio  on  Thu Jan 28, 2010  at  02:59 AM
It's amazing how after 3 years of learning of these rocks, nobody has given any solid explanation as to how 'exactly' these rocks move. If in fact it is 'frost heave' as the last couple of entries have mirrored, then it would be apparent to the naked eye as they move. So I dismiss that theory. If and when I go back to North America, I will make a quest to find the truth. But please someone do it first, and save me a few grand...
Posted by J..  in  South Korea  on  Wed Feb 16, 2011  at  03:45 PM
On Discovery Channel (or one of the other similar channels) late last week there was a program on this subject and what efforts an investigator had been taking to solve it. I wasn't able to watch the program continuously, I was at my VFW post and working, but if I remember right the investigator discovered that if the ground was wet (it is in a dry lake bed) and the water had frozen below the surface the pattern of winds in the lake bed would move the rocks. This would normally happen at night after the temperature dropped enough to freeze the groundwater. I think I got that right.
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Wed Feb 16, 2011  at  04:38 PM
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