The Sailing Stones of Death Valley


In 1913 a group of researchers in Death Valley CA discovered something miraculous. Massive stones that were strewn across the valley floor left trails, some hundreds of feet long, in the cracked earth, as if they had moved on their own accord, as there were no signs of humans or animals in the area 

Death Valley

Death valley, a desert valley in Eastern California that during the summer becomes one of the hottest places on earth, up there with deserts in the Sahara and the Middle East. Death Valley's Badwater Basin is the lowest point of elevation in North America, 282 feet below sea level and is 84 miles/132 kms southeast from Mount Whitney the highest point in the contiguous US, with an elevation of 14,505 feet above sea level. As you can imagine it is a spectacularly beautiful area 

Episode: File 0069: A Guide to Rock and Ruin Pt. 2

Release Date: May 6 2022

Researched and presented by Cayla

It is a place of extremes. On July 10 1913, the United States Weather Bureau recorded the highest ambient air temperature ever recorded on earth of 134 F/56.7 C. Though this reading is disputed by some modern experts. A less contentious measurement boasts the highest surface temperature ever recorded at 201 F (93.90 C), nearly hot enough to boil water.

The reason it gets so damned hot can be tied to a handful of factors.

  • Solar heating: the valley's surface gets intensely heated due to the clear and dry air and the land is dark and sparsely vegetated.
  • Trapping of hot air: This heated air gets trapped in the valley due to its north-south orientation and the prevailing west-to-east winds.
  • Migration of warm are from other areas: other deserts to the south and east will often have the heated air blown into the valley

That combined with the drought-like conditions that prevent cloud formation, there's little to cool the place down. Even Summer nights do little to fight the heat with temperatures dropping to 82-98 F or 28-37 C, which is not cool at all.

The climate is so extreme that 1-2 people die each year due to coming out into the desert unprepared or getting lost. Hence the name: Death Valley

Death Valley is home to the Timbisha tribe of Native Americans, formerly known as the Panamint Shoshone, who have inhabited the valley for at least the past millennium. The Timbisha name for the valley, tümpisa, means "rock paint" and refers to the red ochre paint that can be made from a type of clay found in the valley. Some families still live in the valley at Furnace Creek. Another village was in Grapevine Canyon

The Timbisha thrived in this harsh environment, learning to work with the seasons and care for the land to the get the most out of it, so imagine their shock when California Gold Rush brought prospectors through the area in 1849 called it Death Valley, after 13 pioneers perished from one early expedition of wagon trains. As colonizers are oft to do, they stripped the lands of valuable minerals and left little room for the natives that called this home.

After decades of fighting for recognition, in 2000 the Timbisha Homeland Act passed establishing a 7000-acre land base for the tribe within its ancestral homelands. Three hundred acres of this homeland lie within Death Valley National Park, including the Timbisha Village. Today they work with the national parks service to help ensure the land is protected.

Our stones can be found in a part of the valley known as the Racetrack Playa, named so because of the trails left by the stones. The term playa refers to an area of flat, dried-up land, especially a desert basin from which water evaporates quickly.

The playa is really cool looking the floor cracked sediment interrupted only by the stones and their tracks

The Stones

The Sailing stones go by many names: sliding rocks, walking rocks, rolling stones or moving rocks. The Death Valley stones are mostly made up of three kinds of stone:

  • Syenite: found on the west side of the playa
  • Dolomite: found throughout the edges of the playa
  • Black dolomite: the most common type and composes nearly all the stones in the south half of the playa and originates up a steep cliff about 850 ft high.

The bulk of the stones on the playa are between 6-18 inches in diameter

The Tracks

The tracks are typically 330 ft long, about 3-12 inches wide and usually no deeper than an inch deep. Stones with rough bottoms tend to leave straight striated tracks while those with smooth bottoms tend to wander

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 from which it came. Trail length also varies - two similarly sized and shaped rocks may travel uniformly, then one could move ahead or stop in its track.

How They Move

In 1915 prospector Joseph Crook had been in out in the Playa looking for ore when he came across the tracks, this would be the first documented encounter with the tracks. I really wanted to find a story from on the many indigenous tribes that are associated with the area, as surely they would've noticed this phenomenon long before Joseph Crook or the other white men that stumbled their way through the valley. Unfortunately I had no luck in that venture, but if you're listening to this and know somewhere I can find something along these lines definitely let me know!

So let's get into the theories

Animal or Human Intervention

One theory suggests that the sailing stones don't actually sail at all, but are instead moved by mischievous human hands and the occasional clumsy animal. This theory can also be easily dismissed upon inspection of the playa floor around the stones since no evidence of tampering or outside interference can be found


One of the earliest solid theories was magnetism. A handful of smaller stones have been studied exhaustively and most were found to have traces of silver. Silver is not magnetic, but in one theory I read, silver can react "strangely" to magnetic forces. This theory suggests that it could be the stones reacting to the earth's magnetic field, but there are no signs to support this.


In other far-out there theories we have everyone's favorite answer to every mystery: Aliens

Allegedly before the discovery of the stones in the early 1900s, fragments of this strange metal have been unearthed in the playa's surrounding mountainside and carelessly taken as mementos. These chunks of metal were assumed to be artifacts from the gold rush or part of the now defunct railroads that run through the Mojave desert.

One theory suggests this isn't the case at all, that instead they were fossils of sorts... of a prehistoric crash site.

In 1935 the Mojave Desert found itself in another mini gold rush due to a large gold vein that was discovered in the immediate area. At this time a miner and geologist, Solomon Almquist found himself in the area and was the first to discover an unknown and perplexing metal in the rocky mountainside.

After years of heavy research and excavation, he released a chapbook with his findings entitled, "When Will I Be Found", of which only three copies still exist today. Here is a direct quote from the book:

"I now have unequivocal proof that in a prehistoric era, long before mankind, an intelligence not of this earth crashed its flying craft somewhere in the rocky mountains of the Mojave Desert, but at that time it was not a barren wasteland, but instead, a treacherous and overgrown jungle."

Almquist claimed to have proof that over 65 million years ago a UFO malfunctioned and crashed somewhere in the vicinity of Racetrack Playa and throughout the years, it slowly began to break down and become encased in a death shroud of solid stone. The only problem is that Solomon Almquist and all of his research vanished completely, except for the three surviving copies of his chapbook.

The story goes that the wreckage remained for millions of years forgotten, until one day something activated it, something like a magnetic field.

The only thing we know about this unknown metal is that it does react when introduced into a magnetic field, but not in the same way it's reacting down at Racetrack Playa. Something in the vicinity is acting like a beacon, activating the metal fragments, and causing them to break free from their earthbound shackles, slowly pulling them towards the source of this magnetic field. Of course the speed at which these stones move is very minute and only noticeable over the course of several years, but in late forties, this strange phenomenon began to speed up. The current rate at which the stones move is still unnoticeable to the human eye, but the new pace is drastically faster than before, as if it's been supercharged.

With the advent of GPS, the stones were mapped and a pattern became apparent. All the stones were moving in the same general direction, toward the Nevada border, where, 100 miles east is Area 51

From the website where I found this:

These stones, which were once part of the mountainside, have broken free and began a slow journey across Racetrack Playa. Now factor in that the pace of the stones mysteriously began to increase in the late forties, just as the supposed Roswell UFO was sent to Area 51.

Are the sailing stones pieces of a spacecraft that met its untimely demise during prehistoric times? Was the object that the crashed in Roswell, New Mexico really an extraterrestrial salvage vehicle sent on another mission to located the long vanished spacecraft, only to succumb to the same fate. Is the wreckage at Area 51 giving off a beacon in the form of a magnetic field to call its lost brother home?

Side Note: Solomon Almquist set up his own personal printing press and hand printed every copy of his chapbook When Will I Be Found. It is unknown why, but something made him stop after number fifty one and no further copies were printed.

This is totally believable right?

I looked and couldn't find anything about a second gold rush in 1935, I couldn't find anything about metal "fossils", I couldn't find anything indicated the frequency and speed in which the stones move has increased since the 1940s, if anything all evidence points to the opposite. The stones also don't continually move, even at incredibly slow rate.

Most damning of all I couldn't find anything about Solomon Almquist the geologist or his book "When Will I Be Found" except for the website I found this theory on. There's a lot of things mentioned in this article that have since been proven wrong in scientific studies. So I think we can write this off. But here's a pretty picture of a sailing stone under the stars 

The Science

Now that we have had our fun, let's get into the science

In 1948 geologists Jim McAllister and Allen Agnew mapped the bedrock in the area and were the first to publish a report about the rocks in the Geologic Society of America Bulletin. Though they report contained little measurable details and investigation, it did spark interest

In 1952, a National Park Service Ranger named Louis G. Kirk recorded detailed observations of furrow length, width, and general course. He sought simply to investigate and record evidence of the moving rock phenomenon, not to hypothesize or create an extensive scientific report, but it was after this that attempts to solve the mystery began in earnest.

Some stones weigh as much as a human, which some researchers, such as geologist George M. Stanley, who published a paper on the topic in 1955, feel is too heavy for the area's winds to move. After extensive track mapping and research on rotation of the tracks in relation to ice floe rotation, Stanley maintained that ice sheets around the stones either help to catch the wind or that ice floes initiate rock movement. Though this was all theory, no one had seen the stones in action.

In May 1968, Bob Sharp and Dwight Carey started their own observation. 30 stones with fresh tracks were labeled, named and had stakes placed next to them marking their location. The stones were then observed over a 7 year period.

During this time they tested Stanley's ice floe theory by caging a couple stones with a ring of rebar. The idea being that if the accumulation of ice is what gave the rocks enough surface to catch the wind, the rebar cage should at the very least slow it down, if not stop it entirely. This did not occur, 2/3 of the stones managing to move out of the cage undeterred.

Of the 30 stones that were tagged, all but two of them moved during the 7 year period in which the study was conducted.

  • Ten of the initial 30 stones moved in the first winter with Mary Ann (stone A) covering the longest distance at 212 ft (65 m)
  • Nancy (stone H) At 2.5 in (6.4 cm) in diameter was the smallest monitored stone. It also moved the longest cumulative distance, 860 ft (260 m), and the greatest single winter movement, 659 ft (201 m)
  • The largest stone to move was 80 lb (36 kg).

The largest stone observed, Karen (Stone 7) was 29x19x20 inch block of dolomite that weighed an estimated 700 lbs. When Karen was tagged she did have a fresh set of tracks, but over the next seven years she did not budge, the researchers hypothesized the original track was likely just her rolling down from the side of the valley into place.

But strangely, Karen disappeared in winter 1992/1993. The Playa was searched and no sign of Karen was found, nor were their any signs of her being moved by artificial means. To move her would require a truck or other similar equipment and the delicate Playa floor would've been dug up by the tires and it wasn't.

A possible sighting of Karen was made in 1994, 1⁄2 mi (800 m) from the playa. Karen was rediscovered by San Jose geologist Paula Messina in 1996 though I don't know where she was found

Studies continued throughout the 90s without any big developments. The general consensus was that the rocks seemed to move about once every 3 years and only for about a period of ten seconds.

For a long time we had no idea why this happened, but there were two primary camps: those that believed ice was the cause and those that believed wind was the cause.

Turns out they both were right.

Norris Cousins

99 years after the stones were first discovered, In August 2014 two cousins: Richard and Jim Norris finally solved the mystery

Their analysis involved 15 GPS instrumented rocks, a weather station and a time lapse camera set up to record hourly between Nov-March each year. Their study would last two years.

The Racetrack playa is a bit of a trek, so it's not like they could go check on it in their lunch breaks, so they would go out 5-8 times a year to exchange battery packs and download data.

"Science sometimes has an element of luck," Richard Norris said. "We expected to wait five or ten years without anything moving, but only two years into the project, we just happened to be there at the right time to see it happen in person."

Their observations show that moving the rocks requires a rare combination of events. First, the playa fills with water, which must be deep enough to form floating ice during cold winter nights but shallow enough to expose the rocks. As nighttime temperatures plummet, the pond freezes to form thin sheets of "windowpane" ice, which must be thin enough to move freely but thick enough to maintain strength. On sunny days, the ice begins to melt and break up into large floating panels, which light winds drive across the playa, pushing rocks in front of them and leaving trails in the soft mud below the surface.

"Science sometimes has an element of luck," Richard Norris said. "We expected to wait five or ten years without anything moving, but only two years into the project, we just happened to be there at the right time to see it happen in person."

Sheets of ice - thin, but 40 or 50 feet across - were sliding atop a film of melted water. "It's basically being like a tugboat or a bulldozer," Norris says. "It's pushing the rocks very slowly along."

These observations upended previous theories that had proposed hurricane-force winds, dust devils, slick algal films, or thick sheets of ice as likely contributors to rock motion. Instead, rocks moved under light winds of about 10 miles per hour and were driven by ice less than 3-5 millimeters (0.25 inches) thick, a measure too thin to grip large rocks and lift them off the playa, which several papers had proposed as a mechanism to reduce friction. Further, the rocks moved only a few inches per second (2-6 meters per minute), a speed that is almost imperceptible at a distance and without stationary reference points.

"It's possible that tourists have actually seen this happening without realizing it," said Jim Norris. "It is really tough to gauge that a rock is in motion if all the rocks around it are also moving."

Not only that, they caught it on camera.

The largest rock movement the research team witnessed and documented was on December 20, 2013 and involved more than 60 rocks, with some rocks moving up to 734 ft between December 2013 and January 2014 in multiple movement events

Some GPS-measured moves lasted up to 16 minutes, and a number of stones moved more than five times during the existence of the playa pond in the winter of 2013-14.

"We documented five movement events in the two and a half months the pond existed and some involved hundreds of rocks", says Richard Norris, "So we have seen that even in Death Valley, famous for its heat, floating ice is a powerful force in rock motion. But we have not seen the really big boys move out there....Does that work the same way?"

Theft and vandalism of rocks

On 30 May 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported that park officials were looking into the theft of several of the rocks from the Death Valley National Park.

In August 2016, around 10 miles of tire tracks were left in the playa by someone driving around it illegally. A photographer visiting in September also noted the initials 'D' and 'K' newly carved into one of the rocks. Although reports at the time suggested investigators had identified a suspect, the vandal had not been identified in March 2018, when a team of volunteers cleaned the tire tracks from the Racetrack using gardening tools and 750 gallons of water

Other Locations

Death Valley isn't the only place that this has been observed Little Bonnie Claire Playa, in Nevada,


What we do know is that this event has happened elsewhere and has been happening for around 200 million years. In 2017 paleontologist Paul Olsen of Columbia University discovered a fossil with pristine dinosaur footprints, but not just that, a sailing stone footprint. This is a exciting discovery not just for the sailing stones, but for the dinosaurs as it could indicate evidence of briefly freezing temperatures in the tropics during the Early Jurassic 200 million years ago, when the dinosaur world expanded and mammals started to evolve and diversify at a furious rate. More evidence will need to be found, but it's pretty dope nonetheless

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