Death Valley is a triple threat: it’s the hottest, driest, and lowest of the United States’ National Parks. Located the northern section of the Mojave Desert, the highest-ever recorded temperature of 134 °F occurred there. But there’s another mystery that makes Death Valley special.

This amazing 3,000 square mile park offers a ton of variety. Its elevation spans from 11,043 feet at Telescope Mountain to 282 feet below sea level in the Badwater Basin — which is insane. This height difference creates the perfect environment for biodiversity. Visiting the park means you’ll get to see a variety of unique features — including rocks that defy the laws of physics.

For more than 70 years, researchers have attempted to figure out why these special rocks are moving by themselves in long journeys across the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. And finally, they’ve pieced together the mystery.

Mark Newman

Before 2014, no one had personally witnessed the “sailing stones.” In the meantime, plenty had observed thick trails behind the seemingly stationary boulders. No one knew who — or what — was responsible.

Louis Sahagun

The questions began in 1948, when the phenomenon was first noticed. The Racetrack itself is a flat, dry lakebed, and the rocks weighed 600 pounds each. There wasn’t an easy answer to what was causing these stones to move.

OnFitness Magazine

To complicate things further, the boulders could remain still for more than a decade before shifting. Eventually, scientists attached GPS trackers to the rocks to try to determine the root of the movement, but it took years for the idea and the technological capabilities to align.

Gert Boers

In their search for answers, scientists believed extremely strong winds could be a potential cause. Even this was a stretch. On average, the Valley’s windspeed only reached between seven to ten mph.

Dust storms regularly rip through the Mojave Desert, but few reach Death Valley. The depression is surrounded by steep hills and mountains and is naturally barricaded from most of the extreme winds.

Saija Lehtonen

Let’s add another layer of weird: the tracks weren’t even always straight lines. Sometimes rocks would switch directions. They would travel in pairs. They’d make synchronous turns. Researchers were baffled.

Louis Sahagun

Another idea was that algae was forming a slick surface rocks could slide across. But that didn’t add up. The next was that thick sheets of ice formed in the playa, but this was incorrect too. 

Amy Nordrum / IEEE Spectrum

Other theories were thrown out. The conspiracy crowd suggested aliens, as is tradition. Another group threw out desert trickery as a theory. Maybe people had an elaborate mechanism to move the stones without leaving behind any evidence?

Paul Boger

Finally, researchers used GPS to monitor the massive rocks remotely. They used a weather station that recorded gusts on a one-second interval. Fifteen of the trackers were fitted on the wandering stones.

Ted Maxwell

Now, all the scientists had to do was wait and observe. Their work led to a concrete answer to the rock sliding question. There’s a reason why this is such a rarity and why it took more than a half-century of work to discover.

Arizona State University

Thanks to the trackers and video feed from the station, finally, the rocks’ movements were viewed by human eyes. It wasn’t pranksters, winds, or aliens. It was luck. That was the force moving the rocks.

Mike Hartmann

Several factors must come together for the rocks to move. Every few years, water trickles into the playa forming a shallow lake. If the water levels are deep enough, ice can float on the surface at night.

At the same time, the water level can’t be so high that the boulders are entirely submerged. The conditions need to be just right. In the night, the temperature sharply dips, creating a thin, crusty ice.

Steve Whitmarsh, flickr

The ice itself must be both thin enough to float, but thick enough to keep its strength. If the next day is sunny, this ice can break up into enormous chunks. While all this is happening, the wind blows in Death Valley.

Andy Rouse

With the right push from a random gust, the ice pushes into the rocks, moving them anywhere the wind blows (read to the tune of “Bohemian Rhapsody”). There’s something incredibly beautiful about the chance of all this.

It’s such a random group of events, with elements happening independently of each other. But this perfect storm appears with such a regularity that it mystified the scientific communities for more than half a century. Now that’s an interesting mystery that you can see for yourself.

The rocks themselves were pushed by the ice sheets anywhere from a few seconds to 16 minutes. Once, the group saw rocks 300 yards apart move together for about 200 ft before stopping.

Norris RD et al.

“So, we have seen that even in Death Valley, famous for its heat, floating ice is a powerful force in stone motion,” said Dr. Richard Norris from Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Of all the theories proposed, a cocktail of small natural forces was responsible. Even though we were hoping for aliens, this is definitely much more romantic — especially for a place called Death Valley. And this National Park has provided other confounding mysteries too.

In March of 2019, tourists seeking selfies in the blistering sun were surprised to find the landscape looking a bit differently than they’d seen in social media posts. Instead of the Star Wars reminiscent sand dunes and cracked plains sat an unusual weather anomaly.

Obsidian Architecture

On March 6th, 2019, Death Valley experienced a much-needed rainfall. Compared to your average downpour in less extreme climates, the rain seemed meager, but for the desert, this was flood city.


For reference, the average rainfall in Death Valley for the month of March is 0.3 inches. Over the course of 48 hours, the thirsty plants were swimming laps in the overwhelming 0.84 inches of rain.


When physicist and nature photographer Elliot McGucken heard about the massive rainfall, he immediately grabbed his camera and set off to the depths of the desert to capture the weather abnormality.


Elliot knew that, back in 2015, Death Valley experienced a similar surplus of rain, over 2 inches. The aftermath saw the desert floor of Badwater Basin turned into an eerie motionless puddle. It stretched over the ground like a massive mirror reflecting rock and sky.

Tuxyso / Wiki Commons

So, Elliot drove through miles of desolate desert, hoping to snag some incredible photos of the rare environmental occurrence. But as he approached his destination, the previous site of the large still pool, Badwater Basin, Elliot found something that cut his journey short.


With 20 miles to Badwater Basin, Elliot’s passage was blocked. He’d made it as far as Salt Creek, a long-since dried up lake bed. In the place of the shriveled expanse of Earth was a vast motionless lake.

Elliot McGucken / Instagram

For Elliot, this phenomenon surpassed his wildest expectations. The sheer size of the body of standing water put the Badwater Basin episode to shame. Elliot, mouth agape, stood to take in the scope of it all.

Elliot McGucken / Instagram

A representative of Death Valley National Park admitted to Elliot via email, “I believe we would need aerial photos to accurately determine the size,” which only added to the powerful supernatural vibe coming from this enormous rain puddle.

Strange Sounds

Luckily no spooky creatures climbed out of the lake, but there were serious concerns about the damage it could cause longterm. Dumping a huge quantity of water in the driest place on Earth has complications.

All this rain isn’t as big a gift to the desolate land as you’d expect, explained meteorologist Chris Dolce. “Because water is not readily absorbed in the desert environment,” he said, “even moderate rainfall can cause flooding in Death Valley.”

Elliot McGucken / Instagram

In less than a day, Death Valley was submerged with a third of its yearly rainfall. Compact soil and root systems of native plants block water absorption.”It’s like putting water on concrete,” said Todd Lericos of the National Weather Service.


The result? Ephemeral lakes, lakes of water occurring in places that are usually dry. Nearby, Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, home to the Burningman Festival, sees a fair share of temporary bodies of water. Once evaporated, a layer of minerals are left coating the ground.

Ikluft / Wikicommons

The long term effects of the desert lakes are unclear, but they provide a glimpse into future climate trends. “It’s important to study a variety of physical and biological systems to gain a more complete understanding of the rates and magnitudes of past climate changes,” said researcher Kenneth Adams.


Instagramers and nature bloggers delight in documenting these weather events, but their increased frequency has scientists concerned it hints towards a more damaging environmental episode.

Max Pixel

Commonly referred to by experts as Atmospheric River 1,000, this massive storm occurs about every 150-200 years. The megastorm brings torrential downpours, triggering massive floods on a scale of hundreds of miles.


According to the United States Geological Survey, ARkStorm realistically should be anticipated within the next two centuries. Floods would dramatically impact communities in California, displacing millions and causing billions in property damages.


Scientists agree that for now, ephemeral lakes pose little threat to Death Valley’s environment. So, photogs like Elliot can snap pictures for pleasure, guilt-free. “Nature presents this beauty, and I think a lot of what photography is about is searching for it and then capturing it.”

Elliot McGucken / Instagram

It’s important that while recognizing and appreciating the wonders of natural events, we consider the future repercussions of our changing climate. The risk of settling into coastal areas needs to be approached with preparedness. One family who built their home in a tropical storm hotspot learned that lesson in spades.


Russell King and his nephew Lebron Lackey could hardly wait as they ironed out the details of their big project. The Tennessee residents planned to build a vacation home for their extended family, whom they hoped would enjoy it for generations — or maybe even forever.

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They chose the town of Mexico Beach, Florida, as their vacation locale. The Panhandle community had a more “mom and pop” feel compared to other Florida destinations overrun with tourists. Also boasting a beautiful view of the Gulf of Mexico, it was the perfect place to build.

City of Mexico Beach

The state of Florida already enacted strict building codes for all new construction, though areas on the Gulf were a bit laxer. For perfectionists like Russell and Lebron, however, these laws were not enough. They wanted to go above and beyond existing regulations.

Perillo Construction

They remembered how over the years, freak storms like Hurricane Katrina devastated communities. Other new homeowners in Mexico Beach simply prayed no weather event would ever threaten their property, but Russell and Lebron understood hope alone was not a strategy.

NBC News

“I believe the planet’s getting warmer and the storms are getting stronger,” Russell said about his building philosophy. “We didn’t use to have storms like this. So people who live on the coast have to be ready for it.”

Terray Sylvester

Russell and his nephew decided that their home would have to be a fortress. After some research, they asked their architect to build a house capable of withstanding 250 mph winds. It was a huge request, but at the very least it would give the family peace of mind.

The construction drew upon the latest storm-proof technology. Because the house was right on the water, the work began with a foundation of 40-foot metal pilings, which would place the building well above any incoming tidal floods.

The New York Times / Johnny Milano

Steel cables ran from the eaves down to the ground to make sure that the roof would stay attached. The walls themselves were made of 12 inches of reinforced concrete, with durable siding to armor the outside layer. And that wasn’t even the first line of defense.

The New York Times / Johnny Milano

Lebron and Russell put in salt-tolerant plants all along the dunes that separated their house from the shoreline. Though this precaution didn’t look like much, these grasses are actually one of the most effective ways to protect dunes from erosion. All in all, reporters estimated these outside fortifications tacked on an additional $400,000 to construction costs.

Of course, they took a different approach on the inside, which felt nothing like a military stronghold. Russell and Lebron decked it out to comfortably accommodate their entire family and provide for some world-class vacations. By May of 2018, the house was ready.

Facebook / Sand Palace of Mexico Beach, FL

The Kings and Lackeys proudly dubbed their new home “The Sand Palace.” The entire clan spent a relaxing Fourth of July together in Mexico beach, and they decorated the house with red, white, and blue memorabilia for the occasion. They couldn’t have been happier. But neither Russell nor Lebron realized there was trouble on the horizon.

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In early October, radars picked up the beginnings of Hurricane Michael. Meteorologists announced it would be one of the strongest storms to ever hit the country. Florida evacuated most of its citizens near the coast and hoped the worst of the weather system would miss them.

The New York Times / Johnny Milano

The Gulf Coast had no such luck. Russell, safely at home in Tennessee, watched live footage from a security camera as Hurricane Michael pounded Mexico Beach. He saw gusts of wind and water carry away his neighbors’ homes, and worried: even with all their precautions, would The Sand Palace survive?

The results of the storm were devastating. Residents trickled back in to check on their homes, only to find over three-quarters of properties in the town suffered serious damage. Many long-standing houses and businesses simply were not there anymore.

Naturally, properties right along the shore bore the brunt of the storm, while inland buildings got a little more protection. But as the people of Mexico Beach picked through the rubble, they noticed something amazing…

While the hurricane leveled nearly all the other structures in the vicinity, The Sand Palace still stood strong. The storm took over 30 lives and tore apart homes and businesses, and yet one house right on the water looked seemingly no worse for the wear.


Russell headed down to Mexico Beach to check in on the house and lend a hand to his neighbors. He found that The Sand Palace experienced a bit of water damage — one cracked window and quite a few exterior scars. Thankfully, he could remedy all those problems in just a few weeks. Other people lost everything.

Lebron and his uncle felt overwhelmed that their preparations worked and that they had the resources to protect their home so thoroughly. “We wanted to build it for the big one,” Lebron said. “We just never knew we’d find the big one so fast.”


Emergency crews in Mexico Beach were hard at work restoring stability to the area and tracking down people who went unaccounted for during the storm. The owners of The Sand Palace could have basked in their good fortune, but instead, they made an incredibly selfless decision.

Gulf Power Company

Lebron and Russell offered up their home as a temporary base for FEMA while they helped Mexico Beach back on its feet. They also helped solicit donations for the ailing community. With these acts of generosity, they proved The Sand Palace could do more than just survive a deadly storm: it could thrive in one.

The New York Times / Johnny Milano