The Meteorite Exchange, Inc.

Meteorite Hunting Vacation 2003

Well, as promised here is the story of Paul and I on a meteorite hunting vacation. Its written as a travel log so, just sit back, settle in with some popcorn and enjoy the adventure day by day.

Day One:

There were some last minute changes in our accommodations. The chosen RV park lost its electricity. We had big plans for using laptops and microwaves and such. We ended up at Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley. It meant we would have to drive a little extra everyday, but not that far.

The first real benefit about the change in campsite was that it put us a lot closer to the Racetrack. There is a playa in Death Valley with rocks that move across its surface. There are several lines of thought about how they do it, but it is remarkable. One idea is that it is a phenomenon related to the freezing of the surface of the lake. I don’t know. Some of the rocks are very large. A couple look to be in the 100 to 200 pound range. Wind I think is a given as part of the equation. Something has to supply the power and the direction. Most of the rocks however, are a few pounds in weight. Here is what is really interesting. Some of them have moved hundreds of meters. Loyal fans have followed many of the rocks, recording their motions for years. Some have been given names. They are even scratched into them. Others unfortunately have also been taken away.

In the middle of the Racetrack playa is a large outcropping of old rock called the Grandstand. It is like an island of rock surrounded by a sea of clay. Paul could not resist climbing it. Here is a picture of him on the top .

The following pictures are of some of the rocks and their trails across the playa. I will write more in the future about what the movement of these rocks might mean to those of us who hunt meteorites on dry lakes.

On the way to the Racetrack is Ubehebe Crater. It is a volcanic steam explosion crater and quite a sight. Meteor Crater in Arizona was for many years the focus of a debate over origin. The major anti-impact theory of origin was a volcanic steam explosion. Certainly Ubehebe is testimony to the great power of that process.  But, there is none of the tilted and thrown over layers or other features that we know distinguish an impact crater. But, it is very impressive.

We wanted to hike down into it, but time did not permit. As it turned out it was well past nightfall when we got back to there after the Racetrack. The Racetrack is down a 27-mile dirt road that in places is the worst washboard you can imagine. If you think of going to visit the Racetrack have a 4-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance.

With all of that activity on the first day we were still by no means done. It was for both of us the darkest location we had been, so on the way back we stopped for about an hour or so of stargazing and astrophotography. We can take an eight second exposure with our digital cameras. That is long enough to record constellations and of course Mars which is still bright.

After downloading our pictures of the first day it was time to turn in and get some rest. Tomorrow would be our first day of hiking and real exploring.

Day Two:

We had been flown over a couple times at the Racetrack, but on this day we would have many opportunities to see fighter jets up close and in rare form. We had barely gotten out of the jeep when a fighter screamed by. Paul gave him a thumbs up sign and that we guess was enough to deserve a great reward. He made a fast bank and tight turn and came around for another pass. We were ready this time with cameras. He was less than a hundred feet off the deck and after passing over us he rolled into inverted flight for a few seconds then screamed out of sight. Over flights like this would be repeated all day.

We had gone out to a dry lake that we wanted to explore. We hiked there for several hours and had a great time. It was hot but not really unpleasant. We stayed in radio range all day, which is itself a little unusual. Often we get just a little out of range, and the signal breaks up. We met at noon for our sumptuous meal of granola chewy bars, peanuts, and gummy fruit snacks, all washed down with Gatorade. In the afternoon we started back out the dirt road and enjoyed as always some great conversation.

At the motorhome it was time to download our pictures again and have a slideshow. We uploaded into our GPS units the topo information for the next day’s adventure. Then it was movie time. We watched The Matrix Reloaded, which I had never seen. Wow, what a movie, I just wish that I fully understood the thing. I will have to see it a few more times, but I do think I like it better than the original.

Day Three:

We got up every morning on the trip without an alarm within about fifteen minutes of the same time. Guess we are real creatures of habit. Our breakfast typically is a bowl of cereal and glass of milk. Then off to see what the day holds for us. Day three was to be a serious day of hunting. I had picked the dry lake next to the ghost town of Ballarat since it would allow us two great things to do in one day. Well, we could see as we approached the lake that it was in pretty poor condition and that it was a soda lake.

They are not as nice to hunt on, as a plain clay surface lake. But, this one was really ripped up. We spent some time talking to the lone resident of Ballarat. It is an older woman with many stories. She has a little store with some books and soft drinks and a fact sheet that we could read. It was her only copy so we could not take it with us. I had already told the story of the town to Paul while driving. So he jokingly mentioned that he had come to see his long lost relative Shorty Harris. (Shorty was the last soul to stay after the boom ended in Ballarat. He died in 1934.) The lady chuckled at that comment recognizing the name immediately. We left her store and headed down the road to look at the lake. In fact, we walked all the way across it. It was really bad. The lady told us that she had lake front property three times in the last year. Lots of water had been on the lake. So deciding not to spend a lot of time there we would go to another lake and check out a day early from Stovepipe Wells.

The ghost town was still there to explore and we did. The cemetery was both interesting and tragic. Many of the graves no longer had markers. Many with markers were now unreadable. Most graves had tokens of money within their rock or fence boundaries. It was heart wrenching to see the area of the cemetery devoted to the children. There were offerings of toys and stuffed animal on the graves. We somberly left there and went to the town site itself.

Ballarat is named after the city in Australia where the 2,284-ounce nugget was found. It was one of the famous towns in that country’s gold rush. Ballarat was not part of the 1849 gold rush in California. But, one of the towns that sprung up later in the booms that happened from 1870 to the First World War.

I had been to Ballarat years ago. There was a lot more to it then. Today, there are a handful of buildings still standing. But, there are ruins and mines all over the area to explore. Even some claims that are still being worked. One mine has just recently been investigated and found to have enough gold to make working it a commercially viable idea. The lack of wood in the area forced the inhabitants to make the buildings of mostly adobe. The ruins are slowly melting back into the desert.

Higher up on the Panamint Mountains and just miles from Ballarat was Panamint City. Built on the very slopes of the mountain where silver was discovered in December of 1872; Panamint City had a peak population of 2000. The silver bullion was cast into cubes weighing 400 pounds to deter thieves. The City was flourishing and the mills and mines were working steady till a 20 hour rain storm sent a wall of water down Surprise Canyon and took out much of the city. The boom was over and the miners departed.  There is a sighting tube on top of one of the small monuments located at the intersection of the main road and the dirt road to Ballarat. Paul got a nice shot through it of the location of Panamint City.  One day I would like to return and explore the mile high ghost town at length.

We took a lot of pictures there at Ballarat and then headed out. We wanted to get some hunting in at another lake before the day was completely gone. We would choose the lake back at the RV from our maps.

We arrived back at Stovepipe Wells just a little before one in the afternoon. Had a quick lunch, hooked up the jeep to the towing system and got fuel. Another great opportunity for conversation was not lost as we traveled to Silurian Dry Lake. With our schedules as hectic as they are, we actually do not talk or see each other for weeks at a time. We check in around the day that the Meteorite-Times is due to be done, but don’t get a chance to catch up until these infrequent journeys.

We reached Silurian at around four in the afternoon. We just parked and grabbed the magnet canes and our packs then hit the lake. We found a meteorite a few minutes after five pm. Long shadows were already stretching out across the clay surface by the time the photographs and GPS data and written backup record were done. It is a small partial stone that is quite responsive to a magnet.


The surface of the lake had been disturbed only a little from the rains where it was found. The stone was partly covered with a thin coating of clay. Some parts of the lake had been altered quite a bit. In one area the surface had peeled up into large bowl like pieces. They crunched and broke under our feet as we walked.

We hunted till it was too dark to really see anymore; worked our way back to the motorhome for dinner. I think it was turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy. Also mixed vegetables that night were on the menu. We of course had our picture download time and then it was off to bed.

Day Four:

We were out hunting by eight in the morning and it was clear that it was going to be very hot. The surface of Silurian Dry Lake is quite nice for hunting; not many rocks. We knew it had been hunted before, but we could not remember how much. So we decided to take the metal detectors and use them part of the day. If it had been seriously hunted then we might find something buried. I love hunting with a detector. It does slow you down as far as ground you can cover. But, there are all the little pulse raising events when the detector screams that something is down there. We found another big pile of bullets and junk. We hunted until around 11 am then headed back toward the motorhome. Paul arrived first dropped off his detector and got a refill on Gatorade. He had already headed back out with his magnet cane by the time I arrived. I did the same and headed back out for a couple more hours also. Another small stone was found this day. It is not very responsive to a magnet at all. When the detector was tried on it the sensitivity had to be cranked up to get much response.

This was the hottest day of hunting I can remember. It was significantly over one hundred degrees and the air was absolutely still.

We have learned since returning that there was one other meteorite recovered from Silurian. There should be around five independent falls on that size lake, so more are likely out there. The one that was found previously was recovered a while back by Bob Verish, it is an LL6.

The sad part of the trip came at just before 2 in the afternoon when the engine started up for the long trip home. I knew that I had used up my vacation for the year. Any more trips would have to be one-day jaunts or weekends at most. We checked out two other lakes nearby as we drove home. We knew one of them had also yielded meteorites. It undoubtedly has more to give up to a long-suffering hunter.

All and all a spectacular trip filled as always with a variety of different activities.

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