Back in late October 2016, I went with a group to Saline Valley Hot springs. This is quite possibly the most remote location in California that can be reached by vehicle. There are several ways to get there but the only two I’d dare try without a full-up 4WD truck caravan are the North and South Passes. This trip took the South Pass. To get there you travel up US 395 to a small village named Olancha. At this point, you are wise to fill your tank completely even if it is only a gallon or two low and even though the price is exorbitant. Fill your gas cans too if you have an exterior carrier for them. Bring a minimum of a gallon of water per person per day. More would be better.
Make sure you have a real spare tire and it is full, not one of those mini spares. (Many people recommend 2 spares. I recommend one with lots of tread and then go slow.) My car was a stock 2WD Isuzu Amigo. Plenty of clearance and good AT tires. Speed kills on this road you and won’t be able to avoid the sharp rocks and divots if you treat it like any other gravel road.
It is not a trip for the faint of heart or the stupid. Summer is brutal. Winter can be navigated if you watch the weather and keep track of current conditions, however, you run the chance of being snowed in for days to weeks. Late fall and early spring are the best times but weather thru the passes can be quirky at all times of the year.
There are a couple of good sources for information. For road conditions, I rely on the Saline Preservation forum. For general exploration, I use Guide to the Remote and Mysterious Saline Valley by Bill Mann. For detailed foot navigation, I use topographic maps and a compass for shooting back bearings off prominent features. Do not use a standard vehicle GPS. That’s a good way to die in the desert. Many roads and trails either no longer exist or are simply dangerous. I carry 5 gallons of water as the only source may be the springs themselves.
I had been out here before a decade ago, going thru the north pass in my Suzuki. There was still snow on the ground and nights were dipping to freezing. This is probably the more interesting route from a historical perspective. Lots of ruins of old ranches, abandoned mines, and vehicles. There was once a thriving mining community in the Inyo Mountains to the west. My understanding is that the eastern side of the Saline Valley Road is National Park with all their limits and restrictions while the western side of the road is BLM. Their rules are much more relaxed.
Next step is to take Highway 190 east for about 20 miles thru… nothing. Literally no structures and little sign of humanity except for the road itself. You’ll pass on the south side of Owens Dry Lake and a few miles beyond that turn left onto a dirt road, signage on the right of 190 indicating “Saline Valley Road”. A couple miles up this road you’ll pass a weather-beaten sign indicating you are entering Death Valley National Park.
Saline Valley Road climbs up to South Pass at 5800 ft. As it does so you pass thru Joshua Tree forest, then Juniper forest. The road also gets narrower and rockier. You then proceed downhill thru Grapevine Canyon, a twisty narrow corridor thru a deep rocky canyon. At last the road widens out a bit and you can make good time down Saline Valley itself.
On the way, you’ll pass a salt lake, often completely dry in the summer. The ruin of an old salt works is still there. The surrounding area is relatively green because this is where an aquifer emerges at the base of the mountains. Everything here is enclosed by a fence and it is an officially declared “Burro exclusion zone”. The valley has a herd of wild burros living here and they will eat anything. Mesquite, cardboard, the lunch you left out when you went to the latrine, ANYTHING.
After the salt lake, there is a large area of sand dunes. Shrubs have started encroaching on the periphery but the central dunes are as barren as anything can be.
Warm Springs Road is an easy-to-miss unmarked sand and dirt trail, just past the dunes and going right. While before the main threat to your vehicle was sharp rocks and washboard road, now the road makes sudden dips and climbs with the occasional sand trap. It still is not unreasonable to take a 2WD with good ground clearance back here and if driven with caution, a Subaru Forester or equivalent should do fine. En route, you pass a decorated pole, hung with bat symbols and other odds and ends. (We also passed a Toyota truck with a broken front axle that had been there for weeks. This is the penalty for going too fast. There is no towing service out here.) By the time you get to the palm trees marking the locations of the springs, you have traveled 50 miles down rough dirt track over 3 hours.
The lower and middle springs have been well developed by volunteers over the years and visitors to them have become a bit of a cult. There are several concrete and stone tubs distributed at two locations with water being piped directly from the original springs. The lower springs are the more luxurious with lots of shade, structural shelter from the elements, and even a lending library. Runoff is used to water a small lawn and a debris fence has been erected to keep the burros out. Upper springs are somewhat wild.
Back in ’94, when Death Valley National park was extended to include this area, the NPS was kind enough to install permanent prefab pit toilets. There is a small crude runway called Chicken Strip for adventuresome pilots. There are showers and washing facilities at both springs. However, there is no potable water, no food, and no cell service. If you get stuck out here you will have to depend on the kindness of strangers to save your butt.
The rule out here is clothing optional and nobody bats an eye at naked people wandering to and fro. If you’re wearing anything at all, it is entirely a fashion choice. Sandals or water shoes are highly recommended. Traipsing around on broken pumice and travertine – barefoot – isn’t very comfortable.
We got there at about 2 pm. on Sat. Clothes went off, tents went up and I was off to the spas. You meet an eclectic group of people. There are locals for sure but one campsite had a trio of boys fresh out of high school from Stuttgart Germany. They tried to sell me the 97 Cherokee they’d bought just for this trip. Another was an elderly couple from France. And there were people of both genders and all ages from several different US states.
We camped at the middle springs. It is the less developed spring and has little in terms of a physical shelter In my book, less developed and less used is good.
To say it was a mellow environment would be to exaggerate the action. You can’t soak in a tub of the temperature of your choice for very long before all the stress and all the worry ooze out of your pores along with the sweat. Water is very clean as everyone is asked to take a shower prior to use and the water gets changed and tubs washed regularly.
I understand that on holiday weekends the place can get pretty crowded and parties and ballgames ensue.
The evening gave a spectacular red display. I wasn’t able to capture it well, as my camera didn’t like the low light.
That night was a new moon. I saw quite a few shooting stars and one was quite dramatic. It was a huge fireball, breaking apart and sending off shards all across the sky. About 30 seconds later I heard a faint boom. I think this may have been the beginning of the South Taurids meteor shower. Seems too late to be the end of the Orionids.
On many evenings the fighters from the China Lake Naval Weapons Station come by to buzz the springs at treetop level. Twelve years ago when I was last here, they buzzed us several times. The sound and shock waves were overwhelming as the water danced and the ground shook. This year, no luck. Ah well! Need to come back mid-week.
That evening the temperature did not drop much. It was still a relatively languid mid-70s. Later, when the water had left us all in a state of utter relaxation, we gradually, randomly and individually wandered back to our campfire. It was hot dogs and shish-kabobs and marshmallows while we listened to the harmonica and the ukulele. And then to bed.
In the middle of the night, my sleep was disturbed twice by nearby burros. Then, about 4 in the morning the wind picked up. I went back to sleep without a thought. The burros were a constant presence, grazing on the lawn and mooching everything they could from the campers. If you have enough land they’d make a good pet. They are regularly rounded up and put up for adoption.
It was still warm at 8 am. and the wind had picked up even more. Little bits of dust and twigs flew thru the air. Nothing to worry about – yet – so we went back to our various activities. For me, that meant hiking around and checking out all the petroforms created by the natives to appease the sky gods. There were quite a few ranging from simple smiley faces and peace symbols to text, to complex mandalas and spirals.
The wind continued to pick up and was starting to get irritating, so I retreated to the hot tubs for more relaxation. Within about an hour the back of my head was matted with sand and the flying particles started to sting my skin. I figure gusts must have hit 40 mph. (It would be cool to install a solar-powered weather station here.) at about 1 pm, an executive decision was made to end the trip a day early. Knocking down those tents in
this wind was not easy. In fact, some came close to be demolished before we could get them down. The wind showed no sign of abating, an ominous cloud rolled overhead and a monumental sandstorm was developing along the very road we had to take out. (Remember the sand dunes we passed on our way in?)
Mother nature was not done with me yet. Climbing up into South pass, I climbed into those threatening clouds I had only looked at before. At the bottom of the valley, the rain simply evaporated before it reached the ground. At elevation, it did not. My rear end skidded in mud as I climbed steep sections or rounded hairpin curves. Once again visibility was nearly zero. The rocks I had cursed on my way down as dangers to my tires were now my friends, They were the only things my tires could grip for traction.
No real need to get dressed until just before you hit pavement. (People may look at you strangely if you leave your vehicle.)
Somehow I survived it all and after a meal and a gallon of coffee in Olancha, I headed back home. The rough spots were exciting and fun, the easy times were ultra-relaxing and my carpool companion paid for my gas. What more could I ask for?
For a great blog about a longer stay check out the Bare Backpacking Blog.