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Saline Valley Warm Springs in Death Valley, California

March, 2002.

This year's spring break from the Canadian winter was a trip to the Saline Valley Warm Springs in Death Valley, California. Officially, Death Valley is second on the list of hottest places on earth. That makes spring and fall great times to visit, with its pleasant warm to hot temperatures a far cry from the furnace-like 130 degree days of summer. Death Valley is due west of Las Vegas, the destination of my flight. If you travelling to the area by plane then Los Angeles can also be considered as a starting point; the driving time to Saline Valley is pretty much the same from both cities. However, starting from Vegas let me see more of Death Valley, avoid the traffic of LA's freeways, and spend a few minutes at a roulette table before crossing the Nevada/California border.

Visiting Saline Valley requires a sense of adventure. If this isn't you then you might as well stop reading now. A 2 hour drive from Vegas gets to you to the eastern edge of the Death Valley National Park, however there is still a lot of driving ahead before you reach the springs. Death Valley is the largest national park in the lower 48 (5300 sq miles, 140 miles long and 60 miles wide says my guidebook), with Saline Valley being the western-most of several mountain range-separated valleys that span those 60 miles. The main roads through Death Valley are easily traversed by park's many visitors in their cars and RV's, and its several inns and serviced campgrounds are popular overnight destinations. Visiting Saline Valley, on the other hand, means driving on what will probably be the worst "road" you'll ever experience and going to a place that has no services at all. Well, there are pit toilets at the springs, but beyond that you'll only have what you bring in, accomodation included.

After another hour or so of driving through Death Valley I reached the turnoff for the south end of Saline Valley Road. Ignoring the "Road Closed" sign I started up the road. While the 170 miles of driving from Las Vegas to reach this point took close to 3 hours, the final 50 miles to the springs required closer to 4 hours of careful driving. The first few miles of Saline Valley road are deceiving, with the flat hard-packed dirt letting you safely push the speedometer to 50mph or more. However, once you start getting close to the 6800 ft mountain pass the road deteriorates. The dirt turns to gravel, the gravel to small rocks. The single lane requires careful navigation around sharp curves and road obstacles, including the odd cow or burro. Once you start the descent into Saline Valley the road turns to washboard with periodic washouts that can catch you by surprise. My rented SUV didn't have any problems; perhaps my thinking-ahead purchase of a can of tire leak sealer saved me from getting into trouble. You don't absolutely need 4WD to get to through Saline Valley. Although not recommended people do make this journey in cars and even, ack!, RVs. If this is you then extra, extra caution must be exercised if you care about your vehicle's tires, suspension, and undercarriage. If you get stuck you are pretty much on your own. Your cell phone won't work and even if you could call for help the tow trucks won't venture down Saline Valley Road to help you. Also, make sure that everything in the car is well secured. There were a couple of places where everything in the truck, my ass included, jumped about 6 inches in the air as I sailed over an unseen washout. Last, the mountain pass crossed to get into Saline Valley means that any fall, winter or spring visit comes with a chance of getting stranded in the valley as snowfall can make the road impassable at higher elevations. Be prepared!

If you've made it this far in this story you might wonder what the point of this journey is. Well, as you start to descend into Saline Valley I began to wonder this myself. While the desert terrain is amazing beautiful, it is also dry and extremely barren. This rocky and creosote bush landscape is broken up several sights, such as the remnants of a tram built to haul salt out of the salt lake bed, some sand dunes, and the ruins of long abandoned mines. As you reach the springs you quickly realize why you made the journey. An oasis of green, with palm trees and grass becomes visible. Then there's the "Clothing Optional Area" sign that you drive past. This is where you want to be, and the long drive was certainly worth it.

There are 3 springs in the area: the Lower Warm Spring, the Palm Spring, and the Upper Warm Spring. Both the Lower Warm Spring and the Palm Spring have been developed. My words won't do justice to the magnificent job done by volunteers to create this oasis. At the Lower Warm Spring, where I set up my tent, there are 2 soaking tubs, a bathtub, shower, and dishwashing sink all creatively plumbed from the source spring. The water flows strong and runs between 110 and 114F. One of the pools is under the sun and the other, the crystal pool, under a camouflage netting surrounded by palm trees. The runoff from the pools is used to feed a lush grassy area, a great place to relax during the day. The Palm Spring is almost a mile up the road. It also has two soaking pools, both shaded by fan palms. The water in these pools is much warmer - I could barely get my feet into the tubs. A further 2 miles up the road is the Upper Warm Spring. Unlike the Lower and Palm Springs, the Upper Warm Spring has not been developed so it remains as a natural pool in the ground. The road from the Palm Spring to the Upper Warm Spring and beyond deteriorates to the point that only high clearance 4WD drive vehicles can make the journey. For most people it is best visited on foot.

Campers tend to spread out in the area from the Lower Warm spring to the Palm Spring, with a few farther up the road near the Upper Warm Spring. There is a 30 day limit on camping, and as I mentioned earlier there are no official services aside from the pit toilets. During my visit there were about 50 or so people around, but there is so much space that it never felt busy. It is important to bring in (and pack out) everything you will need, especially water. While some people do drink the water from the springs it is highly mineralized and may not be good for your system.

Virtually everybody soaking in the tubs was nude and it is commonplace to be nude in the area. I enjoyed a number of nude walks between the springs, a couple of hikes on a nearby trail, and just plain relaxing on the grass with a good book. The remoteness of the Saline Valley ensured that only the dedicated make the journey. Everybody I met was extremely friendly including a number of hot spring veterans that shared experiences from their favorite springs. A few other memorable moments from my stay included the nightly campfire at the Lower Warm spring, sitting in the soaking pool at night watching the bats skim the water for a drink as they flew by, the amazing Death Valley sunrises and sunsets, and gazing at a night sky not clouded by city lights.

If you make this journey expecting peace and solitude there is one other thing you need to be aware of. Saline Valley is used for practice runs by pilots from a nearby military reservation. Personally, I thought it was pretty cool to lie back and watch the air show, seeing all sorts of planes fly by, F-16's and the like as well as Stealth Fighters. At one point I was relaxing on the grass when a fighter jet approached, flipped on the afterburners and pointed his nose up, the flames streaking from its tail as it shot straight up above me. Several times I was startled by jets zooming by several hundred feet off the ground and it was not uncommon to hear sonic booms in the distance. This may or may not be your cup of tea. The air traffic did seem to subside on the weekend. One of the locals was telling me a story of when he saw a group of college-age girls run out of the soaking tubs naked to wave to the pilots zooming by. Perhaps this is why they fly by so close to the ground although it must be hard to see much when you are doing 800mph...

The springs are maintained by a camp host and several volunteers. The pools are scrubbed out daily; they are probably cleaner than most of our bathtubs at home. To help the volunteers pay for the upkeep you can donate your used aluminium cans. In appreciation of their efforts I would also suggest bringing something in for them, such as bottled water, fresh food, or some of the supplies they need to tend to the pools, such as the bleach used to keep the pools clean.

If you would like a visual version of this trip report I have posted a few pictures of the springs and the journey into Saline Valley on my web site, http://www.reith.ca/.

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