Death Valley: In search of life at The Saline Valley Hot Springs

The acidity of an office environment wears on an adventurous soul. Emails, project status updates, meetings, phone calls, more emails and even more unnecessary meetings. The human mind is evolved around a natural environment, tuned to the frequencies of mother earth over thousands of generations. The idea of the office environment is newborn compared to our primal instincts and needs. Wanderlust is instilled within our psyche yet retains a taboo to the status quo and definition of modern success. Too often people become wrapped up in material comfort, ignoring this lust for adventure. I am not sitting on a high and mighty stool with an elitist attitude when I state this, as I am as guilty as the next. One of life's greatest struggles I face is the inner battle between conforming to social norms and just wanting to simply seek out my place in the natural world. Do I put on this silly costume called a suit, sit in two hours of soul draining Los Angeles traffic, occupy a desk for 8-10 hours day in and day out just to get a paycheck? Or do I drive two hours down a washboard dirt road, get naked in a natural hot spring and let my mind wander through the stars. Under the darkness of a remote desert sky being humbled by the finite space I occupy in an infinitely vast universe the decision is not so clear. Without a stable job would I be able to experience travel to remote places? Would nature be as grand without the contrast to the concrete jungle I live in? Would I long for the noise of a city if I was used to the quiet? I feel as if I am getting closer to finding these answers, but then again I realize that the answer is fluid, changing through the ride of life. They say "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence", but what if the fence was removed? There would not be "the other side", just the area you are in with its various shades creating a single field to play on. Throughout life I have struggled with comparisons. "This was better than that", "I wish it was like that other time when", "wouldn't it be cool if..." and so on. But as time goes on, experiences blend and you are left with life's smoothie. It is up to you to choose the ingredients. So I guess the thing I am trying to get at is to enjoy the interplay of it all. Without contrast there is a single shade, no highlights, no shadows and no depth. 

So here is to one more ingredient in my life smoothie, The Saline Valley Hot Springs.

Our trip started with a plan to get a group of people together for a friends birthday. For the last few years around this time in spring I have made an effort to get out to see our wonderful national parks. With all the hype of "Death Valley's wildflower superbloom" and the fact that most of us had not visited this park before it was an easy decision. After researching points of interest, I came across a photo of the Saline Valley Hot Springs, a desert oasis in some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth. I knew right then this is where we had to go. Plans were made, Fridays were requested off of work, the group was gathered and then on the 24th of April after work I took off with two good friends with plans to drive the 250 or so miles from Los Angeles to Death Valley.

After picking up the crew, getting food at the infamous Stater Bro's supermarket in Mojave we finally arrived in Death Valley. The plan was to secure a campsite for the rest of our group that were due to meet us the following evening. After failing to find a vacant campsite, we decided to head to the hot springs.

We arrived to the start of the dirt road around 1:00 am. Not 100% sure it was the correct road, our sense of adventure motivated us into the unknown.                     

A couple of hours driving down horrible washboard dirt roads, up through a canyon we ended up in a valley. Due to the darkness of 3:00 am morning and hours upon hours in my small 1989 Toyota Pickup we decided to make camp for the night.

Upon awaking in the morning, we were fully exposed to the beauty of California's desert. Not another person within site. My mind drifted to the German family that vanished in Death Valley after driving in, getting stuck in a remote area like ours and succumbing to the elements. Their bones to be discovered a decade later. Would I be capable of making a similar mistake? Well, I rationalized, I am a lot better prepared. We have food and water for a week, a backup HAM radio, a good topo map and a compass. At that moment another truck passed by our camp easing my wandering mind. We made a quick breakfast, broke camp and continued on our way.

We realized after about 30 minutes of driving that we were headed down the right road. I identified a salt bed landmark through the binoculars and confirmed its presence on the map.

Our next landmark to make was the bat sign, indicating our turn off to the springs.

Blasting through the bumps and whoops we sighted our sign. Made a quick stop for some photos and made our right turn to the palm trees in the far distance.

IMG_9004  Mar 25 2016 (Large).jpg

Another half hour of driving on a slightly smoother sandy road we arrived at our oasis for the weekend and were greeted by the leathery tanned behinds of nudist hippies enjoying the area along with the true locals, a bunch of jackasses. We found a shaded spot and set up our camp.

After getting settled in and having a celebratory beer (or few) we headed over to check out the hot springs and communal area. An amazing setup they have out here. A natural source spring feeds many man made hot tubs, complete with lush grass and shade from dozens of palm trees. There were many more people, most in the buff enjoying the beautiful day lounging in the grass reading a book, bathing in the springs and conversing with honesty. I was still a bit in shock, I am not a nudist (known to be after a few drinks of tequila, but that is irrelevant) so I stayed clothed, checked out the area and wandered back to the truck for food and more drinks. 

IMG_9051  Mar 27 2016 (Large).jpg

Later that night I was able to find cellphone coverage and let the rest of the group know of our decision to head to the hot springs. After sending directions "turn right down the dirt road signed Saline Valley, make the first right, stay left for 50 miles and turn right at the bat sign" our fate was sealed. We would become desert dwelling hippies for the weekend. We retired a short time later, exhausted from the journey and buzzed from our well stocked cooler.

Awaking in the morning, we figured it would be best to head back to the main turn off, back the way we came the night before, which the locals referred to as the "50 mile bullshit filter".

When we got to the turnoff, our group was no where in sight. Our next action was to head into Stovepipe Wells to check for our missing crew. Still no luck, we grabbed a resupply of Tecate and decided to head back to camp.

The way back we made good time, pushing my old Toyota to the edge of its capabilities speeding through the open desert. Surprisingly moving at 50mph was a lot smoother than the 20mph coming in the night before.

IMG_8988  Mar 25 2016 (Large).jpg

The truck held up great, well up until the last few miles. We ended up hearing progressively louder bangs coming from under the hood and then a real loud crash, looking back to see my camper shell 100 feet behind us on the dirt trail. It did a complete 180 as it detached. After placing it back on the truck, I attempted to start the car, not even a click. Popped the hood, the battery had shifted, the power steering pulley had sliced through the battery cable to the starter. Pushed the truck around, picked up some speed downhill and popped the clutch to get it started. Once again we were moving.

Being a bit bummed we didn't find them, we decided either they would make it or not. Maybe they got filtered out and didn't have the desire to push on down the unknown. We made a taco feast for dinner, washed down with our replenished beer supply and sat around the communal fire while the "tribe" played 12 string acoustic guitars and filled us in more about this magical place as the moon rose over the distant mountains. 

We were informed that the National Park Service does not maintain this area, it is not listed on NPS maps and it is up to the local camp host Lizard Lee (who was not there at the time) and his band of devotees to keep the place in order. What a job they did, hands down the cleanest hot springs I have ever been in. They all had Saline names, mostly Bob's and Dave's with their home town as their first name. 

I decided to retire for the night, headed back to camp, I passed a secluded hot tub with no one in it, decided to get a refill on my margarita at my truck and head back for some midnight photos. I couldn't help but taking it all off, getting in the 103* water and gazing into the stars. I pondered the opening paragraph to this story, completely at peace with where I was currently at in life. I couldn't of been more relaxed. 

IMG_9034  Mar 27 2016 (Large).jpg

The next morning we packed up, left behind a donation for the people that maintain this wonderful place and headed back home. We decide to take the north pass out, which was an adventure in its self. The Saline citizens let us know the night before that the roads were freshly grated, not that it mattered because we felt every rock. The shocks were blown out in the front suspension, but we pressed on without a care, taking it a bit easier this time. A few interesting pit crew maneuvers (seems like you are more likely to stall your truck when your battery is disconnected in the bed of your truck) and some worry about our depleting fuel situation we made it back to the pavement of big pine. We had survived the bullshit filter (all 200 miles of it). 

IMG_9136  Mar 27 2016 (Large).jpg
IMG_9161  Mar 27 2016 (Large).jpg

We later found out that our group made it out to the springs, they had gone 1/2 mile further to the upper springs in the cover of darkness, failing to find us, they only stayed a single night. A bit bummed that we didn't meet up, but I am glad to know my friends were unfiltered and worthy to see this amazing place. (I owe you all some drinks for being troopers).


So here is to tearing down the fence and adding ingredients to your life smoothie one washboard road at a time.