As I drove up past the information board two people came into sight holding hands, the couple was taking a casual stroll down the road in the 100° heat. I had arrived at this oasis in the desert, a welcome home for hipsters, hippies, and freethinking types comfortable with everything around them. The first people I interacted with were two women towing a trailer behind their SUV which had inconveniently broke down in the middle of the road, I got out and helped them get on their way and found my way to a campsite nestled in the mesquite trees. Over my shoulder I watched as the burros chomped away at the foliage and over the gentle breeze laughter rang out from the children playing in the shallow pond in the distance.
In northwest Death Valley is a blank spot on the park service map that is not really mentioned in detail. The rangers are reluctant to talk about it, and directions are not readily published. It is out here that a unique community has formed. Saline Valley was once inhabited by the Timbisha Shoshone Indians and their petroglyphs are scattered around the valley depicting their stories; the settlement was abandoned in the early 20th century about the time European settlers appeared in earnest for mineral exploration and salt mining. The valley was a regional mineral resource with borax and almost pure salt being mined from the lakebed, and gold mines poking holes in the rugged mountain sides. Running from 1913 to 1936 the tramway that transported salt from the valley to nearby Owens Valley was the steepest ever constructed in the United States, the remains of the salt operations and tramway are still visible.
Aside from the history and the rugged beauty of the area, the real reason I came this far was to visit the hot springs. It is a committing trip requiring 4wd, desert sense, and some fortitude. The rugged rutted and severely washboarded road serve as a filter to all but the most committed and prepared; though the occasional misguided tourist finds their way in. Flat tires are common and though I was fortunate to not suffer any casualties I heard of at least 9 vehicles with flats and one vehicle/trailer combo getting three on the way in. There was a cracked oil pan on one truck and a van full of Japanese tourists who arrived almost out of gas. The camp host has the necessities to bail people out of tight binds but he is not a service station. If it weren't for him there would be much more crises and unwanted press.
The springs weren’t unheard of, but in the 1960s a semi-permanent encampment was constructed at the lower and middle of the three springs. In the early 1990s when the National Park Service annexed the area into Death Valley National Park the camps were disbanded and the area cleaned up. This area is not listed on any of the NPS maps, or most any other map, it is found via word-of-mouth or diligent research. There are articles from big-name newspapers and turn-by-turn directions posted on blogs elsewhere, but I’m slightly disinclined to give my take on directions as it doesn’t need to get overly crowded.
The community here is welcoming and though it is cyclic with people coming and going, there are plenty of folks who have been coming here for decades that know each other. The people range in occupations from lift attendants at nearby Mammoth Mountain to students, doctors, professors, engineers, musicians, and retirees. It takes a certain type of person to get here and everyone is of that mindset regardless. It was interesting to see people come in, like me, for the first time and watch them start to take it all in. It’s a trek to the springs, but one that has pleasant rewards. After hours of travel through kidney-wrenching washboard and rocks, the palms and pools in front of you - with the open expanses of the desert as the backdrop - are a welcome satisfying relief and sight for sore eyes, butt, and back. There are multiple pools for soaking, lawns, showers, a communal dining area, and sinks for dishes. I quickly made friends and felt welcome as I bounced around from group to group listening and learning about the area and hearing wonderful stories. Jumping in and helping out with chores where I could surprised many of the community that has been coming for years, but I understand just how this place keeps on going. Everything is maintained by volunteers, whether it is maintaining drainage ditches, cleaning bathrooms, trimming the palms, or cleaning up the pools everyone is encouraged to pitch in.
Floating in a tub fed by a warm crystalline spring while staring off at the Inyo Mountains was relaxing and rewarding. I haven’t really unwound from the trials and tribulations in my life for a very long time, and was really able to really unwind and relax. The common grassy area was always buzzing with folks coming and going. People did their own thing, sitting in groups talking, playing games, sunbathing, yoga, and meditating. It was a pleasant experience just people watching and relaxing. This hidden gem in the desert will forever be a destination of mine.