My boyfriend, Bryce, and his friends have a tradition of camping in Saline Valley for New Year’s. This was my first year going with them.
It was getting dark as we headed into the desert, and the view of the joshua trees against the sunset and the mountains rising up in the distance was beautiful. Saline Valley is surrounded by mountains, both from the Sierra Nevada Range and the Inyo Mountains. As we drove in over washes that made the road almost impassable (completely impassable to 2-wheel drive vehicles), I was told that when it gets cold, the three passes into the valley can become snowed in and visitors can be trapped in Saline Valley for up to a week while they wait for the snow to melt. We lost phone service almost immediately after leaving Lone Pine, the last town before the valley, so a week trapped in Saline means a week with no way to contact the outside world.
As we drove through the mountains via South Pass, Bryce and his cousin George talked about hearing about a car that had flipped on the way in, as well as a Jeep Cherokee that had caught fire and been abandoned. When we arrived at our campsite, Bryce’s cousin Doug and his wife Dana told us they had heard about a car flipping on North Pass as well. The car that had flipped on South Pass was gone by the time we drove in, but we passed the burnt out Cherokee. It was still there when we left four days later.
Saline Valley has historically been home to nomadic communities. The original inhabitants were the Timbisha Shoshone and their ancestors. Petroglyphs from these ancient peoples can still be found in parts of the Valley. Some of our group had hiked to find some of these petroglyphs before and Bryce’s cousin Doug was able to show us where they were. It was amazing standing in a place and knowing that thousands of years before, other people had stood in that place and made these markings on the rocks.
Salt mining began in the valley in the early 1900s. Bryce had pointed out some salt flats as we drove into the desert. Most of Saline Valley is a dry lake, part of which is still a salt marsh. A tram had been built to carry the salt from the valley over the Inyo Mountains to the Owens Valley on the other side of the mountains. The remains of this tram, the steepest ever constructed in the United States, is still in the valley along with other remnants of the salt mining operation.
Much of the salt flat is solid enough to walk on if you’re careful. If you step wrong, it’s easy to punch through the salt to fall into the water and mud beneath. Bryce and I had fun finding salt crystals in the footprints of people who had stepped through the salt. As the salt forms into crystals, other minerals are drawn out, giving the crystals layers of colors beneath the white salt.
In more modern times, the hot springs in the valley drew hippies who built the tubs at the campground we were headed to. Water is piped from the sources of the springs to the four tubs for visitors to soak in.
The upper springs at the north end of the campground has the Volcano Pool and the Wizard Pool. Wizard Pool is named after Wizard, who was camp host, a permanent resident and caretaker of the valley, until his death. I heard the pool was named after him because he once spent an entire day soaking in it and drinking beers without ever getting out.
The lower springs at the south end of the campground has the Sunrise Pool and the Crystal Pool, the spout of which is surrounded by crystals found nearby. There’s also a grassy area next to the lower springs, along with a koi pond and another small tub.
I was the only first-time visitor from our group, so I was shown where the showers are to rinse off in and where the footbath to rinse your feet at each pool is. I had been told that most of the visitors to the springs were old timers who had been coming for years, but they clearly weren’t the secret oasis they once were. There were more young people than old timers and many seemed not to know the rules about showering and rinsing your feet to keep the hotpots clean for everyone.
The spirit of the original builders of the oasis prevails in the modern day and most people soak nude in the hotpots, though there are still many who choose to wear swimsuits.
Though secrecy of the hot springs’ location is encouraged to protect them from an influx of tourists and people who won’t respect the communal atmosphere, I heard plenty of rumors of famous visitors through the years. The most legendary of these was Charles Manson, who several people told me had visited with some of his followers.
Most of Saline Valley became part of Death Valley National Park in 1994, which brought new regulations to the springs. While before there had been many people who were permanent or semi-permanent residents, now there is a 30 day per year limit on how long visitors can stay. The exceptions are camp hosts, like Wizard. The current camp host is Lizard Lee, who oversees the care and cleanliness of the springs.
The annexation into Death Valley National Park created a controversy for the springs. The improvements of creating the hotpots with water piped from the sources and the green space and pond would not have been allowed had it happened as part of a national park. However, these improvements were created and became a beloved part of the valley before annexation. There have been suggestions of dismantling the hotpots and green spaces and returning the springs to their natural state, but for now it seems those plans are on hold.
I’m lucky that plans for dismantling the hotpots have not yet been put into action. Spending the new year surrounded by friends and strangers all brought together by a sense of community and a love for the desert and the springs was an amazing experience. I can’t wait to see what new adventures lie in store for me this year that will lead me back to Saline Valley.
Thanks to George and Bryce for contributing photos to this post.