This is Part 3 of 3, the final installment of our Death Valley trip report.
There are few things in Death Valley that one could call “refreshing.” It’s hot, it’s dusty, and there’s not much in the way of lush landscapes. However there is a spot that, upon first encountering it, seems so starkly out of place that you actually blink and wonder if you’ve been overcome by dehydration and your mind is playing tricks on you; a true mirage. This place is called Saline Valley Hot Springs. But before I get on with the pictures I want to set the scene a little. Traveling down the Saline Valley trail from Eureka Dunes (detailed in our previous post) is a long, slightly monotonous affair. And although beautiful, it’s long. Did I mention how long it is? And rugged. And with a slightly sore back, tired legs, and more dust in my hair than I imagined possible, arriving at the hot springs was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
But I need to back up a little more. Prior to arriving at the official Saline Valley Hot Springs I came across a strange little spot that I don’t think has an actual name but what I’m calling “Pupfish Fortress Springs”, because not only is it a natural hotspring in the middle of the desert that is home to those same amazing little fish I mentioned in the previous post, but it’s also surrounded by an 8-foot tall chain link fence. In the middle of nowhere. Odd for sure, and one of those things that absolutely requires you to get out of your truck to investigate. And upon finding a 2-3′ wide gap in the fence (purposefully put there when the fence was erected) I did just that. But to be honest I’m still not sure exactly what’s going on at this spot other than it’s an incredible little oasis with the most beautiful natural spring-fed pool I’ve ever seen. To me this felt like a grotto. Not that I’ve ever been to a grotto or know exactly what one is, but this is what it should be like (queue the requisite scantily-clad bikini models…).
It’s only about a mile from the Pupfish Fortress to the actual hot springs, and when I finally reached that carrot on the end of the stick I was just like, “whoa…” I’ve been to many a hot spring in my life. Some are natural rock-lined pools with no amenities, some have a wooden shack built over them, and some even have a rough man-made tub that’s fed by the spring via a hose. Well, Saline Valley Hot Springs is of the latter type, but to a degree that I hadn’t previously imagined possible. It’s so impressively built up the whole place seems more like a resort than a hotspring. In other words, it’s the kind of place I’d expect to pay a decent amount to stay at, but it’s free (though donations are encouraged). And as I mentioned, it is very literally in the exact middle of nowheresville.
And there’s even a shower! With soap and shampoo provided!(This is a hot spring, so expect nudity and if you use the shower understand that there’s no curtain).
After setting up camp at one of the designated spots around this “upper springs” I grabbed a cold beer from the fridge, cracked it open, and sat with my feet dangling in one of the pools, absorbing everything around me and soaking it all in (as it were). I don’t know exactly how long I sat there. Maybe 20 minutes, maybe 2 hours. To be honest though, at that moment it didn’t matter. One thought kept coming to mind though: “this is what it’s all about.” I’d spent the last three days driving around what is considered one of the most desolate places on the planet and here I was soaking my legs in an immaculate hot springs oasis, beer in hand, making friends with a wild mule lapping up water to my left (no, really). Then there was the prospect of a hot shower and to top it all off a light breeze blowing clouds in and dropping the temperature to an amazing 80 degree or so. In other words, absolute and complete perfection.
Shortly after getting up to make some dinner my friends from the Eureka Dunes showed up, to be honest looking a little beat up. Their story of the easier road to the Springs didn’t sound so easy after all. The rough washboard gravel road had wreaked havoc on their van, even rattling pieces off of the interior. But they were as amazed by the springs as I was when I first arrived, and so the rugged memories of the trip dissolved quickly. The night turned into more than a few beers with new friends over one long, peaceful soak in the springs. The next morning was a late one, with more lazy hot springs soaking over coffee and a light breakfast. And after saying goodbye to my new friends one last time I packed up camp and headed out for more gravel road fun.
The destination for camp the following night was just outside of the the Racetrack Playa, some 20 miles away up a very rough old mining trail. But to get there I had to cover what I found to be the very worst of the “maintained” roads in the park. The route along the Western-most edge of the park where it borders the Inyo National Forest wasn’t particularly long (maybe 15-20 miles), but when you can only travel about 10mph even a mile feels like forever, especially when you feel that mile in every bone of your body. In other words, the worst washboard road I’ve ever experienced. Even traveling at higher speeds, which usually smooths out this kind of terrain, was impossible. It felt like an entire day but it was really only a couple of hours before I reached the turn-off to Lippincott Pass.
After turning off toward Lippincott Pass and reaching the base of the mountain I was surprised at the ease of travel, but as I climbed further up toward the ridge the trail became more and more rugged, narrow, and off-camber, including a few partial-wash-out spots that forced me to hug the inside edge and even ride slightly up onto the hill to keep from tumbling down off the trail. It was a fairly short climb, but beautiful and interesting too, past several abandoned mines and to several dramatic lookout areas.
At the top the trail forks. To the left, about a mile away, is The Racetrack. To the right, about a half-mile away, is the “campground” where I planned to stay that night. With light left in the sky (albeit darkened by a storm blowing through – yes, it does cloud over and rain in Death Valley) I struck out for The Racetrack. This was a spot I’d had on my Bucket List for quite a while and a little impending bad weather wasn’t going to stall me from checking it out. I pulled over at a very unassuming (and completely abandoned) parking area next to the small sign detailing the phenomenon of The Racetrack. For those of you who aren’t familiar, I’ll take a moment to explain what The Racetrack is and why it’s special.
In short, The Racetrack is a mud flat where large rocks move around by themselves. Yes, seriously. It’s a mystery that still has no official answer, only prevailing theories, the most commonly accepted of which involves thin ice sheets. Others include wind, flooding, aliens, etc. Either way it’s fascinating, and made more peculiar by the fact that not all of the rocks are moving the same direction as I had originally anticipated. In fact, not only are the rocks all moving different directions, many of them appear to have taken sharp 90-degree turns at random points to head in a completely different direction than they initially began. And I mean sharp turns, not just looping arcs in the dirt but complete and instant trajectory changes. Odd. And crazy. And awesome.
After a very (very) cold, windy, and wet night at the campsite near the racetrack (really just a flat ground with another pretty awful porta-potty) I made one more hike around the Playa to entertain myself with thoughts of mysterious rock movements before striking out to explore the area a little more. I meandered up several unmarked trails that more often than not came to abrupt ends due to washouts, but it was entertaining nonetheless.
A little while later I came to Teakettle Junction. To be honest I don’t know the story behind this spot other than at some point people began bringing teapots with them to hang on the sign at the junction, and it stuck and became a thing. Hilarious. I love this kind of stuff, especially when it’s embraced by park rangers with a sense of humor.
I took the long way back down to the canyon, and from what I gather it is a much less-travelled road than the other option going down via Grapevine Station. But I sure was glad I opted for this route – it was amazingly beautiful. Maybe it was the late afternoon sun through the insanely clear air, or maybe it was just a bunch of things that came together to create an overwhelming feeling of comfortable solitude, but regardless this was one of the most relaxing and truly calming legs of my trip through Death Valley. I stopped several times just to climb up a rock or scamper up a small ridge to take it all in. And this is also where I saw the most vegetation in the valley, at a spot aptly named Hidden Valley (although not quite as lush as the front of everyone’s favorite Ranch Dressing).
As night fell upon the Valley I made my way down to Panamint Springs where I spent the last minutes of light finding a table on the patio at a funky little restaurant/bar at the small “resort town” of Panamint Springs. I was back on pavement after almost 5 days, and with that luxury came pizza. Not sure if the pizza was really that great, but it sure was great at that moment. Stopping at a civilized “resort” was kind of the perfect way to cap my long, dusty, jarring trip around the valley. It gave me a chance to lounge comfortably and reflect on everything while sipping a cold beer and watching the bats flutter around in the sky.
The next morning I woke at dawn, had a coffee and snack, collapsed the tent, refueled at the gas station, and was on my way before the rest of the campground was alive. From there I had a full 23 hours of driving to get home, of course with a few stops along the way.