Updated: Oct 22, 2020
Saline Valley in summer can get hot, really hot. I mean like over 120° kinda hot. So please don't take this as a recommendation, I would not suggest going to Death Valley in the summer. But we were there anyway. A couple of friends on a journey exploring the deserts during June 1996. Guide book in hand and two rugged vehicles and camping gear traveling the back roads of Saline Valley, the remotest portion of the Death Valley National Park. Saline Valley is an amazingly rugged place. Some people wonder what the attraction is to the desert and some would even say that there's nothing in the desert. But deserts are alive and vibrant with beautiful natural formations and rugged exotic animals. It was for that reason that we were exploring that portion of California.
There's something very special about the quiet isolation of the desert. It has a way of making one feel humble and very small but at the same time connected to something amazingly large. Some portions of Death Valley are very accessible by paved roads and are suitable for your average automobile but saline Valley is an extremely remote portion of the park and requires a sturdy high clearance off-road vehicle. Twenty-five miles of rock-strewn gravel road that is periodically graded no more than once or twice a year makes for a very adventurous and long drive.
I've always been a great admirer of charts and maps. They’re like storybooks, they hint to the promise of what could be. Studying a map is a little bit like a mystery that is to be solved and requires the inquisitive mind to tease lose their treasures of information from their drawings. It was with that same spirit that would lead us to a very special spot that would become a grounding place for me for the next 25 years.
It started with a tiny notation on a topographical map. Written with a very small icon in the middle of the paper was the symbol of the spring notation that hinted to the idea that there was something more. The concept of water in the middle of a desert brings with it amazing possibilities. With the spirit of the beginner's mind and explorer’s heart, we decided to take a chance and see what this mark meant. What we did know was that we would be traveling an additional 10 miles further into the desert but the promise of reward had a very strong draw on us. Following the small trail heading east, we crested the top of a small hill and after a long and jarring ride along a Martian landscape, a desert oasis materialized before us. A dense palm grove nestled together tightly struggling to survive in this arid world set against a volcanic backdrop was the end of our journey.
Have you ever experienced culture shock? I have… a couple of times and when I have it's been some of the most trans-formative times of my life. As I said before Saline Valley gets hot, plastic melting kinda hot. So hot, my once volunteer expedition team had suddenly transformed into a solo mission. I reluctantly agreed to the change and climbed out of my truck and followed a small trail that made its way through the thick brush. Little did I know that what I was going to come across, was going to set the direction of my life on a new trajectory from that point forward. A grass lawn with the rain bird sprinkler lightly spraying water on a lush green lawn, handmade stone wading pools feed by crystal clear water coming from an unknown source, and a large community gathering area that looked as if it had hosted a number very fine parties indeed. I strolled dizzily through this newly found desert paradise trying to take in as much as I could when suddenly I stumbled across what appeared to be a Death Valley Mermaid…..ok…..now I’m taking liberties with my descriptions. Let me start again….. as I turned a corner, I came across a young lady bathing by her herself in one of the many pools. I don't know about you but this kind of stuff doesn't happen to me every day. I was a little taken aback but wonderfully surprised. Welcome to Saline Valley hot springs she said… now that you found it, don't tell anybody about it and feel free to set up camp at any one of the many pools. Sometimes when the mind doesn't have a symbol to refer to describe what's in front of you, it stumbles and reaches for concepts to describe what it sees. My mind was doing exactly that. Like an immature high school boy, I thanked the young lady and made my way out of this alternate universe. Making my way back to the vehicles, my friends asked me what did you see. I can't even remember what I told them but I'm sure it sure they did not believe me at first. With the invitation in hand, we made our way to one of the many handcrafted pools that are there in the valley. And so that was the beginning of a long special relationship with this area and its distinctive people. Over the years I've continued to come back to Saline Valley hot springs and it would become part of the Death Valley National Park and thus change from becoming a hidden gem to becoming a semi-well-known. But interestingly enough, the time has not changed the valley and it’s people much. Yeah, more people are now seen trading along the desert floor as they make their way to the rejuvenating waters but there's something about a rugged journey that brings out the best in people and also seems to bring out the best people. Saline Valley is still a very rugged, extraordinary place and it still requires sturdy equipment and an adventurous attitude to acclimate to the arid climate. After all of these years, it still draws an amazingly interesting group of eclectic individuals. I can't think of a more remarkable time you can have than sitting in the wizard pool at one in the morning gazing at the stars while talking to a fellow explorer who has been roaming the deserts of central California for the last 40 years. The stories that are shared the laughter and the friendships that are made become memory making.
As with everything impermanence and change reins. Saline Valley has changed over the years and so have I. I'm no longer a 25-year-old kid sleeping out of the back of a pickup truck at 115° temperatures. I now travel around in a new Toyota Four Runner with air conditioning, a Tipi Tent that rivals anything Lawrence of Arabia has ever slept in, and dare I say… a solar-powered refrigerator/freezer that keeps my beers cold and my steaks from going bad. Not all change is for the worse. Spiritual Travels are still a very special part of my life and they have a lot of storytelling mileage to them, they're a gift that keeps giving throughout one's lifetime. I don't know how many times I've told and retold these stories and each time that I share them, I relive the magic of those moments and it touches me deeply. Saline Valley has changed me as a person. It's taking me out of my comfort zone and had shown me a world that I had never seen before. Walking barefoot from my camp at 12 o'clock at night as I make my way across the sand to the hot tub with my towel and hand and beer in the other… The stars blazing from above, how could you not walk away a changed person. Full moons so bright that you have to pull a blanket over your head so you can get some sleep, the simple enjoyment of a good chair, some shade, and good friends taught me the wisdom of simplicity. It is for these and so many other reasons that I am humbly grateful and thankful for the wisdom of the desert.
Saline Valley is still a place and in the world of the Internet you can find it easily online and I will include a link to the National Park Service website that gives whether road conditions and all the other information you choose to visit her someday. As you can tell this has been a magical touchstone. In your travels, I hope that you find your magical place as well. Maybe this has encouraged you to visit Saline Valley someday? If you do decide to venture off into this remote part of the world seeking hot springs and desert oasis. And If in those travels you come across a magical desert water nymph wading in crystal clear volcanic-ally heated waters, don't be afraid to say hello and tell her I sent you.
To learn more about Death Valley and Saline Valley, visit the the National Park Service at:
Check out our Spiritual Travelings map to find the location of this and other special locations: