Saline Valley has world-famous hot springs, in addition to sand dunes, the placid Salt Lake and a healthy ecosystem.
Saline Valley is nestled in a remote annex of Death Valley National Park, against the Inyo Mountains. Its deep silence is punctuated by the activity of donkeys and ravens, and the deep howl of military jets swooping overhead. The Salt Sea (aka Salt Lake) is a beautiful body of water, usually dry except sometimes in winter. The Saline Valley dunes are not as expansive as Mesquite or as gargantuan as Kelso, but lovely with an abundance of scrub.
Directions to Saline Valley
Always check the roads and weather before going to Saline Valley.
The two main ways to Saline Valley are the North Pass and the South Pass, but they are not always passable. People at the hot springs shared similar stories of coming for short trips and getting snowed in for a week or longer.
And when I originally wrote this guide, the the North Pass was smoothly graded and even passable with a city car; a few months later it was blocked off by a landslide.
Always bring extra food, water, fix-a-flat, gasoline and a tire or two.
Services are hours away and cellular reception is just as far. Tires pop. Cars bottom out. Tanks go empty. Snow, mechanical failures and dry and wet avalanches commonly leave people stuck in Saline Valley. Bring what you need to cover your own ass. Do not come to the remote dessert expecting hand-outs.
Do not be a fool who people will ridicule, like the ridiculous French UCLA exchange students whose rented car broke down in Saline Valley and were found filtering muddy water through their t-shirts to survive.
North Pass via Saline Valley Road
The North Pass is accessible from Big Pine along Route 395.
Taking Route 168 from Route 395 at Big Pine, turn right onto Death Valley Road (though different maps will show this as Waucoba Road). From here different maps provide a litany of various names for the streets, but take Death Valley Road to the peeled, decrepit sign marking the Saline Valley Road.
Up to this point the highways are smooth, fresh asphalt.
To reach the hot springs, take Saline Valley Road downhill all the way to Warm Springs Road.
Some maps give other monikers to Saline Valley Road, including Waucoba Road, Waucoba Saline Road, etc. You will eventually reach the valley floor, and after a while longer will be a noticeably big turnout on your left. This is Warm Springs Road.
This dirt stretch is susceptible to getting washed out; check online before you go to make sure it is passable.
Saline Valley Road gets graded every several years, but grading creates razor-sharp protrusions.
Tires easily get punctured. Get proper tires, and know how to change them yourself. Recent waves of embarrassingly unprepared visitors (many never even make it to the springs) mean you are no longer likely to get help beyond a ride out of the park.
South Pass via Saline Valley Road
The South Pass is accessible from Panamint Springs / Furnace Creek area.
The South Pass takes Saline Valley Alternate Road from Highway 190. It was 45 miles from Highway 190 to Warm Springs Rd (another 6 miles).
The South Pass reaches 7,000 ft elevation and can get snowed in during winter, even for weeks at a time (at which point the North Pass is likely also impassable).
"But online it said only three hours!"
After topping off our gas tank at Panamint Springs, we wondered why we had been told one guy reported taking six hours each way to travel this route. We shortly figured out why: this is a steep, washed-out, rocky, sandy, uneven, windy and overall nightmarish route.
The two sights along the South Pass are the Salt Sea and dunes.
With a 2WD Ford F-150 it took us four stressful hours to complete the South Pass on December 20th 2011.
First there is the destroyed pavement on the Saline Valley Alternate Road. This gives way to the washboard, unmaintained dirt of Saline Valley Road. The mountain was rock-strewn and violently windy, with patches of snow and two puddles about 18" deep.
It was a delight to finally enter the warm valley, but dismay set in when the Salt Sea, our landmark for the ¾-point, seemed hugely far away.
The salt dunes were a faraway patch of beige. After we passed these landmarks, we were glad to finally enter the prologue of our drive.
Warm Springs Rd has a big intersection and is after the sand dunes, unlike a bypass that leads to the dunes. Warm Springs Rd is sandy and rather tumultuous. But we were tantalized by the palms in the distance.
Upon arriving, we rejoiced to find out about the North Pass: the South Pass was relegated to memory. (The North Pass has since become washed out.)
Saline Valley Hot Springs
Saline Valley is most famous for its three hot springs: Lower Hot Spring, Palm Spring and Upper Hot Spring.
The hot springs are along em>Warm Springs Road, which intersects Saline Valley Road. The intersection has been widened by years of people making lefts, rights and quite a few U-turns.
Warm Springs Road is in much need of being graded, but eden is just a short distance away: the Saline Valley hot springs.
Lower Hot Spring
Driving along Warm Springs Road, after six miles comes the first oasis: Lower Hot Spring, with its well-kept lawn, palm trees and tastefully cemented soaking tubs and commons.
There is a litany of different paths to access the pools, but just off Warm Springs Road there is an entryway with an information panel; this is as good a place as any to start a tour of the springs. Entering from here, there is a lush lawn with a koi pond and children's tub to the right (west); a fire pit with a ring of benches directly ahead (south); the beautiful Crystal Pool and a picnic table just beyond it; and a commons to the left (east) with a fire pit (and some firewood), food storage cabinets, picnic tables and a sink with running water.
Beyond the commons is the Sunrise Pool -- quite exposed during daytime, but offering a beautiful view of the night sky; and the source, which is 106-110°. The site was developed by Vietnam veterans during the 70's and since falling into national protection, has seen no development other than upkeep. Artworks have accumulated, from the beautiful fence of woven wood to the carvings, metals, shells and bones in every nook and cranny.
Campsites are undeveloped, simple plots kept private from other people by tall grasses -- but wide open to the burros and coyotes which, as I found, can easily open tupperware.
There is no fee to stay at the springs. However, if you are buying a pass at Furnace Creek or elsewhere anyways, then mention that you are going to Saline Valley. Quiet time is from 10pm to 8am. Peacefulness silence prevails except for some occasional guitars and fiddles (far enough from campsites to not wake anyone).
However, Saline Valley is a designated low-level flight corridor, even with the Desert Protection Act. Sometimes a military jet roars close to the valley floor.
Like at Palm Spring, the camp host is Lee "Lizard" Greenwell, a man who quietly, calmly completes his non-paying, volunteer duties for the National Park Service.
He exhaustively cleans five tubs, two showers, a bathtub and two outhouses every single day -- not to mention tidying up litter and tending the gardens. Two supplies you can bring to donate are toilet paper and bleach.
Crystal Pool is the busiest, largest and warmest. It is adjacent to the commons, and busy day and night.
The commons (next to the Crystal Pool) has a firepit, benches, decorations, picnic tables, food storage cabinets, sink.
The family/kids area is complete with grass, trees and a koi pond with beautiful wooden bridges leading to a quiet, peaceful bench and a small tub for children. The water from emptying and cleaning the pools is used to maintain a lawn and koi pond.
Next to the commons is a shower and bathtub with hot water, cold water and strong water pressure. You can suds up in the shower, but soap is not allowed in the bathtub. At most two people -- cozily -- can fit in the bathtub.
Sunrise Pool is open to the sky.
Next to Sunrise Pool is the spring source -- two pits, supposedly connected by a subterranean tunnel swum by Charles Manson in a fit of machismo.
From Lower Warm Spring, ¾ miles up the road is Palm Spring. These two pools are comparatively harsh, with their lack of shelter and minimum of accoutrements. There is a shower.
While the shrubs at Lower Warm Springs make it popular for tents, larger vehicles gravitate to Palm Springs with its expansive, martian plains interrupted only by piedmont.
Upper Hot Spring
I did not visit this natural undeveloped warm spring 2½ miles up the road from Palm Spring.
majorproduction.net/saline_art/ (lovely photographs)