SALINE VALLEY HOT SPRINGS
The beautiful Inyo Mountains, as seen from Saline Valley Warm Springs
As winter approaches and the days get colder and colder, I'm always looking for a little respite from the chilly air and strong Sierra winds that howl through Reno this time of year. I'm so lucky to live in an area where, even in the dead of winter, the desert and Death Valley are less than a day's drive away.
I've felt a very deep connection to Death Valley ever since my first trip there in 2005 and I never tire of the clean, dry air, the crisp light and haunting smells the desert offers up each day.
This time, I was leaving Reno with a predicted snow snow storm right on my heels. The night before I left, I had 90% of the camper loaded and ready to go. It would be about a seven hour drive to the springs and I wanted to make the entire trip in the daylight, so I left just after 8:00 a.m. As I loaded those last few things, my hands were chilled to the bone and I was just hoping that Saline Valley would be a lot warmer.
As I made my way south on the awesome U.S. 395, it was sunny and clear outside. It even looked hot outside, but all I had to do was crack the window a little for a reminder that winter was definitely at my doorstep.
I stopped at the vista point that overlooks Mono Lake. Not only did I want to take in the views, but Dexter was getting restless in the back seat and was anxious to stretch his legs and "water" some bushes. I think what this rail needs is a few Wander the West stickers...
I made incredible time on this trip. It must have been because I was traveling on a Wednesday AND the summer tourists were gone and ski season hadn't yet hit high gear. I topped off the tank at the Indian gas station in north Bishop, grabbed a quick hot dog off of their hot roller thingy and hit the road. The whole thing kind of felt like a NASCAR pit stop, but I had a one track mind at this point: a tub full of hot water in the desert.
I had read on the Saline Valley Forum that the north pass road, which I would be taking, was in excellent condition this year. Excellent, however, can be relative. Last year, the road was super rough, had a big washout and was officially CLOSED by Inyo County.
Dex and I stopped at the Saline Valley turnoff and I must say I was quite relieved to find the road open.
I knew I was just ahead of an incoming storm and I really hoped snow removal would not be an issue on my way out...and it wasn't. I think a WTW sticker is all but mandatory here...
And so we began the slow, rough, washboard infested trek down into the valley below.
Upon seeing this cairn overlooking the Saline Valley below, I had to make a quick pit stop. This was about an hour in from the highway intersection. As I got out of the truck, I was hoping to feel a much warmer temperature than before, but it was not to be. It was still downright cold.
At this point, I stopped hoping for warmer temps and began doing something that more closely resembled praying. I knew there was still a respectable amount elevation I would lose as I dropped down into the valley, but I was pessimistic if it would be enough to make a significant difference.
Ahhhhh, I've arrived!
When you see this totem, you know you're only 15 minutes away from being neck deep in pure 102° desert water. I didn't know what to expect as I opened my door here, but I was completely stoked to feel the much warmer air hit me in the face as I got out of the truck. It wasn't balmy by any means, but it was enough warmth that I could work with. I would estimate it to be about 64°.
On the approach to the springs, fighter jets were whizzing about in all different directions. Sometimes you could see them and sometimes you could only hear them as they conducted, what looked to me like, aerial dog fighting maneuvers. The part that was really cool was when they would fly right above the deck and their approach would almost be silent until they were right over you and then you'd hear their thunderous BOOOOM.
Once I got there, I wasted no time getting set up.
The whole way here I was hoping that the site I had last year would be available. I guess sentiment was part of the reason, but the other reason was that last year's site was so close to a really nice tub. Well, I was in luck! Not only was my old site vacant, but 99.93482% of the springs were vacant.
I noticed a Tacoma/Flippac rig to the east, a tent rig to my south and one vehicle up above at Palm Spring pools, but that was it.
Just look at the awesome spot I have for the next three days!
By the time I got everything set up, the sun had sunk below the Inyos and the light would be fading soon. For this trip, I decided to re-read Edward Abbey's "Fire on the Mountain," which is my second favorite Abbey fiction, after "The Monkey Wrench Gang," of course. "Fire on the Mountain" is set in the very area of New Mexico in which I grew up, so it would be the perfect read on this trip.
I soaked and read until the light faded to the point I could not longer see the print. I made my way back to the camper and fixed Dexter and I our traditional first night out steak dinner. I was just so glad to be here and after a nice camp meal, I felt totally at peace. I glanced at my watch and was shocked to see that it was only 6:45 p.m. I still had a lot of time on my hands before bedtime, so I put an old Humphrey Bogart movie in the DVD player, stretched out and just relaxed.
After the movie was over, it was still early, so Dex and I dashed out into the cold desert air and I had soak #2 under what appeared to be about a half moon. Even at only a half moon, the desert was brilliantly lit up, so much so, that I could have almost read more of my book with just the moonlight.
After soaking and getting my core up to a very balmy temp., we headed in for the night. I had time for one more movie (I knew I could sleep in the next day), so I lit the heater and watched Key Largo, with my trusty hound dog stretched out before the warm glow of the ceramic heater.
That night, as usual, the coyotes started yipping and yapping, but this time I swore one of the yappers was right outside the camper. As I peeled back the Velcro of the upper window to look out, I saw a lone coyote skampering away...I guess they don't like that tearing sound either.
The next morning, after breakfast, Dex and I went on a little walkabout.
Here's the main pool area...still not a sole in sight.
The main pool is so inviting and a great place to soak when the sun's directly overhead.
Lee, the volunteer camp host, had a fire going every night, just outside the main pool.
Here's the little one person pool that I've never seen anyone actually use.
Please shower before you soak...
I don't know what this was, but if the point of the wire was to hold the pole together,
I'd say it was an epic fail.
Lee has five or six solar panels to keep his house running.
The entire time I was here, my day consisted of waking up around 9:00 a.m., eating breakfast, taking a soak, going back to the camper to read, then nap, then lunch, then a soak, then a hike, another soak, dinner and yes, you guessed it, another soak, before turning in for the night with a movie and a glass of bourbon. Three days was not enough. Next time, I'm taking the whole week!
A pretty popular design around Saline Valley.
Another great place to take it all in. A camper told me that Lee often sits here and feeds the coyotes.
Dex and I eventually made our way up to check out the Flippac.
Mark, an engineer, (on the left) lives in Baltimore, MD. He stores his rig in Las Vegas and takes advantage of the cheap Southwest Airlines flights to Vegas, where he grabs his rig and sets out for the desert and Eastern Sierra. Mark definitely got the award for Most Miles Traveled.
I forgot the name of the gentleman on the right, but he was in a new FWC and had just arrived, via the Lippincott Pass road, from Death Valley and The Racetrack. He too was traveling solo.
On the second evening, I saw a little Cessna flying low around the springs (he kind of had to dodge all of the fighter jets whizzing around) and he eventually landed on the nearby strip (The Chicken Strip). Later that evening, we all enjoyed a soak together and the pilot said that he had flow in from Flagstaff, AZ, for just one glorious night at Saline Valley. He was gone before 8:00 a.m. the next morning. I must not be the only one this place calls to.
Well, every good thing must come to an end eventually. My time was up, but I wanted to stay so badly, that I promised myself, next time I'll do a week here. I was able to run around in shorts and a T-shirt the entire time and it was so nice to have "extended" the summer for just a few more days.
After one last morning soak, I got everything packed up, stowed and latched down for the long drive home.
Oh, just sleep right on the road why don't you...
This guy must have pulled in late the night before and just said "to hell with it, I'm going to sleep right here." I guess he wasn't worried that some yahoo might come barreling through here in the middle of the night and run him over, but he did look comfortable, so I'm guessing no one wanted to wake him.
The totem from the east side; marking my departure from this oasis.
The drive out was uneventful, albeit a long trek. As soon as I popped out onto CA 168, I could see the storm clouds over the Sierras. It looked soooo cold over the mountains that it made me appreciate my S.V. trip even more.
I had to make a stop in Big Pine for some of that famous Copper Top BBQ.
After visiting here for the first time over Labor Day, I had to make it back.
Copper Top had just gotten back from their fall vacation two days prior, so my timing was great.
You won't find better BBQ this side of Kansas City and even then, you might not!
Just about ready...
Four beautiful tri-tips slow cooking over mesquite and almond wood in the Copper Top's
Santa Maria style cooker.
I'm not one of those people who posts a picture of every meal I eat, but I have to make an exception for such incredible BBQ. Here is the Sierra Sampler, which has three pork ribs, tri-tip. 1/4 chicken, potato salad, chips and a drink and all for under $20.00. There was so much here that Dexter got a very nice doggy bag (don't tell the cook!).
As soon as I started up the hill north of Bishop, the cold rain and horrendous wind started in an it didn't let up all the way home. I arrived back in Reno to a wet, almost freezing drizzle and decided I'd unpack the next day.
I'm already thinking that another "cheating winter" trip to D.V./S.V. is in order for around March!