I always go to Saline Valley Hot Springs every November--it's kind of my way of cheating winter a bit. Late fall/early winter is usually the best time to go because the weather at the springs is close to perfect.
I always knew when I left the Saline in the fall, it would be another year before I would return and that was just too long. Even though I heard the weather in Saline Valley in the spring can be dicey, I loaded up the Bobcat and set out for my first spring trip to that wonderful oasis in the desert.
Three days before I left, we had a cold front move through Reno, which I took as a good sign, knowing it would be quite a bit warmer in Death Valley. The day before I left, however, it was downright hot as I was loading the camper and I began to worry a bit.
I had already taken a week off of work and to my mind, all systems were still a "GO!" Dexter and I left Monday morning and we had all day to get there, so there was no rush; we were in "meander-mode."
The traffic was super light on the way down, so we made great time even though we stopped frequently along the way to stretch our legs and "water" the local flora.
Shortly after entering the Death Valley Park boundary on Waucoba Springs Road, you'll come across and old abandoned mining operation that sits alongside the road.
I've always wanted to spend some time here digging around, but
I'm always so anxious to get to the springs.
There are a lot of old shot up vehicles, mining equipment and blown down
buildings in the area and the whole place looks like rattlesnake heaven.
I always stop here briefly, snap a few photos, stretch my legs wander around a little. There was a noticeable little snap to the air, but I knew it would warm up as we dropped down into the valley.
The North Pass Road as it's called by Saline denizens can be in great shape if it's been recently graded or it can be impassable by flash floods that rage through the area. It's best to always check the latest conditions at The Saline Valley Forum. Usually, the road is passable, but rough and you should plan to spend a couple of hours on it because where it's not steep and rocky, it's a ribbon of washboard for miles and miles.
I always stop and snap a photo just before I drop down into the valley.
All along the road, you'll see rocks stacked like this. I don't they're
marking anything in particular, they're just a temporary legacy of someone
who stopped there briefly.
Shortly after passing the rock cairn above, I happened upon a 20 something man in a little white Subaru, who was off to the side of the road. He had some tools scattered about and a little portable air compressor attached to one of his tires. Knowing this is not the place to just drive by someone with car trouble, I stopped to see if he needed any help.
He told me that he had gotten a flat earlier, but that he had plugged the hole and was waiting for his tire to inflate with the little Harbor Freight compressor. I told him that I'd watch for him at the springs and that if he didn't show up, I'd come back out for him.
I headed on towards the springs and about a half an hour later, there was the Subaru in my rear view mirror. How had he caught up with me so fast? I pulled to the side of the road and let him pass and in no time, he was gone and out of my sight. He must have been doing 45 mph in a section that I was only going 15-20 mph.
Well, just like the Rabbit and the Hare, 20 minutes later, who did I come across, but that little Subaru. He was off to the side of the road again with another flat tire. The same tire he had had the first flat on. This time, he was replacing it with his spare because his little air compressor had conked out, but he assured me that he would be alright. I know people don't like to get advice they didn't ask for, but I offered it up anyways and suggested in my nicest Southern-like tone, to SLOW DOWN! I think by that time, he realized his speed may have been a factor.
I left him on the side of the road for the second time and wouldn't you know, I beat him to camp. In fact, I was already set up and making my way to a pool for my first soak of the year when he arrived.
Who could ask for a better campsite? Only about 25 yards from a nice little warm tub.
That evening was nothing short of glorious. I soaked into the night with some really nice folks who were from all over the west. Nevada, California, Oregon and Utah were all represented in that little tub. Once dusk arrived, the bats came out in force and put on quite a show as they intercepted their airborne dinner. The bats are swooping around so close to you at times that you're sure you'll be hit before the night's over, but you never are.
After soaking under the stars, Dexter and I made our way back to the camper, where I made us dinner. Dexter always gets sauteed steak bites on the first night of a camp trip an he knows it, so he was staring up at me as the meat sizzled in the pan. After dinner, I crawled up to my bed and watched an old Robert Mitchum movie on my DVD player and then hit the sack.
That night, it was warm enough that I had to leave all of my windows open to let what little breeze there was blow through the camper. I remember thinking, if it's this warn at night, how hot's it going to be tomorrow...I would soon find out.
By 8:30 a.m., the sun was already baking the eastern side of my camper. I added even more heat to the camper by making that mandatory pot of coffee and by 9:30 a.m., I had to make my way over to the main oasis, where I could duck the heat under the shade of its many palm trees. Even in the shade, it was hot, but at least it was manageable and visiting with the other soakers took my mind off of the heat. That is until it was lunchtime...
Around 12:30 p.m., I went back to the camper to make a quick lunch and as I entered, I glanced at my little wall-mounted thermometer. It read 106°. By the time I had finished making my sandwich, the bread had dried and felt like it had been lightly toasted. That's how fast water disappears in the desert.
As soon as I could, I made my way back to the shaded oasis, but as the day wore on, the only way to really keep cool was for Dexter and I to stand under one of the showers, get soaking wet, and then let evaporation do its thing. We had to repeat this ritual about every hours or so.
In order to keep the pools from getting too hot, Lizard Lee, the camp host,
kept the water levels up by using these sprinklers, which cooled the water a bit
before landing in the tub.
All day long, the air was still and the heat was stifling. Everyone was hunkered down under the palms (many of the completely naked) and no matter what I did, I never felt fully hydrated and I drank a ton of water.
This little shower saved the day by keeping us all wet during the
heat of the day.
Finally, the sun went down, but it still took a couple of hours to feel it get cooler and by cooler, I mean down to the mid to high 80°s.
Many of us still wanted to get a soak in before bed, but most of us just sat around the edge of the warm pools with our feet dangling in the water.
That evening, I had no appetite for dinner, so I just kind of snacked. The heat had really taken a lot out of me and Dexter was exhausted from it as well.
The creatures who were not apparently affected by all of the heat were the burros, which have really gotten to be a nuisance. They're all over the place now and if you leave ANYTHING out, they'll get into it: paper towels, food, a dog leash, trash, flip flops, toilet paper, etc. They're brazen too and if you try to scare them away, they'll just shoot you a dirty look and keep doing what they're doing.
Please, if you go to the springs, do not feed these guys and
keep all of your stuff put away. If not, the place will soon
There were even a couple of little guys running around and even
though they're a lot of trouble, they sure are cute.
The big guy here had just eaten Dexter's dinner and was apparently hanging around
Day number three was, for most part, a repeat of day number two. I had already lost around 75% of my ice to the heat, but I was holding onto the hope that the forecasted afternoon winds would arrive and cool things down.
Around 4:00 p.m., the wind did pick up and it was a bit of a blessing in that it turned the oven into a convection oven of sorts, but by dinner time, it had calmed down too. Dex and I walked around camp with the camera and grabbed a few photos before all of the light left us for the night.
There was no one around to ask who "Turtle Jim" was, so I
guess I'll find out this November when I make another
pilgrimage to the springs.
There's usually an evening camp fire in this pit that's near the main pool, but my
guess is that after all of the heat, a fire was the last thing on people's minds.
This little crystal garden is part of the main pool.
This guy was patiently waiting for his mom to get out of the shower.
I managed to get another "required" soak in and by nightfall, there was a noticeable coolness to the air that had been absent until now.
As if on que, minutes after Dex and I got into the camper for the night, the wind picked up again. This time, however, there was a definite chill in the air. In less than an hour the wind had turned into a gale. My camper was rocking violently from side to side and was constantly "punched" by really strong gusts.
A couple of hours into the windstorm, the group of tent campers to my east abandoned their tents and took refuge in their cars. They had thrown rocks and coolers on their tents to keep them from blowing away and put whatever wasn't bolted down into their trunks.
That whole night, Dexter and I were literally rocked to sleep by the wind and serenaded by the braying burros. I don't know about you, but I love to be nestled up in my camper when the weather's bad outside. It's just a cozy feeling and it's a feeling that's perfect to sleep by.
That next day, the wind was still raging outside and it was downright cold! To go from baking heat to a chilling wind in the course of a couple of days was just a reminder of spring weather in the desert.
It's hard to accurately depict the wind in this photo, but there were times when
the airborne sand was so thick you could hardly see the mountains to the west.
I had planned to stay another night, but enough was enough and Dex and I decided to get the hell out of there before mother nature threw something biblical at us. I broke camp in what was now a full-fledged sand storm (note to self: bring goggles on every desert trip hence forth).
Because there's no cell service in Saline Valley (something I actually like), I had no way of knowing that this wind was the leading edge of a cold front that was moving in. When we emerged from the valley and got our first glimpse of the Sierra, we could see that the storm had already hit the mountains.
I made my way to the Country Kitchen in Big Pine for a greasy burger, fries and a glass of ice water the size of an oil can. After an hour or so in their climate controlled dining room, I felt ready to tackle the 3+ hour drive to Reno (strong, cold headwinds and all).
The first thing I did when I got home was to turn up the heater and turn on the electric blanket. In the course of four days, we went through blistering heat, sandstorms and bone chilling winds and even though I was miserable most of the time, I've never had so much fun being miserable!