Road Trip: Saline Valley Hot Springs

Travel -


Road Trip: Saline Valley Hot Springs

Friends visiting from the heart of the Polar Vortex in New York City called for a quick, but epic weekend road trip. So, we grabbed some dual-sports and hit the road bound for the off-grid Saline Valley Hot Springs, 50 miles from the nearest paved road in the heart of Death Valley National Park.

The Bike: 2014 Honda XR650L Review >>

View Larger Map

In Search Of Adventure

Matt and Eric had spent the winter reading RideApart enviously. We were riding bikes in Los Angeles, they were huddling under blankets at home in Brooklyn. A quick business trip (to attend the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue’s 50’s birthday party) paid for plane tickets out here and, at the last minute, they decided to extend their trip over the weekend so we could go motorcycle camping.

You might not think it by our 70-degree days in Hollywood, but it gets cold in California, too. Especially in the mountains and up the coast, where the good camping is. We threw around ideas like heading to Reyes Creek and its Deliverance-style biker bar or heading up PCH, but the general mood seemed to be for a real adventure, so when Mark suggested the Hot Springs, everyone jumped at it.

Motorcycle camping
Motorcycle camping

I’ve been to Saline Valley a few times. It might not sound as scary as Death, but located in the Northwest corner of the park and, accessible only by dirt “roads,” it’s much more infrequently travelled. The last time Mark and I went, we were headed for the springs when we were waylaid by another traveller with a broken rental car. Wasting the afternoon fixing it for him meant we never made it that far. One time, I also rode in by myself on a 636 lbs ADV bike, but that was before I knew about the springs, so I just slept in a dust storm and enjoyed the solitude.

What makes these springs so special is how hard they are go get to. The hardcore group of hippies that’s been maintaining and improving the area since the ‘60s refers to Saline Valley Roads as a “filter” keeping all but the most hardy, and presumably worthy travellers from reaching them. When Death Valley National Park annexed Saline Valley in the early ‘90s, it created a conundrum — “clothing optional” hot springs with a strong tradition of alternative living aren’t exactly in the Parks Department purview. Combined with the liability created by people making the dangerous journey, they adopted sort of a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. So long as the locals maintain the springs, self-police and don’t cause trouble, the rangers will ignore them. But, the park won’t promote the springs in any way, provide for their care with any sort of budget, maintain the road into them, nor allow any sort of signage or direction to be left anywhere along the road. It’s also parked giant “Road Closed” signs at both ends of the valley.

Because of that, directions on how to reach the springs are strictly of the anecdotal variety. “Turn left before the sand dunes,” “look for a bat on a pole.” Stuff like that. Sounds like the perfect challenge for an impromptu winter camping trip, right?


Puppies and Girlfriends

Regular readers may have caught onto the fact that I adopted a little puppy at the end of last February. I like to take him camping, but, at 85 lbs, he’s not really getting on a bike to go there. So, I suggested to the guys that Matt and I bring our girlfriends. Lara and Racquel could drive Mark’s pickup truck, making it easier to pack all our camping supplies and food. Given the remote nature of Saline Valley, it’d also give us an easy out if one of the bikes was crashed or one of us hurt ourselves.

I nominated Lara for driving duties without checking with her. She’s never driven a pickup truck and the closest to off-roading that she’s done is driving her Jetta down a five-mile fire road in Big Sur, so what could go wrong?

Continue Reading: Saline Valley Hot Springs >>

  • Jesse Huff

    Absolutely great!!

  • kent_skinner

    I spent Christmas at Saline Valley some number of years ago, and have been wanting to get back ever since. For the first time since the 90′s, I don’t have a 4×4 so I’ll have to do it on my Wee Strom. Not a great choice, but it’ll probably make it.

    An amazing spot for sure.

    What happened to the bike to get such crappy mileage?

    • Evil_Jim

      2.5 gallon tank, and the XR650L only gets 35mpg or so if you run it up 70-80 mph.
      Add in fighting wind and climbing in elevation and with a stock tank… the Big XR doesnt go very far.

      • Aaron Kirkland

        Yeah… air cooled motors aren’t the most efficient. But my ’87 XL600R still gets around 35-40 mpg’s…

      • kent_skinner

        Is Honda huffing gas fumes? A 2.5 gallon tank on a dual sport.

        • Evil_Jim

          Same size it has been for the last twenty whatever years.

        • Stuki

          The wr250r takes less than 2………. Much better mileage though.

  • Nathan Haley

    Sweet! You guys should go on these more often.

  • BillW

    “I sighed in relief that I hadn’t gotten us lost, that we’d be sitting in hot springs that night and that my girlfriend wasn’t going to have to bury me in an unmarked graved in Death Valley.”

    After she killed you, you mean?

    • Wes Siler

      Correct sir.

  • DaveDawsonAlaska

    The road from the South was one of the worst “roads” I’ve ever ridden on a bike, rocky single track trails back home in the woods of Maryland and West Virginia included. The North pass is much much much smoother, but still not great (as of 2012 anyway)… a Forester might make it but hey it’s your car. An Explorer is a lot more off-road worthy than a car-based AWD cute ute.

  • DaveDawsonAlaska

    One of the neatest roads I’ve ever traveled, wish I had been more prepared on my trip through the region to stay the night at the springs. I’ll never forget the free air show courtesy of the F16′s flying from Edwards I’m guessing. Nor the sand or the horrid, awful washboarding coming in from the south pass.

    More rides, less lists!

  • Geert Willem van der Horst

    I really need to move to California.

  • Scott Otte

    Motorcycles, making the mundane an adventure… it’s why we ride.

  • Joseph42s

    Awesome Story. Your writing is getting better!

  • Jimmy Conners

    Great story. The good places are always worth the trouble, Thanks for promoting social responsiblity too!

  • Stuki


    That was an awesome trip report! I wanna go there now…. On a bike. I’ve been so sick of SoCal deserts that every trip I’ve made over the past 15 years, have started out northbound from SF.

    Now, assume for a second that your buddies hadn’t cheated and flown 95% of the miles from New York to the springs, but instead rode there to meet you. What bike would you then recommend for them? What I’m getting at, is that at least something closer to the much maligned “big ADV bikes” may in fact make some sense; carrying luggage for across country on freeways, with enough alternator to power heated gear in sub freezing winter climates etc. Not to mention a range further than 54 miles between fillups.

    • jlpp

      1-up across the US on good roads and then up an unpaved road that “isn’t hugely challenge,” sounds like a something in the class of a Honda NC700X or Suzuki V-Strom 650 would be suitable. If you’re looking for more off road capability for later trips, a smaller dual sport like a Suzuki DRZ-400. If you’re looking for longer trips with wide capabilities then Suzuki DR650, BMW G650 X-Challenge, KTM 690 Enduro. If you’re looking for more power for 2-up or extra luggage look at BMW F800GS and Triumph Tiger 800 XC.

      You might like Walter Colebatch’s blog series on adventure bikes:

      • Stuki

        Thanks! A lot! Hard to refute the validity of Mr. Colebatchs observations. I ended up selling my S10 after realizing it was way, way less confidence inspiring than the wr250 anywhere where toppling over or washing out was a realistic possibility.

        Wonder if they sell the wr in Colebatch’s part of the world; as I would take it over either the drz (fuel injection, which he likes, and a 6 speed making it less freeway troublesome) or the 690 (vibey, lurchy, overpowered, unstable; although possibly wonderful if you’ve got the chops and mindset to roost every corner on your trip around the world….)

        Didn’t know they had paved all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok now. Next thing you know, they’ll tunnel under the Darien Gap. Bloody conspiracy by BMW to make their big bikes more attractive, I tell ya…… More seriously, much of the rationale for the more Colebatch’y, hardcore “adventure motorcycling”, starts to disappear when all it really means is droning endless miles on truck infested freeways, in order to arrive at short, famous “offroad” trails to go home and brag about. IN that case, one may as well load the KTM in the back of the Sprinter van and drive to the nearest enduro park. After all, it’s not like a 100 mile off road trail become somehow more adventur’y, simply by being located somewhere in Siberia, than a similar trail half an hour from LA Suburbia. In the age of Helge (Pedersen), “adventure motorcycling” was fairly sharply distinguished from traditional Enduro riding, in that the former involved quite a long trek (long enough to require big loads of supplies on the bike itself) of riding through terrain challenging enough to keep the roads fairly empty; while the latter could involve much more challenging terrain, but took place close enough to civilization to allow for lightly loaded bikes. Now, if I’m reading Colebatch right, the former is pretty much relegated to the history books. And Adventure Motorcycling today, is largely just a term for a possibly slightly extended enduro; with bike selection done accordingly.

        • jlpp

          I hear you Stuki.

          I don’t think it’s worth worrying so much about terms and categories like Adventure. Find the bike you like to ride, on the terrain you like to ride, in the countries you like to ride, with the people you like to ride. Every choice has a compromise, like getting a heavier bike to have more fun on the autostrada knowing that the off road becomes a challenge. With the right mind set, this challenge is what makes the ride an adventure. And just about every choice, when deciding on the bike, will have such a trade off that can be re-cast in this light.

          I interpret Colebatch’s position on adventure bikes to essentially be: watch out for labels, brand, advertising, McGregor, etc influencing your choice. The image of an adventure to remote, exotic locations is often used to sell bigger bikes and extra gear, which may make your ride less enjoyable than you expected. Colebatch clearly has more fun off road than on, and he believes people are being mislead into thinking that a bigger bike is what’s required to get to these remote locations, even if the rider doesn’t really need the size and may not enjoy it.

          My wife and I were 18 months, 2-up on a pretty heavily loaded F800GS, and we certainly had what we would consider an adventure. It was exciting, hazardous at times, challenging at others. We saw and learned a great deal. We met many, many good people. It was a very potent mix of natural variety, cultural schooling and phenomenal fun on and off the bike. And who doesn’t love to see, learn and recreate? And while we didn’t seek out the single track style adventure we also didn’t let the challenge of the terrain prevent us from going where we wanted.

          Man, do I love motorcycling.

          • Stuki

            18 months on a bike…. That sounds absolutely awesome.

            Once two up, or probably even solo if loaded down for 18 months, the whole rationale for the super light bikes starts to disappear in my experience. I used to do some on and off personal training, and occasionally schlepped up to 250 pounds of weights across LA, SF or even from LA to SF. Piling that much weight on the WR made the whole bike feel like it was within an inch of literally breaking in half. Talk about top heavy. Not to mention finding anywhere to secure the dense weight in the first place. On the S10, the only real issue was that there wasn’t enough preload available in the rear, and the bike got slightly more sluggish than it already were to being with (compared to a wr.) Plus, “strapping it down” on the S10, required all of putting a piece of lumber in the bottom of each alu pannier, and filling them with iron…..

            Ditto for hauling similar weight in guns and ammo on an 1150GS. Or even just loading up the bikes. Getting 1000 rounds, a few pistols and rifles onto a wr in a dirt parking lot without the whole tower toppling over is quite the feat; never mind leaving an “arsenal” outside in usecured soft bags when stopping somewhere for lunch….. On the 1150, you could probably forklift a pallet onto the thing half asleep once it was on it’s center stand.

            Where the big ADV rigs shine, is in their ability to carry big weight far in comfort, and consequently the aftermarket that has grown up to sharpen that particular point further. While the smaller bikes really only get to strut their stuff if the entire outfitting is done in an ultralight style. UL backpacking tents, bags and mats; well panned out laundry schedules to minimize necessary clothing; Compact or M4/3 cameras rather than slr systems; freeze dried food and water filters rather than a “portable” bbq and a case of beer…….

            Since my trips are limited to a week or a few (90% being < a week), I ended up selling the big bikes, since I already have the lightweight gear from backpacking, and don't mind living UL for a few days; and can tolerate it for a few weeks. But for 18 months, I would probably do as you did, and get a heavier bike to haul my stuff. I could always rent a small enduro locally if there was some particularly challenging terrain I felt compelled to ride through.

            And; ditto for the love motorcycling part…………

          • Stuki

            I poked around a bit more on the site you sent me links to, and that Colebatch is definitely not your average nine to five’er on a bike trip. His London to Magadan on dirt trip in 2012 is definitely not something I would want to undertake on anything bigger than the lightest bike I cold get my hands on. Makes me want to go ride the Cental Asian steppe, though! Record breaking high altitude rides in the Andes, references to Enduro rallies, equipment specifically made for his trips etc…… Definitely on the “hardcore” side of things, as I guess you have to be fro someone to pay you to do it fulltime.

  • Stuki

    Back in college, we made it there in an old Civic……. But that’s a long time ago, and we did “improve” a few spots along the way, if I remember correctly. Also, if there has been no maintenance for 20 years, it could be lots worse now.

    Regardless, a Subie should be fine almost anywhere anyone travels with any kind of regularity. If people live there, hence make it out and back for utility, you should be able to make it in and back on a “project”/”adventure” basis. Bring a, actually 2, shovel(s), perhaps some 2x10s to bridge ruts if need be. And definitely some means of fixing tires. And, just in case; a backpack, some bladders, and a pair of good boots……