Road Trip: Saline Valley Hot Springs

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Category: Travel

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.

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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?

Puppy
"Puppy"

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?

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