“What are you doing with my hat?” I said, in a tone probably too aggressive, given that we were about to share a steaming hot tub in a desolate California desert valley about three times the size of Manhattan. The woman took off my hat, and her long blond locks rolled down to places you don’t politely look at when speaking to a naked stranger.
“Sorry,” she said. “It was lying here yesterday. I thought it was a gift from the springs.”
Later, she wandered to our camp to offer a gift as an apology, a homemade glass pendant of a bat — the mascot of the Saline Valley. This time, she was adorned only with a menthol cigarette.
The old-timers who constructed the tubs of these colorful hot springs in the desert are long gone. But a spirit of generosity, community and sheer eccentricity still pervade the Saline Valley, a remote outpost ringed by a soaring wall of mountains on the northwest corner of Death Valley National Park.
American Indian petroglyphs around the valley bear witness that this was once the realm of the Timbisha Shoshone and their ancestors, who roamed this desert for at least a millennium before the first Europeans arrived. “There are special sites for giving birth in the valley, but we don’t let anyone outside of the tribe know where,” said Barbara Durham, the Timbisha Shoshone’s tribal historic preservation officer.
In the 1960s a different kind of nomadic community — rock hounds, survivalists and hippies — added to the mystic allure of the springs. There are three levels of springs going up the side of the valley, and around the two lower ones these creative wanderers built two clusters of artful concrete and rock pools that they maintained for all to enjoy. (The upper springs, three miles up the valley, remain more natural.) Palm trees and lawns were planted, and the springs became a green oasis tucked into the northeast corner of the blast-furnace Saline Valley.
The keepers of the springs were discreet, but knowledge about them spread by word of mouth, and many Southern Californians found their way to them — even Charles Manson and his followers are said to have passed through. But the place was literally off the grid; the Saline Valley often appeared as a blank, trackless spot on road maps.
Then in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act, transferring jurisdiction over the valley from the Bureau of Land Management to the National Park Service and bringing a lot of new regulations down on its few laissez-faire denizens. Some of them left voluntarily; the rest were evicted by the park rule setting a maximum on stays at 30 days.
For a while, even more radical changes were planned. “One of the plans involved dismantling the tubs and bringing the valley back to its natural state,” said Terry Baldino, a spokesman for the national park.
There’s still no final management plan, but for now, a truce prevails. The Saline Preservation Association, a community group, works with the Park Service to maintain the springs.
“I think now everyone realizes it’s a special place that can be enjoyed by all,” said Patricia Barton, the association’s president, “at least the ones who are prepared for the adventure of getting out there.”
The springs may now be marked on the National Park Service’s maps (as “Warm Springs”), but getting there is still a challenge worthy of Indiana Jones. A college buddy introduced me to the Saline Valley in 1984, and I have been back many times. In late fall, I dragged three friends out there to introduce them to the springs. A couple of hours after leaving Las Vegas, the nearest big city, we stopped at the village of Furnace Creek in Death Valley to stock up on gas, water and food and to check out the local road conditions at the Death Valley National Park Visitor Center and Museum.
From there, we drove a roundabout 68 miles west on Highway 190 beyond Panamint Springs, and took a right at a bullet-perforated “Road Closed” sign. Then for 53 miles, we wrestled a washboard road down into the Saline Valley.
Ghostly log towers in the middle of the gleaming white salt lake on the valley floor hinted at the story of the valley’s name. In the early 20th century, these towers were part of a spectacularly steep tram line that hauled salt — the valley’s was considered unusually pure — over the Inyo Mountains and 13 miles into the Owens Valley, from which it was shipped by rail around the world. We passed sand dunes north of the salt lake and turned right onto an unmarked road leading at last to the palm oasis.
After peering anxiously under our S.U.V.’s to make sure the rough ride had not pierced the oil pans, or anything else, we rolled out our sleeping bags on soft ground along the shelter of the bushes that are nurtured by the springs’ runoff. On the edge of the tiny oasis, we were a short walk from the lower pools sheltered in the cluster of palms, and the middle springs, on an open plateau overlooking the valley. In these surroundings, camping is easy — especially if you keep an eye on your hat.
We made quick friends around the communal bonfire next to the lower springs with about 10 campers, including a young couple from Los Angeles, a couple of old-timers, and a rowdy group of stoners. Songs — often naughty, always loud — were sung and a lot of alcohol, some of it homemade, was passed around. We helped ourselves to the informal lending library operating out of a couple of open-air bookshelves under the palms. And we washed our dishes in the ingenious outside kitchen that was created by piping in hot spring water.
The price for using all this? Nothing but an underlying assumption that everyone cleans up after themselves.
Over the weekend, three dozen other visitors shared our haven, including a 60-something couple from Düsseldorf, Germany; a guy dressed from hat to moccasins in clothes he had sewn from jackrabbit skins; a small wedding party of computer programmers who put on elaborate techno and light shows at night from their camper; and a smattering of families whose kids ran around unchecked. “This is probably the last place in the world they can get in any trouble,” one of the mothers said.
But the best part of the Saline Valley is being alone in the ethereal isolation that only the desert can provide, with its space and a half-dozen pools. Few things you can get without a prescription are more calming than floating alone in desert silence in one of the pools overlooking the valley as the setting sun behind the Inyo Mountains transforms everything into a kaleidoscope dream. A sense of space as wide as the valley becomes internalized. A deep sense of peace and fun seems to permeate the consciousness.
Some valley visitors leave intriguing souvenirs. In the maze of ravines and boulders next to the middle springs, someone has built small cairns sheltering postcards and figurines of Elvis. Fantastical sculptures made from burro skulls are suspended above the lower springs, which themselves are Picassoesque masterpieces of inlaid rock, some of crystalline. And images of the valley’s trademark bats are everywhere — painted on rocks, hanging satanically in cut steel from a pole and even decorating the concrete vault toilets in colorful bead and wire.
Many of these bats are the creations of Lee Greenwell, known to regulars at the springs, who tend to go by nicknames, as Lizard Lee. He operates out of a tiny camper trailer, setting up an outdoor art studio in the back, and lives there all year, including the summer, when the thermometer often tops out at 120 degrees. One of the original crowd who made Saline Valley a self-sustaining paradise before the Park Service took over, Mr. Greenwell is now the park’s official campground host.
“This is a place to get away from the world,” he said. “Most folks probably don’t even know I’m here unless they get in some sort of trouble.” If that happens, he’s got an emergency radio.
The most vivid reminder that there is a world beyond the peaks is the frequent and surreal appearance of fighter jets from nearby military airbases. While we were there, these extraordinary machines roared up the valley several times a day and banked so low over the oasis that we could see the pilots’ helmets, a maneuver widely suspected of being inspired by the springs’ “clothing optional” policy.
Other than that, you’re on your own in the Saline Valley. And that’s the way most desert rats seem to like it.
IF YOU GO
Check on road conditions with the park rangers and pick up a map at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and Museum, which is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (760-786-3200, www.nps.gov/deva). The national park vehicle entry fee is $20 for seven days.
Furnace Creek’s general store and gas station are convenient, but expensive, for buying gas, food and water. But make sure you are stocked up sufficiently for the trip into the springs and out again.
From Furnace Creek, continue 68 miles west on Highway 190. Turn right off the pavement and onto the Saline Valley Road and continue 46 miles on what is usually a challenging and rough dirt road into the valley — be sure to have a full spare tire.
During the winter months, the road may be covered with snow or ice at the 6,000-foot South Pass into the valley. Four-wheel drive, high clearance vehicles and snow chains are recommended.
After passing the salt lake and sand dunes on the valley floor, take the unmarked but obviously well-used road to the right for another seven miles to the lower springs. Once you see the steel bat hanging from the pole, you’ll know you’re almost there.