We hit the road on dual sport motorcycles bound for the off-grid Saline Valley Hot Springs, 50 miles from the nearest paved road to go motorcycle camping.
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.
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?
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The guys arrived from New York on Friday evening and everyone stayed at my house in Hollywood to prepare for an early start the next morning. Adey, who couldn’t join this time, cooked everyone a huge pasta dinner using the wild pig I’d shot late last year. We told tall tales, tried on motorcycle gear and I scoured the Internet for last minute information on road conditions.
The Park issues a PDF morning report each day on road conditions and traveller alerts, but only lists “Saline Valley” as closed every day. For an area the whole world knows is subject to extreme weather, that’s not really good enough. Luckily, my Googling led to a small forum devoted to all things Saline Valley, complete with up-to-date road reports. It’s a good thing we found it, the South Pass into the valley was reportedly snowed in with six-foot deep snow drifts, but the North Pass (which none of us had ever been through) was said to be open. I jotted down some loose directions and hoped they’d be enough.
An hour or so into the next morning and we ran into our first problem. The Honda XR650L I was riding indicated 54 miles on its trip meter when it hit reserve. That range held true for the rest of the 600-mile trip. That’s 12 fuel stops in one weekend, riding bikes that struggle to cruise at 70 mph. It took awhile to get there.
That slow speed combined with the knobby tire-induced speed wobble and all the fuel stops had the girlfriends questioning our sanity. There we were toughing it out, fighting 60 mph side winds and numbness-inducing vibrations and they were convinced we were all a bunch of pansies while they waited for us at pretty much every gas station along the way.
Finally, we reached Big Pine, there taking 168 east towards Death Valley for a few miles before turning down Death Valley Road and following that up into the mountains to the giant “Road Closed” signs and the route into Saline Valley. By the time we were airing down our tires, it was 4pm. At 7,000 feet above sea level, it was a cold 4pm too. As the de facto leader, I didn’t relish the idea of trying to navigate dirt roads at night with only anecdotal directions. The girls were already pretty unimpressed and our sore muscles were looking forward to soaking in the hot springs.
So, we hustled down the road, following the directions in my head and moving in the general direction of the valley. About 20 miles in, we passed a naked hippy driving an Explorer. His nudity (we also stopped to chat) verified that we were headed the right way. It turns out that, for the first time in living memory, Inyo County had run a grader through the north pass of Saline Valley Road, clearing washouts and landslides and generally putting the road into surprisingly good shape.
Finally, just after sunset, with a view of the dunes looming in the distance, we reached what I thought should be the turn off to the hot springs. By the time the truck had caught up, it was totally dark out, so it was headlights only as we tackled the bumpy, but firm road in. Five or so miles later, we found that pole with the bat on it (turns out it’s a metal sign, not a spirit guide) and 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.
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You arrive at the lower springs, where the group fire pit and the most developed area is. Hot tubs made from concrete and rocks hold the water (there’s a bunch, most of which are pretty private) and there’s even a stone walkway through the well-trimmed grass and porcelain tubs set in the ground. Fresh water showers give bathers the ability to rinse off before hopping in the water. Huge palm trees provide shade and, if that’s not enough, camo netting has been stretched between them in places. You could visit in the height of summer and its 120-degree plus temperature and be comfortable.
We ended up camping at the upper springs, ¾ of a mile further on, for a little more privacy. Setting up a bunch of tents in the dark wasn’t easy, but everyone pitched in and we had fire, carne asada fajitas and spots to sleep sorted by 8pm. By then it was in the 30s, so we wore all our clothes for the five-minute walk to “Wizard Pool” and shed them as quickly as possible before jumping in the water. Wiley perched on the edge with the tips of his paws in the water and looked on dejectedly at the people he couldn’t reach.
Overhead, the moon was so bright that the stars weren’t great, but the upside was that it illuminated the snow-capped peaks surrounding us, here in the middle of the most remote wilderness in California.
What You Need To Visit
The road in isn’t hugely challenging, but it is a long way from help and has no cell phone service. It’s also subject to extreme, quickly changing weather. We had to ride through snow, on ice (only one crash there) and through soft sand. The road to the springs itself is also extremely bumpy, requiring a high-clearance vehicle if you’re going on four wheels. Stuff can go wrong and, if it does, you need to be prepared to deal with it yourself.
At a minimum, wear clothes capable of handling dramatic swings in temperature, take at least one gallon of water per person, per day (add a few extra in case you get stuck) and take all the tools, knowledge and tubes you’ll need to fix your bike without outside help. Particularly those tubes, flats here are common thanks to the sharp rocks. There is no food, no water and no outside help once you turn down Saline Valley Road. A big ADV bike will get in, but a dual sport will be much more fun. Plated bikes only.
The people who maintain the springs do so without financial compensation. We brought them a couple grocery bags filled with fresh produce, to help extend their time between challenging supply runs. If you visit, you should do that too. Cleaning supplies like bleach, toilet paper, scrub brushes and hand sanitizer are also appreciated and go towards keeping this beautiful area as nice as it can be.
Also travel with a respectful attitude, both for nature and the other people enjoying the springs. Don’t ride off the marked roads, don’t litter and don’t be a nuisance. If the springs become a problem, we will lose access to them.
600 miles and 12 gas stops later, Lara asked if us guys felt the trip was worth it. After all, all we did was ride bikes for two days solid, sleep in a tent, cook over a fire and soak in some hot springs. What was a fairly routine road trip for her and Racquel in the big ol’ truck was a challenge on two wheels. We got cold, we got numb and we got sore, but we also experienced one of the most unique environments on earth perched on top of two wheels and overcame a challenge in the distance, the navigation and the time. My answer? Totally.
What is the most remote spot you’ve been to on a bike?
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