Saline Valley Hot Springs
“Fuck off,” I think to myself, “I’m not an insurgent.”
The AC-130 Spooky, slowly droning above, is making it’s 3rd pylon turn. I’m feeling exposed and alone out on some lost highway south of Death Valley. I drop a gear and the KTM surges before I shift back up and through to 5th. We jack rabbit, off the road and out into the desert.
Might as well make it interesting for them.
“Dude, it’s really cool,” Clay had told me a few weeks earlier, “the military is allowed to fly low and there are hot springs for soaking. Dunes, salt flats, trails. It's out by Death Valley, down a remote track. You need a 4x4 or dirt bike to get there.”
It’s late night in LA, perfect porch weather and the map [Butler Motorcycle Maps - Southern California] is spread out between us. He’s helping me try and pick a route home, back east, that I could tackle on a KTM 450 EXC.
He’s right, it is super cool. I'm not even at Saline Valley and already I’m racing -mad max style- up on the pegs, billowing a massive trail of dust, with that shit eating grin of a day well lived. Plus, I get to participate in target practice.
A few details about Saline Valley: it’s in California and the Hot Springs are : 36.74989 N , 117.81464 W - GPS is a must have.
The Hot Springs feature year round camping, there is potable water and there are out houses. The trail is rough, like, incredibly rough. I’ll get into that a bit more, but for the moment just know that you’ll need a bike [AND suspension] with off-road chops. Also, BYOG, you’ll need a big tank or some sort of jerry can. Nearest fuel is approx. 72 miles, and they’re long miles.
It's early morning and I'm leaving Panamint Springs with a pair of beautifully kitted BMW 1200 GS Adventures. I never got the riders' names, nice fellers, boomers enjoying adventures with well earned machines. Their plan is to ride fast and hard to make a complete loop through the valley. With some hesitation on their part, they agree to let me tag along.
I’ve been pushing the KTM hard already. Too many paved miles. It’s a perfect little brute, but I've been asking it to do the wrong job. The previous owner had built it for intense desert runs. 12 hour burns at the limit with a week of rebuild time before they’d do it again. I’d changed the rubber and re-geared my sprockets, but was still asking the 450 single to give me weeks of engine wear per day. All with little love beyond oil & gas. I was worried about how it would handle a return to dirt, and the Boy Scout in me was screaming “always be prepared."
The first 20 miles of the day are paved and the BMWs quickly lose me. No surprise there, almost 3x the displacement and pure bred dual-sport pedigree. They're at home on the climbing curves up to the trailhead. I watch them pull away, fully loaded and still tucking deep, disappearing round hanging mountain bends before appearing again two or three curves ahead.
I arrive at the trailhead to polite impatience.
“We hate to do this to you, but unless it’s a real problem, we’re gonna go ahead so we can keep our schedule,”
I let them know it’s cool, I don’t stir the pot , don't tell them that we're on dirt now. That the little 450 is going to end up the pace setter.
The beginning of the track is uninspiring. Barely there, just a change in color and fewer rocks than the surrounding moonscape. The BMWs push out in front, making good on their Top Gear style “leave every man behind” promise.
In a few miles though, we begin to rise and the "road" curves right. We’re climbing a mountain now, working our way up to a pass before dropping down and into the valley itself. I catch them about 1/3rd of the way into our accent. A line of rocks and boulders have slowly been narrowing the track and they’ve reached a point where they’ve got to get their bikes up and over, or go off the cliff face. The KTM is nimble and, picking a way through, leads the way from there.
As we near the top we find the culprits : NPS graders are scraping the road in anticipation of the new season. We work our way around them and to the top of the pass. A moment for the view and then, mounting up, we roll as a pack into the canyon.
It’s an incredible difference, already we’ve gone from paved mountain roads to rough moonscape, to mountain track, and now we’re descending deep into a carved canyon. The rocks change, becoming softer and damp. The track gets sandy and deep, more forgiving on knees and backs. There’s a welcome coolness. We pace our descent and the canyon widens, opening north and onto the valley floor.
We’re on the final set of turns, feeling good, confident, in tune with the track when one of the BMWs go down. It’s not hard, but it is sudden. He’s rolling through a soft right turn, and the sand gives way. The bike catches on the natural rock curb and high sides him into the canyon rubble.
He’s ok, ATGATT.
It’s not a huge crash and the bike is fine, but he's feeling the road they've still got to ride.
I hear the horn behind me. We’re another 5 miles along and they’ve stopped at the first “exit”. I roll back to them and pull up.
“Do you think it’ll be like this the whole way?” They ask.
“Dunno”, I reply.
“I think we’re going to cut off here and loop back to Panamint Springs. Do you think you’ll be ok?”
I appreciate them asking and assure them, now that I’ve seen the trail, worst case scenario I can probably pack out on foot.
With a rev and a wave, I’m off and it’s prefect. I’m alone in all directions. The most forbiddingly inhospitable mountains I have ever seen range all around me. I almost feel out of body, like a drone, watching the little KTM kick dirt and burn through the desert.
The road runs north, close against the western range. It’s hard pack, ancient gravel, washboard with deep sand when it turns. Which, thankfully, doesn’t happen often so I get up on the pegs and go.
On my right, the valley stretches out, alternating between scrub, dunes, and salt flats. The occasional rush of deep green grasses.
I pass ruinous remains of ranches, abandoned drafting yards, a decaying camp. The road becomes a confusing criss-cross of access trails and “local knowledge” tracks. GPS is, once again, a must. I’m through the second or third of these hairballs before I spot a stand of palms. They’re miles away, across the valley, on a rise slightly up the opposite side.
I’m pretty sure this is where I’m headed but, as the miles roll on and the palms begin to fall behind, I worry that I’ve missed a turn somewhere. The shadows are getting long. I begin to think about just pulling up cowboy style and continuing on in the morning.
Slowing the bike, I move at a more leisurely pace, keeping an eye out for the right camp site.
“Couple more turns,” I tell myself. I round the last set and that’s when I spot the turn. Success!
Back on the gas.
I’m cutting east on little more than a sandy quad track. Dropping suddenly into dry creek beds and launching out into brush. The sun is setting behind me and I’m chasing my shadow, laughing loud and for no one but myself. It’s a special kind of freedom.
I hoot and howl my way across the valley, finally arriving at something of an oasis. Straight up, no exaggeration, as if the Swiss Family Robinson had built the place. Manicured palms, outdoor kitchens, little patches of crisp -wet- grass in the shade.
Here, in the middle of all this natural desolation was not just life, but luxury. These are the lower, cooler, pools. Lush and almost tropical - they’re filled with a surprising number of families. All with their own passel of toddlers. All at ease and totally running the place. I take a moment and then, feeling very much an interloper, roll past this Disney-esq scene.
The main springs are sculpted and manicured pools of poured concrete. They sit up on a low hill in the center of camp all palms, scrub, and sand. Everything is well maintained by (mostly) German nudist retirees.
Which Clay definitely did not mention.
(As if that would have changed my mind)
Camping is easy, the desert is huge. After a few laps, I settle on a small patch of scrub at the base of the main springs. It's a better vibe, and there are fewer folks. It’s been a long day and I feel weightless as I climb off the bike and drop my pack.
The heat is gone and the sun tips the western ridge. I’ve still got to set camp and cook, but that can wait.
Instead - I strip out of my gear, grab a tall can of beer, a couple of joints, and head up to the springs to soak.
tl;dr - Go to Saline Valley Hot Springs. There are hot springs. You can drink beer and smoke weed while you soak. It's well maintained by old(er) German nudists (they're mostly nice). The riding is exceptional.
Also you can watch Jet Fighters perform aerial combat maneuvers (Top Gun stuff).