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The best place to start this story is smack dab in the middle.
“Stars are out, the whole sky is stars!” the Lady called from outside. It was four o’clock in the morning and the enthusiasm in her voice brought me more awake, and so did the news. How could it be? A squall had come over with rain hard enough on the roof to wake both of us. How long it had lasted was hard to say as we drifted back into and out of sleep. It had finally let up enough that the Lady decided time was right for a quick trip outside.
The rain was a surprise. It had warmed a degree. The snow had turned to rain.
It had snowed all afternoon. The snow had not delayed our planned hike, the main focus of this Thanksgiving break adventure. We were on a search for treasure and perhaps some perspective on an odd fun little mystery. The snow had continued into the night, quiet except for an occasional hint of wind. It was the kind of quiet expected in this vast lonely place; the kind of quiet that brings deep sleep. That was why the rain woke us, a new sound. And now there were stars? I pulled myself out of our warm doubled sleeping bags and joined the Lady outside. Stars were overhead from one mountain range to the other.
We had camped the night before south and high above the Eureka Dunes, below the mouth of Dedeckera Canyon. We were in Death Valley National Park.
The yellow jeep accelerated after it passed the main parking area. There were only two vehicles parked there, it was a quiet Saturday afternoon at Eureka Dunes. We had driven around to the east side and pulled into one of the rock bordered parking areas. We had the chairs and lunch out, enjoying a long break from our drive from home. The jeep was ripping up the road, throwing up dirt, coming toward us. We wondered if the driver’s recklessness would end if and when he saw us ahead. We were the only vehicle past Eureka Dunes.
He hit the brakes hard the moment he saw us, putting the jeep into a slide. He then slowly approached. I remained in my chair. He stopped and rolled down the window. He was alone and dressed in light street clothes, a young man in his thirties. He had no visible camping or outdoor gear in his vehicle, a near new jeep rubicon with new oversized tires and a matching new spare hanging off the back.
“Did you come down from Steel Pass?” he asked.
“No, we did not,” I answered.
“Is Steel Pass that way?” he asked as he pointed up the primitive two track.
“Yeah,” I nodded my head.
As he hit the soft sand he was again hard into the accelerator, the jeep jerking from side to side as the spinning tires fought for traction.
“Did he say he was going over Steel Pass? The Lady asked as she returned from grabbing something out of the camper.
“Actually he did not, but all of his actions indicate that’s his plan,” I replied.
“Looked like he didn’t have anything with him and it sure gets dark early this time of year, he’s going to be doing lots of driving in the dark. Hope he doesn’t get into trouble with us maybe being the next vehicle through,” she added.
“Yup, I’m thinking the same thing.”
We watched the dust cloud disappear into the mouth of Dedeckera Canyon, the north entrance for the Steel Pass route.
We picked a spot below the entrance to Dedeckera Canyon to camp, a spot where the afternoon sun would linger.
With camp chores completed, we put on our packs and hiked up into Dedeckera to evaluate the route and see the notorious four steps for ourselves.
It was a wonderful late afternoon. We took a close look at the obstacles, discussed the lines we would need to take with the truck, and decided if this route was safely doable for us.
We returned to camp, enjoyed warm coffee on this cold evening, and relaxed.
The morning light was glorious with a growing cloud cover, forecasting a change in the weather.
Eureka Valley was spread out before us as the sun put on a show.
Climbing the road up through Dedeckera Canyon was a fun technical challenge. The Lady did a great job spotting and we took our time. After the steps, the Lady was getting in the spirit and wanted to drive the narrows above.
We enjoyed our slow trek up to Steel Pass. We were alone, no other vehicles, no other people. Late morning we arrived at Steel Pass, the high point. We found an out of the way place to camp. We were going to spend some time here. We were going to look for treasure.
Was it a cartographer’s joke? That’s what many think. On the old topo maps a spring symbol was placed near the top of Steel Pass, an odd place for a spring, and odder still was the name, “marble bath.” People looked for it. People got tired of looking for it. Somebody took matters into their own hands and fulfilled the map’s dream, providing a bath full of marbles.
We had found one marble bath. Was there another, was there a real marble bath? Having explored many canyons in Death Valley we knew it was common to find polished bedrock basins in winding narrows. Places that look like marble and bath tubs. Was it possible the little spring symbol had just lost its way; misplaced by that cartographer we thought was joking? There are several canyons that line the edge of the Last Chance Range. We would take a look.
Would we find a narrow slot canyon?
Would we find slickrock and dry waterfalls?
Would we find waterholes that would draw the bighorn sheep to drink and the ancient people who depended on them for food?
Yes, we did. We found the treasure we were seeking. Did we visit the real “marble bath”? We will leave that one as a remaining mystery. These seldom visited mountains and canyons are delightful to explore on foot, to climb up into, to discover what is around the next bend. We spent the afternoon exploring as it snowed. Wind and snow bit at our faces as we headed into the wind, returning to camp and hot coffee and, as the Lady has taken to calling it, our home away from home.
We are now at that middle spot in the story, where this all started.
After the star filled skies at four in the morning, low cloud cover obscured everything as we climbed out of the sack at dawn, at least from the camper it looked that way.
“Get out here! This is wonderful, get out here!” The Lady was outside again. She was excited. An opening in the clouds showed that Saline Valley and the Inyo Mountains to the west were in sunlight.
This was a morning we will remember.
As the day warmed, the sun worked at burning off the lingering clouds.
We had a mishap with a water container breaking during our climb of the steps in Dedeckera Canyon. We took our time this morning and took advantage of the sun to dry out towels and other items.
Except for the search for the marble bath, our plans were fairly loose. I was considering returning to the Eureka Dunes and then heading north to wander around the north end of Eureka Valley. At Steel Pass the Lady asked what were possible spots to visit to the west, down into Saline Valley. After going over the maps and checking out possible hikes in Digonnet’s new Saline and Eureka Valley book, she said, “Let’s go west all the way through. Do we have enough gas?”
“Yes.” I answered and we dropped into Saline Valley.
We stopped often and our eyes kept wandering back up to Steel Pass. I’m sure we will too someday.
The first couple of miles down from the pass are a bit technical, narrow, winding, with rocks. After that it is a long easy cruise with tremendous views as you descend. The temperature rose and our windows opened, wonderful. We kept our eyes out for that yellow jeep, even out across country where you shouldn’t drive. We never saw him again; it looked like another one dodged a bullet.
As we descended we also started to see reflections off of vehicles far down below us. We had been all alone. The world was about to change. We were arriving at Saline hot springs. We stopped at Upper Warm Springs.
As we approached the more developed Palm Springs, we were now passing through clusters of parked vehicles at their campsites. We stopped for Captain Jack and his wench, both in full pirate costume, to cross the road.
We were at the hot springs. We had to stop and take this in. We parked at the two pools.
We first stopped at the Wizard Pool (we were learning the names and getting oriented) and chatted with a woman from Idaho. She had two huskies, one that was huge and just loved to quietly howl. She freely shared her story. She has been coming to the springs for 7 years. She told us we should stay for the Thanksgiving Day feast, that we would be welcome, that it was pretty incredible. As we talked, the man with no pants first appeared. He stayed just outside our space, did not say anything to greet or acknowledge us, and meandered about within view. He came in closer and slowly sat down at the bench facing away from us. The Lady noticed the fellow who had been soaking at the other pool (Volcano Pool, I believe, and pictured above) was finished.
We said goodbye to the woman and joined the gentleman, easily falling into conversation. He was from Arizona and was enjoying his stay at the springs. We asked if he would mind us getting a soak in and with his approval we climbed into the soothing water. This is a slice of heaven.
“Is that your four wheel camper?” he asked nodding toward our truck.
“Yes it is; that’s ours.” I answered.
“That’s my four wheel camper over there.” He nodded toward his nearby camp.
He told us about his camper and asked if we had heard of the Wander the West website.
“Okay, who are you on the website?” the Lady asked.
We introduced ourselves. He told us KC from Wyoming was camped nearby and that SunMan may be in for Thanksgiving. We had seen the other FWC rig below us as we pulled in.
We walked over to kcowyo’s camp and introduced ourselves, said hello, and chatted. He told us SunMan may be coming in for Thanksgiving.
We stopped to check out the lower springs.
There was an anxious couple waiting along the road, watching for vehicles coming in to inquire if anyone had seen their friend. He was coming in the north pass, driving a rental car and it had snowed. We politely listened and then the woman asked, “Have you ever been here before?”
“No, this is our first visit.” I answered.
“Oh!” she took me by the arm. “You have to come in and see this place and get a tour.” She led us under the canopy of trees.
Tom in his kilts sitting in a chair on the lawn looked up from his book and asked, “Would you like a tour?”
“A nice offer like that we will not turn down.” We introduced ourselves and chatted.
The man with no pants wandered in and sat on a bench.
Tom said, “I saw you two come in and take a soak at the upper pools.”
I guess they keep track of newcomers here.
Tom gave us a tour and shared his love for this place. Everyone we met at the springs was friendly, welcoming, and seemed like nice folks. We would not hesitate coming back to this special place.
As we drove out I got to thinking about the man with no pants and a possible role he plays in the community at the springs. The way I saw it, his job was to spot newcomers and just stay within sight as a way to reinforce that this is traditionally a clothing optional area. Maybe I’m putting too much thought into this and guy just likes a shirt and no pants. Good for him.
We made a stop at the famous bat sign.
We had decided on plans for the next day and we headed south on Saline Valley Road. Shadows were moving across the valley as we stopped to take in the vistas around the salt lake.
Saline Valley Road is just plain awful. This will be a recurring theme. Some of it, I believe, is because you can see so far that it appears you are not making headway; not getting any closer to the landmarks. You are a fool if you try to drive fast and the distance pushes you to want to do that. Our goal was to camp part way up the Lippincott Road. As shadows lengthened across Saline Valley we knew it would not be possible to get up there before dark.
“We ought to think about finding a spot to camp before it is dark and then drive up Lippincott in the morning.”
“I’m thinking the same thing,” the Lady replied.
“There were a couple of large level spots along Saline Valley Road that we past, but I expect there will be continuing traffic into the springs. That might not be an enjoyable night camping there.” I added.
“Let get down to the Lippincott Road and I bet there is a camping spot a short ways in that we can pull into,” the Lady suggested.
We reached the large cairn marking the intersection with Lippincott, turned east, and a useable campsite was just where the Lady said one would be. We made ourselves at home with a wonderful view to the north the length of Saline Valley. The evening sky put on a show for us.
After dinner, sitting in our chairs outside – much warmer at this elevation – we star gazed and watched car lights descend into the valley from North Pass. The springs were going to be busy for the holiday.
We turned in and spent a quiet night here, waking to another beautiful desert dawn.
First light dancing across Saline Valley.
From Digonnet’s book, I had read the Lady his description of the Ubehebe Trail, an early access route for miners coming from Owens Lake and traveling into the Race Track and Ubehebe Mining area. It predates the Lippincott Mine Road. The old faint foot trail crosses the Lippincott Road near the Bonanza Prospect. Here it heads north and climbs to the ridge crest that it then follows to the east and drops into Race Track Valley. It is seldom visited and offers outstanding vistas such as this below. Our truck is visible far below on the Lippincott Road, right center.
The old trail crosses steep terrain.
One of the side trips possible is dropping into the canyon north of the ridge. Here a 35 foot dry fall blocks your progress.
There is a bypass that climbs steep talus on the north side. This takes you to the Inyo Mine copper prospects and ruins.
Almost to the crest.
The final section of the trail down into the valley no longer exists, but the route is obvious and soon Race Track Playa is visible to the north.
Once up in Race Track Valley you have the option of returning the way you came up or walking the Lippincott Road back down to your vehicle. The Lady loves circles so we headed down the Lippincott.
It was a very pleasant walk.
With outstanding views of the road snaking down and down.
The center section of the road is the roughest. This washout with the cliff looked to be the narrowest spot.
We returned to the truck about 1:00 pm and relaxed as we got out of our boots and snacked. Only one vehicle had ventured up Lippincott today. As we were walking down a family in their new four door jeep wrangler was driving up.
Overall Lippincott Road was in pretty good shape. I would drive it.
The Ubehebe Trail was a great hike.
Our adventure was drawing to a close. We returned to the Saline Valley Road and headed for South Pass. The Lady calls this long section of the Saline Valley Road a road right out of the Twilight Zone. It goes on and on. As soon as you relax another nasty section of washboard, or more rocks, or washouts across the road shows up. We were going to drive and drive forever, it was never going to end. There was continuous snow on the long shaded section near the top of South Pass. It was packed from vehicle traffic and no problem but after a cold clear night and it freezes hard, this could make for an interesting ride along this mountainside.
We reached the intersection with highway 190 at 4:30 pm. The sun had just dropped out of sight in the west. We stretched our legs, pulled out the compressor and aired up the tires. Four vehicles stopped to see if we were okay. Kind, neighborly folks drive these roads. We thanked them all.
“You’ve been driving a long time,” the Lady said. I couldn’t argue with that. She continued, “I’ll drive into Lone Pine and let’s gas up and then decide where we want to spend the night…………………………..or I was thinking.”
I knew she had been thinking, plotting, and she had a plan.
“We could both use a long soak in a hot springs after the Twilight Zone Road. Let’s head to Bridgeport. It will be beautiful under the stars!”