Sunday, October 30, 2022

Surprise Valley, Northeast California – October 2022


please remember you can click on a photo to see a larger version & highlighted text are links to additional information


Getting Her Kicks at Sixty-six


The Lady woke up a year older on Sunday morning, happy and in fine health and looking for something fun to do. And also searching out a special way to celebrate completing another successful orbit around the sun. We both suggested, since the weather had finally turned colder, checking for an opening at Surprise Valley Hot Springs in the far northeast corner of California. One room was available beginning Tuesday for two nights. It would be our first stay at this hot spring resort.


We arrived at our 1600 hrs. check in time. There is no camping. Our room was in a row of small motel style rooms, each with a kitchenette and bathroom. Each room, just outside the backdoor, has a private tub filled with natural hot spring water.




There were controls for mixing hot and cold water, so getting a temperature that was “Goldilocks” - just right for us - was easy.


The tub is enclosed by a high wood fence. A gate allows access to the vastness of Surprise Valley. The resort is alone out here. We carried our chairs out away and into the great outdoors. This is where we ate dinners and breakfast.




Surprise Valley has many hot springs. We were surrounded by steaming waters.




Coyotes broke out in song as we fell asleep.


The next morning, we went in search of other hot springs in the area. Surprise Valley is cattle country and alfalfa. It’s the kind of place where folks keep the old windmills in working order.






We found these hot springs and saw steam rising – Menlo Baths, Squaw Bath, Leonard’s Hot Spring, Seyferth Hot Springs, and Lake City Hot Springs. All were behind gates and fences and on private property. Since the day was beautiful with broken clouds, shafts of bright sunlight, and occasional snow on the windshield, we drove Surprise Valley Road north up into Oregon. It is wide, wash boarded gravel and winds through wonderful terrain. As I mentioned, it is cattle country and most ranches were rounding up cows and separating the growing young ones from their mothers. Most of the rounding up and cattle driving was right down Surprise Valley Road. One time in particular, we helped with the round up, slowly moving cows to an open gate. Each time we are close to cows like this, we are reminded how incredibly dumb cows are. The cows were quite efficient at leaving their waste behind, in abundance, on the roadway. The undercarriage of our truck was plastered and, let’s just say, we don’t call ‘em “mud flaps” anymore. We hit pavement near Adel and crossed the mountains on 140 at Warner Summit. We recrossed the Warner Mountains and dropped back into Surprise Valley via Fandango Pass.


We thoroughly enjoyed the hot spring water at Surprise Valley. Wednesday evening was clear of clouds. The stars were fantastic. While soaking in the outside tub, the Lady watched for “shooters” and counted the number of satellites that moved so high above us. The night was cold. It was in the twenties when took a break from soaking and went for a long walk in the night.






The rooms are heated with hot spring water. In our room the heat was either on or off. There’s no temperature control except by opening windows. As we prefer to sleep in a cold room, we had windows open. It was 23° outside when we woke the next morning. With two windows open all night, it was 63° in our room when we woke.


A crisp 23° and cold clear air, you bet we went for a long walk at dawn. Steam billowed up from, seemingly, everywhere.






Yes, that is a new skiff of snow on the Warners from the day before.


Canada Geese love this place too. So much so that you must always look where you step. I don’t know what spooked these two as we quietly walked.






It was a near perfect morning.










We packed up the truck and camper after breakfast. The restorative magic spring water had rolled the Lady’s odometer from 66 back down to 53. It was time to head home. Neither of us wanted to end up “too young” and possibly loose the wisdom growing older brings.


I should make a note about our friend, “The Sagebrush Reconnoiterer.” He receives our “camped here for the night” InReach messages we send when away from home. When he noted our location, he asked, “It this your new hot springs after the invading Bubbas drove you out of Benton?” We replied that we were celebrating the Lady’s birthday and The Reconnoiterer responded with, “Ah, she’s getting her kicks at sixty-six.” Indeed, she is.


We made a left onto the pavement as we drove out of the resort. The highway was lined with power poles. The Lady loves to watch for perched raptors. I looked ahead and asked the Lady, “How ‘bout this raptor?”




The “Baldy-Headed” eagle was finishing a meal. I believe it was a quail. Quails are abundant here.




Happy birthday Julie!


Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Salt Springs, Sierra Nevada – October 2022

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Our Backyard


I first heard about this location from a longtime friend who worked for the U.S. Forest Service. It has been on our list for years. Although close to home – fifty miles – it is a bit out of the way and is a close to two hour drive from here. Recently, I found that the USGS published a paper on five saline springs (including the one documented in this story), all close to our home – The Saltiest Springs in the Sierra Nevada. (It’s kind of cool, we know a few of the people mentioned in the acknowledgements in the research paper, including our friend.) What interested us most was the evidence of long-time use of these springs by Native Americans.


We left before dawn on a recent Sunday morning. Most of this drive is through the burn scar of last year’s massive Caldor Fire.

We were ready to begin the 12-mile round trip hike before 0900 hrs.





The hike began at the Salt Springs Reservoir dam.






The dam was constructed in 1931 and is part of Pacific Gas & Electric’s Mokelumne River Project that includes reservoirs and powerhouses along the length of the Mokelumne River.


The trail traverses the north side of the reservoir in the steep walled canyon. Here is a view back downstream.






This is low elevation (for us) and the landscape is manzanita, chaparral, live oak woodland, and occasional pine and cedar. The trail gets little use and is a near constant up and down as it maneuvers around steep granite outcrops.






Our many years of drought in the West is evident; reservoirs with  large bath tub rings.






Honestly, this was a miserable hike. Tiny gnats were ever present and hard to tolerate. They were in our eyes, noses, mouths, and ears. We stopped and applied bug spray. It made no difference. We hiked and constantly swatted – at least attempted to – the little bastards away.


The trail crosses several steep side canyons with a variety of bridge types.






The reservoir is narrow and five miles long. At the upper end of the reservoir on a large granite outcrop, we saw flow lines on the granite bleached by mineral rich water, a definite clue.






Our first task was finding a safe place to cross the Mokelumne River. The water was clear and deep and the river magnificent in the scoured granite bedrock.









Finding no safe place here to wade across, we returned downstream to where the river widened in the broad plain of the dry edge of the reservoir and found a place – waist deep – to cross safely. We carried wading sandals with us for this task. One large chunk of granite caught our attention.






We worked our way back upstream to a large flat area at the base of the cliffs with the bleached water tracks. This looked like the perfect place for a habitation site. Evidence showed that it was.






We climbed the granite and made our way up to the terrace along the base of the cliffs.






We came upon the first salt evaporation basins excavated by hand in granite possibly thousands of years ago.









These excavated basins average over a meter in width and 70 cm deep. They were filled with saline water from the salt spring and then left to allow the water to evaporate and leave crystalline salt for harvest. The USGS paper states a sizable seasonal population of indigenous people – Miwoks – were established here 3000 years ago. My sister-in-law is Miwok and serves in a leadership role with the Ione Band of Miwok Indians.


Here is an additional newspaper article on this site - Stone Basins May Be Miwok Salt Factories


This was salt gathering on an industrial scale. This is possibly the largest Native American salt gathering site in North America.








The text states there are 369 salt evaporation basins here. It is thought the excavation process began with fires to heat and fracture the granite and was then ground down by hand with stones. The amount of effort involved and the size of this site is staggering.






Salt water still flows from the fractures in the granite. The USGS paper has a fascinating section on the possible origins of the saline water in the “Saltiest springs in the Sierra Nevada.”









We continued our exploration of the area.

















Please note in the above photo the basin under the huge boulder. This basin must have been excavated prior to the boulder landing here, probably breaking off from the cliff above.


Basins are also present in the bedrock along the river. This is above the high-water line of the reservoir but in the floodplain of the river during spring snowmelt.








This is a spectacular place, both culturally and geologically.









We worked our way back downstream to our previous wading location. Nothing about this hike and landscape was easy. This is something we do not often say.









I had problems with the autofocus motor in my camera lens as the day progressed. It failed completely as I attempted to photograph Julie crossing the Mokelumne on our hike back to the trailhead. Since my retinal detachment repair in my left eye and surgery on the macula in the right, it is impossible for me to accurately focus manually with the viewfinder. Although I dearly love photography, it now has unique challenges for me. But there is no way I am stopping. A new lens is on its way here.


Since finding the USGS paper, I’ve put much time in with detective work. I believe I’ve figured out where the other salt springs are located and it will definitely take a lot of work to reach them. Are we up to the task? I expect we’ll keep you posted.



The research and sleuthing skills paid off and we have now located and visited the four other salt springs mentioned in the USGS report.


Indian Springs


This site is along highway 50 in the South Fork of the American River canyon. Stopping along this busy traffic corridor is close to death defying. There is little shoulder along the highway and the drop down to the river is steep and treacherous. Very little remains at this site due to highway construction. If there were Native American salt evaporation basins, nothing now is evident. Salt water still flows out from beneath a piled boulder slope. In the 1920’s and 30’s a resort hotel was at this location to “take the cure” with the medicinal waters. I suspect the advertisements were similar to “it’ll make a blind man see and a lame man run!” The ruins of a soaking tub from the resort remain along the river.








White Hall Springs


Visiting this site along highway 50 was also death defying. Salt water issues from horizontal fractures in the granite.






Several excavated basins are present along the edge of the river. Several are submerged due to water releases from dams upriver that keep the river at a higher level than in the pre-European invasion times.











Fo Owa Spring


This was a 12 hike round trip hike – with cross country travel – to locate this spring. Much of the area was burned in last year’s Caldor Fire.









A sign at the trailhead identifies this area as being used by the Washoe People.






Along the way we discovered flakes of obsidian from ancient point and tool making.






Fo Owa Spring issues from two travertine mounds about 100 yards apart.


The west spring’s travertine mound is atop granite and water no longer issues from the small vent on top.






The water comes out from fractures in the granite below.






The water tastes quite salty with other mineral tastes.


The east spring’s travertine mound covers a granite slope and its waters discolor the water in the unnamed creek that runs below.






There are two vents atop the travertine that flow gas charged water.









There is one large hand excavated salt basin about 50 yards upslope and to the south of the west spring.






The route up to the basin would have been easy to carry water up.






This day we also spent quite some time searching for the fouth spring – Unabi Marmota – without success. But on our hike out I noticed terrain features that offered hints. Adding those hints to my research at home, I was convinced we’d have success with another hike into the area.


Unabi Marmota Spring


We got an early start just as the sun rose.






We found a wide still section of creek to wade.






We reached a wide-open area with granite stained by mineral rich waters. We had found the spring.






Salty water issues from several fractures around the site. Salt lines the flow paths. This was the nicest tasting salt of all the spring sites. There was very minor travertine build present at some locations.















There are six salt evaporation basins.












There were also the remains of a stacked stone structure.






We wonder if this was possibly for storing salt harvested here.


It was an excellent and fun endeavor to figure out and then find the locations of these salt springs.