Saline Valley (Death Valley National Park) 10-Nov-2021

When we were tossing around possible adventures for our time in Death Valley National Park, Wayne and Diane mentioned that they’d always wanted to see Saline Valley, which is about 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Furnace Creek. I had been there once before in the mid-1980s; The LovedOne had never been there. Saline Valley is one of the most remote and hard to reach places in the park. While you can make it there and back in a 2WD vehicle (bring extra tires!), a high-clearance 4×4 increases your chances of not spending many unplanned hours stuck in the desert. Since we had access to a 4×4, why not go for a visit?

So, for Adventure #3, we drove State Highway 190 west, past Panamint Springs, to its intersection with the unpaved Saline Valley Road. We would follow this bone-jarring, rock-filled, dusty road for some 40 miles (64 km) to reach the valley via South Pass. It’s been almost 40 years so it’s possibly understandable that I didn’t remember the tortured bumpiness of this road. And, since we’d camped in the valley back then, I’d also forgotten the time it took to make this drive without destroying a tire, an axle, or some other important car part.

The Panamint Valley from South Pass
Salt Lake in the Saline Valley, with South Pass (S) 25 miles (40 km) distant and 5,000 feet (1,524 m) above

Our original plan had been to drive to Lower Warm Springs, which sits within the homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe. Back in the day, these springs sported leathery aging desert rats and remnant hippies, both with and without clothes. The springs are now managed by the National Park Service and have changed (What hasn’t?) into quite the popular destination, with a camp host, camp sites, picnic tables, and a small lawn. You can still go around naked, but the tribe would prefer you not do so. We’d gotten as far as Salt Lake – and could see the springs far in the distance – when the wild burros appeared. Being essentially invasives, they’re hard on the local ecology but SO CUTE! 🤩 We had to stop.

Burros posing
A watchful burro

The drive this far had taken longer than expected, so we’d already been discussing whether we had time to reach Lower Warm Springs and get back before dark. The burro distraction simply helped run out the clock. But SO CUTE! 🙄 So we opted instead to visit Salt Lake and the start of the famous Saline Valley Salt Tram. The lines of salt-encrusted wooden posts in the lake are the remnants of the evaporation ponds where brine was concentrated into salt crystals for transport via the tram.

Looking north across Salt Lake
Cracked deposits in Salt Lake
Salt on a board
Remains of the salt evaporation ponds with the Inyo Mountains in the distance
Remains of the walls used to create the evaporation ponds
Diane (red shirt) walks along one of the old pond walls
Looking northeast along one of the old pond walls toward the Last Chance Range
Looking east toward the Last Chance Range, with an outline of an evaporation pond in the foreground
Pentagons in the salt

The salt tramway was constructed between 1910 and 1913 to transport salt gathered from evaporation ponds over the Inyo Mountains to Owens Valley. Gondola cars, each carrying 800 pounds of salt, traversed the 13.5 mile (22 km) long tramway at a rate of 20 tons per hour. Over a million board feet of lumber, 650 tons of metal bolts and braces, more than 50 miles (80 km) of cable, 5,000 large sacks of cement, and other materials and machinery were transported by pack trains and other means to construction sites along the tram’s route. At the time of its construction, it was the largest and most elaborate tram in the world. Operation of the tram ended in 1930 but its history and remaining parts have developed quite a cult following.

One of the remaining tramway towers; none were built exactly alike
Still standing after 100+ years
Tower hardware close-up
The tram ran directly up to a control station on the ridge (arrow)
The tram was an engineering marvel that went from Salt Lake, over the Inyos, to near Swansea on Owens Lake (American Society of Civil Engineers, 1917)

The airspace over the valley is also part of the U.S. military’s vast R-2508 Special Use Airspace complex and low-flying jet aircraft are a common occurrence. Thus we were only slightly surprised 😲 when an F-18 Hornet roared by not far overhead. 🙂

An F-18 zooms over Salt Lake

We had lunch at the lake, then started the long drive back to Furnace Creek. It would have been nice to have gotten to Lower Warm Springs but, as it was, we barely made it back before dark. Those darn burros! But SO CUTE! 😒

Saline Valley from the South Pass Road; Salt Lake is the white patch on the left
The Panamint Range from the Saline Valley Road: (P) Panamint Dunes, (R) Rogers Peak, (B) Bennett Peak, (T) Telescope Peak
Solid black line is the Saline Valley Road; dotted red line is the alignment of the historic Saline Valley Salt Tram.
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3 comments

  1. The tram sounds so cool! I’ve only been in Death Valley once when my daughter and I drove from Las Vegas to Lone Pine for our hike up Whitney. This makes me want to go back and explore Death Valley!

    Like

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