We had one more day of 4×4 available to us, so we decided to make Adventure #5 a visit to Saratoga Spring and Ibex Spring at the south end of Death Valley National Park. This proved to be a day of minimal hiking and much off-road driving. We could have gotten to Saratoga with a 2WD car but a high-clearance 4×4 was a definite plus for the short, but lumpy, ride out to Ibex.

From Furnace Creek, we drove south on paved Badwater Road and then continued south on unpaved Harry Wade Road. We crossed the now very dry Amargosa River, which is apparently capable of flooding enough to close the road; this was not a problem today. The signed turn-off to Saratoga Spring occurs 5.8 miles (9.3 km) before Harry Wade junctions with State Highway 127.

Harry Wade Road

Saratoga Spring

Colorful hills line the road to Saratoga Spring

The first thing that surprised us about these springs and their attendant vegetation is that neither is visible from the valley floor. The first reeds came into view at the parking lot but it wasn’t until we followed an old mining road over a small rise that the three large open water ponds, covering approximately 6.6 acres (2.7 ha), were visible. The Wheeler Survey seemingly camped at the springs in 1871 and named them after the well-known Saratoga Springs resort in New York. One wonders how they found these springs in this vast expanse of desert?

Once discovered by the non-indigenous, these springs soon became an important stop for travelers, teamsters, and prospectors in this water-challenged region. They were a primary watering hole for the famous 20-mule team borax wagons during the 1880s, as they were on the direct route from the old Amargosa Borax Works and on the alternate route to the Harmony Borax Works.

The ponds are richly vegetated with common reeds, bulrush, and saltgrass. These plants provide food and shelter for many of the animals living here. These ponds are also home to the Saratoga Pupfish (Cyprinodon nevadensis nevadensis), one of several pupfish species that are endemic to the Death Valley area.

The marsh at Saratoga Spring; the road to the Saratoga Mine is on the right
A surprising amount of open water for Death Valley
Cooper rush
Reflections on one of the ponds

The springs also served as a water source for the nearby Superior, Saratoga, Whitecap, and Pongo Mines. These got their start in the 1930s and, somewhat ironically, made their money from talc rather than gold. The Superior Mine alone produced some 141,000 tons (12,791 mt) of talc between 1940 and 1959, its most productive years. We had trouble visualizing a grizzled prospector bellying up to the bar in some saloon and bragging about hunting for the main ingredient in baby power. 🙄

Ibex Spring

From Saratoga Spring, we made our way out to Highway 127 and went north to the unsigned dirt road leading to the long abandoned mining community at Ibex Spring. That road was a driving adventure featuring numerous small gully crossings, a sidehill washout, and a dive in and out of a gully a good 25 feet (7.6 m) deep. There was some excitement in the wheelhouse as the 4×4 assumed a 50° angle and plunged into that gully. Additional surprise was registered when we made it up the slope on the other side.

The original Ibex Mine opened in the 1880s, and ran for a few years. Then there was quiet until modern talc mining began in the 1930s. That peaked in the late 1950s and the ore bodies were exhausted by 1968. A mining camp grew-up at the springs but most of its buildings have been heavily vandalized since the mines closed. The spring, surrounded by non-native palm trees and in a thick grove of mesquite and arrowweed, was still gurgling away during our visit – impressive given that this is one of the driest places on Earth and is also suffering from a sustained drought.

Ibex Spring
Remains of a 1950s era bunkhouse at the springs
Ruin I
Ruin II
Ruin III
Ruin IV (bullet holes)
Ruin V
Ruin VI (the water-filled spring house)
Ruin VII ( a different kind of spring)
Palms over wreckage

After poking around in the ruins (“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.”), we headed to nearby Tecopa for restoration by some excellent BBQ and brews from the Tecopa Brewing Company. Ah, yes, modern desert explorers, making their way from one beer oasis to the next. 🍺

After lunch, we returned to Furnace Creek via the Greenwater Valley Road, a graded dirt road that connects Highway 178 with the paved road to Dantes View. Today the Greenwater Valley is just open land, with nary a mine or structure in sight. But between 1904 and 1909, it hosted one of the most useless mining booms ever to grace Death Valley. Since the 1880s, surface indications of copper had been known to occur in the valley. But there was little interest in this. Then in 1904, claims were suddenly being located and the copper rush was on. Townsites, stores, saloons, post offices, and roads quickly appeared. Mines were dug. Claims were bought and sold. Speculators and swindlers got busy. But no copper ore was ever found. None. Nada. Zip. The last mine gave up in 1909. The “Greenwater Frenzy” had been exciting – if you didn’t mind losing your shirt (and pants and shoes and life savings, etc.).

Greenwater Valley, 1906
Greenwater Valley today