Discovering a Magical & Unexpected Oasis in Death Valley
The Holcombes take a surprising, yet beautiful trip to the Saline Warm Springs.

By: Kathy Holcombe

Editor’s Note: The Holcombes have an off-road capable RV, extensive experience, and gear that allows them to take on more challenging landscapes. Please know that this trip is not meant for all RV types and, with any time you take your vehicle off road, there are risks involved. Death Valley is also a very harsh environment, and it is important to take precautions and do your research before visiting. You can find more information here.

We found ourselves, once again, on a long and dusty road in what was most certainly the middle of nowhere. The landscape was stark, barren, practically void of life, and yet the boldness of the rugged mountains and canyons was strikingly beautiful. Our course meandered along a washboarded and rutted road, through deep and winding canyons, past ghost towns and abandoned mining claims, and eventually emerged in a deep basin flanked by jagged peaks. The basin was broad, allowing us to fully comprehend the vastness of our surroundings. 

Famagogo exploring canyons in the backcountry of Death Valley National Park.

Something way out in the distance caught my eye, a pulsing light beckoning to us, like an airport landing strip leading us to our destination. As we drew closer to the intermittent light source, a giant figure emerged, standing sentry in the desert. We approached it to find a hodgepodge of discarded items, pipes, scrap metal, fans, chain, a traffic signal, a guitar, all assembled into a 40-foot apocalyptic sculpture looming up against a cloudless sky. Midway up the figure was a metal fan blade spinning in the afternoon breeze, reflecting the sunlight on each rotation, serving as a beacon, a landmark, that we were approaching our destination. We continued on.

(To get an even better idea of the driving conditions and landscape in this area, watch this video by the Holcombes).

As we crested the next rise in the desert, we laid eyes on it, rising up from the barren landscape, an anomaly of life in a desert abyss. Giant, hairy palm trees with drooping fronds, reminiscent of Cousin It, were the first to catch our attention and were such a contrast to the scrubby, dehydrated vegetation that had been the only indication of life for countless miles. There was a wooden fence surrounding the compound. 

The palm trees standing sentry under a starry sky above Saline Warm Springs.

We stepped across the threshold, from dusty desert into a magical oasis, where children played on perfectly groomed golf course grass beneath the shady palms, and water trickled amongst lush vegetation. It felt as if we had been transported through time and space into the garden of Eden. 

There were a series of pools that started near the source of the springs and cascaded through the compound decreasing in temperature as they went. We just stood there taking it all in, gobsmacked at the extreme contrast of the two worlds we were straddling. But also uncertain exactly what to do, as we suddenly found ourselves to be the only ones within eyesight wearing a stitch of clothing. This was a novel situation for us, and we were not quite sure of the appropriate etiquette.

Kathy and Abby soaking in one of the pools in the compound. Turns out that clothing is optional, and the etiquette is that whomever is first in the pool dictates whether or not clothes are worn.

Clearly out of our element, a woman approached and welcomed us, and asked if we had been given a tour. We nodded our heads no, and she walked us through the oasis introducing us to the locals and giving us the rundown of how then community operated. We were completely impressed with both the engineering and infrastructure as well as the wonderful community that served as caretakers of the Saline Warm Springs. There was an underground plumbing system that ran water from the source spring to the series of cascading pools, with offshoots for pressurized warm showers and irrigation for the lawns. And each pool had a foot bath and shower in an effort to keep everything hygienic. 

As we meandered through the grounds, we noticed people working everywhere: gardening, maintaining facilities, cleaning, painting, tinkering, etc. Everyone there was contributing in some fashion. Our guide returned us to where we started, introduced herself as Fun-Fun-Debbie, and invited us to her van that night for a glow-in-the-dark body paint party! Again, feeling way out of our element, we thanked her for the tour and headed back to our van and the familiarity of the desert. 

We found a beautiful place to camp for the night just outside of the compound.

We found a shady place to park for the night, just outside of the compound, in a much more familiar environment, and were greeted by yet another local, this time a four-legged friend named CJ, the semi-wild burro. CJ kept us company throughout the afternoon and was quite a pleasant companion, as long as you scratched his nose and rubbed his ears. But when ignored, he would belt out amplified grievances of neglect. Eventually he grew tired of our company and moseyed up to the truck up the road. We could hear his blistering verbal assault on our neighbors echoing through the desert late into the evening.

CJ the semi-wild donkey was a perfect host…as long as you were scratching his nose or ears.

We spent the rest of the afternoon and next morning exploring the surreal habitat around us, taking in the contrast of ecosystem and cultures. We found ourselves becoming more comfortable with the local culture and thoroughly enjoyed the pools, the lush oasis, CJ, and the surrounding desert scape. And it turns out that if you are clothed and in one of the pools, that everyone will keep their clothes on until you leave. It's somewhat of a first one there dictates the dress code scenario. 

I’m not sure what we expected when we set out to explore the Saline Warm Springs in Death Valley National Park, but we were pleasantly surprised at every turn along the way. Death Valley has proven once again to be a continual source of new and unexpected experiences and we look forward to pressing deeper into its wonderfully diverse backcountry. 

Until then … onward! -The Holcombes

We’ve travelled extensively throughout Death Valley National Park, and always leave with a sense of wonder and excitement to return to discover what else the park has to share with us.


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