Introduction & Finding my way

In my 65 years of exploring this planet, no place has compared equally to a remote patch of California desert known as Saline Valley. At the time of this embarkment into a literary exploration of its unique qualities, I have been in a deep relationship with this valley for 37 years, and the valley has had the most profound impact on my life as any other place I have come across.

As timeless as this remote valley is relative to geologic processes, the cultural landscape has undergone a tremendous change since becoming part of Death Valley National Park in 1994. Upon a recent visit I started to relate some of the “old” stories of yesteryear. At that time, I was strongly encouraged to transcribe my stories into a written record of recollections for all to enjoy. I have been asked to engage in this endeavor many times throughout the years. My reservation has been that, in fact, I remember but a fraction of my experiences while visiting, or living in the valley. What I do remember is laughing a lot! Often, I will run into a friend or acquaintance who relates a shared experience or asks, “Do you remember when we …?” For the life of me, I can’t remember many of these memories, but they lead me to believe I must have lived a very interesting life based on eye-witness accounts.

There has been a lot of change in the cultural landscape of the valley over the course of my tenure. I believe it would be valuable to some, and entertaining to others to try to preserve some historical perspective on this special corner of the world. To that end, I have decided to take up the “pen” and begin the difficult task of transcribing tales and details of some of the history of Saline Valley. Though I have been involved in the valley for 37 years, while some consider me to be an “old-timer” I still count myself as a relative new comer compared with many friends. The best I can do is chip away bit by bit by sharing what I do recall, and what I feel might be important, in the hopes that by tapping into the dike, a trickle might lead to a flow, and perhaps a flood. I would like to invite those with clarifications or stories to add and contribute to what may eventually become a treatise, and the Saline Chronicles might evolve into Saline Noir.

As you read these humble efforts to transcribe some heritage and history, if you find you have some correction, clarification, or tidbit to add, I encourage you to add a comment at the end of this blog. Contributions will be welcome toward the final project, and all due credit will be given.
Please consider visiting the home page: Saline Valley Chronicles for a complete list of chapters published to date, and an overview of the project.

How it came to be … my first days in the Valley

1980, Spring Equinox. I have been several months on the road in my 1960 VW van exploring the southwest U.S. and travelling from hot spring to hot spring as I relocated myself from Oakland, California to Grand Junction, Colorado. My goal at present is to find a place called Saline Valley and do some rock hounding. Friends in Oakland (Odin and Nadene, are you out there?) had suggested years earlier that we visit Saline to hunt out quartz crystals that grow there. Odin is a palm reader and Nadene runs a crystal display at the front of their booth at the northern Renaissance Faire and we have become fast friends over the years. While we never made it to the valley as a team, on my travels around the country I intended to explore the valley (if I could find it) and see what I could discover. I had recently cross country skied into Hot Creek outside of Mammoth Lakes and marveled at the magic of the eastern Sierras. I stopped into Bishop and Big Pine for the night and allowed my van to continue to melt down after packing every nook and cranny with snow in the crossing of Hwy 120 between Benton Hot Springs and Mono Lake (a road normally closed between October and May, which I crossed in March in a fit of brave foolishness, albeit successfully … another tale to be told). I asked locally about this place called Saline Valley in Big Pine and was given some rough directions from folks who had difficulty keeping their eyes from rolling into the back of their heads. Armed with little more than

Saline Valley, Saline Chronicles

Three-Mile Grade heading into the valley from the north pass

some ambiguous hints and what I called a Random McNally map, I sallied forth toward the north pass and made an educated guess as to where to turn from the “main road” onto a dirt track, hoping for the best. The north pass into Saline Valley crests at about 7,000 feet at the north end of the Inyo Mountains and descends through several interesting canyons before breaking out into one of the largest enclosed basins (what geologists call a ‘bolson’ rather than a valley) I had ever seen. To this day I have a very clear recollection of the impression it made on me as I got my first glimpse of the big picture, slowly crawling over a rough dirt road that appeared to stretch out before me endlessly. It was in fact not endless and was quite accurately named Three-Mile Grade. A lone cumulous cloud in the shape of a beehive stood square in the center of the valley no higher than the Inyo mountain range to the west. (I find it curious that for all I have forgotten, I remember a silly detail such as this.) For all appearances, I had the impression I might be the sole soul in this valley. In the distance I could see a lake bed that appeared to have water along its western edge.  On my way down the grade, I spotted a somewhat sizable rock on the west side of the road where a tributary “road” took off into the unknown, which had a sign painted on it reading: “Inyo Queen.” My thinking was: there must be an interested gal up that road and I wonder if she is lonely? (Turns out that side road leads off into several interesting side canyons, including a mining mill site named Bunker Hill which served the Inyo Queen mine. (A mill site is where the miners live and tend to their mining equipment and such.) A fellow by the name of Art Lawrence, aka ‘Hard Rock’ and his brother Carl were the miners who seasonally “worked” the Inyo Queen. Art was an interesting fellow whom I got to know through the years who was convinced he could create “negative gold” by reconfiguring the electron configuration of lead … a true alchemist with no idea whatsoever of chemistry. The Bunker Hill mill site is still intact, though empty as a result of locals high-grading the contents away.) More information on this location can be found in the footnotes.  

Continuing slowly and carefully over seemingly countless miles I reached the valley floor and decided that I should give a priority to finding water in this seemingly arid wasteland. I did note that every mile or two there was a gallon jug of what I assumed to be water cached along the side of the road, often nestled in rocks along the road’s berm. It seemed a curiosity of extreme courtesy in an extreme country. I made the decision to head for the lake bed to see what that might yield. Along the valley floor, I was impressed by gaping and sizable canyons cut into the Inyo’s, their contents spewed out to the valley in sizeable alluvial fans. One particular canyon caught my interest, as it had a significant line of green vegetation trailing the wash from its mouth. Sand dunes stretched out along the road on the east side. Quite a place! As I approached the lakebed, I found a side road off the main

Saline Valley, Saline Chronicles

Paul Wopshall at his cold pool back in the 60’s. This is a scanned image of a picture of a photo.

road that crossed a cattle guard and promised to take me closer to the lake. Driving down a short stretch of a mesquite lined lane, the vegetation opened up to reveal a stone and concrete water tank. It was indeed fresh water, cold and clear, on the edge of an expanse of reeds. Pay dirt! Quite fortunate to find this, as opposed to the lake bed, which turns out to be quite briny and alkaline. I could see sizable crawdads in the bottom of the pool and enjoyed listening to a symphony of bull frogs off in the reeds. (The cold pool used to be a favored stop-over for folks driving into and out of the valley, particularly during the warmer months, when a refreshing cold dip was a welcome punctuation to an otherwise long dusty hot drive. The pool was built by Paul Wopshall back in the 60’s. The source of the water is Hunter Canyon. To the best of my understanding, Paul Wopshall owned some “lakeside” property where he built a small cabin and a pool as his getaway from the big city life in southern California.)

While I was sitting marveling at the irony of an oasis in the middle of so much nothing, (no more cabin)  I was taken by surprise to discover I was not the only soul around, as a vehicle pulled in through the mesquite lane and parked nearby. Another lone traveler, I engaged some conversation with the youngish man who inquired if I was here for the hot springs. Hello? Hot Springs? Tell me more! I was instructed to head back north along the county road, beyond the sand dunes I would find a large painted rock with a bat included in the mural. Turn right, and head up the road about eight miles. Alrighty then.

Meanwhile, there was ground to explore. I decided to head for the rumored springs the following day. I first wanted to explore this canyon that showed traces of water emerging from its mouth. I made camp in the tamarisk trees just shy of the dunes, that is now owned by Marilyn Moyer, and at that time owned by some fellow by the given name of Trailer Rich. It was a pleasant night in a verdant corner of an otherwise bleak though dramatic landscape. The accumulation of soft tamarisk needles was a welcome respite from the alkaline and rocky soil of the valley floor. I took advantage of the time alone to make a stash of pan bread for the days to come.

The following morning, I packed up camp into my armored turtle and proceeded up the road toward my next destination. This destination, as it turned out, bears the name of McElvoy Canyon, though I knew this not at the time. Nor did I know there was a road that branched off the county road and led to a point near the canyon’s mouth. As such, I parked along the road, and headed up the alluvial fan on foot toward the telltale green. Here is where the story gets a little more interesting. (Hard to believe, I understand.) As I am moving up the fan, I happen along a very large boulder, and in the shade of the boulder are numerous mason jars filled with a black gooey liquid that upon inspection has a taste between molasses and honey. Putting my wonderment to the side, I proceeded up the fan, into the wash, and eventually found the paradise that was (‘is’ until recently) the fern grotto, where a transept waterfall and shower gently watered a wall of maidenhair fern. I have come to discover, and have seen, desert orchids bloom amid the ferns in the spring season. Footnotes on the Beekeepers of McElvoy.


Saline Valley, Saline Chronicles, batrock, painted rock, bat rock

The Painted Rock, aka Batrock

Mission accomplished, I headed up yet another side road well marked with a painted rock toward a distant unknown. Lo and behold, the road arrives at another green spot in the middle of an expanse of white spring deposit (variety of travertine, limestone, calcium carbonate … call it what you will.) At this time, there are no palm trees. There are lots of screwbean and honeybean mesquite trees mantled in mistletoe, arrowweed, assorted scattered trailers, and a few cars parked around what appears to be a lawn. Pulling up and entering this common area, I see a few pools filled with water, a pond, chickens are running around, and an interesting fellow sitting on a bench next to what appears to be a central campfire area. I introduce myself, and ask where I am and how did

Saline Valley, Saline Chronicles, Lucky Rich, Rich Baldwin, Banjo Man

Lucky Rich aka “Banjo Man”

I get so lucky? Curiously, he introduces himself as Lucky Rich, and he lives at the springs. I tell him of my recent adventure across the valley, and ask about the cache of mason jars I found, and Rich tells me I must have found a stash of honey left by the bee keepers of the canyon. (More on this shortly).  And how about all those water bottles cached along the road? Left there in case of emergency should someone’s vehicle break down and maintained by local volunteer action. (Apparently in some years past, a few folks along the way had died in hot weather with a vehicle malfunction. Road traffic was often very sparse in the early days.) While sitting there talking with my new-found friend, a wizened little man with white hair and beard in a straw hat and nothing else walks down a path off a nearby rise, through the mesquite, and (unrealized by me at the time) recognizes that I am taking up Rich’s valued “alone” time and offers to give me a tour of the grounds.

Saline Valley, Saline Chronicles, Guitar Frank

“Guitar” Frank

And this is how I came to meet Guitar Frank. Turns out no one at the springs has a last name. Most everyone has a “handle” that they have somehow earned from others during their time at the springs. I recall some of the handles I met during my initial stay at the springs included Banjo Man, Big Al, Turtle Jim, Mongolian Bob (aka Barber Bob), Bourbon Bob, Bathtub Bob, Burro Bob, Mammoth Bob (turns out being Bob requires a handle due to profusion), Hard Rock, Rock Steady, Johnny Tequila, Walt the Wizard, Crutch Bill, Mammoth Carol, Guitar Chuck, Guitar Frank, Cake Lady, Mystery Lady, Graham Cracker, Desert Rich, Fireman Frank, Abnormal Norm, Peco Jim, Dirty John, Bad Water Ruth, Jackass Andy, and Killer Cain, to name but a few, though some characters were nefarious enough to not need a handle such as Werner and Johan. There was only one rule that I can remember. Do not soak in the source, as it supplied water to all three pools at the Lower Springs as well as drinking water. Beyond that, the wisdom and convention of the springs was based upon common courtesy and etiquette. When engaging with your neighbors, consider the source and be considerate of the source. It all flows downhill. I believe I will hold off at this point, and expand upon the early camp in a subsequent chapter. (I will say in closing, while I had initially intended to spend a few days in the valley, I ended up spending two weeks. I then left for three days and made a quick return for another two weeks.)

Meanwhile, some expansive FOOTNOTES:

The Inyo Queen mine and Bunker Hill.

Toward the upper reaches of the north end of Saline Valley, before getting into the high country of Whippoorwill Canyon, on the flanks of the Inyo Mountains, lies the Inyo Queen Mine. Servicing that mine was the Bunker Hill mill site, where the miners lived and maintained their equipment. I have not explored the mine per se, but I have spent some time kicking around Bunker Hill, and first visited the site when Art Lawrence (aka “Hard Rock”) lived there. Art was a regular and seasonal resident of the Springs when I first arrived in the 80’s. He lived at Bunker Hill through much of the summer (his brother Carl lived in Big Pine and engaged in a variety of business there) but had to descend to camp at Lower Warm Springs in the winter when his water lines would freeze up. We were all a bit concerned for Art while he was in residence at Bunker Hill. Art’s eyesight was diminishing, and he had a fondness for the drink, and the issue was that his cabin was built over a mine shaft of unknown depth. There was direct access to this shaft through an opening in the middle of his cabin’s floor which was covered with a piece of unsecured plywood. What could go wrong? (No one of my knowledge has been able to determine how deep this shaft runs, though I have tossed rocks down the shaft and listened to it bounce off the walls until the sound disappeared out of range. I have never heard a rock land. Presumably the cabin was built over the shaft to cover its sizable opening. Recently the BLM has been engaged in securing and blocking the entry to this shaft.)

Saline Valley, Saline Chronicles, Bunker Hill, Inyo Queen, Inyo

The old Cadillac makes a good road marker

One finds the mill site easily enough by driving up the Three-Mile Grade, and toward the top of the grade, there is a side road, fairly visible, which heads off in the direction of the Inyo Mountains. This road also leads to Paiute Canyon (oldest rocks in the valley are found here) and Lead Canyon. The road to Bunker Hill is a side road that heads off to the right when you find the old Cadillac. Some years back the BLM planted a gate and steel guard posts to block access to the mine and mill site by vehicle, but someone with a torch has removed the gate and cut the baracades away to a rather exact width of a Samurai (as explained to me by a Samurai owner) and the contents of the mill site are now completely missing. Though empty of artifacts, I would like to share some photos of what remains.

Saline Valley, Saline Chronicles, Bunker Hill, Inyo Queen, Inyo

Looking up the hill at the work shed of Bunker Hill


Saline Valley, Saline Chronicles, Bunker Hill, Inyo Queen, Inyo

The interior of Art’s cabin. Plywood in the far room covers the shaft below.

Saline Valley, Saline Chronicles, Bunker Hill, Inyo Queen, Inyo

The interior of Art’s cabin. Decorative wallpaper still hanging.

Saline Valley, Saline Chronicles, Bunker Hill, Inyo Queen, Inyo

The work shed and forge, once full of artifacts, has been stripped by a local collector

Saline Valley, Saline Chronicles, Bunker Hill, Inyo Queen, Inyo

Relics of mining engineering and ingenuity. Look just under the top of the hill to see the diggings of the Inyo Queen mine.

Saline Valley, Saline Chronicles, Bunker Hill, Inyo Queen, Inyo

diggings from the Inyo Queen mine


Addendum to Notes on Bunker Hill: notes from Dan Roman

The attachment is in the 70’ is how I got gold.

This was taken at “Bunker Hill” mill site


Saline Valley, Saline Chronicles, Bunker Hill, Inyo Queen, Inyo

photo courtesy of Dan Roman


The ore I am crushing came from the slag pile in front of the cabin

You crush it and then you would pan it, just like you would from a stream

Came close a couple of times of blowing our ass to hell with Art the chemist

What he indeed wound up with was lead, good lead, but lead

Make great bullets, and did during the War I and War II

Art went to his death arguing it was white gold

Art was times a naughty boy when he got drunk, he was a handful to deal with I’ll  tell you

His hands were STRONG, that man had worked hard his whole life with those monsters

 The pit you spoke of was a vertical mine shaft

There is story attached to that shaft as well

When we speak next I’ll share it if you would like

The winter we used it as an indoor outhouse

Art and Jim Parker from Marble canyon never let me explore it because of the legend attached to it

They were both more than a little superstitious

Ask yourself why would anyone build a cabin, are as it was then an office of sort over a vertical shaft?

Good story

When I lived in that cabin it had doors a far room was a bedroom that Mary used and it had a wood stove.

The middle room was like a living room

When you entered that cabin at the rear was the kitchen and then the very far end was Arts bedroom

Kitchen also had a wood stove.

When Art was there alone he would close the door to the living room so as not to heat anything but the kitchen and his room

Water came from a water tank in the rear of the house gravity fed

Electric was an old generator that took all my skills as a mechanic to keep running

We used kerosene gas lamps and two 25 and 5 gallon propane bottles for our stove and the work shop.

 It was no picnic in the winter, but high enough in the summer to be cooler

AS you stood at the front door to south was an outhouse and a very narrow foot path

Follow that path for a mile or so you would come to a crystal mine that was rather shallow hole dug into the mountain maybe 30 feet or so, beyond that it had caved in years before.

But I could back pack in enough that in the summer, Mary, my son and I would camp there because it was so cool.

It was very comfortable temperature wise anyway

We became cave people of the 20th century

We lived on rice, dried beans, chucker, potatoes, biscuits, and pork

Can you imagine what it was like when we would get to town?

 Bring on the burgers, fries, malts, and pre-rolled cigarettes





The McElvoy Beekeepers

One of my early discoveries in Saline Valley was a cache of mason jars tucked neatly under the side of a large boulder on the alluvial fan below the mouth of McElvoy Canyon, which is a rather severe and deep erosional in the flanks of the Inyo Mountains. It was quite by chance that I found these, and I believe I must have been the first wanderer to come across the small treasure since they were placed there. When I first found the Lower Warm Springs on the other side of the valley later that day, the resident caretaker, Lucky Rich, suggested that the jars might have been left by the beekeepers who used to live at the mouth of the canyon. Turns out the beekeepers were the Howard brothers, and Marion Howard, in particular. Over the course of the next few weeks I gleaned some tales from the local and long-term campers and visitors about these brothers. They lived in Owens Valley, tended to keep to themselves, and gained entrance to their homestead in the valley by climbing over the Inyo Mountains from Owens Valley, and descending McElvoy through a series of ladders and ropes. The story was, that they had no idea there was a road coming into the valley until one night from their perch high upon the fan, they spotted some headlights coming down the county road, much to their surprise. (Back in the 60’s and early 70’s relatively few people knew of the springs, and traffic in the valley was minimal.) Wendell Moyer, a local visitor, historian, and eventual property owner in Saline Valley has done some excellent investigative work, actually found Marion Howard, interviewed him, and wrote an excellent piece on his life, and life in McElvoy, which in large measure supports the stories I heard. His piece on the Beekeeper of McElvoy is online at:

Stuart and Phyllis on our honey foray to McElvoy

While at the springs during my initial stay, speaking of the “honey” cache, a fellow camper who professed to be a new age healer (Stuart Watts, are you out there?) suggested it must be creosote honey, as it is the only plant that blooms along the fans on the valley floor, and therefore was a blood purifier, in turn being a cancer preventative. Say no more! Leaving for Death Valley a few weeks later, Stuart and I travelled together out of the valley in the company of a seasonal resident by the name of Phyllis and we stopped by the location to collect some of this miracle cure. There was more than we could possibly take with us, and we took what we could. After Stuart and I proceeded on, Phyllis returned to camp, where she eventually led the rest of the camp to the location and the remainder of the “honey” was collected and removed.

Through the years, I used the honey as a sweetener in my coffee. I found much of it tasted more like molasses than honey, and much was somewhat intermediate. I can attest, down the road, that this concoction does not prevent cancer. Additionally, a local resident of the valley, Alan Akin, who knew Marion suggested the honey was likely made from rabbit brush higher in the canyon and not creosote. I am happy to still have one jar of this dark elixir stashed away as a memento of days gone by.

A few pictures of the “cabin” at the mouth of McElvoy. The shingles on the roof made this a particularly unique desert cabin, as most cabins one finds has metal roofs.

Saline Valley, Saline Chronicles, McElvoy, Inyo, beekeeper

Marion’s mansion of McElvoy

Saline Valley, Saline Chronicles, McElvoy, Inyo, beekeeper

Room with a view?


As you read these humble efforts to transcribe some heritage and history, if you find you have some correction, clarification, or tidbit to add, I encourage you to add a comment at the end of this blog. Contributions will be welcome toward the final project, and all due credit will be given.
Please consider visiting the home page: Saline Valley Chronicles for a complete list of chapters published to date, and an overview of the project.



Saline Valley first inspired me to pursue a more serious engagement with the art of photography. My favorite picks are shared on my Smug Mug Gallery of Saline Valley Art at:


Saline Chronicles directory and overview: