Navigating the Saline Valley Passes.

Warning: The Surgeon General would no doubt determine that the contents of this blog can lead to physical injury, discomfort, and possibly death

Mostly I have written about how things were in Saline Valley in the long-ago times. This winter warrants its own Chronicle. It has not necessarily been the worst winter ever but given the increased popularity and notoriety of the Saline Valley since its inception into the National Park Service, perhaps this winter has affected more visitors and created more consternation across the board than any winter of the past.

One of the finest people I have had the privilege to know would be an old-timer by the name of Turtle Jim, who was a caretaker at the Willow Creek mill site for many years. He had a way with simple wisdom born of many seasons of living in the Saline Valley. One such classic was the question as to why people seemed to be in a hurry to go out and get stuck in the pass as soon as bad weather hit. Why not kick back and wait for the problem to resolve itself? (He maintained that problems will usually solve themselves if you give them time … they leave). Often good advice, maybe not quite so relevant to conditions in 2023. Those who hesitated were near to lost or had to kick back well beyond any reasonable expectation.

There are four portals into Saline Valley. All entail 50+ miles of rough dirt roads that rarely receive the attention of Inyo County road crews and are known to chew up vehicles that are otherwise happy on civilized roads. Crossing into the valley always requires some “up and over.” The highest pass is the North Pass at about 7,000 feet. The South Pass is 1,000 feet lower in elevation. These are the most common entry/exit points for the majority of travelers. Otherwise, Steele Pass through Eureka Valley or the Lippincott Road through Death Valley’s Racetrack are the options for only the best equipped and experienced off-roaders. When the North and South Passes are blocked, Steele and Lippincott are the only options.

President’s Day and the week that followed.

North Pass was burdened with challenging snow conditions this season since December 2022. The intrepid traveler is likely to ignore the Road Closed signs pretending to block his passage and thwart the casual traveler. The intrepid traveler comes equipped with clearance and tire chains and determination. Or sometimes those who proceed do so under the assumption that God protects fools, and even if they do get stuck others will lend a hand to clear the road through self-interest. On President’s Day weekend of 2023 I decided to avoid the majority of the crowd of 300+ visitors to the Springs. I missed the majority of the weekend by travelling in through the North Pass on Sunday prior to the official President’s Day on Monday. I realized that if I waited until Monday I would run head-on into a diaspora of Burners and other nefarious and colorful characters who would be called back out into the world at large. We had a fun trip into the valley with plenty of clearance but without installing the chains I carried as insurance. I had gravity on my side and stuff flows downhill. Going in early on Sunday was a good call on my part, because the next two days were a total cluster fest of odd-fellows all going and coming and getting stuck and being forced to remedy the remedial knuckle-heads who lacked the clearance, chains, or moxy to navigate the challenge.

And what concern were such doings and travesties for those of us who showed up late or remained? Not much concern at all. The camp was quiet and peaceful and without a care. Stories filtered in of the elevated circus in the pass. Our reactions were largely knowing smiles and shaking heads. And here comes a young man bicycling into the middle springs from Steele Pass, followed by a Toyota hauling a support trailer. The driver of the Toyota is Steve, and he is an old hand in the valley, having been a miner at the talc mines above Willow Creek back in the 70’s. My friends Jerry and Kathy from Nevada joined us with their Rubicon for a few off-road adventures. Gif, Cousin Dave, Flipper, and Dennis and ‘dates’ rounded out the camp. My plan is to spend 10 days at the springs. Word starts spreading of ‘the big storm coming’ and a few of our cohorts decide to leave on Wednesday (they don’t like the wind anyway). By Thursday the news of impending weather is of growing concern. A series of these so-called atmospheric rivers are poised off the west coast and predictions of snow elevations give cause for concern. I hear reports that Darwin might receive over 20-inches of snow. While I would otherwise be happy to embrace Turtle wisdom (and we have plenty of provisions) we have upcoming medical appointments in town that help me make the decision to head out on Friday. We only managed five days of the intended ten. Shamefully short.

Friday morning dawns with little dawn at all, and cloud levels appear to be down to about 4000 feet. A mad dash to finish packing and Jerry and I are down the road by 10 a.m. Steve has departed a little ahead of us. I am on the fence about whether to head north or south. A quick call to friend in Darwin tells us that an inch or so of snow has fallen on the upper reaches of the south side. North looks like it might be getting hammered, so we head toward the south. Apparently, Steve has opted for the North Pass. It is a slow go out the south. Through a series of earlier storms, sheet floods have dissected the valley floor in wide swaths, making fast travel to stay on top of the washboard ill-advised. A late-model Grand Cherokee sits on the side of the road with a broken front end … the front fenders are resting directly on the tires). The road going up the alluvial fan barely resembles a road anymore in the neighborhood of the Lippincott turn-off. Happy to have Jerry cutting tracks for me, we manage to make it to the top of the pass without chains, driving through snow and sleet and hail, winds often creating a horizontal white-out. Not nice weather to be rolling around on the ground putting on tire chains. I am almost to the top of the pass when suddenly there is a crashing jolt to the right front tire as I hit a rock that is hidden under the snow. Within a few miles of the highway my tire sensor alarm starts warning me that I have about 16 lbs of pressure left in my right front tire. At the highway where Jerry is waiting, we air up our tires and I discover I have a bent rim. (Curiously the tire fared just fine). I ask Jerry if he hit that rock as well? Indeed, YES! Glad for a good spare, sorry for the worst weather, but we change the tire out and head our separate ways, promising to re-rendezvous in a few weeks for St. Patrick’s Day.

I shared all of that story to get to this story: Steve had attempted to exit the valley via the North Pass. The pass was getting hammered by the weather and Steve and party were forced to turn around and attempt the exit through the south. In the few hours between our exit and his attempt, the weather overpowered him, and his vehicle was soon snowbound.

The following is an account of what transpired (source unknown): On February 25, 2023 at 13:30, the VX-31 “Dust Devils” Search and Rescue Unit received a request for helicopter support by the Inyo County Sheriff Office. Four civilians were stranded in blizzard conditions on Saline Valley Road for over twenty-four hours. The National Park Service attempted rescue via Sno-Cats and were unable to get closer than five miles to the survivors’ last known location. VX-31’s Sikorsky MH-60S arrived on scene at approximately 15:30 and attempted to push into the mountainous terrain. Due to low ceilings and icing conditions, the rescue crew decided to land at the base of the valley, monitor weather conditions, and conserve fuel. At 16:00, the cloud layer lifted and VX-31’s MH-60S crew proceeded to contour crawl into Saline Valley. At 16:15 the survivors were located and after multiple attempts to land, the crew decided to rescue the survivors via hoist and basket due to white-out conditions and snow depth. At 6,000’ MSL and -6 degrees, the survivors were safely hoisted into the helicopter via the rescue basket and flown to Ridgecrest Regional Hospital. The entire crew and aircraft performed flawlessly, completing another successful lifesaving mission!

Here is a recount from one of the pilots, Kristen “Stavi” Boyd. She is a new SAR H-60 pilot at China Lake. (Thanks to Speedy Dave for this transcription).

“They were stuck in the snow under 12 feet in their car (4 people 60, 65, 75, and 77). They were mountain biking in Death Valley and didn’t expect to hit snow when they were trying to beat the storm. They were there for 2 days and it was -15 degrees up there. They sent a signal on their InReach and it said it failed so they thought they were going to die up there. The national park service couldn’t get a sno-cat up there to save them and it was at 6,000 feet but they were trying for 2 days and they finally called us. Weather was really bad. We tried to get into the mountains but the blizzard was basically at full blast right over where we needed to go. We spun at the base of the mountains and waited and managed to get in there but we couldn’t land after 8 attempts due to snow drifts and white out conditions. We had to hover at 60 feet and hoist down to them. Ceilings were coming in and were at 20 feet above the helo and it was -7 with snow so the icing was terrible and the aircrew’s mic stopped working within 10 seconds of hoisting him out of the helicopter. We got them though. This was one of the most difficult missions the squadron has ever seen according to the guys who have been here for 30 + years but this was my first rescue lol. We only talked to them briefly when we dropped them off at the hospital. They were crying and grabbing our hands before we took off to go back to base. Most rewarding day in my life honestly!

A week or so later the Inyo County road crew punched through the South Pass. Their idea was to open the road up for those in the Valley would be able to leave, and to extricate Steve’s Toyota. They had cut a single track, and we are warned that road work is minimal, and the road should not be considered open.

As of the storm that turned Steve away from the north, the North Pass became permanently closed for the remainder of the winter season, at least up to the time of this writing (April 1, 2023, … no fooling). The following picture is a shot of Inyo Country working to clear the narrows on Highway 168 above Big Pine.

That’s a lot of snow!

Saint Patrick’s Day and beyond

Those who remained behind were pretty well relegated to temporary residency, having only 2WD vans or low clearance vehicles, despite the county’s effort to clear the pass. Trona Dave made an emergency supply run in his Toyota FJ-40 through the South Pass on March 10 and was able to relay a road report to me, prior to my attempt to return for Saint Patrick’s Day. Long story short, pretty rocky, and the melting snow was making for a sizeable gully on the side of the road through Grapevine Canyon. He needed his lockers engaged and made several runs at the grade before getting up and out. The spur road leading into the Springs was largely under water on his way out due to floods down Waucoba Wash.

My wife is out of town for two weeks visiting her mother, so I have a choice of staying home and watching TV, or rising to the challenge. So let’s go see what it is all about and what can be done. On March 12, I set out from Ridgecrest early in the morning. As is often the case, I ignored several ROAD CLOSED signs on the way in. Beginning at Lee Flat I find 4WD to be well advised through mud and washouts. Arriving at Panamint Overlook I find the road to be not as bad as I thought. One more corner and reality raised its ugly countenance just prior to the Hunter Mountain turnoff. Walking the road, I kept thinking to myself, ‘just go home … this is crazy.’

It is not that I never listen to myself. I do enjoy a challenge. I used to run a wrecker service in the high country of Colorado, and I know that with a bit of engineering, mountains and other big rigs can be moved. (See my blog on the Donner Party expedition into Saline Valley in 2010). That big sucker (boulder) at the forefront of the above photo was not my big concern. I think I can drive up on the side of the bank and skirt it. It’s that other large boulder about 100 feet distant that gives me some cause for concern. I am not getting around it, and I cannot drive over it. Let’s see if I can move it.

No getting around or over this boulder. Can I move it?

Dave had estimated it weighed about 300 lbs. Not sure where he came up with that number, but BS. Weighed at least 325 if it weighed an ounce, and I suspect a lot more. I had brought a pry bar with me which was useless. I then tackled the task with a bottle jack. Angling the jack into the mud so that the force of the boulder’s weight was perpendicular to the base of the jack I was able to lift the side of the boulder and place rocks underneath to elevate the side of the boulder being lifted.

(Not quite perpendicular, but this was early on into the design phase)

It soon became apparent that this bottle jack was not going to be sufficient to accomplish the challenge. I dug out my Hi-Lift jack and found sufficient success to carry on with the task. Every time I placed or repositioned the support rocks under the boulder I did so with extreme care not to get my fingers between a rock and a hard place. The grip of the jack invariably slipped from time to time which is why I was placing rocks underneath. In this manner I continued to make slow but steady progress. Eventually the boulder was tipped up sufficiently that I was able to tip it over onto the side of the road.

And now onto the rock further up the road. I was not going to move it very far. It is significantly larger than my first challenge, and more to the point, it is on the wrong side of the road, and there is a big snowbank keeping me from tossing it over the side. I was able to jack it up and elevate it sufficiently to give me the narrowest of clearance margins to drive up on the bank and scoot around. The rest of the ‘smaller’ rocks got tossed to the hillside, or into the snowbank.

The road as clear as I was going to make it after several hours of grunt engineering.
About halfway through I found myself needing to move some more rocks that were larger than I originally imagined.

And on the way down Grapevine Canyon I kept praying that I did not run into any more insurmountable challenges that would thwart my progress. Yes, there was a deep erosional gully forming in the road and while avoiding it for the most part there were sections that swallowed up my wheels. Dave had told me that going out he required lockers to get up the grade through the gulley, but going downhill was not an issue. I realized that going uphill would not be possible without lockers. Along the way through the Grapevine Canyon, I had to make frequent stops to clear the road of rocks. I would plan on taking the Lippincott Road out of the valley.

Beyond the Grapevine, the road down the alluvial fan was interminable, if one wanted to call it a road along its length. The valley floor was dissected by numerous sheet floods that continued to preclude fast progress. The Grand Cherokee was still sitting on the side of the road in sad and compromised condition. Then I come across a collection of four vehicles, including Trona Dave. Friend Scott is pouring water on the alternator to cool it off while it powers an arc welder Dave is using to reattach the rear differential to his frame. They are planning on exiting via Lippincott and dragging Stacy’s Subaru out and over.

Where would you be without a Hi-Lift and an arc welder?

It took me eight hours to get from my home in Ridgecrest to the Springs. Normally, even coming around through the North Pass it is a five-hour drive. On the endless drive down the alluvial fan, then across the valley floor, at an average of a few miles per hour, I am asking myself why I put myself through the aggravation and effort. And then I arrive at the Springs, set up camp, grab a shower, walk up to the pool, crack a beer, watch the evening sky subside, and enjoy the bats flittering around and down to take a drink of the warm water that is easing my joints, and I understand perfectly. Constellations slowly appear overhead, and all is right in heaven and on Earth. Especially on this occasion, there are only two of us in camp and the Springs become that place of magic that draws us through all the odds to luxuriate in the quiet comfort the most specialist place in the world! (Re: What makes Saline Valley so special?)

Beyond Saint Patrick’s Day

Aside from my neighbor at the Palm Springs, there were three other people who were marooned in the valley due to vehicle issues that precluded their attempting to exit out into the world. As Martin from Maine put it, “you could not find a better place to get marooned.” In a few days my friends Jerry and Kathy would join me again from Nevada. Along the way an occasional stalwart soul would join us, but we never had more than eight people in camp at any one time. A very unusual spring break.

The weather was entirely ‘unsettled’ during our stay. One windy drizzly day we made a run up toward the North Pass to visit Bunker Hill and explore a bit of Lead Canyon. Below are a few photos of what the road above Willow Creek looks like after much of the weather that has rolled through the valley. Apparently, several motorcyclists came in through Steele Pass while we were exploring and saw our tracks going up the road toward the North Pass. Thinking someone had made it in through the North they made the attempt and got turned around at Whipporwill, forcing them to retrace their route and exit through Steele again. That speaks to how little traffic has been on the road lately.

Even Steele Pass was not a viable option for many vehicles, as damage along 168 made an exit to Big Pine impossible. Not sure where the following photo was taken, but it eliminated the Steele Pass exit option for quite some time.

A few people have come and gone through the south during our stay and all reports suggest the road is dry, the boulders are clearing out, (it seems the county road crew came up and removed the boulders after I relayed a report to them), and the gulley is filling in. Of course, while we are in camp, we are warned that there is a new storm coming. It is my hope that rumors of our upcoming demise might be greatly exaggerated. Fat chance, and not to be. We got to watch thunderheads roil, cloudbursts open, and the ceiling descend on South Pass for several days. The day before our planned departure, two families attempted to exit south with an Overland trailer and are turned around. Not dry anymore!

Looking toward the South Pass.

Having simultaneously run out of both cocktails and cocktail ice (planning is everything) and having another medical appointment the following day, Jerry & Cathy and I leave out on March 23. Lippincott or South Pass? The point is debated along the course of the day, and by the time we re-rendezvous at the sad little Grand Cherokee I decide we should strike for the South Pass as people in the Valley will be wanting the news. We encounter snow at 5000 feet but the tracks on the road are clear. Not for long. Jerry has no chains, but he has lockers. I have no lockers, but I have chains. Maybe I should have put them on, but Jerry is cutting tracks for me and so far, so good until it is not so good. The tracks are no longer clear on the upper reaches of the grade. The snow is getting deeper and the idea of putting those chains on is just not pleasant, so perhaps I can make it. Beyond expectations I made it to the top of the final grade without chains, and pass the Hunter Mountain turnoff when I am stopped by a boulder that is buried in a drift in the area of that same boulder field I had cleared on the way in. Jerry is parked a little further up the road ahead of me. I work on backing up from the boulder that stopped me, and the truck ends up slipping sideways toward the hillside where I find myself up against another boulder with an accompanying crunch and screech of metal not being happy anymore. Getting out and swinging around the side, I see my predicament and a very sorry looking truck bed somewhat collapsed by the boulder that now grips me.

No going forward, going backwards is going to hurt.

Jerry walks down to see what’s up and expresses surprise that I made it up so far without chains. He also points out that there is a boulder in the middle of the road just ahead of where he is stopped, but he is pretty sure he can get around it. Meanwhile, I am thinking …. “Damnit, we should have done Lippincott, but kind of late now.” My situation on this rock is the immediate predicament. Jerry points out that if I can straighten the front wheels out, I may be able to back up and away from the boulder. We dig out the front wheels to where I can turn them again. But if I back up, I will be going straight into a large snowdrift behind me on the side of the hill, and who knows what’s in there? I dig through the drift and find no new boulders, and the digging makes a clear path. I back up with success onto a clear part of the road (just lots of mud) and to my grateful surprise, the side of my truck popped right back out to its original shape. (The running board getting crunched was the saving grace.)

So what about this rock in front of Jerry’s jeep? We measure the clearance between the edge of the boulder and the end of the world at the edge of the road falling away into Panamint Valley. Six feet! Jerry’s jeep is 5-feet wide, but that will not do for me. Out comes the Hi-Lift and I am delivering a lesson in how to move mountains, while standing ankle deep in mud and slush. (The soft condition of the heavy snow was our biggest impediment … an early morning cold exit is always preferable, but not always practical.) It is also getting late in the day.

Look at all the potential energy in the boulders set into the wall at the side of the road, waiting to come down.

We get the rock moved. I install my chains. (The road would still prove to be a challenge even with chains). Jerry cuts tracks around the boulders, and I follow successfully. What follows for the rest of the journey out is an absolute mud fest under the melting snow, but we made it. There was one very major washout along the road between Hunter’s water tank and Lee Flat. It required getting out, scratching head to determine the put-in and take-out and some 4WD low slow crawl. We made it to the highway five and a half hours after leaving the Springs. We air up, and haul our soggy asses and boots back to town and a country fried steak at the local Denny’s.

For the record, I am done with the South Pass. I am getting too old for this crap, and from now on, if the North Pass is not open (still is not) I am finding somewhere else to explore.


A few more shots of the weather:

Steele Pass getting nailed, though travelers said the snow was not sticking. Quite a bit accumulated on the Last Chance Range peaks
Cloudburst on the Last Chance Range
A moment of glory in the midst of a storm.

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: