We’ve never been to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. Didn’t even know it existed until 1972 when Carly Simon released “You’re so vain:”
Well I hear you went up to Saratoga
And your horse naturally won
Of all the places we wanted to visit in Death Valley National Park, Saratoga Springs was near the top. And with the Superbloom the year we were there, we were vain enough to hope a few wildflowers would still be waiting for us at what’s considered the park’s best springs.
Saratoga in California? The story goes that the folks conducting the Wheeler Survey to map the southwestern US in 1869-1871, named their camp Saratoga Springs after the resort town in New York.
To reach Saratoga Springs at the southeastern corner of the park, Magellan and I left the pavement at the top of Harry Wade Road. “Watch for flooding and deep sand” a sign warned. The 30-mile road is rated easy but high-clearance is recommended because of water crossings of the Amargosa River, all dry that March. Rove-Inn has a brilliant Terrain Response that Magellan shifted into Sand Mode. He explains it. “Sand Mode makes the throttle more aggressive. Each gear is held longer, just what’s needed when trying to plough through power-sapping sand. When wheel slippage is detected, the centre coupling locks, splitting the power 50/50 front to rear.” He thought about deflating Rove-Inn’s tires but the sand was minimal.
Few people travel this remote road. We saw only three other vehicles. One was a black three-quarter-ton truck, fully tricked out for off-road driving. The young man told us there was no way he was going to tempt the dunes on his own.
Historical records from the Wheeler Survey say the springs were only ten feet wide. But when the nitrate rush began around 1902, miners vastly enlarged them. In the 1950s after talc miners added a berm, flow from Saratoga Springs measured 48,000 liters per day. Geologists believe the springs are the result of a complex system of long-distance migration through fractured limestone, faults and gravel-filled basins. Assisted by gravity—Death Valley is the lowest land around and Saratoga Springs is at the bottom of the park.
There are now four springs overflowing into pools spread over about seven acres, an oasis for 150 species of birds, 15 species of reptiles and amphibians and 18 species of mammals. I know, surprising for Death Valley isn’t it? And Saratoga Pupfish, descendants of a population that swam in the lakes that filled Death Valley thousands of years ago, are found here and nowhere else in the world.
We parked Rove-Inn and wandered up the trail to the viewpoint, excited to discover patches of wildflowers lifting their faces to the hot sun. We kneeled to see tiny Pupfish swimming in water the colour of dark ale and about the same depth as a bottle it comes in. Sounds of life rustled in the reeds. We wandered about looking for the last vestiges of the Superbloom, a rare spectacle that requires at least three conditions: well-spaced rainfall throughout winter and spring, sufficient warmth from the sun and an absence of drying winds. Actually we were amazed at what we saw, even though the wildflower peak had happened earlier.
Saratoga Springs was just past its Superbloom. But long past its economic boom.
The first Native Americans gathered here about 9,000 years ago when many small lakes dotted this area. About 2,000 years ago the Saratoga Spring People settled here, skilled craftspeople who left behind mysterious stone patterns, (When did they get their name I wonder?)
Harry Wade Road (also called Harry Wade Exit Route) got its name a few decades before easterners on the Wheeler Survey gave the springs its moniker.
On the California Gold Rush, Harry, his wife and children emigrated from Illinois in 1849, joining others in a caravan of 100 ox-drawn wagons. After arriving in Utah too late in the season to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the group of Forty-Niners ventured south in search of a way around the peaks. Finding themselves lost in the harsh environment of what’s now Death Valley, they burned most of their wagons for fuel and split into two groups, each attempting a separate route. It was Harry who saved the lives of his party by choosing a dirt path that connected with the Old Spanish Trail.
Remember the famous image of the 20-mule team on the orange boxes of borax our moms used? Mule teams from Amargosa Borax Works watered at Saratoga Springs in the 1880s. After borax mining died, the nitrate chase began and on its heels came the Bullfrog Rush for gold and silver. Then, a slowdown. Between 1910-1930 the area was deserted except for lonely prospectors and tourists who dismantled what earlier occupants had left behind. Once again the springs became vital when talc mines opened. (The history of this area sounds as unpredictable as a Superbloom doesn’t it?) A local entrepreneur even started up a small resort and bottled-water business—the Saratoga Water Company! Both enterprises died with gasoline rationing in WWII. Mining for talc, tungsten, lead, silver and uranium died a slower death, all dreams succumbed in the 60s.
In the mid-afternoon sun Magellan and I were succumbing to the desert’s afternoon heat. We drove through the Ibex Dunes, the smallest in Death Valley, only 160 feet high. But unique. Uncontinuous, they’re a series of distinct patches spread along the road for a two-mile stretch.
On our last night in the park we freedom camped at a stunning spot beneath the Black Mountains. We bouldered down the shower tent and rinsed away particles of yellowy sand. I made us quesadillas and guacamole for dinner after which we watched stars pierce the black-as-the-devil night. Not thinking about the next day when we’d be immersed in the day-glo, pulsating neon and raucous pace of Las Vegas where we’d booked the only mechanic within hundreds of kilometres who could service Rove-Inn’s failing fuel pump. Unaware that next morning to reach the HWY#127 a few miles away, we’d have to drive through the deepest waves of wind-blown sand that we’d experienced in the park.
Carly’s song played in my head all that day. It was on repeat all the while that I worked on this blog. I think her lyrics apply to so many of the Forty-Niners, the searchers, the surveyors, the Saratoga Springs people through the ages, don’t you?
I had some dreams, they were clouds in my coffee
Clouds in my coffee,
If you’ve forgotten, here are the full lyrics to “You’re so vain.”
For the history of Harry Wade Road and Saratoga Springs, I used this book. Bryan, T. Scott and Betty Tucker-Bryan. The Explorer’s Guide to Death Valley National Park. Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2015.