A few years ago, I saw California’s Salton Sea featured on an episode of Tony Bourdain’s television show No Reservations. The curiosities of the area piqued my interest enough to think I might want to visit and so we did this January. What is now man-made, accidentally created inland sea was once part of the Gulf of California and later became a very large natural lake - a rollicking geographic history. Today, the Salton Sea, a 343 square mile body of water near the Mexican border, is fed mostly by agricultural runoff from the surrounding farming operations and has reached a salinity level of about 25 percent. With no regular source of incoming water, the sea is shrinking and if nothing is done to save it, will likely disappear within the coming decades and create a potential environmental disaster dominated by chemically-infused dust storms (that agricultural runoff isn't just pure water...).
If you happen upon the Trip Advisor page for the Salton Sea and go to the one-star “terrible” reviews, you might wonder why anyone would want to visit this place. Well, if you are a day-tripper from Palm Springs or LA looking for a swimming beach or an opportunity to lay in the sun, the Salton Sea is probably not for you. If you find geology, natural curiosities, and the ability to see dozens of birds in a single place to be of interest, you will likely find a short stop along the eastern shore of the sea to be worthwhile.
A few days earlier, we left home for our second extended trip with our Airstream trailer. Wanting to escape what felt like a colder than usual winter in Colorado, we decided to head toward southern California with loose plans to visit Joshua Tree National Park, the Anza-Borrego region, and possibly a few other places like Mojave National Preserve, Organ Pipe National Monument, and a few Nevada state parks. Not only would we find warmth but we would also have the opportunity to visit some new places for landscape photography. Our first destination happened to be the Salton Sea, which we chose primarily because we could flush the RV anti-freeze from our winterized trailer and fill-up on water before heading to some more remote places (a series of things I never thought I would be doing!).
Along the way, we traveled through a few snowbird meccas like Lake Havasu City and Quartzsite, Arizona. Lake Havasu City can mostly be described as a place I will be happy to never visit again, with the feeling of being little more than one long strip mall in the desert. Quartzsite, Arizona is a super-popular place for people to live out of their RVs during the winter. It is also possibly a place where there are more giant RVs than cars on the roads and packed like sardines into RV-only, 55+ campgrounds, with more swap meets and gem shows than I will otherwise cumulatively see throughout the rest of my lifetime.
Since we have only tent and car camped up until now, neither one of us knew of the RV subculture that exists in the desert southwest until now. While I can understand the reasons why people would congregate in such places – the warmth, affordability, opportunities to be social – they also feel like the antithesis of what we are seeking through buying and living part-time out of an RV ourselves – ready access to scenic places and relative solitude. Being within five feet of your neighbor at a campground filled to the brim with giant RVs just feels like living in a different kind of unpleasant suburb to me, even if you can get up and move whenever you choose.
With little interest in seeking out anything more than these superficial impressions, we continued to the Salton Sea. Our drive included a trip along Box Canyon Road, a place worth visiting again due to the unusual jagged grey badlands lining the route. We also passed through the Coachella Valley, filled with hundreds of farm plots growing fruits and vegetables including grapes, date palms, citrus trees, and all kinds of lush green plants. This place feels so much like Death Valley that seeing this thriving agriculture seems out of place but stands as a testament to the power of irrigation. Considering that the water comes from the Colorado River, it is likely that Colorado’s Western Slope farmers wouldn’t be so thrilled to see this liquid gold traveling through such a hot place, much of it evaporating into the atmosphere or watering Palm Springs golf courses because of decades-old water rights.
As I mentioned above, the Salton Sea is not a destination you should choose to visit if you are seeking a place to swim and sunbathe. Upon parking and going outside, an acrid, briny smell is the first remarkable thing. If you are wearing flip-flops, as we were, you will also quickly note that such a choice in footwear is a poor one. As explained by an upset Trip Advisor reviewer who feels that the Salton Sea stole her afternoon, the beach is made up of nothing but dead fish! While that is not exactly true, the beach is made up of crushed barnacle shells and fish bones, both of which are quite sharp. Dead tilapia, the only fish currently able to survive in the sea due to its salinity, also litter the shore in places. In terms of the landscape, the area feels just like Badwater Basin in Death Valley if it were filled with water (as it still does on rare occasions). Crusty ridges of salt and dead fish and barnacles line parts of the shore, some holding smelly pools of muck. The small communities dotted along the eastern shore are far past their prime, left looking mostly rusty, run-down, and abandoned during our cursory visit.
With all these lovely characteristics, why exactly would anyone choose to come here, other than because it is a curious place? If you can look beyond the dead fish and choose appropriate footwear, the Salton Sea is a beautiful place. The sea is surrounded by tall peaks to the west and ringed with interesting badlands to the east. Although the area does smell, it isn’t much worse, at least in January, than the briny scent of the ocean on a warm day, though summer night be worse. And, the sea attracts dozens of different species of birds. During our short stay, we saw more than one hundred pelicans and many other bird species, including egrets, cormorants, blue herons, green herons, many different varieties of sandpipers, lots of different ducks, many small birds, and hundreds of seagulls. Although we did not take out our cameras to photograph, the opportunities for bird watching and bird photography are spectacular.
Since a road trip while pulling a trailer and traveling with cats is more exhausting that a trip by car, we took a few days at the Salton Sea to rest up and prepare for the next leg of our trip. While I do not think we would make this place a stand-alone destination for our travels, I am glad we stopped for a little exploring and would recommend it as a waypoint for others traveling through southern California, as long as you know what to expect and do not mind walking among a few dead fish.
Next up: Joshua Tree National Park.
Camping: Camping is scattered throughout different spots along the eastern side of the Salton Sea in the Salton Sea State Recreation Area. A small number of full hook-up sites (around 15 sites, $30 per night, cramped together and across the parking lot from the shore) and partial hook-up sites are available at the Headquarters and Mecca Beach areas respectively. Primitive dispersed camping is permitted at Salt Creek and Corvina Beach ($10 per night). The Bombay Beach part of the recreation area was closed when we visited. The Headquarters campground, where we stayed, is quite close to the road and busy train tracks. The Salt Creek area seemed the quietest and is probably the place we would stay if we ever return.
Cell Service: Strong 3G signal for both AT&T and Verizon. Ron streamed a full NFL football game with no issues.
Food: Bring your own. The closest town is Mecca, about 15 minutes away. We didn’t find much more than fast food and convenience stores, although we did see a Starbucks.
Share Your Thoughts
Have you been to this area? If you have any stories or favorite places, please share them below!