Top Ten Salton Sea Favorites

Jun 13, 2012 / By Serena
Posted in Featured / Good Ideas / Outdoors and on the Road / Recipes / Travel |

The Salton Sea – California’s largest lake – is also one of the most ignored bodies of water in the state. Few have visited, and even fewer have a grasp of the Salton Sea story.  The state park is slated to close July 1.

On my trip to the area I had a wonderful experience, and had some of my most memorable bird watching moments. I also found a flavorful pozole, saw some alien-like geologic formations, and became aware of a situation that all Westerners are connected to but few realize – the future of the Salton Sea.

One of the other parks that was due to close – Hendy Woods – was able to gather local support and fund the park to stay open. They published this page to show how important the park was to their area. I have found no such popularized, cooperative, effort at the Salton Sea, and I encourage you to share this post or any info you glean from it with anyone and everyone you can – send it to your local state senator, your favorite blogger, your news station. Saving the Salton Sea starts with saving the park – both of which are important for California’s healthy future.

I’ve been told that few people read long blog posts, it is probably true. I’ve tried to shrink down the story, which you can read below, but here are the main points:

-Go to the Salton Sea. Don’t listen to what you hear, make your own impressions first hand. Or at least browse the 45 pictures I jammed into the slideshow above (crossing fingers they load!). It’s pretty different from the misinformation I heard before going there myself.

-The sea makes Palm Springs and Los Angeles habitable – if it dried up there would be such intense air pollution after a time that surrounding cities would be livable.

-The area around the sea is responsible for a larger than imaginable amount of crops that ship all over the U.S. and the world – and they directly and indirectly depend on the sea. Goodbye tomatoes in winter in Pennsylvania…

-If you can, help keep the park open – it is key to the area’s future. The state has authorized the Sea and Desert Interpretive Association to run the 14 miles of coastline including the public marina and Ironwood Trail.

I am hoping that people visit and spread the word about the sea and its future now because there’s no bill to make it hot news right now and the lake is quickly reaching the point where it will be too salty to support the fish, upon which the ecosystem depend.

I am hoping to help in any way I can to draw attention to this stunning place before then.

Map of Salton Sea with my top ten places arrowed

Now, to the good stuff. Here are my favorite perspectives of the sea, including a delicious eatery to get your fill on your exploration. The above map shows you where these are located around the sea. Check out the slideshow above to take in some views.

  1. Salton Sea State Park and Recreation Area Interpretive Center

One of the 70 parks the state can no longer afford to run. Donations make a huge impact, and paying the day use fee also goes a long way. The park needs very little to run, but could still be closed July 1st. This is one of only three places to visit and learn more about the sea, the habitat, and the glorious diversity of birds that visit the sea throughout the year. Here you can learn about the basket techniques you will have seen if you stopped at the Palm Springs Art Museum earlier on your trip. It is probably the best birding in the nation in terms of variety. Send donations to the organzation that the state has authorized to run the park, the Sea and Desert Intrepretive Association. Make plans to visit this month.

  1. Taqueria Guerrero

Just looking out at the fields of table grapes makes my mouth water. In the town of Mecca at the north end of the lake is a wonderful taqueria that makes specials on weekends like stewed goat soup and pozole, made with cabbage and hominy. Tacos benefiting from the fresh salsa bar make for an ideal desert lunch. 91280 2nd St., Mecca, 760-396-4700

  1.  Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge

Here you’ll see many birds and have the best chance of spotting the rare burrowing owls along the roadside. There are two areas – the main area with a nature center and birding ramp and Red Hill Marina where you can drive out to a landing with one of the best views of the lake. This refuge is a nesting place for many birds, but is integrated with farms and even a cattle ranch. It is one of the areas that will most likely be salvaged. A team of organizations, lead by the fish and game folks, are almost finalized to start a new marsh here for birds to add to the surrounding acres already managed as wetland.

  1. Ironwood Nature Trail

The 2 or 4.5 mile trails that run within the 14-mile shoreline of Salton Sea State Park. A wonderful, but hot, hike, with tons of wildlife. Given, I walked it in the height of May, and most months of the year it is far more mild. Rangers lead hikes on Ironwood and I hope they can continue this in the future – the landscape is rare and curious. You will definitely see endangered wildlife on this hike, I can almost guarantee it. Here’s a trail map. 

  1. Kayaking

Getting out on the sea is the chance of a lifetime. Boats glide smoothly along due to the salt content, and you can see more birds from the water than from the shore. Sadly, there are no lake-side kayak rentals open throughout the year. In 2011 kayak tours ran in the spring every weekend or so, but budget cuts have halted those programs. Frankly, I didn’t explore the casinos on the other side of the lake so I don’t know if this is something they offer, somehow I doubt it. It is possible to get out on the sea, however. If you don’t have a boat call the Interpretive Association to inquire and they’ll help find a way for you go get on the water. Here’s a map of marinas around the sea – as far as I know the only public marina is located in the state park.

Update! 6/15/12: Kayak rentals are available throughout the season at the Camp Store in the state park. Depending on staffing, they may be available at other times but it’s best to call the Visitor Center at 760-393-3810 for specific dates during the off season. Groups can be accommodated with reservations. Free mini kayak tours are available every weekend through the season, again call to reserve.

  1. Camping

There are tons of campsites at the Salton Sea State Park, complete with beach views and plenty of potable water, showers, and shade. There’s even a boat wash station. It isn’t at all crowded – but that also means its not a place I’d camp solo. We found a couple who had set up camp for the summer months – hopefully they can stay past July 1st and the park will still be open to the public.

  1. Salton Sea History Museum

Learning about the fascinating history of this area is a strange process – there are many sides to the tale. This museum is open every day but Wednesday and Thursday, and isn’t too far from the taqueria in Mecca on Lincoln Street. The museum tells the multifaceted perspectives of the sea’s story in a complete way. This is the third visitors center in the area together with the state park center and the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge.

  1. Mud Pots

If you drive along a dirt road, following signs, passing a welcome area with posters up from a birding festival in 2001, you’ll eventually come to an area marked as Mudpots. These are dried. However, the mudpots have just moved, as nature tends to enforce. You’ll continue on the road, following more signs that look progressively less official, and once you pass what looks like a chemical plant or power plant and a series of created wetlands, a hand painted sign will direct you to these beauties. It is one of coolest things I’ve ever seen – like the ground burping. You can bypass the old pots by turning off the 111 at Schrimpf Road and then turning onto Davis – both are smooth enough for cars that aren’t 4-wheel drive but neither are paved. There are signs no matter which direction you go, it just takes a little time to get there.

More mud pots, recommended by the Salton Sea History Museum Director, Jennie Kelly: There is a massive area of mud volcano’s and steam vents between the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge and the mud volcano’s at Schrimpf and Davis. The quickest way to get there is: Take Sinclair Road towards Sonny Bono NWP. Turn right on Garst Road then an after you cross the Alamo River bridge take an immediate left on the dirt road. The road is somewhat bumpy but safe for cars if you stay on the road.

  1. Imperial Wildlife Area Wister Unit

The beauty and density of bird life at the Salton Sea cannot be over-emphasized. Wister Unit is another area where efforts are being made to manage the wetland habitat, and the birds love it here. It is worth the extra drive to the south of the lake (assuming you are visiting from the north). This was written about life at the preserve in 2001.

  1. Slab City Hot Springs

The famous mountain of paint is falling quickly into disrepair – the man featured prominently on a relatively recent documentary made about the sea – Leonard Knight – is unfortunately not in Slab City any more, but in a nursing home. His monument lives on, for the time being, but you can also find a curious hot spring here. There is a concrete box shape  indicating the showers – three concrete holes with ladders where you can shower off in the natural spring water. One was in the mid-70s temperature-wise, the other was much hotter. There’s a pond where the hot spring is allowed to flow over. Be sure not to confuse the pond for the agricultural canals for irrigation and run off – those should never be messed with anyway. (I’ve heard the All American Canal that brings fresh water into the area can run so fast it can be deadly!)
This hot spring was certainly unforgettable. Note: My friends know I will go to any end for a hot tub. If you’re also in that category than don’t miss it – if you’re not up for an adventure then skip it. This is the one thing on this top ten list with no signs. At all. To me it felt positively spa-like, but a spa it is not. My camera had already died at the point when we found the spot, but I found one story about the place (from 2009) that has some helpful pictures.

More on the Salton Sea

Long story short, there have been at least five ancient lakes in the Salton Trough, each a result of flooding on the Colorado River. Ancient Lake Cahuilla was perhaps the largest of these lakes and was approximately six times larger than the current Salton Sea measuring almost 100 miles long by 35 miles wide. As waters from the Colorado changed course the lakes would gradually evaporate once again leaving a dry basin. The sea is plagued with an ever increasing salinity level, currently reaching 50% more saline than the Pacific Ocean. The increased salinity along with algal blooms cause reduced levels of oxygen in the water causing the fish to die sporadically. With the impending water transfer in 2017, dramatic elevation in the salinity level will likely result in a massive die-off of the millions of fish in the sea. Currently only small die-offs occur on an irregular basis.

Most people don’t understand how and why fish die-offs and algae blooms happen, and one important clarification I learned from both the Salton Sea Authority members and the director of the Salton Sea Interpretive Association was that they aren’t caused by pollution. Here’s a fact sheet that sets the story straight. (As an author of Oakland guidebooks, I am used to dealing with misinformation and bad PR, but this is far more intense.)

Map of where birds tagged at the Salton Sea have been spotted, from University of the Redlands

The current lake represents the only wetland habitat in the entire eight-thousand square acre watershed. That means two thirds of birds spotted in the entire U.S. and also Canada and Mexico have nested here as a stop on the Pacific Flyway.

With all the surrounding rivers damned, diverted, or surrounded by concrete reservoirs, there is no natural delta habitat left, so although people usually refer to the Salton Sea as man made I see it as nature’s solution to the damning of the Colorado River. Salton Sea filled the area when a canal broke in 1905, but water had naturally flowed here before, and without a place for the river to “move” (i.e. delta wetland), it created an outlet for itself. The delta relocated.

Understand that it is not an exaggeration to say that the future of the region surrounding the Salton Sea – a multi-billion-a-year tourist industry and some 70-plus percent of produce farming for many crops – is dependent on the Salton Sea. (Higher for some crops like dates, table grapes, sugar beets, sugar cane, and tomatoes…) Almost every species of bird that nests in North America visits the Salton Sea and relies on it for food and nesting. The impact is coming quickly and is really unimaginable. Let’s give the sea the attention it deserves in the hopes that a plan can quickly be enacted to retain as much watery habitat as is possible.

Videos and Links

If you search for videos online you’re likely to find footage of the fish die-offs or a mock travel guide underscoring how dilapidated the area has become.

This video is the only one I’ve found that is useful for information and to picture the history and creation of the sea. I strongly suggest watching it if only to get a grasp on the story.

Here’s one more video of accumulated news clips from a few years ago when Ducheny almost got the multi-billion dollar bill through the state senate that would have enacted a restoration plan to ensure wetland habitat and some form of the Salton Sea for the future. It did not pass. The goal is still the same – come to an agreement as quickly as possible and start constructing a managed Salton Sea area. This would keep people living and working in the communities there, farming, making energy (solar, geo-thermal, even drilling), and perhaps most importantly (humans have places to go, animals have fewer choices) the habitat would be there for the Pacific Flyway to remain connected.

The consequences of the lake disappearing have also been dramatized by the History Channel (in this video) – big surprise. It does, however, give a picture of the very real outlook for Palm Springs and those tourist towns if they don’t also become a part of advocating for the sea. A polluted dust bowl is hardly a preference over making a few sacrifices now to save the sea.

It is such a complex situation and no one perspective can give a complete picture, the best way to experience the sea is to go there. I strongly encourage people to visit, despite any misgivings. I am so moved by the saga. I am certain the trip will be worth your while. You can easily base yourself in Indio (as we did – it was too hot to camp for us) or Palm Springs, Salton Sea is also very near to Joshua Tree Park.

Travelers will also marvel at Chiriaco Summit – the largest privately-owned and operated travel info center in the U.S. It’s incredible. I even found there the latest visitor’s guide to Oakland, in addition to pamphlets and maps and attractions for every possible direction out. The place has its own charming story about the namesake couple.

Birds of the Salton Sea, a USGS checklist for the area (yes, two types of flamingos come here, I didn’t make that up)

Info from the Bureau of Reclamation – they haven’t updated their site in some time…

The info is a bit unclear at the state government’s info site 

More tourist information, some dated, but complete with pictures and links

Analysis of the bill Ducheny tried to put through in 2009

One of the best documents I’ve seen – the LAO (Legislative Analists Office) reported on the Salton Sea in 2008 in reference to the same bill (above) but got down to the nuts and bolts of the complicated issues. This document is in layman’s terms compared to the one above.

Please don’t hesitate to share this post, comment, or email me with questions. I hope this inspires you to go, or learn more, or at least understand the interconnectedness of the future of the Salton Sea and the state of California.

Note: All the photographs above are from this last trip of ours in late May 2012, which ISN’T EVEN BIRDING SEASON! Imagine what it is like when the birds are migrating north or south! I am trying to figure out how to get the slideshow to load reliably, but in case it doesn’t here are some of those 45 pictures:

Burrowing owl at the edge of a field – these birds need old gopher holes to nest


Pozole made from scratch in Mecca


Heron crossing the sea

mud pots in action

Map of where birds tagged at the Salton Sea have been spotted, from University of the Redlands

Typical shoreline scene in the state park

Burrowing owl at the edge of a field - these birds need old gopher holes to nestMap of Salton Sea with my top ten places arrowedMap of where birds tagged at the Salton Sea have been spotted, from University of the RedlandsEntrance of Salton Sea ParkPark closure noticeThe historic yacht club is now the state park HQColorful back deck of the historic Yacht ClubThe Salton Sea, summer algae bloomsHeron crossing the seaShaded beach-side picnic spots with views of birds in the state parkTypical shoreline scene in the state parkCahuilla skill demonstration garden at the State Park Interpretive CenterFlock of rare brown pelicans flying at the sea"Teddybear" cactus in the Interpretive Center cactus garden - the least cuddly plant of all timeCampers set up for a Salton Sea adventureFill up on drinking water - dehydration happens fast here, there are spigots in the parkA pair of endangered white pelicans - don't watch Finding Nemo without sending a small donation to the park so there will still be these great birds!Pozole made from scratch in MeccaDated info center at Wister Unit, fees are collected here and are needed so don't skip the day use fee!Bird Festival poster from 2001, apparently there was no festival this yearPoster on the importance of water, Wister UnitImportant information on old signs in Wister UnitMud pot enhancements made in 2001, no mud pots are drya stilt in the wetland, Wister UnitPlans for more wetland construction posted in hunting area - the two depend on each other nowAvocet in the managed Wister wetland areaMud pot, current locationmud pots in actionRed winged black birdsOnce lake bottom no dry and salt-coveredSonny Bono Refuge networkDirectly across from the entrance to Sonny Bono Refuge is this feed lot farmQuails scuttle around the ground at Sonny Bono RefugeAs of yet unidentified yellow-bellied bird off Schrimpf RoadDesert MesquiteCahuilla Tribe and Lake Cahuilla information at Sonny Bono RefugePacific Flyway information at Sonny Bono RefugeCactus wren on a palo verde tree in Sonny Bono RefugeRed HillMigrationProposed and probable site for small USFG managed wetland project near Red Hill MarinaRoadrunner spotted near Red Hill MarinaWaters that could be used to mitigate the Salton Sea are used on lawns in nearby IndioBobby D's, near Bombay Beach, was closed when we were thereSun sets behind Palm Springs on the drive back from Salton Sea, air pollution evident