Drive south from the poolside bungalows of Palm Springs, and you’ll emerge in the dusty Imperial Valley. After stretches of khaki-colored earth punctuated by palm tree farms, you’ll spot a flash of dazzling blue on the horizon. Here, at what feels like the edge of the world, is a lake — and not just any lake, but the largest one in California.
At approximately 376 square miles, the Salton Sea is made up of sun-drenched beaches where white pelicans search for fish. The water is ringed by mountains that burn pink at sunset.
It’s a beautiful lake. So why are its shorelines deserted? Why are its beach houses rotting in the sun? Why does no one visit the Salton Sea?
Despite the eerie emptiness that looms, the Salton Sea was once a popular vacation spot. Originally the result of flooding from the Colorado River, the Salton Sea eventually became an oasis in the desert for moneyed Californians. The lake was stocked with tilapia, and birds and tourists alike flocked to the area. The 1950s saw the development of yacht clubs, cocktail lounges, marinas, and more than 32,000 beach houses. In true Golden State fashion, even the Beach Boys were known to drop by. But by the 1970s, the Salton Sea began to dry up. Salinity from the soil along with agricultural runoff from nearby farms began to kill the fish, creating a stench that still hovers in the valley today. In no time, the beaches were carpeted with decaying tilapia, and the beachside communities became ghost towns.
Since then, the Salton Sea has continued to shrink at a rate of 3 percent per year, which translates to 800 acres of exposed playa annually. This means that if water transfer prospects do not pan out (a process that’s been mired in red tape), the largest lake in California will one day evaporate.
And while most of the people who journey to the Salton Sea today do so out of a morbid desire to see the skeletal remains of homes and the actual skeletons of thousands of fish, there are two other great reasons to explore the oft-overlooked lake. One: It’s actually a travel destination in its own right that offers hiking, birdwatching, art, and roadside attractions. Two: It might not be around for much longer.
Forget the words that are often — and wrongly — associated with the Salton Sea, words like toxic, polluted, and postapocalyptic. Forget them all and focus on something few people mention when they discuss the Salton: It’s an incredible place to discover. Here’s how to do just that.
The Salton Sea is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Because it sits along the Pacific Flyway, more than 400 species of birds rely on it. In fact, the Salton Sea is home to 70 percent of California’s burrowing owl population, 40 percent of the entire endangered Yuma clapper rail population, and 95 percent of the continent’s eared grebe population. It’s the primary winter habitat for the California brown pelican and the American white pelican. To see these birds along with peregrine falcons, bald eagles, black skimmers, and more, head to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge (906 W. Sinclair Road, 760-348-5278) at the southern end of the Salton Sea, and watch an astoundingly diverse array of winged creatures take flight over the water.
Nestled in the Mecca Hills Wilderness near the northern tip of the Salton Sea, the Ladder Canyon/Big Painted Canyon hike is an approximately five-mile loop that’s accessible via a rough but passable dirt road from the blink-and-miss-it town of Mecca. The hike features high narrows and slot features that rival more popular desert locales, plus the curious addition of actual ladders that aid in scaling dry falls. Hikers should avoid this trek in the summer, and be prepared with route information and plenty of water and food, as this adventure — like all adventures around the Salton Sea — is in a remote location.
A few myths about the Salton Sea: the water is poisonous and you shouldn’t go near it. The Salton Sea is actually safe to swim in (some locals even swear by its mineral healing powers) and, according to rangers at the Salton Sea Visitor Center, the tilapia that thrive in its waters are safe to eat. The best way, however, to experience the lake itself is to rent a kayak and paddle the water for an hour or so. The Salton Sea Visitor Center rents kayaks for $10 per hour from mid-October through April. It’s a small price of entry for the opportunity to experience the enormity of the lake and the mountains that surround it.
No desert road trip is complete without seeing a few roadside oddities. Luckily, the Salton Sea has more than its fair share of strange. When touring the eastern side, your first stop should be the International Banana Museum (in Mecca, 98775 California highway 111, 619-840-1429). This museum features the world’s largest collection of banana-related items — more than 20,000 — including a banana slot machine, a banana-shaped record player, and shelves full of figurines. Hours vary by the season, so call ahead.
The next stop is the Bombay Beach Drive-In (in Niland). This hauntingly beautiful art installation, situated in the living ghost town of Bombay Beach, features abandoned cars and boats facing an outdoor movie screen. Your last must-see oddity at the Salton Sea is Salvation Mountain (on Beal Road, in Calipatria). This 50-foot tall, Technicolor mountain of adobe clay and more than 100,000 gallons of paint was created by the late Leonard Knight, a Korean War veteran from Vermont who christened his monument with the words “God is love.” Salvation Mountain sits at the entrance to Slab City, a mythical destination of its own. Often referred to as “the last free place in America,” this sprawling community of squatters exists on the concrete slabs of an abandoned U.S. Marine Corps base.
It’s not exactly Old Faithful, but the Salton Sea has its own geothermal features that are reminiscent of Yellowstone (minus the crowds). Head to the southern end of the Salton Sea, and you’ll find the Davis-Schrimpf Seep Field, where bubbling mud oozes from the ground. The mud pots are the result of carbon dioxide emerging from the earth. For a more hospitable thermal experience, you can spend the night at the Fountain of Youth Spa RV Resort (1500 Spa Road, 888-800-0772). Nestled in the Chocolate Mountains, this RV campground is the site of artesian springs with a mineral content of 4,585 parts per million.
While it’s certainly possible to do the Salton Sea as a day trip from Palm Springs, staying along the shores is a more immersive experience. For those wishing to camp, RV and tent sites are available at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area on the east side of the lake. Sites at Mecca Beach Campground and Corvina Campground range from $20-$30 and allow you to pitch your tent or park your RV at the edge of the water, making for an unparalleled sunset experience.
If you prefer a soft bed to the hard ground, head to Ray and Carol’s Motel By the Sea (1008 Ontario Ave., 760-394-0062) on the western edge of the Salton Sea in the mostly deserted town of Salton City. This small, family-operated hotel has four rooms. Reserve the Wheel House Room and enjoy your own private deck with sweeping views of the Salton Sea.
A Salton Sea visitor can’t survive on tilapia alone. For the ultimate ghost town experience, have a cocktail and a burger at the Ski Inn (9596 Avenue A, 760-354-1285). This Bombay Beach watering hole, which Anthony Bourdain visited for an episode of No Reservations, is the lowest bar in the Western hemisphere at 223 feet below sea level. The dimly lit space, wallpapered by dollar bills from transient guests, opens faithfully each day at 6:45 a.m. Bring cash, knock back some cheap beer, and get to know the locals who still call Bombay Beach home.
On the other side of the Salton Sea, there’s Johnson’s Landing. Located within walking distance from Ray and Carol’s Motel By the Sea, this is the patio you’ve always dreamed of sitting at while washing down some fried bar food with a bottle of beer while you gaze out at the ghostly remnants of a terminal lake — that is, if you’ve ever dreamed of such a thing.
Whether you choose to see the Salton Sea from your car as you drive along its curving shoreline, or spend time wandering the canyons, beaches, and ghost towns that define the desert landscape, you’ll find an otherworldly experience. The Salton Sea may be just 300 miles from Las Vegas and only 38 miles from the festival grounds of Coachella, but it’s another world entirely. Go now — your chance to see it is disappearing 800 acres at a time.