You might think the Salton Sea is a mirage when you first see it from a distance, an optical illusion formed by shimmering heat waves rising from the desert floor.
In fact, it's one of the world's largest inland seas, 45 miles long and 25 miles wide. In some places, you can't see the opposite shore because of the earth's curvature. At 227 feet below sea level, it's also one of the lowest spots on the planet.
The Salton Sea has a strange history. In 1905, spring floods escaped irrigation canals, gushing into an ancient lake bed. By the time engineers got the flood under control, the Salton Sea was full of water.
Today, all that water sits landlocked, with only a trickle of fresh water flowing in and none going out, except by evaporation. As it dries up, minerals become more concentrated, making it 30 percent saltier than the ocean.
It has become a major stop for migrating birds and a popular site for campers, boaters, and fishermen. It was the setting of the 2002 film Salton Sea starring Val Kilmer.
Things to Do at the Salton Sea
Fourteen miles of the northeastern shore is a state park, with several beaches and campgrounds. Some of the things you can do there include:
Boating: Because of the high salt content, boats float better than they do in fresh water. Engines operate more efficiently at the low elevation.
That earned the Salton Sea a reputation as one of the fastest lakes in the U.S. Powerboat races are held here in December. If you bring your own boat, you'll find several marinas and plenty of room to run around.
Fishing: Increasing salinity in the Salton Sea basin has limited the types of fish in the lake.
Most of them are Tilapia (for which there are no legal limits). Fishing is best from June through September, and you need a valid fishing license.
Bird Watching: The Salton Sea is on the Pacific Flyway, attracting 400 species of migratory birds — almost half of those known in North America. They pass through between October and January. During the migration season, rangers offer guided boat tours to view them.
Salton Sea Review
The Salton Sea is a fascinating place with an otherworldly look about it. During some parts of the year, it's a great place for birdwatching.
However, it is not without its problems. Its managers struggle to figure out what to do about this artificial sea and how to do it. It's a weird place that wouldn't be there if it weren't for an accident. But now that it is, it has become an important stop for migrating birds and letting it dry up is not a practical option.
The Los Angeles Times reported in 2016 that the state would build canals and artificial wetlands along the shoreline. In September, the federal government said it would expedite those projects. But things are once again murky, and it's going to take both the state and the Federal government to make an impact.
The Times says a 2018 deadline could finish the lake. That's when Colorado River water that has kept the sea alive will instead start flowing to San Diego as part of a water-transfer deal struck in 2003.
Meanwhile, the Salton Sea grows saltier and more filled with fertilizer runoff from surrounding agricultural land. Algae living in the lake blooms in early spring and summer. When they die, the decaying vegetation stinks. While the bad smell shouldn't be underestimated, it only lasts part of the year.
Salton Sea Lodging
Salton Sea State Park has six campgrounds around its shores, with a total of more than 1,500 campsites. A few near the park headquarters have RV hookups, while others offer primitive camping only. The state park reservation system can be complicated, and it's best to plan ahead.
The town of Brawley, southeast of the sea has the best selection of hotels and other indoor places to stay.
What You Need to Know About Visiting the Salton Sea
Much of Salton Sea is accessible anytime. The state park's visitor center is only open part time. Visit the Salton Sea State Recreation Area website for hours. There's an entry fee for the state park.
Winter offers the coolest weather and a chance to see migrating birds. Summer temperatures regularly soar above 100°F.
Getting to Salton Sea
Salton Sea State Recreation Area
Visitor Center: 100-225 State Park Road
North Shore, CA
Salton Sea Website
Salton Sea is 30 miles south of Indio on CA Hwy 111, about a 3-hour drive from the Los Angeles or San Diego. Your route will depend on which side of the sea you're going to. Check a good map before you set your GPS.
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The Salton Sea is a one-of-a-kind place, and you won't find anything quite like it elsewhere. Another odd body of water with an unusual history is Mono Lake, where tufa towers stand along the shores and only brine shrimp can survive.
If you love the desert, may want to visit these places: Anza-Borrego Desert is near the Salton Sea. It's one of the most beautiful desert parks in California and especially gorgeous when wildflowers bloom in the spring. Also nearby is Joshua Tree National Park, which is well known for its dark skies and rock-climbing opportunities, as well as those tree-like yucca plants that it's named for. Another great desert destination is Death Valley National Park.