In the barren, sandy desert south of Palm Springs and north of Mexico lies California’s crown jewel, the Salton Sea. It’s not really a sea, or a jewel for that matter – it’s a saline lake that was once intended to be America’s version of the Riviera. But nature didn’t cooperate.
This massive 350-square mile body of water is less than an hour’s drive from Palm Springs and was created by accident.
In 1905, when Colorado River flooding breached parts of its canal system, the water was forced into the Salton Sink or Trough, a flat area below sea level. But the devastation was far worse than one event. The mighty Colorado kept flowing into the trough continuously for almost two years until it was finally stopped. By then California’s largest inland fresh-water lake had been created.
The Salton “Sea” — a 1950’s vacation paradise
The Salton Sea’s shoreline is now about 130 miles around. By the 1950’s, once it became clear the water wasn’t going away, in part because it was being fed by agricultural irrigation runoff, developers had a marketing brainstorm. They’d create a spectacular vacation destination in the style of the Riviera in France. But the sea had other ideas.
The excess drainage from farming irrigation had created more of a toxic soup than pristine bathing and swimming waters, so despite attempting to style the sea as a vacation destination (including stocking the water with fish), tourists never came in large numbers.
Lately, however, there’s been a renewal of cultural and recreational interest in the geographical oddity and its decaying human infrastructure that is the Salton Sea.
What to “sea” & do around the Salton Sea
Begin your outing in the town of Mecca at the Salton Sea Visitor Centre. (100-225 State Park Road, Mecca CA, Open: 10am-4pm, (760) 393-3059) There’s an intriguing interpretive exhibition with lots of historical information (like posters and ads for the resort destination), and it’s a good place to ask for directions to birdwatching spots and other attractions.
A birding wonderland
A major lure for an enormous variety of different species of birds, the Salton Sea is a favourite destination of ornithologists and bird lovers. It’s located along the Pacific flyway, a major bird migration route. And the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge, 32,766 acres set aside in the 1930’s, is today an important refuge for resting and wintering migratory birds as well as other wildlife.
Volcanic and geology wonders
The fauna is just one attraction to this enigmatic inland sea. The area is also home to many fascinating geological and volcanic features since hidden under the low-lying body of water is an enormous magma chamber.
There are boiling mud pots you can explore at several places around the sea, where five young volcanoes called the Salton Buttes are forming at a glacial rate. This blog contains some geological information and tips on where to find some of these unique features.
Salton Sea area cities
Salton City, California
The Salton Sea is a short drive from Greater Palm Springs, of course, but the nearest and largest city is Salton City. With a population just under 4,000, it’s more of a small town, but it has some restaurants and services for visitors.
Find abandoned Salton civilization
In Salton City, and nearby Desert Shores, there’s also plenty of abandoned buildings if you’re looking for interesting photography spots too.
The tiny town of Mecca is somewhat of an agricultural community since it’s surrounded by plenty of farmland. Located on the northwest end of the sea, it has a few small shops and restaurants.
Mecca is also home to The International Banana Museum which presents “a-peel-ing treats” and kitschy art dedicated to the yellow fruit.
(Banana Museum: 98775 State Hwy 111, Mecca, CA 92254, USA, 1-619-840-1429)
Borrego Springs, California
About a half an hour west of Salton City, this vibrant but peaceful vacation community is also an artist’s enclave. There are massive sculptures everywhere around town including a giant undulating dragon. There are also several good-sized golf courses, plus excellent exploring and hiking.
More information about what to do in Borrego Springs can be found here.
Discover the desert in the Salton Sea area
There are two large state parks between Salton City and the Borrego area that are ideal for off-roading or camping.
Plan to spend a day in either Anza-Borrego State Park or the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area.
Anza-Borrego State Park has fantastic hiking, including the must-see viewpoint from Font’s Point overlooking Borrego’s “Badlands”.
If your passion involves dirt biking, all-terrain vehicles or off-road driving, the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area is for you. Imagine exploring 85,000 acres of beautiful desert. But don’t try it in your car! There are several locations in Ocotillo Wells and Salton City that offer off-road vehicle rentals to make exploring safe. Read more about exploring the desert on an ATV or dune buggy here.
Another unusual stop in the Salton Sea area: Salvation Mountain
There’s a unique attraction in the middle of the desert near the Salton Sea that’s worth a look. Popularized by pop singer Kesha, Salvation Mountain can only be described as a massive artwork-shrine to God. Covering the side of a large hill, its vivid colours and eclectic shape encompass trees, water structures, painted stone, flowers and adobe clay. Its powerful and quirky message of Love seems to resonate with the many travellers drawn to it.
What’s special about the Salton Sea area is its diverse collection of attractions that you won’t find anywhere else. It makes for a great day outing or a memorable weekend trip from the Greater Palm Springs area.