September 13, 2020
As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.
The Salton Sea is a strange, lesser-known saline lake located along the San Andreas Fault, close to coveted destinations such as Palm Springs and Joshua Tree. As the state’s predominantly largest body of water, the endorheic rift lake is critical to wildlife habitat, especially migratory birds. But the mesmerizing Salton Sea has been transformed from a beloved desert oasis into an unfruitful wasteland with questionable waters. So, what's really going on here? And where did it all go wrong?
The History Of the Salton Sea
The Salton Sea is situated at one of the lowest points in the country—its surface is over 200 feet below sea level—so its water does not flow out through a river or stream; all of this is due to the tectonic tension within faults that are pushing in opposite directions, thus forming a sunken basin.
In 1905, the Salton Sea was accidentally created when water from the Colorado River spilled out of an ill-constructed California Development Company irrigation system. Over the duration of several years, the lake expanded until people put a stop to the flow. By that time, a 400-square-mile body of water formed on the basin in SoCal, creating the Salton Sink.
Since the Salton Sea had no outlet, it was referred to as an endorheic lake, where the water either seeps into the ground or evaporates—a condition whereby the water is left with an extremely high level of salt. During the 1950s and 1960s, the salt level in the water was considerably lower than it is today, and as a result, the Salton Sea was a hot spot for tourists. Throughout the years, the lake gained the reputation of being a beautiful oasis, attracting droves of tourists during the warmer months.
But when the 1970s came along, the popularity of the Salton Sea suddenly dropped: With rising salinity, shoreline flooding, and fertilizers overflowing from nearby farms, this man-made lake became utter chaos. As environmental troubles started arising, fewer visitors set out to the lake, making it akin to a ghost town.
Things to Do Near The Salton Sea
Despite its downfall, the Salton Sea still offers intriguing, worthwhile activities. From parks and preserves to quirky attractions and historic places, these are the spots to visit during a trip to the Salton Sea.
Salton Sea State Recreational Area
Found on the northeastern side of the Salton Sea, the park boasts activities such as hunting, fishing, swimming, and camping. The Visitor Center is a great place to start the trip, so you can learn more about the history of the Salton Sea. Stop by one of the many fruit stands by the side of the road and indulge in local dates.
The International Banana Museum
Located near the north shore of the Salton Sea, the International Banana Museum is a one-room display of over 25,000 banana-related items. After indulging in everything banana—from the banana couch to the banana turntable—you'll be greeted by a Banana Bar. Go bananas, and order a scoop of homemade banana ice cream or a delicious milkshake. Don’t forget to take a memorable photo with the giant banana statue out front.
Bombay Beach Drive-In
Another outstanding sight is the historic Bombay Beach Drive-In. Easily recognized by its flashy, atomic age sign, the California drive-in displays a miscellaneous collection of wrecked cars, parked as if they're waiting for screening.
Dos Palmas Preserve
Found in the heart of Mecca, Dos Palmas Preserve displays secret gardens packed with lush groves of fan palms. The 1,400-acre expanse provides ample space for towering trees to grow. Explore the earthy springs and keep an eye out for the Yuma clapper rail—a North American bird—and other species native to the land.
The bubbling mudpots are hidden gems of the Salton Sea region, often described as pockets of warm clay. The mud bubbles and gurgles on the surface due to geothermal activity, forcing warm water to rise. A few of the featured mudpots have been bubbling for so long that they have now created miniature mud volcanoes.
Imperial Sand Dunes
Sand dunes spanning 15 miles long and 3 miles wide portray a typical desert-like atmosphere. The Imperial Sand Dunes have served as a Southern California film location for world-renowned movies such as Star Wars; it's also quite the attraction for dune-buggy fans. (Permits are necessary if you're ATVing or camping here.) For a chill walk or hike on the dunes, there are a few available spots to park your car for no extra fee.
With the number of visitors and celebrity guests dwindling, the Salton Sea area has become deserted and rundown. Thankfully, date farms have remained a constantly growing industry and play an important role in the region's economy. Stop by Bautista Family Farms—where visitors are welcome on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays—to learn more about farming and taste ultra-fresh dates.