Visit the Salton Sea where the water is dangerous but the hike is great

You might actually smell the Salton Sea before you see it. Salty Shores exudes a slightly fishy saltiness, stronger than the unpleasant earthy smell, that attracts visitors to see — but not touch. Settling in one of the lowest places on earth, the sea stretches from its desert coast, reflecting the rugged mountains that surround it. Less than an hour’s drive from Palm Springs, this unexpected patch of blue tells the story of the boom and bust of the California desert.

the sea was born

From a geological point of view, the current ocean is young—very young. It was formed after a flood in 1905 broke through the canals of the Colorado River and began to fill a low point between Coachella and the Empire Valley, formerly known as the Salton Sink. Instead of rapidly evaporating in the desert’s 100-plus-degree heat, the ocean remains as it is, thanks to agricultural irrigation runoff near its shores.

Ancient lakes once formed here, but the advent of modern times has sparked speculators’ dreams. Developers saw an opportunity to build a vacation paradise within driving distance of Southern California, building hotels, restaurants, bars and communities along its coast. The area flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, but the runoff that filled the lake eventually led to its demise. Chemicals from agriculture poison the water and drive away wildlife, tourists and residents. In recent years, attempts to limit runoff coupled with climate change have caused the ocean to shrink at an ever-increasing rate, leaving what was once a waterfront home hundreds of yards out of the water.

State and federal governments have looked at various ways to save the ocean. At launch, there is $20 million to restore wildlife habitat. While we wait to see if these efforts come to fruition, there are still places for travelers to visit to get a sense of the beauty and desolation of the region.

Things to do in Salton Sea

No longer bustling, the Salton Sea still has peaceful and charming entertainment venues – especially on the sea’s north shore. Hike, fish, bird watch and more in one of the most unusual waters you will ever visit.

Make the most of public campgrounds

A great place to start exploring the area is the Salton Sea State Recreation Area. This attraction is actually a series of beaches, campgrounds and hiking areas that stretch from the northern end of the lake to the eastern side of the lake, an area known as the North Shore. The area is approximately an hour drive from Palm Springs along Interstate 10 and California Route 111.

A sign for the Salton Sea State Recreation Area.
A sign for the Salton Sea State Recreation Area (Photo credit: melissamn/Shutterstock.com)

In Mecca Town, visitors can visit the free visitor center to learn more about the ocean, marine wildlife, and efforts to save the ocean. A special treat is to collect souvenirs from the heyday of the ocean as a tourist attraction. Rangers at the center can also provide tips for bird watching and glimpses of other wildlife in the ocean. The center is located at 100-225 Mecca State Parkway, near California 111. Open Wednesday-Sunday 9am-4pm, closed Monday and Tuesday.

The park offers camping at four campgrounds nestled by the ocean. All rooms have stunning ocean views, perfect for watching the sunset. Once night falls, the lack of development nearby means the skies can prove to be quite impressive on a clear night. Some of the campgrounds here are pristine, which means there are no bathrooms or other amenities. Campers looking to get some of these facilities can find them at more developed campsites, such as the new campsite at the northern end of the park and the Mecca Beach campsite. The state reserves campgrounds through its ReserveCalifornia website. Prices for overnight campsites typically range from $20 to $30. Campsites are small, but the demand in the area is usually not high. Still, it pays to plan ahead and book campsites early.

One caveat: Campers report a lot of flies and mosquitoes in the area, so it’s a good idea to bring some repellant.

Enjoy the beach but stay dry

Throughout the park, access to the beach is easy. Visitors will find rocky, sandy and shell-strewn beaches that are great places to bask in the sun or explore the terrain. Note that the toxicity of the water means that swimming in the sea is not allowed, but small boats that can be lifted into the water are allowed. Toxic seawater also deposits dead fish on the beach. Occasionally the smell can be strong, but this is not an issue all year round. In fact, although fish carcasses found on beaches appear to have just been washed away, the embalming properties of salt water mean many of them have been around for years. Fishing at sea is permitted, but the state recommends (PDF) strict limits on the consumption of the catch. To be on the safe side, most sensible anglers practice catch and release when they go out to sea.

Take a higher hike to enjoy the view

Hiking in the Salton Sea State Recreation Area is usually limited to shore walks. But adventurous hikers looking for more terrain might want to climb the Bat Caves Butte Trail, which starts just south of the recreation area.

View of the Salton Sea from the Mecca Hiking Trail.
View of the Salton Sea from the Mecca Hiking Trail (Photo credit: Kim Grosz/Shutterstock.com)

Parking for the trail is off California 111 on Crooker Drive. Cross the highway to the start of the 3-mile trail loop, which ascends approximately 300 feet from the coast to approximately 85 feet above sea level. Along the climbing route, you’ll find evidence of seashells and other larger bodies of water that once covered the area. Looking west across the sea, the mountains to the north separate the Coachella Valley from Joshua Tree National Park and the views are breathtaking. Once at the top, you’ll find caves formed by pressure on the San Andreas fault pushing rock formations upward, dissolving the softer parts over time.

Enter bird watching paradise

Back at the seaside, follow California 111 south on the east side of the lake to find the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge at its southern end. Named for the entertainer and congressman who saved the Ocean Champions — who began his political career as mayor of nearby Palm Springs — the sanctuary is rich in birds due to its location on the Pacific Ocean.

Salton Sea sunset and birds.
Salton Sea sunset and birds (Photo credit: Calvin Hy/Shutterstock.com)

The Audubon Society considers the ocean one of the most important bird areas in North America, designating it an IBA or Important Bird Area. It is an important place for birds to nest and winter. The Audubon Society estimates that millions of birds, representing some 400 species, call the ocean home.

Visiting the sanctuary is easy if travelers continue south on California 111 from the North Shore area and stop at the free visitor center at 906 Sinclair Road in Calipatria. The center is open from 7:00 am to 3:30 pm on weekdays and 8:00 am to 4:15 pm on weekends. The center provides information, maps and displays about the wildlife in the area. Hikers can then set off on the two-mile Rock Hill Trail, which stretches from the visitor center to a rocky hill overlooking the ocean.

The main attraction of the sanctuary is the chance to see the many birds that exist there. Birders will also enjoy a trip to the southern end of the sea to visit another trail at the sanctuary, the Michael Hardenberg Trail. From the Visitor Center go south on California 111 and turn west on California 78 at Houghley. Follow the highway west for about 15 miles to Vendel Road, then turn right north to the trailhead. The trail is a half-mile short loop that wraps around a freshwater pond, home to migratory and nesting birds. Needless to say, a good pair of binoculars will be your best friend when visiting any wildlife area.

See what’s left

Visitors who want to complete the sea tour should follow the West Coast via California Route 86 back to the Palm Springs area. Worth a short stop in towns such as Salton Beach and Desert Coast. Through these developments, visitors can see the damage left by the receding waters. Houses built on the canal that once housed ski boats and other boats are now run down on dry ditches. Residents stay in the area, living in the shadow of its once-promising vacation haven, just a short drive from Los Angeles.

salton sea
Salton Sea (Image credit: Zack Frank/Shutterstock.com)

Last word advice for any visit to the Salton Sea or the surrounding desert. Bring plenty of water! Dry, salty, and sunny conditions mean your body quickly dehydrates with the slightest exercise. The National Park Service recommends carrying enough water to replenish what you lose on hot weather hikes—up to 2 liters per hour! Keep the hike short enough, establish plenty of rest, and drink, drink, drink.

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