The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California, covering 376 square miles. It is about 227 feet below sea level. Its salinity level is 44 parts per thousand versus 35 parts per thousand for the Pacific Ocean. The sea's salinity level has been rising, putting the ecosystem at serious long-term risk.
It is a popular destination for boating and fishing. It is in the south-eastern corner of California, about 100 miles east of San Diego, 70 miles southeast of Palm Springs, 30 miles north of Mexicali.
Until 1905 the area was known as the Salton Basin. In that year, an irrigation canal from the Colorado river broke, sending water flooding into the basin. This flooding lasted a year and a half, and when it was done, the Salton Basin had become the Salton Sea. In reality, the basin has been flooded countless times throughout its long history, and periodically dries out because it is in a desert that gets 3 inches of rain each year.
In the past the Salton Sea was a resort area, but changing water levels and the increasing salinity of the water resulted in decreased tourism and the collapse of the resort industry. The majority of the business in the Salton Sea area is now agricultural.
The Salton Sea's water is supplied almost entirely by agricultural runoff from irrigation water drawn from the Colorado River. Recent changes to water allocation, along with a persistent drought, have drastically reduced the amount of water entering the sea, leaving its future uncertain.
Because of its southern latitude, elevation of 227 feet below sea level, and location in the Sonoran Desert, the area sees some of the hottest temperatures in the nation with daily temperatures from May to October often exceeding 100°F, and extreme temperatures higher than 115°F recorded yearly.
Two highways, California State Routes 86 and 111, run the length of the Salton Sea and cross each other in both Mecca and Brawley. CA 86 is a major four-lane route on the west side of the sea and is heavily traveled. CA 111 is a two-lane highway on the east side of the sea that, while paved, tends to be in poorer condition than CA 86.
The posted speed limit lowers on CA 111 when crossing from Imperial County into Riverside County. Watch your speed, because the Riverside County Sheriff actively enforces the speed limit in that area.
There are two US Border Patrol checkpoints for northbound traffic on CA 86 at the junction of CA 78 and on CA 111 about 11 miles north of Niland. It usually takes only a few minutes to pass the checkpoints. Weekends and holidays will bring more traffic and longer wait times, but it's rarely unreasonable. Do not try to evade these checkpoints.
All around the sea there are local roads, some paved and some not, that provide access to areas such as the sea shore, abandoned residential and commercial developments, and conservation areas. Be careful driving on unpaved roads. In dry weather they can be heavily rutted. In wet weather, they are glue. The clay surfaces turn into thick, sticky mud given the least rainfall. If you don't get stuck outright trying to travel one of these roads after a recent rain, your car will at the very least be covered in mud.
California State Route 78 skirts the south end of the Salton Sea and connects Anza-Borrego State Park in the west to the Imperial Sand Dunes in the east by way of Brawley.
Railroad tracks run along the eastern side of the sea carrying mostly Union Pacific freight trains. While Amtrak trains also use this line, there are no local stops in any of the communities on the Salton Sea.
The Salton Sea Mudpots and Mud VolcanoesThese "volcanoes" vent subterranean carbon dioxide, and are a geologic anomaly resulting from geothermal activity caused by the movement of the North American plate to the east and the Pacific Plate to the west. They are not hot and can be easily, though muddily approached. Nearby is one of the numerous geothermal energy facilities dotting the southern end of the sea. Take Schrimpf Road from Highway 111 rather than Wister Road unless you're not fond of your car.
- Train watching - a major Union Pacific railroad line runs along the eastern shoreline of the Salton Sea allowing for viewing almost anywhere along the route.
- Salvation Mountain - Just before Slab City is Salvation Mountain, a large, artificial landscape made from hay bales, plaster, and colorful, Christian-themed paintings by Leonard Knight. No admission fee is required, though the maintainers do appreciate donations of paint.
- Slab City - Driving east from Niland along Main Street then Beal Road, you will encounter the remains of US Marine Camp Dunlap dating from World War II. All that remains of that camp are the concrete foundations (slabs) of the original buildings. In the years since Camp Dunlap was closed, it has been taken over by permanent and itinerant residents living in motorhomes and camping trailers. It has become an ad-hoc community with a library, church, and even occasional, small concerts. Personal safety in Slab City is often viewed skeptically, though whatever crime does occur there does not seem to scare off its residents. There is no law enforcement in Slab City except for the Imperial County Sheriff. There are no established services there such as electricity or running water.
Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife RefugeLocated at the southern end of the Salton Sea and 227 feet below sea level, this wild life refuge is also part of the Pacific Flyway host to heavy migrations of waterfowl, marsh and shorebirds during spring and fall, with the greatest number of species present from November to May. Over 400 species of birds have been recorded. The Refuge has two separate managed units, 18 miles apart. Each unit contains wetland habitats, farm fields, and tree rows.
- Sunken trailer park - Bombay Beach
- Hunting - Waterfowl hunting is allowed by permit in winter and spring at the Wister Unit of the Imperial Wildlife Area just north of Niland and at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Hunting permits are awarded by lottery.
- Fishing - Tilapia are abundant in the Salton Sea and safe to eat unless advised otherwise by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Fishing permits are required and can be obtained from CDFW. Some fish can also be caught from the complex network of canals and drains amidst the agricultural fields at the south end of the sea. Catfish in the Coachella Canal are reputed to be quite large.
- Hiking - The Orocopia Mountains northeast of the sea provide good hiking when the weather is cooler. Be sure to carry lots of water and never hike here alone. There is no cellular telephone service in the mountains and it is very easy to get lost or injured.
- Bird watching - You can find shorebirds all around the Salton Sea, particularly during winter and spring months. The California department of Fish and Wildlife and the Imperial Irrigation District both maintain terraced, freshwater ponds near Niland and adjacent to the sea to provide habitat for migrating and nesting waterfowl and shorebirds. The Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge also maintains ponds as well as agricultural fields for the same purpose. The Imperial Valley, extending from the southeast end of the Salton Sea all the way to the Mexican border, is full of agricultural fields that attract large numbers of migratory birds including snow geese, sandhill cranes, and a large variety of ducks. Many of the birds around the sea are nesting in protected areas, so be cautious of where you go.
- Boating - Boating is rare on the Salton Sea, but it is possible. The Salton Sea State Recreation Area manages a boat launch at its Mecca Beach headquarters, though the sea's falling water level has made use of the launch ramp more difficult in recent years. It is advisable to avoid boating if the weather forecast predicts even moderate wind. The local mountains can influence strong winds across the surface of the Salton Sea, producing large waves.
- Camping - The Salton Sea State Recreation Area maintains campgrounds at Mecca Beach, Corvina Beach, and Salt Creek on the eastern shore. Imperial County operates a well-developed campground at Wiest Lake near Brawley.
There are safe swimming and fishing areas, but check on local conditions first as algal blooms and storms can greatly affect water quality.
Do not pick up hitchhikers on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea. There is a state prison in Calipatria. Escaped inmates may attempt to hitchhike out of the area.
It is generally advised to avoid contact with water in or at the mouth of the New River. This river flows out of Mexico and carries a small amount of untreated sewage.
There are lots of abandoned businesses, hotels, houses, and other developments around the Salton Sea. They can be fascinating to explore, but remember that most are still private property. When exploring, be respectful of the residents who still live there and may not appreciate strangers gawking at their homes or trespassing on their property.