In the Southeastern corner of California, 200ft below sea level lies an unlikely inland sea with a unique history. The Salton Sea is one of the largest lakes in the United States and has, perhaps, one of the most confusing natural and unnatural history of any lake in the country
|The Salton Sea|
The Colorado Desert of California is a strange and wonderful place. Its a place that has mountains and snow, deserts and dunes, farms and small towns, while also having one of the largest lakes in the country. If you stop for gas and need change, you will likely receive it in pesos. Its populated by a strange mix of desert farmers, Latino immigrants, drifters and "desert people".
Two years ago while on a mini-vacation with my girlfriend in Palm Springs, I had the wild idea to head out to the infamous Salton Sea. I do not know what exactly possessed me to leave the spas, golf courses, air conditioning and cultivation of Palm Springs for a large, smelly hot sea below sea level. (I am sure she was annoyed by this decision and I really can't blame her) Not only that, but if one was to have an outdoor adventure in Palm Springs, there were much better options on the more temperate San Jacinto Mountain or in the comparatively cooler Joshua Tree National Park. No, for some odd reason I had to finally see the Salton Sea.
So, we loaded up the car at 8 o'clock in the morning when the temperature was already 101 degrees and headed 60 miles south into this seemingly bottomless valley. Past the outlet stores, past that one place where they have the concerts, past the golf courses and into the Salton Sink.
|The shores of the Salton Sea|
The Salton Sea, or more accurately, the Salton Sink, is the second lowest place in North America. At 226ft below Sea Level, the surface of the sea is only 60ft higher than the Badwater Basin. Mind you, the deepest point of the lake is 52ft below the surface, so essentially this place is Death Valley 2. There are only a handful of places in the World which are lower than this lake.
Whether or not you've heard of the Salton Sea, this place has actually shown up in many small documentaries and some literature. Most of it I find appalling- trying to frame the Salton Sea as if it some post-apocalyptic scene where the wealthy have left their scar on its lonely beaches or the Salton Sea as an environmental catastrophe on par with Chernobyl and the Aral Sea (seriously?). I suppose parts of that are true, but really, most of it is meant to entertain. A much more accurate and fact-based picture of the Salton Sea can be found on the Salton Sea Authority's website
. While it is certainly a place in need of conservation and attention, it is not this abandoned toxic dump that it is commonly portrayed as by modernist photographers and amateur documentaries. Here
is another excellent resource you should see before you go out trying to make the Salton Sea look like a wasteland.
As I came to find out when I visited, the Salton Sea is neither the "California Riviera" it was once envisioned to be but also not a horrible disaster either. It's actually somewhat of a clever dimorphism and not entirely unnatural. Long story short, the Salton Sea, as it is seen today, was "created" by heavy flooding on the Colorado River which broke the levees and slowly filled this below-sea-level valley. So for two years, almost all the water from the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Plateau, Grand Canyon and everything came to the Salton Sink and created this massive lake. Of course, there was always seasonal fluctuations of water in the sink from the San Bernardino, San Rosa, and other smaller ranges surrounding the basin. For that reason, its been a major truck-stop for migrating birds long before it was ever considered a sea. It still is today and it is one of the best birding areas in the Southwestern United States.
At the Salton Sea State Recreation Area
, we stepped out to the classic, brine-y smell of the sea not unlike the smell of a fishing dock. There were dozens of people fishing and despite the common sight of dead fish on the shores, fishing is perfectly safe. There were a few broken down buildings and signs of development. I am sure some hipster photographer was absolutely ecstatic for the opportunity to make social commentary from a picture of an abandoned building.
|Walking further away from the highway, we could appreciate the size of the Salton Sea|
So be both found it to be laughable and weirdly enjoyable to be walking along a gigantic inland sea in triple-digit temperatures when we could be enjoying a nice spa treatment in Palm Springs or golfing at a famous resort. I admit, its probably not some place you would want to go every weekend.
At one point during the trip, we parked off the side of the road and hiked a little into the desert hills to get a better view of the lake. The scenery became more recognizable for the Colorado Desert. Stout cresolate bushes, occasional Ocatillos and a dozen other shrubby plants I don't know the name of. Each plant has its unique little lot surrounded by sand and dirt- like a desert suburban. We even caught a glimpse of a few bats and lizards.
is the list of places to hike around the Salton Sea.
|The Colorado Desert's Mascot|
|Looking towards the Salton Sea from the summit of Mt San Jacinto|
If you stand on the shores of the Salton Sea during the spring and fall, you will see several wonderful things you would not expect in the desert. Directly in front of you, of course, is the second largest saline lake in the country. On a good day, you could spot hundreds of species of migratory birds stopping by on their way North or South. Past the lake, there are the Santa Rosa and San Bernardino Mountains which are covered in snow for much of the year. Even the comparatively lower mountains of Joshua Tree which barely exceed 5,000 ft can be completely covered in snow. All of this can be seen from a comfortable 80 degrees at the right time of the year. Yes, the lake is smelly and there are dead fish along the shores. Yes, its an environmental quagmire. But that's a scene you can't really find anywhere else. Well, it was worth the trip for me, at least.