Salton Sea – A Mirage in the Desert?

The idea of taking a day-trip to Salton Sea didn’t appeal to me at first, but my wife always insists on exploring anything and everything, because we might be pleasantly surprised by what we’ll discover.

Salton Sea from the campground

Salton Sea seen from the campground

Before arriving at the visitors’ center of Salton Sea, we stopped at a desolate campground along the shores of this vast body of water. The wind was blowing hard, as if an entity was pushing us to leave, and the foul odor of floating, dead fish emanated from the murky, green water. The shoreline was strewn with small shells and fish skeletons, which crunched under foot. Such a macabre atmosphere led us to wonder if we had accidentally arrived in a parallel universe.

Shoreline filled with fishbones

Shoreline filled with fish bones

Obviously, we didn’t stay long at the campsite and drove to the main entrance to pay the $5 fee to enter the Salton Sea State Recreation Area. The air remained heavy with the smell of fish, and the breeze off the water coated our tongues and skin with a veil of salt. Some visitors looked confused while wandering the parking lot amid a scattering of RVs, and it simply didn’t feel like a very happy place to be.

When we entered the visitor’ center, our two toddlers broke the silence with their animated voices upon seeing the small gift shop’s collection of stuffed animals, which they enthusiastically took one by one and handed them to the few tourists who were milling around. As I stood there, I wondered how it was possible for this Southern California lake to receive 150,000 visitors each year. Was it slowly being abandoned to the whims of the unforgiving desert?

Creation of the Salton Sea

Millions of years ago, the Gulf of California had extended to the current location of the Salton Sea, depositing silt and ultimately creating an inland body of water. The Sea also has mud volcanoes, which are a result of the very part of the earth that created the lake, and it’s possible to get up close and dirty in the healing, hot mud. Over the centuries, the fresh water from the Colorado River replaced the salt water and turned this area into Lake Cahuilla. Its fertile banks provided a place for the Cahuilla Native Americans to settle and flourish for generations.

About 500 years ago, the Colorado River shifted south and the water started to recede over time, exposing 15-foot thick salt deposits over 1,000 square acres. The attraction of such a landscape inspired farmers to put down roots in the area, construct salt mines and further create irrigation canals from the Colorado River to sustain the productive lands.

In 1905 and 1907, the Colorado River broke through diversion canals and flooded the nearly empty lake, thereby creating a 35-mile long and 15-mile wide body of water. To this day, irrigation from the river transports up to 600 tons of salt deposits each year.

Salton Sea Recreation

By the late 1950s, the Salton Sea State Recreational Area was quite popular among Southern Californians. Thousands of residents hooked up their boats to trailers and headed to the 360-square-mile lake for fun-filled weekends. It was so popular that it was necessary to create 15 ramps to load the boats in and out the lake. Although, all that remains of the The Desert Beach Club’s “Sunken City Yacht Club” are the ruins of its foundation at the water’s edge.

Today, however, it seems that this paradise for water enthusiasts has lost its appeal, with many parts of the Recreation Area closed to the public. Some reviews say that if you can get past the murky waters and the fishy smell, you’ll have Salton Sea all to yourself. There are several campgrounds, totaling 14,000 camp sites, but to our surprise most were lifeless and sad looking.

Salton see with the murky water

Salton sea with the murky water

They do say, however, that Salton Sea is the perfect location for stargazing due to the absence of light pollution in the area.

Salton Sea today

Dead fish along the shore line

Dead fish along the shore line

The Salton Sea is touted as a great spot for bird-watchers, as it’s a breading ground and migratory stop for many birds. It hosts one of the largest variety in North America, with 400 species and sub-species, such as brown pelicans, egrets and cormorants, which depend on the health of the water and a constant population of fish. In 1996 thousands of birds mysteriously began to die off, and it was later determined that the Avian Botulism was responsible for the fatal decline. Although scientists were confused by how the pelican population had contracted the botulism, they discovered that the tilapia fish, which was on the pelicans’ menu, had also been affected. Avian Botulism is common to saline environments, but it isn’t considered to be a huge threat. It’s extremely rare to contract the bacteria while swimming in the sea or from touching the fish.

Abandoned, salt-encrusted structures on the Salton Sea shore at Bombay Beach

Abandoned structures on the Salton Sea at Bombay Beach

The tilapia, which thrives in these waters, numbers up to 300,000, but it remains a mystery as to why thousands of them go to shore to die each year. However, it is important to the ecology of the area and offers a feast for the birds.

The evaporation of the water is also a critical issue in the desert, and maintaining a consistent level of it here is key to wild life survival. If the lake were to die, it would mean their extinction.

fish skeletons are everywhere

fish skeletons are everywhere

On a personal note: Albeit creepy, it is beautiful. The water is still and dreamy, with the perfect backdrop of mountains rising behind it. So little is known about this body of water in the middle of nowhere, but it is worth a visit: to understand the task it has in our fragile environment, and learn why many are fighting so hard to save this “engineering mistake.”

If you’re into adventure and exploring weird places, then go and check it out. Bear in mind that the smell of fish is overwhelming, and the beach strewn with fish bones doesn’t make for a pleasant stroll (it’s a must to keep your shoes on). If you do happen to go, please tell us about your experience.

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