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Salton Sea

Visiting California's Salton Sea



View of the Salton Sea

mst7022 at Flickr under Attribution License

You might think the Salton Sea is a mirage when you first see it from a distance, an optical illusion formed by shimmering heat waves rising from the desert floor.

In fact, it's one of the world's largest inland seas, 45 miles long and 25 miles wide and in some places you can't see the opposite shore because of the earth's curvature. At 227 feet below sea level, it's also one of the lowest spots on earth.

The Salton sea has a strange history. In 1905, spring floods escaped irrigation canals, gushing into an ancient lake bed. By the time engineers got the flood under control, the Salton Sea was born.

Today, all that water sits landlocked, with only a trickle of fresh water flowing in and none going out, except by evaporation. As it dries up, minerals become more concentrated, making it 30 percent saltier than the ocean.

It has become a major stop for migrating birds and a popular site for campers, boaters and anglers. It was also the setting of the 2002 film Salton Sea starring Val Kilmer.

Things to Do at Salton Sea

Fourteen miles of the northeastern shore is a state park, with several beaches and campgrounds.

  • Boating: Because of the high salt content, boats float better than in fresh water and engines operate more efficiently at the low elevation, earning the Salton Sea a reputation as one of the fastest lakes in the U.S. Power boat races are held here in December. If you bring your own boat, you'll find seven marinas and plenty of room to run around.

  • Fishing: Increasing salinity in the Salton Sea basin has limited the types of fish found there, and most of the catch are Tilapia (for which there are no legal limits). Fishing is best from June through September and you need a valid fishing license.

  • Bird Watching: The Salton Sea lies on the Pacific Flyway, attracting©2013 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.400 species of migratory birds (almost half of those known in North America) which pass through between October and January. During the season, Rangers offer guided tours in the park's interpretive boat to view them.

Salton Sea Review

The Salton Sea is not without its problems. Its managers struggle to figure out what to do about this man-made sea and how to do it. Meanwhile, it grows saltier and more filled with fertilizer runoff from surrounding land. Algae bloom in early spring and summer, their dead bodies smelling like decaying vegetation.

While the stink shouldn't be underestimated, we're told it only lasts part of the year and the Salton Sea is a popular spot with boaters, birders and fishermen and it has become an important stop for migrating birds.

Salton Sea Lodging

Salton Sea State Park has 6 campgrounds around its shores, with a total of more than 1,500 campsites. A few near the park headquarters have RV hookups, while others offer primitive camping only. The state park reservation system can be complicated and it's best to plan ahead. Learn how to make state park reservations.

Besides the state park's campgrounds, this is a popular area with winter "snow birds" and several privately-owned campgrounds and resorts are nearby:

The town of Brawley, southeast of the sea has the best selection of hotels and other indoor places to stay.


  • Hours: Much of Salton Sea is accessible all the time. The state park's visitor center is open Friday through Sunday only in the summer
  • Cost: Entry fee for the state park
  • Location: Northeast of San Diego and southeast of Palm Springs. Driving directions below
  • How Long: Allow a few hours to look around, more if you're a bird-watcher, boater or fisherman.
  • Best Time to Visit: Winter offers coolest weather and a chance to see migrating birds. Summer temperatures regularly soar above 100°F.

Getting to Salton Sea

Salton Sea State Recreation Area
Visitor Center: 100-225 State Park Road. North Shore, CA 760-393-3052
Salton Sea Website

Salton Sea is 30 miles south of Indio on CA Hwy 111, about a 3-hour drive from the Los Angeles or San Diego.

From I-10, take exit 86S. Turn left onto Avenue 66 and right onto CA Hwy 111.

From San Diego, follow CA Hwy 78 east, and Ca Hwy 86 north. Turn right onto Avenue 66 and right onto CA Hwy 111.

From the Avenue 66/Hwy 111 intersection, you'll reach Salton Sea SRA Headquarters entrance in about 12 miles.

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