It's no secret that California has a troubled history with water. If you don't know the history of the Salton Sea, driving around and seeing signs for yacht clubs, RV resorts and Hawaiian street names next to the salty, smelly, and shrinking body of water will be incredibly confusing.
The Salton Sea came to exist through a combination of historical flooding and engineering failure. When this enormous freshwater lake filled up the former Salton Sink (well below sea level), south of Palm Springs, developers saw dollar signs, and proceeded to develop tourist attractions and retirement communities for the expected boom.
That boom happened - for a short time. Salton was a buzzing hot-spot and filled with visitors enjoying this enormous sea in the middle of the desert. The Salton Sea State Recreation area was constructed in this heyday of the 1950's, and was once one of the busiest parks in the state.
Today, the Salton Sea is one large geographical ghost town, and it still draws thousands of visitors, but today the attraction is mainly one of curiosity and fascination rather than outdoor recreation. Many of the stops like Bombay Beach have become famous for "post-apocalyptic scenery" due to the number of abandoned homes, boats and vehicles.
The Salton Sea is still a strikingly beautiful area, with mountain views as the backdrop of hundreds of miles of lake shore. The salt crust covers the beach in curious patterns and layers, and there are always thousand of birds seen resting on their migration journeys. It is a peaceful place to kayak and it is a photographer's dream. Several large campgrounds in the park offer accommodations for all types of campers.
Because the summer temperatures reach the 120's here, well below sea level like Death Valley, it is not advised to visit outside of the on-season Oct-May.
Be sure to stop if you see a roadside fruit stand. Local farms often sell right by the highway at deliciously low prices. Be sure to indulge on dates. Over 15 varieties of dates grow in Meca, just north of the State Park, and they are undeniably better when fresh. Organic date shakes? Yes please!
There are cul-de-sacs and plenty of room for large trailers and motorhomes in all of the State Rec Area's campgrounds and day use areas. There is not much cell service in the area north of Niland, and that is also where you'll want supplies, ice, and lots of drinking water. The heat is serious here. If you don't know how to keep your unit cool without the A/C blasting make sure you're in top shape before this trip because the sun here will put everything to the test.
Mecca Beach, New Camp, and Headquarters each have RV hook up camping available mixed into areas that also offer more primitive sites. The entire park feels oversized because of its booming past. Today you will have no problem reserving full hook-up sites any time of year. Reservations are made up to six months in advance on the CA State website. Mecca Beach has the most full hook-up sites and each of the campgrounds has water, electric, dump stations, bathrooms and showers. Make sure you don't let your dogs loose because sharp thorns and cactus grow in the sand .
The Salton Sea is one of the world's most important stops for migrating birds in the winter. The sea is visited by nearly every bird migrating north or south along the Pacific Flyway, a sort of freeway for birds. Over 400 species of migrating birds, as large as pelicans, fill the skies and the shallows from October through March. With over 100 miles of shoreline and many accessible marshes, the bird watching opportunities are nearly endless. The State Park coordinates bird watching events and education during the winter season. Don't forget to bring binoculars and your best camera.
Now that water levels have dropped below all of the boat ramps, the Salton Sea is better than ever for kayakers because no motorized boats are able to access the largest lake in California. Salt-crusted pilings, thousands of migrating birds, and impressive desert mountain views make for unique scenery while enjoying quiet paddling on the vast Salton. The State Park coordinates kayaking outings specifically for birdwatchers.
Although the salty water keeps many species of fish from being able to survive in the Salton Sea, it is still a popular destination for hardy Tilapia. There are no catch limits and anglers have plenty of success from the shore as well as on the water. It's not unheard of to bag over a hundred fish a day, and many locals keep their families fed this way. The fishing jetty at Varner Harbor is a popular spot to reel in your catch for the day. Check with CDFW for rules and regulations.
The buildings, campgrounds, and even the boat launch at Salton Sea State Recreation Area reflect a fascinating time in American culture. Post-WWII California saw a huge spike in interest in RV camping, big family vacations, and outdoor recreation in general. This self-guided tour of the park's man-made features reflects on the birth of RV camping and a time when the shores here were lined with campers and fishermen just about every weekend. You can find more info on the California Parks website.
The strange history of the Salton Sea is well explained at the park Visitor Center and well worth the stop to understand how this giant body of water formed in such an unlikely place - and why it's slowly disappearing. Historical photographs and a short film are on display to interpret the lake's history and uncertain future.
Perhaps it's the heat? Maybe it's the salty water? For some reason the locals here have literally - gone bananas. A wonderful contrast to cliche souvenir shops, the International Banana Museum has created a collection of every banana-related item under the sun, and offer one-of-a-kind photo ops, and also some delicious drinks and treats. They're even in the Guinness Book of Records for their banana obsession. It's tiny, but worth the visit.