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 and fascinating.
Covering close to 350 square miles, the Salton Sea is the largest body of water in California and came to exist through a combination of historical flooding and engineering failure. When this enormous saltwater 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 and celebrities enjoying this enormous sea in the middle of the desert. The Salton Sea State Recreation Area was constructed in this heyday of the 1950s and was once one of the busiest parks in the state.
But the water of this desert oasis was holding some deadly mysteries. Due to its formation from agriculture runoff, the Salton Sea is saltier than the Pacific Ocean. The lake's high salinity, which rises every year, threatens the habitat for fish and birds. Heavy flooding in the 1970s and massive fish and bird die-offs in the 1990s (we're talking over seven million fish in a single day!), meant the boom days for the sea were outnumbered.
Today, the Salton Sea is one large geographical ghost town, and it still draws thousands of visitors, but the attraction now 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 area also attracts artistic and off-the-grid communities, like the infamous nearby Slab City.
The Salton Sea is still a strikingly beautiful area, with mountain views as the backdrop of hundreds of miles of lakeshore. The salt crust covers the beach in curious patterns and layers, and there are always thousands of birds seen resting on their migration journeys. At 35 miles long and 15 miles wide, the lake is a peaceful place to kayak and a photographer's dream. Because the summer temperatures reach the 120s here, well below sea level like Death Valley, it is not advised to visit outside of the on-season, October through May.
If you want to explore the area, the Salton Sea State Recreation Area is a great place to set up base camp with full hookups for RVers. Your first stop should be the Visitor Center, where you can learn more about the tragic tale of the Salton Sea and its important role as one of the last remaining wetlands of California. Beachgoers will be awestruck by the lake's sandy shores that are littered with fish bones and barnacles. Birders, boaters, and anglers will still be in for a treat when they are greeted by the waters of the Salton Sea.
Be sure to stop if you see a roadside fruit stand and indulge on dates. Local farms often sell right by the highway at deliciously low prices. Over 15 varieties of dates grow in Mecca, just north of the state park, and they are undeniably better when fresh. Organic date shakes? Yes, please!
Salton Sea State Recreation Area may be in the middle of the desert, but it's actually not that far from civilization (but far enough). It's within three hours of Los Angeles and San Diego. RVers traveling from Los Angeles along the I-10 won't encounter any restricting obstacles along the way.
The park is located on the eastern side of the lake off of CA-111, and there are not many shopping, gas, or dining options in small towns close to the park (Bombay Beach only has one small diner). You'll want to make sure you stock up in Coachella or Palm Springs if you are coming from the north or Brawley and El Centro if traveling from the south. If you want to do even more desert sightseeing, you're also within two hours of Joshua Tree National Park.
Once in the park, you'll find the roads paved and easy to navigate. The park stretches 14 miles across the shoreline, although most of the facilities are closer to the Visitor Center. 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, so keep that in mind.
Remember that you are driving through a desert and the heat is serious here. Make sure you stock up with plenty of drinking water, ice, and sunscreen. 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. Take extreme caution if you are traveling in this area during the summer when it can reach over a staggering 120 degrees.
There is plenty of parking throughout the park to accommodate both rigs and smaller vehicles. You'll find these spots at places like the Visitor Center, day-use area, and park office.
New Camp is near the Headquarters Campground, offering easy access to sanitation stations, the main boat ramp, a boat washing area, a fishing jetty, and hiking trails. With all of these facilities within walking distance, this is a great camping option for anglers, boaters, and kayakers. This is also one of the park's smaller campgrounds and has just over 20 sites available. A handful of these offer water and electric hookups, but the rest are basic sites. There is even a basic group site available.
Each site provides a picnic table and grill, so you can enjoy a quiet meal under the stars. Restrooms and showers are within walking distance of each site. If you are looking for an ADA-accessible site, then you should try and reserve sites 28 and 37. New Camp is a pet-friendly campground, and you're welcome to bring along your pets.
Located a mile down the road from the Visitor Center, Mecca Beach has the most sites at the park, over 100. Six of these sites offer full-hookups, 34 feature only electrical hookups, and the rest are basic sites. This campground can accommodate rigs as long as 35 feet. Similarly to the other campgrounds, each site can sleep up to eight people at a time.
Campers will have their own picnic bench and grill to use during their stay. Campground amenities include three restrooms spread over the campground with showers and flushing toilets. This is the ideal campground to choose if want to fish, explore the beach, or go birding. Campers will have easy access to the beach and can enjoy swimming in a designated swimming area. You'll also find an amphitheater nearby.
This is a pet-friendly campsite, and you are welcome to bring your domestic pets along on your camping trip. Just make sure you don't let your dogs loose because sharp thorns and cactus grow in the sand. There is a one-mile walking trail that will take you to New Camp and Headquarters Campground.
The Headquarters Campground is one of the best for RVers since it offers 14 full-hookup sites. While these are pull-through sites in a large parking lot, you are conveniently located within steps of the Visitor Center and park store. Each site features a picnic table, perfect for enjoying meals out in nature. You'll have access to restrooms with flushing toilets and showers. Rigs up to 35 feet can fit here. This is the best campground to use if you want to take the boat out on the water since it's a stone's throw from the boat launch.
Small trees are planted next to each site, but you'll still want to bring a hat for extra shade. Some campers have reported it gets a bit noisy because of the freight train rail line nearby. However, the views from this campground can't be beaten, especially if you witness the desert sunset across this extraordinary, vast sea without waves.
The southernmost camping area is the Salt Creek Beach Campground, a nice camping spot for beach wanderers and kayakers. This campground is truly for those who want some peace and quiet since it's the least used camping area of the park -- ideal for photographers and birders. You just might feel tranquil staring across this fascinating sea with desert mountain views.
Since Salt Creek Beach is primitive with no designated sites, you can simply drive up to this beachfront lot and find an open area to camp in your motorhome, trailer, or tent for the night. Big rigs will fit in just fine here. You'll find picnic tables scattered up and down the camping area, as well as restrooms and showers.
Further south from the Mecca Beach Campground, you'll find the beachfront Corvina Beach Campground. This primitive campground is essentially an open beach lot -- an ideal location for anyone who wants to get away from it all right on the water's edge. There are no specific sites, so you can enjoy dry camping wherever there is an open spot. There's pretty much always plenty of room, so you can ride your large RV up sideways and step right out onto the beach.
The sunset views, stargazing, and birding opportunities are phenomenal here. There's not much shade, but there are picnic tables dotted around the campground, as well as restrooms, showers, and drinking water available. Tent campers should keep in mind that it gets quite windy by the beach.
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 in your motorhome. If you'd like to add an air of competition to your birding, then print out a birding checklist before you head to the park and distribute it between your friends and family to see who has the sharpest eyes. The Audobon Society has even made an online birding map that highlight numerous birding trails in the area.
Salt-crusted pilings, thousands of migrating birds, and impressive desert mountain views make for unique scenery while enjoying quiet paddling on the vast Salton. Be sure to bring along your kayak or canoe if you want to enjoy paddling on this breathtaking stretch of water. If you'd like to cruise along the salty waters in a motorboat, you can access the public boat launch near the Visitor Center in Varner Habor.
Fortunately, if you don't have a kayak or forgot to bring yours along, you can rent one from the camp store at the northern point of the sea. You can also enjoy kayaking outings specifically for birdwatchers, coordinated by the park.
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. At one time it wasn't unheard of to bag over a hundred fish a day. The fishing jetty at Varner Harbor is a popular spot to reel in your catch for the day.
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.
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. Together with state, federal, local groups, and concerned individuals, the park is undertaking steps to save the Salton Sea. You can learn more about this big mission at the park's Visitor Center. There you'll find historical photographs and a short film are on display to interpret the lake's history and uncertain future. This is a very informative and interesting pastime suitable for the whole family.
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. This is definitely something you're going to want to visit during your visit to the park. Take some pictures to show your friends and family when you go home.