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The Salton Sea, California’s Historic Great Lake

California is a huge state with a lot going on, all of the time. Between the mystical redwood forests, tremendous pacific coastline and vast expanses of valleys, mountain ranges and deserts, there’s A LOT to see. Perhaps the most mysterious natural attraction is the Salton Sea. On account of its vastness (it is the largest lake in California), and its controversial fate, the Salton Sea and its story are right out of a Hollywood screenplay.

For those of you who never had a history-buff uncle or heard a campfire story about the Salton Sea and it’s ghost-town demeanor, here’s the long and the short of it:

Once upon a time, the Salton Sea was destined to be California’s premiere vacation getaway. From camping to waterskiing, fishing to sunbathing, lounging in the desert never looked so promising. In the heyday of the Salton Sea, marketeers and investors from around the country were salivating at what seemed to be the perfect manmade oasis, with beachfront property as far as the eye could see.

Long before the days of natural-disaster-anticipating technology, our collective response to things like floods was reactionary. Enter the great flooding of 1905. As the Colorado River overflowed into the Sonoran Desert’s Salton Basin, the Salton Sea was formed. The flooding continued for nearly two years — the untamed Colorado River pouring water into the Basin, expanding the overall size of the Salton Sea to more than 400 square miles.

On a clear day, the view of the Salton Sea from the Fountain of Youth Spa is like peering out at an ocean mirage. It is so vast, even from an elevated viewpoint, it’s easy to understand why its named the Salton Sea (instead of, say, the Salton Lake). The mountain ranges beyond it can appear like islands rising out of the sea itself. Hikers who trek up the Chocolate Mountain range have remarked the view of the desert and the goliath Salton Sea as “amazing,” “majestic,” and “breathtaking.”

salton-sea-birdToday, the Salton Sea serves as a haven for wildlife, especially of the fin and wing variety. With abundant base life (like plankton and pile worms) producing favorable conditions for fish and birds to flourish, the Sea supports a staggering volume of life. Recent data shows more than 400 species of microorganisms, fish populations in the millions, and perhaps one of the richest diversity of bird life in the world. Annually speaking, millions of migratory birds from all over depend on the Salton Sea and its bountiful habitat.

Over 400 species of birds, ranging from great blue herons to snow geese, burrowing owls to double-crested cormorant, and brown pelicans to Yuma clapper rails, use the Sea as a stopover and/or breeding ground. Acting as one of the key rest stop locations in the Pacific Flyway, the Sea is a vital lifeline to the continued propagation of these marvelous species.  According to data collected at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, the region is also home to 41 species of mammals, 18 species of reptiles, and 4 species of amphibians.

Whether you’re a big fan of bird watching or not, you’re in for a unique treat the next time you explore what Chief Scientist Dr. Milton Friend calls the “crown jewel of avian biodiversity.” There’s nothing quite like watching a great blue heron take flight, or realizing you are being watched by the big yellow eyes of a burrowing owl perched calmly in a nearby tree. With over 90% of California’s wetland habitat already lost to commercial and industrial development, the Salton Sea has become even more critical in the lives of countless traveling birds. As the last great California wetland region, nature lovers can feast their eyes on the Sea’s immense biodiversity and picturesque scenery. 

Aside from bird watching and exploring the habitat’s flora and fauna on foot, the regions bordering the Sea itself are conducive to more adventurous recreation. Multiple marinas and boat launches are spread along the east side of the Sea for anyone wanting to kayak, waterski, or boat the ancient lake. Anglers and sport fishing enthusiasts who visit the Salton Sea have recorded catching daily hauls of tilapia numbering over 100. Hunters will also find plenty of places to aim their sights during duck season, with five duck clubs within 30 minutes of the park.

Adventure seeking visitors can also enjoy driving off-road vehicles, hunting, hiking, and all kinds of camping. And, of course, we highly recommend relaxing in the natural mineral water hot springs at the Fountain of Youth Spa.