15 Best Things to Do in the Salton Sea

Salton Sea
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The Salton Sea is a shallow, isolated, and highly-saline body of water in both Imperial and Riverside counties in California.

It was once one of the state’s most environmentally significant areas.

It’s also California’s largest lake.

The lakebed it currently occupies was home to the prehistoric Lake Cahuilla, six times bigger than the Salton Sea.

For over a century, the lake has been sustained by the waters from the Colorado River, which also irrigates farms in Imperial Valley.

From the 1950s through the 1960s, communities grew along with the development of hotels and vacation houses, making the Salton Sea a tourist destination.

However, in the 1970s, scientists issued warnings about the potential shrinking of the sea.

After 1999, environmental runoff caused the lake to start shrinking, coupled with the rise in the water’s salinity, massive fish kills, die-offs of bird populations, and more.

The Salton Sea became an environmental catastrophe, leaving many nearby villages and settlements deserted and bleak.

Local organizations declared an emergency at the start of 2018 and, together with the state, sponsored and created the Salton Sea Management Program.

Despite Salton Sea's negative reputation, there are still compelling reasons to visit, albeit for different reasons than in the past.

Discover unique attractions like volcanic mud hot springs, see the rare fauna, view art installations, and more with this list of the best things to do in the Salton Sea.

Camp Out at Salton Sea State Recreation Area

Signage of Salton Sea State Recreation Area
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The Salton Sea State Recreation Area, located on the northeastern shore of the Salton Sea,  offers recreational activities to visitors, such as camping, bird-watching, picnicking, and hiking.

The park has a visitor center, gift shop, picnic shelters, numerous camping sites, restrooms, and gorgeous sunset views.

You may find shells and fish bones along the shore, and the beach may smell funky.

Picnic tables at Salton Sea State Recreation Area
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However, it’s a crazy place to wander around and take it all in.

The Salton Sea is a significant flyway stop for migrating birds, which makes bird watching among the most popular activities in the area.

To discover more about the Salton Sea and how it shaped its surroundings, visit the Salton Sea State Recreation Area.

The waters of Salton Sea State Recreation Area
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Grab Dates at Bautista's Family Organic Dates

Bautista's Family Organic Dates is a modest family-owned date farm that grows seven varieties of certified organic dates.

You can find them in Mecca, close to the Salton Sea.

Besides the popular Medjool and Deglet Noor varieties, Bautista's Family Organic Dates produces the Khadrawy, Halawy, Honey, Zahidi, and Barhi dates.

Visit the farm to see the date palm trees and their farm animals.

Then, sample organic dates and maybe bring some home.

Moreover, the date farm sells fruits at farmers' markets in Santa Monica, Hollywood, Studio City, Torrance, Irvine, Palm Springs, and La Quinta.

Take Photos of Abandoned Houses at the Bombay Beach Ruins

Houses at Bombay Beach Ruins
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On the shores of a dying desert lake is the Bombay Beach Ruins, a once-popular beach resort abandoned in the 1980s.

The Bombay Beach Ruins is an absolute gem for photographers hoping to capture urban decline in a location with a lake background amidst the ruins.

A 30-year evacuation from Bombay Beach left traces of abandoned houses and trailers to weather outdoors.

About six primary houses are scattered throughout the remaining ruins of the town, windowless husks of homes covered in graffiti, flanked by debris and broken furniture.

The grounds of Bombay Beach Ruins
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Other sights are an old TV on the sand and large tires lying around.

The Bombay Beach Ruins have been in this condition for many decades.

Witnessing its derelict state can be a fascinating experience, especially if you’re interested in abandoned history.

An old chair at Bombay Beach Ruins
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Hike the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge

Daytime view of Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge
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The Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge actively maintains land of about 3,000 acres for migratory birds.

It is situated in California's Imperial Valley along the south end of the Salton Sea.

The refuge manages two units 18 miles apart, each bordered by the Salton Sea to the north and farmlands to the south, east, and west.

Although each unit has desert uplands, wetland habitats, and farm fields, all the area covering the refuge is flat, except Rock Hill, a small, active volcano.

The grounds of Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge
Nature's Charm / Shutterstock.com

The refuge provides several waterfowl hunting sites from October through February.

Fishing season lasts all year in the refuge’s 35,500 acres of the lake area, although the lake has no active fisheries.

Choose among 2,100 miles of invigorating trails and boardwalks featuring local history, visual arts, culture, and environmental education displays.

Geese at Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge
Nature's Charm / Shutterstock.com

Spot Birds at the Imperial Wildlife Area Wister Unit

The Imperial Wildlife Area Wister Unit offers a year-round exhibit of beauty and wildlife opportunities.

Between a scorching desert and a sea saltier than the ocean, the Imperial Wildlife Area Wister Unit is a narrow, artificial wetland oasis that provides refuge to migratory birds traveling the Pacific Flyway.

With over 6,000 acres and situated approximately 200 feet below sea level, the Imperial Wildlife Area Wister Unit is impressive.

It boasts arguably the highest species count of any wildlife region, with nearly 400 specimens recorded in the area!

The Imperial Wildlife Area Wister Unit has drawn tourists for its raw beauty and serenity for decades.

It offers popular activities such as bird watching, wildlife photography, hunting, fishing, and camping.

Bring your drinking water, as the area doesn’t provide potable water.

See the Domes and Mud Pots of the Salton Buttes

A mud pot at Salton Buttes
Lush Photography / Shutterstock.com

Southern California is home to several active volcanoes–the Salton Buttes, five lava domes southeast of the Salton Sea.

These lava domes are scattered among Mullet Island, Rock Hill, Obsidian Butte, and Red Island, containing two domes.

The Salton Buttes are strongly associated with a geothermal and fumarolic field and indications of volcanoes buried underground.

Visitors will see unusual mud pots or pools of acidic mud heated by the geothermal field and occasionally spew mud over the rim.

Close view of a mud pot at Salton Buttes
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Muddy cones, some as tall as five feet, slowly build up around a central vent as mud spits out due to the release of carbon dioxide.

Although the last eruption happened 1,800 years ago, it’s essential always to exercise caution when visiting these locations.

So, don't climb on the lava domes, and avoid contact with the mud pots because they’re acidic and may vary in temperature.

Moreover, do not bring pets, and keep an eye on your children.

The grounds of Salton Buttes
Lush Photography / Shutterstock.com

Play Games at Red Earth Casino

Red Earth Casino is a fun place to stop along Highway 86, approximately three miles from Salton Sea Beach.

Red Earth Casino is known as Coachella Valley’s cleanest and friendliest casino!

With more than 400 slots, Red Earth Casino has everything to make it a jackpot haven for gamers.

Games are updated regularly, so check back occasionally to discover what’s new, especially if you live in the neighboring valleys.

After a fun day gaming at the casino, hang out at the Oasis Bar, where you can enjoy their delicious snacks, meals, and specialty drinks.

Visit the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club

View of North Shore Beach and Yacht Club at night
Kevin Key / Shutterstock.com

Located along the Salton Sea's northeastern shore are the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club.

It is an Albert Frey-designed structure that would grow to be California's largest marina, initially opened in 1959.

Some notable names from the entertainment world dock boats at the marina, including Jerry Lewis, Guy Lombardo, the Marx Brothers, and members of The Beach Boys!

But the sea's ever-increasing salinity from agricultural runoff and fluctuating water levels resulted in a massive flood in 1981.

The flood destroyed the club's jetty and made it impossible for boats to dock, leading to the club's full closure by 1984.

Like most structures near the Salton Sea, the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club was abandoned and vandalized.

In 2009, a grant was approved by Riverside County to rehabilitate and restore the facility.

The yacht club was reopened in 2010 as the Salton Sea History Museum, serving as a museum and a community center.

The Salton Sea History Museum eventually relocated to Mecca, California, and the land formerly the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club is continually used for community events.

In 2015, the property was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Appreciate Art at Salvation Mountain

View of the colorful Salvation Mountain
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Salvation Mountain is in the Southern California desert on the eastern portion of the Salton Sea and at the entrance of Slab City.

The late actor Leonard Knight built Salvation Mountain, a hillside visionary landscape monument to God with its simple but profound message "God Is Love."

This "outsider art" work is adorned with numerous fascinating and colorful elements like bluebirds, flowers, suns, trees, and waterfalls.

It also contains biblical texts like John 3:16, the Sinner's Prayer, and the Lord’s Prayer.

A painted mailbox at Salvation Mountain
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Standing 50 feet tall and 150 feet wide and built entirely of local adobe clay, it’s unique to America and possibly the entire world!

Thousands of gallons of paint, old tires, windows, and adobe bricks were also used to create the artwork.

Salvation Mountain is a must-see, as attested by those who have journeyed here.

Colorful trail of Salvation Mountain
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Observe Wildlife at Dos Palmas Preserve

Dos Palmas Preserve is a 1,400-acre wildlife preserve in California's Riverside County.

It is about four miles east of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area.

It has a vast oasis and wetland habitat with abundant desert fan palms.

Pools are supplied by artesian water from several springs like the Dos Palmas Spring and water seeping from the Coachella Canal.

Dos Palmas Preserve boasts abundant wildlife, including endangered species such as the Yuma rail and the Orocopia sage.

Familiar residents and migrant wildlife species at the oasis include the flat-tail horned lizard, American avocet, desert woodrat, leaf-nosed bat, osprey, and snowy egret.

Stop by the Dos Palmas Preserve, enjoy a stroll, and enjoy the unusual sight of palm trees and wildlife thriving amidst the desert.

Take a Sneak Peek at Slab City

Entrance to Slab City
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Slab City, commonly known as the Slabs, is an off-the-grid and unincorporated community in Imperial County’s Salton Trough region of the Sonoran Desert.

Rent-free squatters and seasonal snowbirds have resided on this state-owned territory for decades.

Snowbirds are people who move to warmer climates from colder regions of North America.

They have called it "the last free place to live in America."

Slab City took its name from the concrete slabs that remained following the destruction of Camp Dunlap, a Marine Corps training facility during World War II.

A building at Slab City
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This remote settlement has adopted some characteristics of a bonafide city.

There’s a tiny library, an internet cafe, a skatepark, and an open-stage venue for community events.

Streets were given names, a few businesses sell food, and some properties are listed on Airbnb.

However, no electricity, water, garbage collection, or building codes exist.

Slab City has long attracted those wanting to live nomadic lifestyles in the country.

Enjoy Panoramic Views at North Shore Community Park

The North Shore Community Park is one of the east valley’s larger parks offering lots of fun and recreational opportunities.

North Shore Community Park opened in 2018 but was severely damaged by a major storm that blew across the region just hours later.

Today, the park boasts numerous sports courts, a soccer field, a skate park, a walking trail, picnic tables, a large playground, and an observation point.

Due to the efforts and hard work of everyone involved, North Shore Community Park has become a destination for recreation and appreciating the stunning panoramas of the Salton Sea.

Bring your loved ones to North Shore Community Park to enjoy a picnic, a stroll along the walking trail, or play games on the courts and the field!

Check Out Odd Art at East Jesus

The grounds of East Jesus
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East Jesus is a desert art community located on the northern edge of Slab City and accessible by dirt roads.

The community may appear similar to other areas of the Slabs, with odd art pieces built of recycled trash and temporary trailer homes for a few inhabitants.

The site, however, is private property.

The local non-profit group, the Chasterus Foundation, 2016 purchased the 30-acre site.

An odd art piece at East Jesus
Cody C McDonald / Shutterstock.com

East Jesus’ primary attraction is the enormous outdoor "art museum" with oddities like a car covered in baby doll heads, a wall of broken TVs, and more.

Residents of East Jesus reside in a complex network of trailers encircling a communal living space behind the museum.

Writers, artists, musicians, scientists, and laypeople seeking a working example of a great improvised community find refuge in the East Jesus community.

Compared to the Slabs, East Jesus is entirely self-sufficient, runs fully on solar power, and makes an effort to reuse and recycle all consumable waste.

Take a Scenic Drive through Painted Canyon

Cliffs at the Painted Canyon
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The Painted Canyon is a narrow, high-walled gorge within 41,300 acres of California's Mecca Hills Recreation Area.

The canyon features soft hues that cover the earth's surface where rocky outcrops and mudstone were shifted by the San Andreas Fault hundreds of years ago.

Hills and canyon walls are painted in hues of brown, gray, green, pink, and red, creating a fantastic spectacle.

Grounds of the Painted Canyon
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The Painted Canyon’s exposed rock layers and colorful walls enhance several distinctive geological formations, revealing their historical past.

Hiking is a prevalent activity at Painted Canyon.

Consider taking the Ladder Canyon Trail if you explore Painted Canyon on foot.

Go Off-Roading with Steve’s ATV Rentals

Situated about two miles from the heart of Salton City, Steve's ATV Rentals gives you an off-roading adventure with their ATVs to UTVs and RZRs!

Since 2001, they have provided ATV, UTV, and Dune Buggy rentals to the Pismo Beach (Oceano) Dunes.

In 2008, they opened sites on Oregon Dunes and the Southern California desert.

At Salton City, Steve’s ATV Rentals provides the best family entertainment for the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area.

It's a vast desert off-roading area west of the Salton Sea.

With Salton’s 85,000 acres of excellent trails to discover, Steve’s has an excursion for everyone.

Take in the breathtaking hilltop views of the Salton Sea.

While off-roading this area, find the telephone booth perched on a hill, rock sculptures, and an NYC fire hydrant, all in the middle of nowhere.

Final Thoughts

The Salton Sea is California's most toxic inland lake, which has lost one-third of its water for 25 years.

Several factors have contributed to the Salton Sea's shrinkage, including agriculture, climate change, and a drop in Colorado River flow.

Despite its tragic past, the Salton Sea remains a significant landmark in California, home to abundant wildlife and incredible natural phenomena.

Discover the best things to do in the Salton Sea!

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