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Circumnavigating the Salton Sea (While it's still there)

Posted by Morgan Miles Craft On 9:58 AM

A day trip around this man made bathtub is a trip through a unique version of the American dream.
by Morgan Craft

Anybody who spends time in the desert knows about the Salton Sea. Many have even made the drive to stare from its eerily beautiful shoreline. To really know the thing, however, a complete circumnavigation is the way to go about it. And it’s a great day trip, with a truly offbeat set of sights and experiences to be had along the way. (Read on...Click here!)

Sure, it smells funky. And yes, sometimes thousands of its fish die off all at once. It’s going to take billions to fix it, if that actually ever happens. Oh, and one of the most polluted waterways in the country, the New River, flows into its southern end, a gift from Mexico.

Heading east on Highway 111 takes you through the date and citrus groves of Mecca, until they open up to the vista of the Salton Sea’s North Shore. In the tiny seaside community, the North Shore Yacht Club, a 50-year-old structure designed by Albert Frey, sits rotting on the shore. Dubbed “the glamour capital of the Salton Sea”, the club boasted among its visitors the Marx Brothers, Jerry Lewis, and the Beach Boys. It was slated for demolition until the local community organized to win its preservation. A $3.5 million renovation will have it housing a community center, museum and visitor’s center.

With a strategic location on the Pacific Flyway, the Salton Sea is a major stopover, habitat and nesting ground for over 400 species of birds, some of which travel as far as Alaska and the tip of South America. Lines of them glide lazily just above the water, the Santa Rosa Mountains hazy on the far shore, and an army of white pelicans lay claim to the marina’s jetty, while a pair of kayakers keeps them company. The sea looks larger from the east side, stretching south beyond the curve of the horizon.

The Salton Sea State Recreation Area occupies eighteen miles of the shoreline beyond North Shore, offering shaded picnic tables, a boat launch and RV hookups. Waterfowl of every type wade along the shoreline, and some people actually swim in the water, which is 25% saltier than the ocean.

At the sign for Bombay Beach, a right turn takes you into this dusty, hardscrabble community, holdouts of the Salton Sea Dream, where golf carts are the preferred transportation. A levee keeps the sea at bay, and on its other side, decaying carcasses of mobile homes line the shore, reclaimed by salt and sun and weather. A single establishment services the community, and a Salton Sea trip is not complete without time spent with the upbeat locals at the Ski Inn. The patty melts made on the griddle here are reputable enough that the Food Network’s Anthony Bourdain made it a stop during an episode of his show, “No Reservations.”

The Wister Unit of the Imperial Wildlife Area, ten miles beyond Bombay Beach, is another prime birding location, and its 4200 acres of marshes and wetlands host many of the Sea’s 400 species. The ranger at the gate will direct you to the best spots based on the time of day and season.

The tiny town of Niland is the gateway to the “other desert”. Five miles to the east of town, a burst of color peeks over the horizon. Round a curve, and Salvation Mountain spreads before you, fifty feet in height and a hundred yards long. Leonard Knight has been painting his colorful biblical messages on the hill since 1985, and thousands of visitors have made their way to this remote spot, far from just about everywhere. He cheerily gives tours to anyone who wants one, despite his difficulty hearing. It’s better just to let him tell his story anyway. Ever since Sean Penn filmed parts of his film Into the Wild here, things have apparently picked up. “Twice as many people come here now,” he says with a smile, “and they all love it. It’s all about love. That’s what it (his mountain) says.”

Just behind Salvation Mountain, a unique social experiment is taking place, one which also figured prominently in Into the Wild. On the site of an abandoned WWII Marine installation, a squatter’s city has taken hold, and Slab City is now an institution. The “Slabbers”, as they call themselves, are a ragtag collection of misfits, utopians, outcasts, escapees, idealists, off-roaders and winter birds. Structures of every type and comfort level house about five hundred far-flung souls. There’s no water or electricity, but a semblance of society remains, with an impromptu café, a church, and regular musical performances. It’s like Burning Man 365 days a year. For an interesting experience, seek out the Oasis Café and hear the color of the local conversation. One particularly colorful fellow offers that “at night, this becomes a whole ‘nother place, man. Sometimes it’s wild, sometimes it’s freaky, but it’s always cool.” I bet. Just don’t take pictures of these folks – they may not like it.

The San Andreas Fault emerges from the earth’s crust at the south end of the Salton Sea, and evidence of this can be experienced firsthand, at the corner of Davis and Schrimpf roads, just south of Niland. Mud volcanoes, or “mud pots”, dot the crusty dirt landscape, about twenty in all. Viscous ooze, smelling of sulphur, bubbles and sputters from the six foot mounds, evidence that tectonic activity is allowing heated gases to escape the earth. Further evidence of geologic activity is the numerous geothermal energy plants in the area, capturing superheated steam and converting it to electricity.

The road to the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge takes you across fertile farmland, care of water from the Colorado River and the All American Canal. You’re in the heart of the nation’s winter breadbasket. At the visitor’s center, volunteers will pinpoint the best locations on any given day to spot osprey, herons, burrowing owls, egrets, terns, loons, blue footed boobies, Canadian geese, Sand hill cranes, and a host of others. The Red Hill Marina and Unit 1 sections offer a multitude of ripe opportunities.

On the way back north on highway 86, the purple folds of the Borrego Badlands fill the view to the west. At Salton City, pull off for a cold road soda at Captain Jim’s. The locals there will hear your story, and fill you full of theirs. One lovely, leathery regular clues visitors to this lonely corner of California in on the locals’ secret. “You have to be half baked already to live in the desert,” she says, “but when you get out this far, you’re fully cooked.” Amen.

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