It may be the smelliest place I’ve been to in awhile but this ‘accidental sea’ is oh so very interesting! It used to be a resort hot spot in the 1950’s – thousands of people from Southern California used to flock here to go fishing, water skiing, boating and beachin’ (in their Airstreams no less). 😉 Boating was so popular then that a 15-lane boat ramp was put in. Long lines of campers waited to check-in for a fun-filled weekend! You wouldn’t have guessed that today…

The Salton Sea isn’t really a ‘sea’ – it’s actually the largest lake in California. It stretches 35 miles in length, 15 miles wide and 235 feet below sea level. It’s essentially a landlocked extension of the Gulf of California. Yes, there is a Gulf of California (who knew!?).

Unlike most lakes however, the Salton Sea has no natural outlets that flow to the ocean; whatever flows in, including agricultural runoff, does not flow out. Water is lost through evaporation and through percolation (like a strainer) into the ground.

This present body of water is one of many lakes that have filled this basin over millions of years. The remains of both freshwater and sea creatures have been found high in the surrounding hills and mountains. The Salton Sink (ha ha!) basin was originally part of what is now the Gulf of California. The Colorado River, which flows from the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Gulf, scoured out the formations of Arizona’s Grand Canyon (just in case you didn’t know). In wet times, the river would fill the sink and at other times, it would completely bypass the sink, causing the lake to shrink and sometimes, even disappear.


During the late 1800s, the CDC (California Development Company) wanted to design/make an agricultural empire in the Colorado Desert. But in order to do so, they needed water to irrigate the fileds and orchards. By 1901 the Colorado River had been tapped for this purpose – in about 2 years it was irrigating more than 100,000 acres in the Imperial Valley. Success! Errr… or not!

The CDC had not thought far enough in advance as to an effective method for dealing with irrigation runoff, silt buildup, and high/rising water levels (whoops)!

So, as fate would have it… things overflowed. In 1905, after an unusually wet winter, the Colorado River broke through a poorly constructed canal cut. For about 16 months, the river’s entire volume poured into the nearest low spot. You guessed it! The Salton Sink. The water, left unchecked, inundated entire communities. The main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad got flooded – 40 miles of railroad had to be rerouted. The Torres Martinez Reservation and the New Liverpool Salt Company that mined the pure salt deposits from beneath the lake also flooded.

In 1907, the railroad built a trestle and gathered tons of fill matter and boulders that they dumped into the stream-bed. But by then the lake flooded nearly 350,000 acres. To put it into perspective, the Salton Sea is so large that from some vantage points, the earth’s curvature hides the opposite shore. Pretty amazing!

A positive that came out of this unfortunate situation – The Salton Sea has provided a sanctuary to an extremely diverse collection of wildlife and the critical habitats that nurture them. The sea holds millions of fish that feed the masses of birds flying through in winter. This place is a birdwatchers paradise. There are over 400 species of birds that migrate through this area every winter.

The Salton Sea is definitely worth a stop in you’re in the area – even perhaps a couple days stay. You can walk along the shoreline and find some very interesting things (and fish skeletons). Although the smell (the sea is saltier than the Pacific Ocean) isn’t for everyone, it is a beautiful place to see. It’s a fascinating piece of history to witness.

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