The Salton Sea isn’t so much a hike as it is a weird adventure.
The Salton Sea is shared by Riverside and Imperial counties. This “man made disaster” (which isn’t exactly correct, this area has naturally flooded periodically over thousands of years) was created when there was a breach in a dam at the Colorado River. In the 1950s and 60s the Salton Sea was a resort with swimming, water-skiing, and yachting.
Being super smart-as man often is- the sea was populated with fish that shouldn’t be there. Agricultural runoff into the basin caused the fish in the sea to die, creating a beach filled with fish carcasses and stench that on a hot day sometimes can still be smelled throughout Southern California.
As a result, the resort town folded. People literally left everything there and you can still see boats, cars, and even houses with clothing and shoes from the 1950s still inside. The Salton Sea is now an apocalyptic town filled with strange sights and a culture of people living outside the norms of society.
I’ve been to the Salton Sea twice: once as a hike through the Ladder Canyon, and then again as a day trip around the area this past April. One thing I can say is that despite the The Hills Have Eyes kind of feel, the place is absolutely beautiful, surrounded by a hodgepodge of desert landscapes and vineyards juxtaposed with geological formations and mountains in the distance.
Here are some places I visited:
The World Famous International Banana Museum:
This was the first stop. I mean, it’s home of the largest collection of banana items, so you have to. You would think that the world’s largest banana museum would be huge, but it’s actually a fairly small place. Not quite closet sized, but maybe “really rich person closet” sized. Here you will find banana themed items from around the world. Banana figurines. Banana toys. Stuffed bananas. Frozen bananas. Lots of pictures of bananas as well, including one photo of a banana doing something to another banana that is clearly not consensual. They request a dollar donation if you visit, or you can purchase something from the shop and have your fee covered.
This is one of the main attractions at the Salton Sea, and probably what it is most famous for. Built by Leonard Knight, the mountain is “a tribute to God and his gift to the world with its simple yet powerful message: ‘God Is Love.’” (Source: Salvationmountain.us)
The mountain features biblical scripture and colorful scenes from the bible created with a variety of materials, including bottles, wire, and plaster-covered hay bales. Leonard Knight passed away in 2014, but the property is still guarded by caretakers who will loudly remind you to “STAY ON THE YELLOW BRICK ROADDDD!!!” when climbing the piece of art.
I’d say you should pour some out for Lenny, but I don’t think he’d like that very much, because, you know, Jesus.
Located near Salvation Mountain is Slab City, a place for squatters in the middle of the desert. Slab City is full of pieces of art made from anything you can think of–even shoes tied to a tree, as well as dwellings, also made of anything you can think of. There is also a library and a hostel where you can stay if you have special permission, or just wander in and feed ducks that are in a random coop next to the “hotel.”
East Jesus, a section of Slab City, has a sculpture garden featuring pieces made from rusted metal, recycled glass, and old TVs. There’s also shakey tree house that I did, in fact, climb because I like to live life dangerously and really want to ensure that tetanus shot I suffered through wasn’t for naught.
Located way yonder on the corner of Davis Rd and Schrimpf Rd. It’s on a washboard dirt road, so be sure your car can handle it. We were in a truck which was fine, but I’m not sure I’d take my Hyundai Elantra on there. I’m also not sure I should drive that car anywhere, as it’s been in the shop twice in the past two weeks. But I digress.
Not really sure why these mud volcanoes exist, but they’re kind of cool and freaky, and definitely worth a visit. This is just one of them. I’d also recommend NOT sticking your finger/hand/face in these. I don’t know how hot they are, and also eww.
Continuing with the depressed feel is Red Hill. Walking around this area will reveal just how much the sea has receded, as you can see docks that seem miles long that lead into nothing but dirt. Currently there are restoration efforts to extend the space into wetlands for migratory birds and to leave room for geothermal energy plants (probably something to do with those mud pots we saw earlier). I wouldn’t say this is a must Sea (see what I did there?) but you can easily stop there on the way back from the mud volcanoes.
Bombay Beach as a main attraction in the 1960s. Now, it is an abandoned wasteland covered with rusted boats, empty houses, and bleached fish carcasses. While I was there I saw all sorts of strange photo shoots going on, including what I am pretty sure was an adult video, which was really cool for anyone who brought their families there, because kids gotta learn about that stuff sometime, amiright?.
For some inexplicable reason, people still live in some of the houses at Bombay Beach, so while you’re there you may have residents eyeing you with suspicion as you make your way down the road.
This was the last stop for the day and I saw a pretty epic sunset. I do wish I’d gotten there early and spent a bit more time, as there is tons to see in that section alone.
These are just some of the attractions you can see at the Salton Sea, but there are many more, such as the Sonny Bono Wildflife Refuge, an important spot for migratory birds. There are also camping sites available if you’re into that sort of thing. Hiking opportunities are also available–the Ladder Canyon hike is a popular spot.
Whatever you do, be sure to make time to explore the area. You won’t be disappointed.