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mike's detours: salton sea, california

Hello once again! To those who don't know me, I'm Amy's husband Mike. I write Mike's Detours, a coloumn that appears on the blog every so often where I share great places to discover in our city and beyond. Right now we're on vacation in southern California, so I'll share one of the highlights of our trip thus far: a place equal parts strange, beautiful, and desolate.

Yesterday we went to the Salton Sea, a geoengineered lake straddling Riverside and Imperial counties in California. I have wanted to visit this place for some time. It was accidentally made in 1905 when some canal builders unwittingly diverted the Colorado River into an ancient basin; in 16 months the area went from dry flatland to one of the largest freshwater lakes in the state.

Fast forward a couple of decades and it was a vibrant, biodiverse ecological centre of southern California. It evolved to become an extremely popular vacation destination for Californians in the 1950s and 60s, but its appeal slowly decayed over time. The lake doesn’t drain except through evaporation, so it became increasingly saline, as well as polluted from agricultural runoff and two hurricanes conspired to destroy the once-thriving tourism industry.

The surface area of the saltwater lake is 889 sq km, so it’s quite a significant body of water. Various parks and small settlements dot its shores, but largely speaking it is mostly a quiet, out of the way destination these days. Two small highways circle the area offering rich views; the western one runs four lanes and is good quality, while the eastern road is a two-lane highway that is pretty good. You can encounter Customs and Border Protection inland border enforcement stops there because the region is a quick skip from the Mexican border. These can cause traffic delays; otherwise it’s a relatively calm part of the state.

We started at the visitors centre in the Salton Sea State Recreational Area along Grapefruit Blvd on the northeastern shore. There we found an incredibly informative host from the California State Parks service and a helpful 10-minute video to help you get situated. The centre has plenty of maps and brochures to help you orient yourself, along with reliable bathrooms, a rarity until you reach larger centres such as El Centro. Be forewarned.

Outside the centre is a curious beach made from ground shells and fish bones. It offers fantastic vistas but starts to smell like a dead body the closer you get to the water.

The state government insists that the area is safe for fishing and that the water is not polluted, just very salty (about double the concentration of the Pacific Ocean), but independent sources site unsafe deposits of DDT resulting from agricultural runoff. I wouldn’t eat a fish caught from this lake. Besides, only tilapia have survived the lake’s increased salinity and the just aren’t worth the risk.

From the visitors centre head south on Grapefruit/State Highway 111 and stop at Bombay Beach. This was a planned community of trailers and bungalows that was slowly abandoned.

It’s a fantastic example of a decaying shanty town, though some homes are still occupied, clinging to the last vestiges of what it has to offer. It attracts many visitors who poke around abandoned 50s and 60s vacation bungalows eaten away by the salty winds.

Keep heading south and you’ll hit Niland, a small town that offers nothing in itself. Make a left on Main Street, cross the tracks, and follow Beal Road to Salvation Mountain, one of the most impressive examples of folk art in the state. A Vietnam veteran by the name of Leonard Knight masterminded this colourful installation of adobe, straw and lead-free paint that looms over the landscape.

Adorned with gospel and other religious symbols, the site offers several nook and passages, as well as a nice vista of the region. Whether you recognize the site as spiritual or not, I was taken by the man’s dedication to constructing a beautiful site that could be visited freely by any that wished to see it. The detail of the place is incredible.

Salvation Mountain introduces travellers to the area known as Slab City. Venture father down Beal Road and you will find a loose collective of camps, trailers and salvaged property from a former US Marines training site-turned-hippie colony. I don’t want to sound derisive of the people there; in fact, I pointedly did not take pictures of them for fear of turning them into an attraction.

It is interesting to see people who, whether temporary or permanently, have eschewed most modern comforts to live in a desert, sharing what little they have. There is an assortment of art installations on eponymous slabs, a small library, bar, stage for live music and other amenities that shows Slab City to be a community of creative and solitary individuals.

There are lots of other things to do in the region. Bubbling mud volcanoes and obsidian buttes to see, and some hiking and camping as well. There are some petroglyphs to find in the surrounding area. That said, if you’re heading out from the Palm Springs area like we did, you can quickly find that your day is getting long.

Regardless, I highly recommend witnessing this peculiar place. It’s a lesson in how humans adapt their environment without much thought of the long-term consequences of doing so. Plus it’s pretty.


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