Kayaking The Salton Sea
Deemed the next Las Vegas during the 1940s and 50s, the Salton Sea had a resort-like atmosphere. Waterskiing, fishing and boating were favorite pastimes. There was a time when 400,000 boats used the sea each year. More people went to the Salton Sea than Yosemite National Park. But over the years, it has endured flooding, increased salinity, high evaporation levels, and there’s no outlet for the water. There used to be several species of fish living in the sea, but after several mass die-offs, tilapia is the only one able to tolerate living in the sea (25-percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean). Eventually the 110-mile shoreline lost its luster.
However, kayaking the Salton Sea still holds a certain allure for the curious hardy enough to explore its remote beauty and enjoy its massive flocks of American white pelicans, double-crested cormorants and thousands of other waterfowl filling the skies in V-shaped formations.
Created when the Colorado River swelled and breached levees in 1905, the Salton Sea has been a major winter stopover for over 400 species of birds ever since. That makes the Salton Sea one of the best bird watching hot spots in the country. The Salton Sea is the southern wintering grounds for 80 to 90 percent of the entire American white pelican population and the best place to see this magnificent bird.
The Salton Sea North Shore
During our circumnavigation of the Salton Sea by kayak, we chose to spend the first night at a spot on the north shore away from campgrounds tucked away in a sheltered grove of tamarisk trees lulled to sleep by lapping waves and pelicans bathing and frolicking at dusk. Camping around most of the Salton Sea’s shoreline is wide open, and there are plenty of places to choose from. Temperatures in the desert are extreme in the winter, with daytime highs in the 70s and evenings dipping into the 20s. The frozen brine on the shoreline crackling beneath our feet was our morning reminder just how cold it can be during the night. An inquisitive coyote investigating nearby warmed itself in the morning glow, while western sandpipers and black-necked stilts tiptoed in the glassy, tranquil shallows.
The sleepy town of Desert Shores is on the western shore of the sea and rests at the base of the rugged Santa Rosa Mountains and its sweeping alluvial fans. The western shore has more than its fair share of abandoned, dilapidated buildings, which the Salton Sea is in no short supply of. The region inspired the 2002 movie “Salton Sea” starring Val Kilmer. We stayed clear of any towns or buildings on the western side, mostly because we saw little signs of life, and our party yearned for the silence of the desert.
We also visited the Salton Sea Test Base on the western shore, established in the 1940s by Sandia Labs in New Mexico for missile testing. It was later used by the U. S. Navy, but today there is not much left. Guano-covered pilings still stand, some with cormorant nests clinging to the tops. But other than that, just a couple of old buildings remain among an old desalination plant with live ordnance signs surrounding the site’s periphery. Just a few miles south of the test base we found a set of high sand dunes that swept down to a sheltered point with a small natural cove that made a perfect primitive beach camp for the night.
Miles of paddling lay ahead to reach Bombay Beach on the eastern shore. The southern Salton Sea is a study in contrasts from the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge and its abundant birdlife, to the geothermal plumes wafting out of Niland into the desert. Every morning against the rising sun the plumes appeared ominous over the desert landscape, and disappeared as the sun rose overhead.
The Sonny Bono refuge extends a couple of miles out to sea, and small aircraft are required to stay clear of the multitude of avian species that call this winter sanctuary home. We skirted the periphery of the refuge, aiming eastward toward the town of Niland, then turned northward for the long paddle up the eastern shoreline to Bombay Beach.
Less than 400 people live in Bombay Beach, which hovers over the San Andreas Fault. In 2005 the California Department of Boating and Waterways built two campgrounds specifically geared toward kayakers planning to paddle and explore the Salton Sea. The camps offer shade, showers, toilets, barbeques and racks for kayaks. We chose the more isolated Salt Creek Kayak Camp about 7 miles north of the town of Bombay Beach. Here we enjoyed the solitude and stillness that epitomizes the desert. State park personnel have plans to relocate the Bombay Beach Kayak Camp, as it has suffered from vandalism due to its proximity to town.
The next morning we were out on the water early again and paddling northward following the flight formations of thousands of white pelicans and seeing many more roosting along the shoreline. Nearing the finish of our circumnavigation we soon heard the sounds of three noisy excited boys casting fishing lines from a bright white jetty near the entrance to the Varner Harbor marina where we had put in at the recreation area headquarters. It was a scene reminiscent of the 1940s when the Salton Sea received as many visitors as our busiest national parks.
Before You Explore The Salton Sea
You don’t have to primitive kayak camp to explore the Salton Sea. Car camping and RV camping are available in the six campgrounds offering a total of about 1,500 campsites (some with full hookups, most are basic) within the Salton Sea State Recreation Area (800-444-7275, www.parks.ca.gov) located on the northeast shore. The best time to visit the Salton Sea is in the winter when daytime temperatures are mild to warm. It’s also the best time for bird watching. The Salton Sea is on the Pacific Flyway, and is one of the most important winter stopovers for migratory birds. This is also the best place to leave your vehicle and begin your paddling trip.