Salton Sea, California, USA
Also known as: Salton Lake
Welcome to the ultimate guide for history, statistics, local fun facts and the best things to do at Salton Sea.
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Salton Sea visitor and community guide
Salton Sea, sometimes called Salton Lake, is an inland saline lake located in southern California along the Mexican border. Though hard to believe, the creation of one of the world’s largest inland seas was an accident: in 1905, flooding of the Colorado River caused water to flow through the canal barriers for over 18 months. Instead of river waters irrigating the below-sea-level Imperial Valley, the Colorado River waters filled up the Salton Trough. The result is the largest lake in California, 360 square miles of average surface area and 110 miles of shoreline. Finally, in 1907 the river waters were re-directed back into Imperial Valley irrigation and the Gulf of California.
The Salton Sea has no outlets. The original fresh water from the Colorado River evaporated quickly in the desert heat. Inflow is mainly agricultural run-off from the New, Alamo, and Whitewater Rivers, carrying salt from the Colorado River. Today, the Salton Sea is 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean.
The Salton Sea is now a diverse habitat ideal for many species of wildlife and tempting to many visitors seeking a bit of water-based enjoyment. Nature lovers, bird watchers, hikers, and bikers will not only find hours of enjoyment along the shores of the Salton Sea, but will also be amazed at the hundreds of bird species flying above their heads, many fish swimming beneath the lake’s surface, and thousands of animals that make these wetlands their home.
Over the last few hundred years, a staggering 90 percent of California wetlands have been lost – what in 1780 totaled 5 million acres dwindled to only 450,000 acres in 1999. Because of this sad reality, the Salton Sea has become a refuge to many of the state’s refugee wildlife. In fact, the lake is home to 40 percent of the United State’s Yuma clapper rail, 80 to 90 percent of American white pelicans, and 90 percent of the eared grebe.
The Salton Sea faces ecological challenges. Some studies conclude that the water is too salty, that the lake is too rich in nutrients, that there are times when the lake lacks the necessary oxygen, and that there is far too much green algae (which sometimes makes it smell). Animals die for unexplained reasons, and scientist are largely baffled by some of the Salton Sea’s most pressing problems. However, information is varied and opinions are strong, so if these issues are important to you, do your research and read many different opinions.
The Salton Sea Authority is a joint powers agency chartered by the State of California in 1993 to ensure the beneficial uses of this inland lake. Since 2002 the Authority has been working on a Salton Sea Integrated Water Management Plan to restore and revitalize the Salton Sea. While preserving the lake’s function as an agricultural water depository, the Authority’s objectives include stabilizing salinity, managing water quality, controlling water levels and preserving shoreline, improving wildlife habitats, and optimizing economic growth in the region.
Despite the recurring issues, the lake is a hub for outdoor activity and welcomes more than 200,000 visitors to its shores each year. Begin your trip at the Salton Sea State Park, the most oft-visited recreational area at the lake. The park’s Visitor Center schools you in the basics of the park, and then lets you out into the green wilds to enjoy miles of trails, picnicking, fishing, incredible bird watching, and under-the-stars camping.
An annual pilgrimage for many birdwatchers, the Salton Sea is home to around 400 different species of birds. To put that number in perspective, only 900 species of birds live within the entire United States. Clearly, the lake is one of the most diverse bird habitats many will ever experience. In fact, during the winter migration, it’s said that over 4 million birds are said to rest here each day. The most common birds you’ll see are American avocets, black-necked stilts, Canada geese, eared grebes, green-winged teal, and snow geese, though a wide variety of other waterfowl, migrating birds, and endangered species also live at the lake. For the best bird watching, head to the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, a 2,200-acre protected area.
Anglers will be more than excited by the prospect of fishing at Salton Lake. Believed by some to be the most productive fishery in the world, this inland sea teems with gulf croaker, ocean corvina, sargo, and tilapia, among others. Five’s the limit on corvina (sea bass), ranging in size from 5 to a whopping 37 pounds. Possibly the lake’s most populous fish, tilapia, almost beg to be caught, and most fishermen leave the lake with at least 100 tilapia in tow. Without a doubt, the Salton Sea will not disappoint an avid angler. As always, make sure to get a California fishing license before you get here, as you can’t fish without it. Anglers should follow the California Sport Fish Consumption Advisories (see link below).
While you’re at the lake, you owe it to yourself to take a boat out and explore, if only for the day. The Salton Sea has been home to boat races since 1928, partly due to the lake’s reputation as the fastest lake in the country. The combination of high salt content and low elevation (average 220 feet below sea level) make boats more buoyant and allow engines to operate at optimum power and performance. With these unique conditions and the beauty of the Salton Sea all around you, a day out on the lake is one that is enjoyed by all.
The Salton Sea has an incredibly unique ecosystem and many activities to fill your days, but it is also home to many questions and concerns. Educating yourself before your trip will not only make you an informed visitor, but will help you appreciate and enjoy everything that you see and do at California’s largest lake.
Custom Salton Sea house decor
Read our full review of these personalized lake house signs.
Things to do at Salton Sea
- Vacation Rentals
- Wildlife Viewing
- National Wildlife Refuge
- State Park
Fish species found at Salton Sea
Best hotels and vacation rentals at Salton Sea
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Salton Sea photo gallery
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Salton Sea statistics & helpful links
Lake Type: Natural Saltwater Lake, Not Dammed
Surface Area: 240,640 acres
Shoreline Length: 110 miles
Normal Elevation (Full Pond): -227 feet
Average Depth: 30 feet
Maximum Depth: 51 feet
Water Volume: 7,500,000 acre-feet
Drainage Area: 7,851 sq. miles
Trophic State: Eutrophic
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