The recreation area is open year-round and offers tent camping, full RV hook-up sites, a camp store, kayak rentals, tilapia fishing, a boat launch, hiking trails, guided tours and several children's programs. We saw an elementary school field trip when we were there.
Our first stop, as always, was the Visitor Center, where we learned more about the origin of this lake.
Millions of years ago, waters from the Gulf of California once extended into this region. Sand deposits formed a dam between here and the ocean created a huge inland sea. Over hundreds of years fresh water from the Colorado River replaced the salt water creating Lake Cahuilla.
Native Americans, the Cahuilla People, lived along the shores of the lake for centuries, hunting, fishing, and farming the area. Here is a display of their traditional shelter and some rock art.
When the Colorado River shifted south the lake dried up leaving a large salt deposit in the basin. When farmers discovered the fertile soil in the mid-1800s, the began to build irrigation canals from the Colorado. In 1905, a huge flood along the river crashed through the canals and filled the basin with a lake 45 miles long and 20 miles wide. It took until 1907 to get the water flow under control. Today the Sea is shrinking (35x15 miles) as more water evaporates each year than flows in. Agricultural runoff is the primary source of water today that causes algae blooms that emit stinking gases. Additionally, the salinity (currently 50% saltier than the Pacific Ocean) increases 1% per year as there is no natural outflow. The surface of the lake is 230' below sea level and sits atop the San Andreas Fault.
The Salton Sea became a tourist attraction in the 1950s. The pollution from agricultural runoff and the increasing salinity, has killed many fish species that once thrived in the Sea and they have washed ashore in large numbers.
The stench of decaying fish as well as the algae blooms cause the demise of the tourist industry. Nonetheless, it is really quite beautiful here.
We strolled along the beach next to the Visitor Center. Large crusted salt deposits can be seen along the shoreline. There are 300 million tons of salt in the Sea. The "sand" is primarily comprised of crunched up barnacles (that were an invasive species introduced to the lake when Patton's troops were trained in the desert near here during WWII).
The one-mile (each way) Ironwood Nature Trail begins at the New Camp Campground near site #30 and travels south through the desert and along the Salton Sea to the Mecca Beach Campground. The park ranger permitted us to take Sadie, our doggy, with us on the trail (although their were signs prohibiting dogs).
The waterfowl here are abundant and beautiful. The Sea is along the Pacific Flyway and an important stop for migrating birds each year. Below are some seagulls, white pelicans, and a great blue heron.
We explored a portion of the the beach and then returned to the trail.
At the Mecca Beach Campground is an area for ranger presentations and camp gatherings. We again spent some time exploring the beautiful beach here.
While we initially aware of the smell of the sea, after spending some time there it was really not offensive. The admission fee is $5/vehicle. There are over 400 million tilapia in the Salton Sea (peak fishing season is November to April) and over 400 species of birds that visit the area. For additional information about the activities available at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, check out their website.