How Deep Is The Salton Sea in California?

Salton Sea California
© iStock.com/James Griffiths Photography

Written by Ella Coppola

Updated: September 5, 2023

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Salton Sea California state recreational area sign
The Salton Sea’s average depth is around 29.9 feet, with the maximum depth reaching 51 feet.

©Josh Cornish/Shutterstock.com

The Salton Sea, situated in the California desert, is a shallow, saline lake. Its shores are home to the Salton Sea State Recreation Area and the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Its average depth is around 29.9 feet, with the maximum depth reaching 51 feet. The Salton Sea currently holds approximately 7.3 million acre-feet of water and experiences an annual evaporation of 1.3 million acre-feet. The Salton Sea measures about 35 miles by 15 miles at its present size, but during exceptionally wet years, it can expand to as large as 40 miles by nearly 20 miles. 

On the southern end of the Sea, there is a notable featureā€”a five-mile-long trench that reaches a depth of 51 feet. Remarkably, the Salton Sea currently sits at an elevation of 228 feet below sea level. An interesting fact is that the bed of the Salton Sea is only about five feet higher than the lowest point in Death Valley.

This unique body of water fills the Salton Basin, part of the ancient Lake Cahuilla. To the south, fertile agricultural lands of the Imperial Valley border the Sea, while the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park surrounds the west. On the northern side lies the Coachella Valley. The San Andreas fault originates near Bombay Beach, right by the Salton Sea, and extends for about 800 miles to the north. In 2016, researchers discovered another fault beneath the SeaSea, known as the Salton Trough fault, running parallel to the San Andreas fault. Due to the area’s geological features, scientists find numerous mud pots and mud volcanoes locally.

History

Salton Sea California

Born of an accident, once a vacation hotspot, now facing environmental issues Salton Sea is a very unique, high-saline body of water

©iStock.com/James Griffiths Photography

The Salton Sea existed between 1905 and 1907 following a significant event. It occurred when the Colorado River breached inadequately constructed irrigation controls south of Yuma, Arizona. This breach led to an overwhelming amount of the river’s water flowing into the Salton Basin, submerging communities, farmlands, and even the main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad for a period exceeding one year.

Salinity in the Salton Sean

Following the initial filling of the Salton Sea, its water level relied on irrigation runoff as agriculture took hold in Imperial County. Unfortunately, the runoff contained not only fertilizers and pesticides but also high salt levels. Over time, the increasing salinity became detrimental to the lake’s fish species, even those accustomed to saltwater conditions. The current salinity of the Sea slightly exceeds that of the Pacific Ocean, measuring around 43 to 45 TH PPM (total dissolved salts per million parts). As the salt concentration rises beyond 44 TH PPM, scientists predict that all fish, except for the tilapia, can no longer reproduce. Tilapia, originally introduced to control algae growth, can survive up to 60 TH PPM.

The Salton Sea’s remarkably flat and shallow nature means that a mere one-foot drop in water level can expose vast stretches of dry lake bed. Exposed playa quickly dries under the intense desert heat and sunlight, leading to the winds stirring up dust and causing severe air pollution. With reduced water inflow, salinity has been increasing dramatically, eventually leading to the demise of even the hardy tilapia. This, in turn, will affect the birds that depend on them as a food source, potentially leading to migration or a decline in their population. The dust pollution problem will only exacerbate under these conditions.

The Shrinking Lake

Imperial Valley

The Imperial Valley in California is extremely dry. It has no natural rivers and needed water diverted to the region.

©Nick Pecker/Shutterstock.com

The nonprofit Pacific Institute estimates that without intervention, the surface area of the 350-square-mile lake will shrink by 100 square miles by 2030, salinity will triple within 15 years, and the fish will vanish within seven years. The water purchases from Imperial Valley by San Diego, particularly those ramping up to 2021, are partly to blame, but low rainfall and water conservation efforts also contribute to the issue. Without proper measures taken, the Salton Sea faces a bleak future.

Established in 1955, the Salton Sea State Recreation Area is the primary recreational destination along the Salton Sea. Managed by the California State Park Service, it resides on the northeastern shores of the Sea. This expansive recreation area stretches from North Shore to Bombay Beach, offering many amenities and activities. With 1,400 campsites, numerous day-use and picnic sites, well-maintained trails, a Visitor Center, a playground, a boat ramp, and a designated boat washing area, it provides ample opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy the region’s natural beauty.

The Salton Sea State Recreation Area

The Salton Sea State Recreation Area attracts over 100,000 visitors annually, making it a popular destination. The recreation area offers various activities to cater to multiple interests, including boating, water skiing, fishing, jet-skiing, hiking, birdwatching, and sailboarding. Regulators estimate that more than one million people spend time at the Salton Sea each year, enjoying the diverse recreational opportunities it offers.

Nearby, visitors can explore other attractions as well. The Palm Springs Resort area, located 30 miles to the north, provides an additional destination for those seeking more adventure. About 40 miles to the northeast lies the General Patton Museum, offering historical insights for history enthusiasts. To the east of the park, visitors can discover the Dos Palmas Preserve and a historic area, adding to the richness of the overall experience. For convenience, stores and gas stations are available in North Shore, providing essential amenities to visitors in the region.

Varner Harbor

At the park’s Headquarters, Varner Harbor is a popular fishing spot featuring a fishing jetty where people catch many fish. The most commonly caught species is tilapia, a perch-like fish, with anglers often reeling in hundreds daily. There is no limit to the number of tilapia people can catch, making it a rewarding experience for fishing enthusiasts. Additionally, corvina is another sport fish found in good numbers at the south end of the Sea, while people catch croakers in smaller quantities at the north end. Occasionally, a few sargo, mullet, and striped bass can be spotted, although they are relatively rare.

Varner Harbor underwent dredging in 2016 to deepen the channel, making it more accessible for recreational boaters. The track now ranges between 4 and 6 feet deep and is open for boating with a small fee as a boat launch. However, as of 4/19, Varner Harbor is temporarily closed to vessel access until further notice due to the declining water level of the Salton Sea. The Department of Parks and Recreation is discussing the best approach for maintaining recreational boating access amid the water level changes. Visitors can still access the SeaSea by manually carrying or wheeling their non-motorized vessels (or motorized, depending on weight) across the beach to reach the water. People know this is the only motorized access point to the water now.

The Sea and Desert Visitor Center

The Salton Sea is just as salty as it sounds. Aerial view of Bombay Beach and the Southern California Salton Sea

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The Sea and Desert Visitor Center at the park’s Headquarters offers a glimpse of the diverse bird and animal life around the Salton Sea. Visitors can learn about the Sea’sSea’s creation and its historical significance through engaging video presentations. State Park Rangers conduct interpretive presentations, including lecture series, campfire programs, Jr. Ranger activities, and bird-watching excursions aboard the park’s interpretive boat.

The park also features a boat ramp, granting boaters access to nearly 400 square miles of lake surface. However, driving vehicles on the beach is strictly prohibited within the Salton Sea State Recreation Area.

Campgrounds

The Salton Sea State Recreation Area offers a variety of camping options, with over 1,400 campsites spread across five campgrounds. Among them, three campgrounds are primitive, two developed, and one provides full hookups for RVs. For the best camping experience, people recommend visiting the park from October through May, as the summer months can bring extreme temperatures. While the park remains open throughout the year, the scorching summer heat may not be suitable for camping.

Headquarters Area: This central part of the park features two campgrounds with different amenities. Due to budget constraints, Bombay Beach and the upper loop of Mecca Beach are temporarily closed until further notice. However, camping is available at Headquarters Camp, the lower loop of Mecca Beach, Salt Creek, and Corvina Beach.

New Camp is a developed campground offering flush toilets and showers, providing easy access to hiking trails, a fishing jetty, the leading boat ramp, sanitary stations, and boat wash stations. This campground conveniently sits adjacent to the Visitor Center and a small playground. The Hookup section at Headquarters offers camping sites with hookups close to the park’s headquarters office, restrooms, showers, and the largest beach where numerous activities take place. Non-hookup group camping is available for large RV groups and a sheltered meeting area for gatherings.

Bombay Beach: Located at the extreme southern end of the recreation area, Bombay Beach is now closed. Formerly offering beach camping with chemical toilets and water, it was a popular spot for fishermen. However, visitors interested in photography or exploring the ruins of the nearby town may still find it an intriguing point of interest.

More Campgrounds

Salt Creek Beach: A primitive campground on the beach with chemical toilets, Salt Creek Beach fishermen and birdwatchers favor this beach. The campground is situated along Salt Creek, allowing one to observe many bird species, including some considered rare. People can find endangered pupfish in Salt Creek.

Corvina Beach: Another primitive campground with water and chemical toilets, Corvina Beach is famous among groups. Although the beach sits on the shore of the Salton Sea shore, access to the beach can be challenging due to a drop-off. Nonetheless, it attracts many fishermen in winter who spend their weekends at Corvina Beach.

Mecca Beach Campground: This large, developed campground offers good beach access, flush toilets, showers, and a limited number of partial hookup sites for RVs. Mecca Beach is an excellent spot for fishing, swimming, and boating, attracting many visitors seeking easy access to the water. It is one of the more vibrant areas in the recreation area.

For more information, contact the recreation area at (760) 393-3059 or write to: Salton Sea State Recreation Area, 100-225 State Park Road, North Shore, CA 92254. The Visitor Center can also be reached at (760) 393-3852. From June to September, the off-season experiences scorching temperatures of 70-115 degrees Fahrenheit, making it very hot. The best time to visit the park for any activity is during the on-season from October to May when temperatures range from 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bird Watching at the Salton Sea 

Aerial view of The Salton Sea, surrounded by the Imperial Valley and the Mojave Desert

Aerial view of The Salton Sea, surrounded by the Imperial Valley and the Mojave Desert.

©Thomas Barrat/Shutterstock.com

Using a reliable pair of binoculars is crucial for observing and identifying birds’ various unique and subtle characteristics. For dedicated birdwatchers, it’s common to carry a pencil and checklist. They should contain the names of bird species in a specific region. Fortunately, most parks and refuges offer lists tailored to their area for free or at a nominal fee. This makes it easier for enthusiasts to keep track of the species they encounter during their birdwatching expeditions.

Having a bird guidebook at hand during your birdwatching expedition is immensely beneficial for amateur birdwatchers. Before heading out, take the time to study the guide and the checklist specific to the area you’ll be exploring. Familiarizing yourself with the bird species recorded in the region and their seasonal occurrences will significantly aid in identifying the birds you encounter during your field session.

When observing a bird, pay close attention to the following characteristics:

  • Color
  • Size
  • Shape
  • Wing and head markings

Always observe the bird first and then refer to your identification book, as the bird may only be visible briefly. Note these characteristics and cross-reference your guidebook. You’ll enhance your ability to identify particular bird species more easily.

Bird Species at the Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is home to a diverse range of bird species. This makes it a significant area for birdwatching and conservation. Some of the notable bird species found in the Salton Sea include:

  • American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)
  • Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)
  • Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)
  • Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)
  • Great Egret (Ardea alba)
  • White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi)
  • Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri)
  • Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla)
  • American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana)
  • Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)
  • Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis)
  • Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)
  • Cinnamon Teal (Spatula cyanoptera)
  • Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)
  • Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
  • Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)
  • White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus)
  • American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)
  • Yellow-footed Gull (Larus livens)
  • Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica)

These are just a few examples of the many bird species that can be spotted in the Salton Sea. The area’s wetlands and shoreline provide essential habitat for various waterfowl, shorebirds, and other avian species, making it a prime destination for bird enthusiasts and researchers.

Salton sea Beach swing Bombay

Swings on Bombay Beach.

©Jacob Findlay/Shutterstock.com

Where Is the Salton Sea Located on a Map?

The Salton Sea is in south-central California, just 65 miles north of the Mexican border and 59 miles south of Joshua Tree National Park. State highway 86 runs on the west side of the lake, and state highway 111 runs on the east side.


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About the Author

My name is Ella Coppola. I graduated from Southern Methodist University with degrees in Journalism and Ethics in Dallas, Texas. I'm a huge animal lover and have two dogs named Charlie and Meatball.

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