Southwest Adventure, Living & Travel

The Salton Sea

Located in The Salton Basin, California

History | Mysterious Bird Die-Off | State Recreation Area | Bird Watching

Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is an inland saline lake in the Sonoran Desert of extreme southeastern California. It occupies the Salton Basin, a remnant of prehistoric Lake Cahuilla. It is borderded on the south by the rich agricultural areas of the Imperial Valley and on the west, by Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Both the Salton Sea State Recreation Area and the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge are located on its shores.

video on the salton sea
Click on map for video on the Salton Sea.



The Salton Sea was formed between 1905 and 1907 when the Colorado River burst through poorly built irrigation controls south of Yuma, Arizona. Almost the entire flow of the river filled the Salton Basin for more than a year, inundating communities, farms and the main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Continued filling of the Salton Sink was finally stopped in 1907, when a line of protective levees was built by boxcars dumping boulders into the breach from Southern Pacific tracks. By then, this inland lake was about 40 miles long and 13 miles wide, covering an area of about 400 square miles.

The Salton Sea is currently 35 miles by 15 miles and can be as long as 40 miles by almost 20 miles in particularly wet years. It has an average depth of 29.9 feet and, at its deepest, is 51 feet. It contains 7.3 million acre feet of water and evaporates 1.3 million acre feet each year. There is a five-mile-long trench on the south end of the Sea that is 51 feet deep. The Sea is currently 228 feet below sea level. Interestingly, the bed of the Salton Sea is only five feet higher than the lowest spot in Death Valley.

Presently, the fishery in the Salton Sea is thriving. Salinity is slightly more than the Pacific Ocean. The current salt level of the Sea is in the area of 43 to 45 TH PPM. The Pacific Ocean is about 34.9 TH PPM. As the concentrated salt level of the Sea increases greater than 44 TH PPM., it is expected that all the fish, except the Tilapia, will cease to reproduce. Tilapia can survive up to 60 TH PPM..

Mysterious Bird Die-Off

Since mid August of 1996, thousands of birds have died at the Salton Sea. A one-time high of 640 dead birds a day were collected. Eventually, it was determined that the birds died from avian botulism. But this is still a mystery, because pelicans normally do not get botulism. Botulism has been only been common in ducks and other birds that feed close to shore, upon maggots and other insects.

Salton sea dead fish

In the process of investigating the cause of the transmission of botulism to the pelicans, some dying fish were collected and sampled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These fish were analyzed by the Northwest Biological Science Center in Seattle and the Vibrio Alginolyticus bacteria were found to exist in them. These bacteria are common in salt water species. Tunas, mahi mahi, bluefish, sardines, amberjack, and mackerel are often found with Vibrio bacteria. Vibrio kills the fish it infects.

It is theorized that, as the Tilapia were dying because of the bacteria, their bodies became host to the botulism bacteria. Botulism requires an anaerobic environment to survive. Because of this, normal healthy fish cannot support the bacteria. As the fish weakened and, shortly before their death, their bodies offered conducive conditions for the bacteria. Pelicans (as all predators) find it easier to hunt disabled prey. The theory continues to suggest that some pelicans caught and ingested the dying Tilapia that now contained the bacteria, and thus became ill themselves.

Botulism outbreaks occur in late summer because water temperatures are greater. As the water cools, the bacteria is less active. Avian botulism is very common worldwide; it is not endemic to the Salton Sea, and in itself doesn't reflect a decline in the Sea's systems. This class "C" botulism is not a threat to human health.

The Vibrio bacteria is also very common in saltwater environments. Commercially caught and processed fish are recognized to contain this bacteria. However, it is not considered a health threat when the fish are cooked or processed and not allowed to spoil prior to processing. Health departments say that eating fish from the Sea is safe as long as they are not eaten raw, and they are not allowed to spoil before being processed. Cooking the fish destroys the bacteria. Keeping the fish on ice after they are caught prevents them from spoiling.

The existence of this bacteria does not signal a serious condition at the Sea; it is a natural state that happens here and elsewhere. The chance of contracting the bacteria by swimming in water that contains infected fish is extremely remote.

Salton Sea State Recreation Area (Some Area Closed by State)

Dedicated in 1955, the Salton Sea State Recreation Area is the largest recreation provider on the Salton Sea. Operated by the California State Park Service, it is located in the northeastern shores of the Sea. This large recreation area extends from the town of North Shore to Bombay Beach. It has 1,400 campsites, hundreds of day-use and picnic sites, trails, a Visitor Center, playground, boat ramp and boat wash areas.

Salton Sea beach and birds

Over 150,000 people visit the popular recreation area each year, and visitation is on the increase. Popular activities at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area include boating, water-skiing, fishing, jet-skiing, hiking, birdwatching, and sailboarding. It is estimated that over 1 million visitors spend time at the Salton Sea each year.

Neighboring attractions include the Palm Springs Resort area, 30 miles north, General Patton Museum, 40 miles northeast and the Dos Palmas Preserve and historical area just to the east of the park. Stores and gas stations area available in North Shore.

Varner Harbor, at the park's headquarters, offers a fishing jetty where many fish are caught. Tilapia, a perch-like fish, are being caught by the hundreds. A day of fishing may net over one hundred fish. There is no limit to the number of Tilapia that can be caught. Other sport fish include corvina, presently caught with a fair degree of success at the south end of the Sea. Croaker are being taken at the north end, but not in great number. And a few sargo are being seen. Also found in very rare instances are mullet and striped bass.

The Sea and Desert Visitor Center, located at the park's headquarters, offers examples of the many birds and animals that are present around the Salton Sea. Video presentations demonstrate how the Sea was created and its human history. The State Park Rangers offer a variety of interpretive presentations, including lecture series, campfire programs, Jr. Ranger programs and bird watching trips aboard the park's interpretive boat. A boat ramp gives boaters access to almost 400 square miles of lake surface. Boat races have been popular at the Salton Sea since 1928 and continue to be at the Recreation Area with a 150- and 300-mile personal watercraft race.

Bird watching is very good at the park, as it is all over the Salton Sea. Migrating birds begin to be seen on the Sea as early as October. They fill the air by January and generally leave by May. Four million birds are estimated to use the Sea each day in the winter, more than any other resource in the nation.


The park has over 1,400 campsites in five campgrounds. Three campgrounds are primitive, two are developed and one offers full hookups. Camping at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area is best from October through May. The park is open all year, but summer temperatures can be extreme. Reservations are not taken for the primitive campgrounds, but they should be obtained for the hookup area and Los Frijoles.

Headquarters Area: This is the main part of the park; two campgrounds offer different types of services. Due to budget constraints Bombay Beach and the upper loop of Mecca Beach will be closed until further notice. Camping at Headquarters Camp, the lower loop of Mecca Beach, Salt Creek, and Corvina Beach will remain open.

Los Frijoles is developed with flush toilets and showers. It provides easy access to hiking trails, a fishing jetty, the park's main boat ramp, sanitary stations, and boat wash stations. Located near by is the park's Visitor Center and a small playground. Also at Headquarters is the Hook-up ection. These hook-ups are close to the recreation area's headquarters office and have nearby restrooms and showers. It is located in front of the park's largest beach where many activities take place. Non-hookup group camping for hundreds of RVs is available at this location. There is also a sheltered meeting area for groups.

Bombay Beach: Is located at the extreme southern end of the recreation area, next to the small town of Bombay Beach. Its now closed it offered beach camping with chemical toilets and water. This was a popular campground for fishermen. Some services are available in the adjacent town. Bombay Beach, CA is a point of interest for photographers and visitors who want to view and shoot the ruins of the town that once was.

old trailer

Salt Creek Beach: Another primitive campground, has on the beach camping, chemical toilets. It is popular with fishermen and bird watchers. Salt Creek runs through the campground and is host to many species of birds, including some considered very rare. The endangered pupfish also live in Salt Creek.

Corvina Beach: Is also primitive, with water and chemical toilets, it is popular with groups. While this campground is on the shores of the Sea, it has a drop off to the beach and access can be difficult. However, many winter fishermen spend the weekends at Corvina Beach.

Mecca Beach Campground: Is a large developed campground with good beach access. Mecca Beach has flush toilets and showers and a limited number of partial hook-up sites. Good fishing is found off of Mecca Beach and many swimmers and boaters enjoy the easy access to the water. Mecca Beach Campground is one of the more active areas in the recreation area.

For additional information, call the recreation area at 760-393-3052, or write: Salton Sea State Recreation Area, 100-225 State Park Road, North Shore, CA 92254. Or email the Superintendent at

History | Mysterious Bird Die-Off | Sonny Bono Salton Sea Nat. Wildlife Refuge

Day Trippin’ Along Highway 111 -
Bombay Beach at the Salton Sea, Bashford’s Hot Mineral Spa,
and the town of Niland, CA, home of Salvation Mountain and Slab City.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Borrego Springs, California

Road Trip: From the Salton Sea to Salvation Mountain and Slab City


Share this page on Facebook:

DesertUSA Newsletter -- We send articles on hiking, camping and places to explore, as well as animals, wildflower reports, plant information and much more. Sign up below or read more about the DesertUSA newsletter here. (It's Free.)

The Desert Environment
The North American Deserts
Desert Geological Terms



Joshua Tree National Park - Black Eagle Mine Road Video - Beginning 6.5 miles north of the Cottonwood Visitor Center, this dead-end dirt road runs along the edge of Pinto Basin, crosses several dry washes, and then winds up through canyons in the Eagle Mountains. The first 9 + miles of the road are within the park boundary. Beyond that point is BLM land. Several old mines are located near this road.

Death Valley - Scotty's Castle Video
Find out how Scotty's Castle came to be, when Albert Johnson met Walter Scott, later known as Death Valley Scotty. Take a tour of the magnificent rooms and see the castle's fantastic furnishings. Hear the organ in the music room as you experience this place of legend first-hand.

Death Valley - Titus Canyon Video
As Titus Canyon Road in Death Valley reaches the foothills, it starts to climb and meander among the sagebrush and red rock outcroppings. The road becomes steeper and narrower as it approaches Red Pass, amply named for its red rocks and dirt. Enjoy the ride!


Take a look at our Animals index page to find information about all kinds of birds, snakes, mammals, spiders and more!

Hot temperatures in the desertAre you interested in the temperatures in the desert?

Click here to see current desert temperatures!

DesertUSA is a comprehensive resource about the North American deserts and Southwest destinations. Learn about desert biomes while you discover how desert plants and animals learn to adapt to the harsh desert environment. Find travel information about national parks, state parks, BLM land, and Southwest cities and towns located in or near the desert regions of the United States. Access maps and information about the Sonoran Desert, Mojave Desert, Great Basin Desert, and Chihuahuan Desert.

Copyright © 1996-2015 and Digital West Media, Inc.