I admit it.
I’m one of those people who would hold their nose while driving quickly past the Salton Sea, on the way to somewhere else.
The smell of rotting fish would permeate the car and I would pat myself on the back for making the wise decision to make the sea a place to “drive past” and not a place to “drive to.”
I started to view the Salton Sea a little differently when I became interested in photography, it seems that every photographer in California has taken beautiful, haunting images at the Sea and I became intrigued.
For years, Jeff and I have wanted to explore Anza Borrego and Ocotillo Wells but they’re just a little too far to drive out, do some 4-wheeling and drive all the way back.
Just a bit out of reach.
So after taking care of the responsibilities at home, we chose this area for our next RV trip in February 2016.
We chose our new home base carefully, smack in the middle of all three locations.
It sits directly across from Ocotillo Wells, but is set back off the road near a little desert community.
Just the name says it all! This park is in the middle of the desert yet absolutely spotless. The hard packed sand is raked daily and everything is well kept and homey.
We have barren, rock filled desert behind us, a shed and open area on one side and a neighbor on the other side and it’s absolutely QUIET. Just the sounds of a few motorcycles in the distance now and then. The park allows you to bring atv’s and motorcycles but they must be walked in, not driven.
I did not see anything prohibiting children but it doesn’t seem to be much of a “kid” place. This time of year, mid February there is a slight breeze, the weather is warm enough for shorts but it’s not yet blistering hot.
Unfortunately as we start our journey I’m battling a sore throat. I took a course of antibiotics before we left home but the soreness is lingering on the one side.
Here’s hoping fresh air will cure it!
The next morning, I’m still kind of blah, so we’re starting with a relaxing visit to the Sea and the nearby Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge.
Normally, before visiting a spot, I’ve done a lot of research about navigating the area, but the paper maps we picked up are not very detailed and the one down side of this RV park is poor internet. They have it available only from 8-6 and it’s slowwww. Plus, our Verizon doesn’t work anywhere except right next to the office.
We’re setting off blind.
The first thing I learn about the Salton Sea, is that it’s surrounded by miles of agricultural grids, intersected by dirt roads, none of which appear on my pathetic map. The Sonny Bono area shows as a big green blob but no clear entrance. Cell phone service is spotty to non existent. We were hoping to get close enough to the edge of the sea that we might just drive by and see a sign, but it’s a challenge requiring zig zagging through unmarked dirt roads.
FINALLY, a sign which leads to a duck blind, platform at the edge of a sea of reeds.
Must be the place.
Camera in hand, we start off down the road.
It’s absolutely silent.
The road is a raised bed surrounded on both sides by shallow ponds. As we approach, there are birds everywhere! Many are off in the distance but a few flirt with us from the bushes on either side.
This is the first pond area.
As we’re walking, this little guy kept trying to lead us away, chirping and running a bit further and then looking back over his shoulder to see if we were following.
Must be protecting a nest.
Startled this guy!
Startled this one too!
This one kept teasing me, weaving in and out of brush, not letting me get close enough for a picture.
I keep trying to catch them in flight.
Across the pond was a flock of thousands of birds who moved as one.
Far away and difficult to photograph but neat to see!
On the way, we met another couple who told us that the main visitor center for the refuge is further down the road. Apparently this is just a viewing spot.
We hop in the car in search of it
The main visitor center turned out to be a small, nondescript building with a beautiful desert landscape in front. They’ve created a little underbrush/tree area with multiple bird feeders. Behind it is a huge, new viewing ramp and deck above.
The little oasis has benches and is absolutely swamped with quail and doves and various little birds. All singing and chirping.
Someone else was taking advantage of the free food.
The refuge was in the process of remodeling their nature trail and viewing area. It didn’t look like much when we were there. It was hot and dry and the deck looked out over bare dirt. I think they might be planning to flood part of it.
Perhaps it will be more impressive when it’s done.
The visitor center itself has one small exhibit of stuffed birds and seems to be more of an information center than a museum but the docents were very knowledgable and ready to help with any and all wildlife questions.
The Salton Sea has a lot of hydrothermal activity including bubbling mud pots. We didn’t know exactly where they were but there’s a little spot on our map that looks promising.
Back to zigzagging through nondescript roads.
We keep seeing these big industrial buildings blowing steam. Found out later they’re thermal plants, tapping into that same thermal activity that powers the mud pots.
Working on this one.
Our map led us to a dirt corner lot (possibly an acre in size) in one of the industrial areas. We were confused, but sure enough there were a few little mud cones happily bubbling away. Unfortunately on private property.
There are no signs.
It sure didn’t look very impressive and we agreed that these couldn’t be the mud pots we’d heard of.
We gave up on the mud pots and decided to drive to the town of Niland to see Salvation Mountain.
Niland is just like everything else we’ve seen with partially abandoned, falling down structures. Except for this cool old railroad depot.
A little way out of town and suddenly there it is, Salvation Mountain.
It’s all at once both larger and smaller than I imagined.
So much work and so much more detail than I thought.
Many people have posted the story of Leonard Knight’s vision and his work on Salvation Mountain. If you want information it’s easy to find so I will just share my impressions with you.
First off, I didn’t realize how many vehicles and other objects he also painted.
This bench is a miniature of the mountain itself.
My second impression is of detail. I had no idea there was so much texture and detail in each and every piece.
I was surprised to find out that you can climb to the top of the hill.
The stairs are worn and slick.
I was a little nervous climbing them.
Looking down to the Grotto.
We climbed down the other side and around the front to explore the dome and grotto more thoroughly.
The dome is a kind of museum which has some old pictures of the mountain imbedded in the wall. Trophies, bibles and knick knacks fill the shelves.
The grotto defies explanation.
It’s made from piles of straw bales, car windshields, rope, and adobe, held up by tree trunks and limbs screwed together.
It’s strangely beautiful inside.
We finished our explorations and decided to check out nearby Slab City.
Slab city consists concrete slabs left over from an abandoned WWII Marine Corps base. Many “snowbirds” and other people come to live here and camp for free. I’d heard it has kind of a fun and funky, artistic, community feel.
Here and there are expressions of art and a sense of humor.
East Jesus is a separate “junk-art” community within Slab City. We drove by but didn’t stop. It was getting late and the area just kind of gave me a creepy feeling.
I know a lot of people like to stay at Slab City but I felt it had a lawless Mad Max feel. Tons and tons of trash and questionable looking people. Just not my cup of tea.
We drove down a dirt road into the outskirts thinking it would double back to the main road. It was a dead end. We turned around and had a tough time finding our way out again.
At this point we were almost exactly opposite of our campsite location. We could choose to go south, the way we came, or north around the top of the Sea toward Bombay Beach where we hadn’t yet been. We chose north toward Bombay Beach.
By the time we arrived at the beach it was dusk. I wanted to find some of the abandoned structures I’d heard about and I really, really wanted to get close to the water.
This was where I fell in love with the Salton Sea.
Salt encrusted shapes, birds and the most unbelievable sunsets on Earth.
How could you not love this?
It was actually too dark for pictures but it almost didn’t matter.
Can’t wait for more!