Camped 234 Feet Below Sea Level

Recently we visited the Salton Sea in Southern California.

For two weeks we camped and explored along its shores at 234 feet below sea level.  

We learned a lot.

The Salton Sea
The Salton Sea

The deepest point of the sea is 5 feet higher than the lowest point of Death Valley.

The salt content of the Salton Sea is greater than the waters of the worlds oceans but less than that of the Great Salt Lake.

Salted Sea Camp Along The Sony Bono State Wildlife AreaOur Obsidian Butte Campsite Adjacent to The Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Area

While visiting grandparents in the Palm Springs area in the late 60’s and early 70’s, our family would often drive past this unusual sea.

We would listen to stories about this huge body of water, about how it was created, its recreation and resort boom years and its eventual demise.

Mostly we heard about the bad smells, pollution and very salty water.

A Salton Sea Beach
A Salton Sea Beach

It turns out the Salton Sea has a very unusual history, one that might surprise you.

Many human, geographic and environmental impacts have helped shape this body of water.

Through time the Colorado River flowed past the Imperial basin carrying thick silt which was deposited into the Sea of Cortez.

The silt eventually backed up and redirected the rivers flow forming the Salton Sea.

This process has taken millions of years to shape and reshape the Imperial basin, Salton Sea and Coachella Valleys.

Coachella Valley In The Distance
Coachella Valley In The Distance

Through the eons the Salton Basin has alternated between a freshwater sea and sometimes a dry dusty desert basin. 

What Looks Like Sand Is Actually Sun Dried Fish Bones
What Looks Like Sand Is Actually Sun Dried Pulverized Fish Bones

More recently before any dams controlled the Colorado’s flow, the sea was filled by a breach in the rivers main channel during a massive storm and illegal trenching activity in the early 1900’s.

The river ran un-checked into the Salton basin for 2 years inundating communities and the railroad before the flow was eventually stopped.

1905 Flood That Re-Established the Lake
1905 Flood That Re-Established Todays Salton Sea

Today the sea only remains due to the small amounts of runoff from the New, Whitewater, and Alamo rivers, as well as agricultural runoff from the Coachella and Imperial Valleys.

As with any lake with no substantial fresh water inlet and no outlet, the Salton Sea became very salty.  Irrigation played a large role in this process.  

Water is pumped up out of the sea and run over the fields where evaporation dissolves the salts into the soil.  Any excess water flows back into the sea to be used again.  The cycle continues.

Bombay Beach
Bombay Beach Trailer Court

Over the years, the sea supplied millions of gallons of water to the Imperial and Coachella valleys.  Salts weren’t the worst of it, pesticides such as DDT and residues from fertilizers were mixed in, too.

Eventually, booming tourist developments whithered and died, all in the course of less than a century.  In 1999, 7.6 million fish died due to the high levels of salinity, algae blooms and bacteria.

postcard2 (1)

Evidence of geothermal activity is very apparent at the south end of the sea.

Mud pots and mud volcanoes are found on the south eastern side of the Salton Sea.

Mud Volcanos Near Niland
Mud Volcanos Near Niland

A number of geothermal electricity generation plants are located along the southeastern shore of the Salton Sea in Imperial County.

Geothermal Power PlantGeothermal Power Plant Near Calipatria

The Salton Sea is in the Pacific Flyway and has been termed a “crown jewel of avian biodiversity” with over 400 species documented.  Birds from all over North America spend the winter here, just like us… 

White Pelican
White Pelican

The most diverse and probably the most significant populations of bird life in the continental United States are present, some say rivaled only by Big Bend National Park in Texas.


This is where the seas current problems abound.  The lake is shrinking in size due to the extreme drought conditions and no real reliable water source.

How to save the sea is a major issue and ideas range from letting it dry up to building a pipeline from the Sea of Cortez to keep it healthy.


If the sea goes dry many species of birds could disappear.  Winds will blow toxic plumes of dust that could envelop surrounding communities including Palm Springs.  Air pollution and respiratory problems will abound.

Burrowing Owls Live Around the Lake
70% Of The Burrowing Owls In California Live Around the Lake

During our stay we camped at several locations around the sea to get a feel for its diversity.

We visited the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Sanctuary at the south end of the sea, which sits on the San Andreas fault.  While camped on an active obsidian dome we missed a 4.1 tembler by just a few hours.


While wandering around the seas local communities we found many odd and fascinating places.

Slab City, a former military base near Niland, is now an area that folks can live for free.  There are hundreds of eclectic campsites and rustic compounds in the surrounding area.

We found many different kinds of people living in lots of unusual types of structures.

Slab City Entrance Gate
Slab City Entrance Gate
Slab City Shrine
Slab City Shrine
A Typical Slab City Home
A Typical Slab City Homestead

The Bombay Beach community on the eastern side of the lake was constructed in the 1950’s and was once a thriving resort town.

Bombay Beach Boat Ramp
Bombay Beach Boat Ramp

Today Bombay Beach is mostly abandoned due to the lakes increased salinity, pollution and shrinking water levels.  

Bombay Beach
Bombay Beach Lounge Chair

Along the northeastern shore we also spent time camping in the Salton Sea State Recreation Area  which includes several nice campgrounds ranging from full hookups to primitive lake shore camping/parking.

View From Mecca Beach State Campground
View From Mecca Beach State Campground

So what have we learned?  The Salton Sea is a very unusual place and we now have a renewed interest in its future.

We now understand its importance as a migratory bird destination, as a recreational opportunity, as an important water source for surrounding agricultural areas and maybe most importantly as a place that needs to be preserved for future generations.  

The future of this beautiful place?  Only time will tell.

Editorial: In my opinion letting the sea dry up is not a viable option.  This is not Death Valley which is situated in the middle of nowhere, this sea is located near two of the most productive agricultural areas in the world, not to mention is just a few miles from fast growing communities and some of the most expensive real estate in California.  Somehow a permanent water source should be identified and developed to keep this beautiful place productive, vibrant and alive.

We have produced two new videos for this post.  One captures the beauty of this wonderful place, the other records some of its stranger locations. 

Salton Sea Sublime


Salton Sea Strange


Our next post we will take us to the mud volcanos of Niland, Holy Cow Stay Tuned!

Keep you posted!







11 thoughts on “Camped 234 Feet Below Sea Level

  1. I especially liked your editorial comment. As someone who’s very much a fan of migratory birds, I’d like to see this area continue to be a viable area for their stopovers.


  2. Love this post as it brings back so many fond memories. My first trip of many to the “Sea” was in the late 60’s…renowned back then for the Talapia fishing. Does not look like the word ‘change’ has found the Sea…in fact in may be less commercialized. Your wonderful videos have prompted us to start researching our own drone. Any recommendations? At this moment the DJI Phantoms at the top of my list.


    1. Thank You for the nice comments. Yes the sea has new meaning to us now as we have plenty of time to re-discover and enjoy it. You are right not a lot has changed since its fall but as surrounding communities grow and water remains an issue its again becoming a hot topic. I highly agree with your ariel camera choice, go with the 4K camera.


  3. Hi Jim and Denise – just knew I would hear from you at the Salton Sea. It has been a long time since I have visited there – I think Joyce and I went there camping in our Highlander Fifth Wheeler way back in 1975. Seems to look the same and I found your information very interesting. I seem to learn something new every time I get your stories. Thanks for the great videos – the second one, is interesting because I do not remember some of the things you show. Continue having a great trip and I will write you off line about my next adventure.



    1. Thanks Gert! The lower sea area around Niland seems to be attracting folks who don’t want to live in the city or can’t for what ever reason. Makes for meeting interesting and colorful folks. Hope your trip north goes smoothly.


  4. Thanks for the enlightening post. Your first video had me wanting to visit asap and your second video is what I had envisioned of that area which is why it wasn’t on my radar…. well, it was but more for curiosity than any beauty the area might offer.


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