Driving All The Way Around Salton Sea

On Tuesday Blake and I completed scouting mission #2 which was basically a drive all the way around Salton Sea. The objective of the mission was to drive around as much of the shoreline as possible to scout out water refill locations, river crossings, camping/overnight spots and map-out any hazards.  As expected it was a full day!

The plan was to start at the northeast tip at Whitewater river, drive south on the Highway 111 side all the way around the horn in Calipatria then back north on 86, finishing on the opposite side of the Whitewater river.  The entire trip took about about 10 hours!

Whitewater River: East Bank

Our starting point was the eastern side of the Whitewater river, right in the “butt cheek” of the northern end of Salton Sea.  The current plan for the big event is to begin the walk on the east side of Whitewater river, walk south on the shoreline on the highway 111 side, then back up the Highway 86 side, finishing at the western bank of the Whitewater river.

Barely 5 minutes into our mission and we encountered our first problem.  On our maps it appears that the road goes along the Whitewater almost right up to the shoreline of Salton Sea. This would make it simple for our support crew to drop us off from a car to start the journey. We discovered that most of the roads that show on our maps are nothing more than irrigation ditches or paths that run along the irrigation ditches that are gated off to autos.  Unless we can find a better dropoff point it looks like we are going to have to walk at least an extra mile just to get to the shore to start the walk.

The Northeastern Shoreline of Salton Sea

Based on my North Shore to Corvina Beach walk, and our near tragic walk a few weeks ago, we were very concerned about the difficulty and energy required walking through the deep barnacles and mud along the shoreline.  I had a theory that the further south we went and the further away from the north-eastern shore we got, the barnacles would became more shallow and would be less of an issue, but it was just a theory..  Today we were able to confirm that my theory was correct.  By Salt Creek Beach the depth of the barnacles was noticeably less and by the time we reached the beaches around Niland, barnacles were virtually gone!  We both breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Salt Creek Beach

Our next stop was Salt Creek Beach, roughly half way between Corvina Beach and Bombay Beach.

Picture of the Salt Creek Beach road

Salt Creek Beach looking west toward Salton City

No issues found at Salt Creek but it won’t help us much either as there is no running water at the camp site. This should not be a problem because of the relative short distance (about 4.5 miles either direction) from Corvina Beach and Bombay Beach, both of which have water.

Bombay Beach

Picture of Bombay Beach at Salton Sea

Bombay Beach – Long past it’s heyday

Next stop on the map was Bombay Beach.  No issues found here and the local stores will serve as a cooldown spot and water-refill station.  After giving Blake the grand-tour of the town we decided to skip eating at the Ski Inn.

Niland Marina and Wister Wildlife Unit

Quick stops at Niland Marina and Wister Wildlife Refuge a bit further down the road confirmed that the barnacles on the beach were virtually gone.  No issues at either place and we found some good sun refuge spots that we will make use of during The Big Event.

Mud Pots

While mapping emergency auto access to the shore we stumbled across a huge surprise – mud pots at Salton Sea!  We both knew about the mud pots but neither of us knew where they were and we weren’t looking for them.  But while driving along one of the roads that parallels the shore I noticed what looked several 10-foot tall mini-volcanos about 100 yards from the road. Sure enough, mud pots!

Picture of mud flowing from a mud pot at Salton Sea

The famous Salton Sea mud pots

The mud pots were amazing.  As we approached and were still several yards away we could hear the gurgling and bubbling of the mud – it was like being at Yellowstone!

The mud pots are on the property of one of the geothermal energy plants near the south end of Salton Sea and only a few hundred yards from the power plant itself.  We saw the remains of what looked like were once “No Trespassing” signs but it seemed like they weren’t serious as there was no fencing and the signs were all but destroyed.  It did feel a bit like sneaking into Area 51 though, as unmarked cars scurried out of the power plant heading our direction (but then kept going) and a power plant employee began watching our every move from the power plant.  We got our pictures and headed back to the car.

Red Hill Park and Marina

Other than the mud pots, Red Hill Marina and RV Park was the biggest surprise of the day.

Picture of the dried up beach at Red Hill Park at Salton Sea

The beach at Red Hill Park has seen better days

This place was not even on our maps and we stumbled across it accidentally while mapping access to the shore just like with the mud pots.  Red Hill has everything!  Inexpensive RV hookups, bathrooms, showers, boat marina and launch, and beautiful hills and geologic formations.  It was a bit sureal talking to the “ranger” with one crazy eye that also doubled as the gardner while wearing his old, dirty uniform with torn emblems. But, he was very knowledgeable, friendly and helpful.

Red Hill has what looks like a large, dried up marina area on the north side of the campground, complete with a “bridge to nothing”.  Today, it’s nothing more than a sad, dried mud flat.

Picture of the marina area at Red Hill Park

A nice place to wait for the water to return

On the south side of the park is the “boat launch”.  Sadly there is a giant warning sign that reads to the effect of “launching may cause damage to your boat”. The reason launching would cause damage is because launching your boat from this boat launch would basically be dumping it off into a pile of dirt.  There is not a drop of water for at least 500 yards.

Picture of the dried up boat launch at Red Hill Park

Launch your boat right into the dry sand

The New River

New River has been, and is still a concern.  New River is the largest river that flows into Salton Sea and it is also reportedly the most polluted river in the state. To make matters worse, walking to the nearest road with a bridge will add several miles to the journey – miles that we refer to as ‘brutal’ miles because it takes us far from the cooling breeze of the shoreline into the desert.  It was at this stage that we began to consider a boat to ferry us the 50 yards or so across the river.

Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge Complex

The Sonny Bono Refuge was another big concern on our list because all of our maps show “marsh” along the shorelines.  After climbing up one of the bird-lookouts we discovered that the miles of marshland which appear to be “planted” or man-made are quite a distance from the actual shoreline.  The actual shoreline itself looks no different than the rest of the southern beaches.  One less issue to deal with.

Salton Sea Navy Base

Blake and I could both hardly wait to get to the Navy Base.  We have both read about how interesting this abandoned Navy Base, built in the 1940’s is.  We read online reviews that mentioned that the roadway may be obstructed by a little sand, but we weren’t deterred.  As we left Highway 86 heading east toward the base, the road did have a few patches of sand covering it, but nothing of concern – until we drove right up to several full “Tatooine” sand dunes, some as high as 40 feet or so.  We could see the Navy Base a mile or two off in the distance but were weren’t prepared for desert walking today and were forced to turn back.  The next trip out we will be bringing the 4WD Jeep to fully explore the Base and the shoreline.

Salton City and the Western Shore

Next stops were West Shores, Salton City, and Desert Shores.  We mapped a few fenced obstacles that we will have to bypass but otherwise no new issues or problems, except for one.  We discovered that virtually the entire Highway 86 western shoreline from the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge north to Whitewater River has virtually no access from the road.

Other than one or two roads in the approximately 20 miles from Sonny Bono to Salton City, the entire area and shoreline is closed off with barbed-wire fencing.  Unlike much of the eastern Highway 111 side of Salton Sea which has open access and the shore is rarely more than 1/2 mile from the highway, the western side is in most areas several miles from the shore and fenced off.  This means that in the event of an emergency, our support crew would have no way to reach us and short of a helicopter, even a 911 type rescue could be hours away.  It was at this point that we decided adding a boat to our support crew is not only just a good idea to help us cross the New River, it might be necessary for safety.

The last note about the western shore is how different it is from the eastern shore.  The water along the east (Highway 111 side) shoreline is wavy and choppy, and the beaches look and feel like an ocean beach. The west (Highway 86) side is calm, shallow, smooth and almost silent. It looks and feels much more like a lake – and the reflection of the Chocolate Mountains on the smooth mirror-like water is beautiful. There is nothing like it anywhere on the Highway 111 side.

Whitewater River: West Bank

We finished the day on the opposite bank of the Whitewater river, only a few hundred yards from where we started 10 hours earlier, and discovered our last issue to overcome. Just as with the starting point on the east bank, the west bank, which is our planned ‘finish line’ has no road access, no place for our support team, friends, family, supporters, TV news trucks, etc, to meet us. Our maps show several roads that lead nearly to the shore but these turned out to be nothing more than gated irrigation paths and the trees and vegetation completely hide not only the shoreline but even the east bank, less than 100 yards away.  This is another issue that we will have to figure out and overcome in scouting trip #3.

Scouting mission #2 was a success! We collected a lot of info and data, scratched a few issues from the list, discovered a few new issues, stumbled on some cool surprises and most important we had fun.


  1. Very informative

  2. Great information, ty.

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