Is Salton Sea A Lake Or A Sea?

My very first camping trip to Salton Sea was in November of 1978 at (I think) the Mecca Beach campgrounds. On our first night there, the rangers held a campfire get-together for all the campers where they discussed everything from the constellations in the sky to the history of Salton Sea.  About the only thing I remember from that educational gathering is that according to the ranger, Salton Sea was not a lake, it was instead a “sea”.

Fast forward over 35 years to today.  As I have reacquainted myself with Salton Sea, I have noticed some people calling it a “sea” and other people including park rangers, referring to it as a “lake”.  I’ve brought up the question on Facebook a few times and each time it draws much debate. Some claim Salton Sea is a “sea” as I was taught 35 years ago and yet others assure me it is a lake. Of course most of these internet “experts” can’t quote any sources or reasons for declaring it a lake or a sea. Much like me, they are just repeating what they were taught at some time in the past.

Wanting to get to the bottom of this burning question I decided to reach out to one of (if not THE) leading experts on Salton Sea, Dr. Timothy Krantz at University of Redlands. Dr. Krantz is the author of several books including the “Salton Sea Atlas”, and is the Director of the Salton Sea Database Program at the University of Redlands. I could think of no better expert to ask “Is Salton Sea a lake, or a sea?”.

salton sea from the air

Is Salton Sea a lake or a “sea”?

This is the answer I got from Dr. Krantz:

The correct answer is that the Salton Sea was a true “sea” – connected to the ocean as the northern arm of the Sea of Cortez – but it was disconnected by the deposition of the sediments of the Colorado River delta.  Literally, the sediments that once comprised what is now the Grand Canyon, have built up the delta to where it blocked the Salton Basin from the ocean. It is, after all, about 285 feet below sea level at its deepest point – just five feet shy of Badwater (Death Valley) as the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere. So, now, the Salton Sea is, indeed, a lake.

Lake Cahuilla, the prehistoric giant lake that once filled the basin more often than not, was essentially a giant oxbow lake of the Colorado River, more than five times the size of the full Salton Sea today, which would fill to overflowing back to the Sea of Cortez, leaving the travertine deposits along the mountains above Desert Shores and wave-cut scarps elsewhere along the ancient shoreline.

So there you have it. Salton Sea is, officially, A LAKE.


  1. I never realised that Salton Lake was so far below sea level, indeed it really was the sea. If people don’t act quickly it will become desert and then what?

    • Well the whole area is a desert.. If nothing is done, Salton Sea will dry up to approximately 1/3 of it’s current size. This would expose hundreds of square miles of lake-bed which has trapped in in 100 years of agricultural run-off sediment. This sediment has things in it like lithium, arsenic, selenium and other bad stuff. When the wind blows, it would kick up all of this bad-stuff into the air and blow it all through Palm Springs, the Inland Empire (where I live) and Los Angeles county.. This dust is so fine (“PM-10”) that when inhaled, it permeates the lungs and anything in it goes directly into the bloodstream. This would not be good..

  2. When i was young we went to salton sea every year from 1958 to 1962 it was fun we fished and water skied capmed on the beach. i hope it stays and i was it could be as it once was for others to enjoy as i did years ago.

  3. hi Randy, The Salton sea will ALWAYS be a sea to me…..
    P.S. It want to make a donation to our WALK around the sea, or for a donation to get an A/C for your office…PLEASE let me know ASAP….

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