The Dynamic and Changing Shoreline

In a previous post I admitted how ignorant I was about Salton Sea, and each time I travel back I learn or realize something new.  Recently, I’ve realized how dynamic the shoreline can be and that the shoreline actually breaks down into three very different and distinct types.

Fish Bone Sand or Barnacle Beaches

Most people that are even passingly familiar with Salton Sea or that have seen anything about it on TV have probably heard of the “fish bone sand” or “barnacle beach”.  These “barnacle” beaches probably cover the largest portion of the entire shoreline, but not the entire shoreline.

Picture of deep barnacles at Salton Sea

Barnacles over a foot deep on the north east shore

The “barnacle beaches” cover mostly the northern regions of the shore, and are the worst and deepest on the north eastern shore.  In the photo above taken north of the North Shore Yacht Club, you can see the barnacle ‘drifts’ over a foot deep. Even in the flat spots, the barnacles are still several inches deep.

picture of a foot sinking in barnacles at Salton Sea

Walking through the barnacles can be a challenge

In the picture above, taken from the first “Walk A Mile In My Shoes” challenge, you can see my friend Steve’s foot sinking a few inches into the “barnacle sand”.

Photo of barnacles and sand at Salton Sea

Barnacles less than a quarter-inch deep on the mid-western shore

My theory as to why there are more barnacles to the north and why they are concentrated most in the north eastern shore has to do with the prevailing winds and the depth of the sea.  Most of the time the winds tend to blow more south – > north, which I think causes the light barnacle shells to drift northward.  Salton Sea is also deeper at the north end than it is at the south end.  I’m not sure exactly how this would cause more barnacles in the north/deep end, but I’m sure it’s related (if not, post a comment below and tell me why!).

As you move south the barnacles begin to thin out, and begin to mix and blend in with the second type of shoreline.


As you move southward, beginning not far south of the old Niland Marina on the east and around the abandoned Naval Station on the west, the shoreline begins to turn muddy and you see less and less barnacles.

Picture of mud at Salton Sea near Red Hill Marina

Mud flats near Red Hill Marina

When you reach the extreme southern tip of Salton Sea, which is in the Sonny Bono Refuge (off-limits to humans), you will find virtually zero barnacles and nothing but flat, hard mud.  In between the barnacle beaches and the pure-mud there are sections of what I call “salt flat mud” that you will find in the Wister Wildlife area south to around the Alamo River.  This type of mud and marshy areas can be extremely dangerous because of how thick and deep the mud is. I have read more than one account of duck hunters or fishermen getting stuck in, and sometimes being killed by this “salton sea quicksand”.

There are also areas, for example in the north-western area south of the Whitewater river where there are barnacles on the shore, but hundreds of yards of mud between the desert and the shore.  As you go north from that area, you run into the third, and most rare type of shoreline.

Black Sand Beach

The last, smallest, most rare and best type of shoreline is the black sand beach.  You will only find this clean, black sand in a single small section, a mile or two wide at the very northern tip of Salton Sea where the Whitewater river ends.

Picture of rare black sand beach at Salton Sea

Beautiful black-sand beaches

This tiny section of beach is beautiful and rivals many ocean beaches!

My theory is that the same mechanics that drive the barnacles northward also concentrates this black, heavier sand in this small northern section. Basically all of this heavy black sand sinks to the “bottom” and deepest area, which is at the northern tip of the sea.

The Changing Shoreline

Not only are there the different types of beaches I’ve listed above, those beaches change quickly based on the water level, wind, and rainfall.  This is something else I’ve learned the hard way, and it could have a huge impact on my plans to walk around Salton Sea in June of 2015.  Throughout 2014 I have been ‘mapping’ all sections of the shoreline so that I can be familiar with any obstacles such as fences, canals, rivers, etc.  I am also mapping shoreline hazards such as extremely deep barnacles or dangerous mud.

After making multiple trips to the same beaches only a few weeks apart I have found that where the mud was dry and safe, or the barnacles were only an inch deep a few weeks prior, could today be waterlogged and too dangerous to walk on just weeks later.  Some of these changes can be easily dealt with as I’m walking, simply by walking around the dangerous areas as I come across them.  But in some areas, walking around may not be an option.  Because my walk around the entire Salton Sea will take place in summer (2015) and most of my mapping and scouting missions are done in summer (2014) I’m hoping that the conditions will be very similar, but I won’t know for sure until I actually complete my walk.

Adding to the challenge!

The more time I spend at Salton Sea, the more I learn about it, and the thing I’ve learned the most is that there is a lot to learn!

Did I miss anything? Did you know about the beautiful black-sand beach? Leave a comment, below!


  1. For some reason, I thought you were making up the Sonny Bono Refuge part but I Googled it and I think it’s actually real!
    I know nothing about the Salton Sea, until now, but I’m absolutely following along.

  2. Salton Sea can be DEADLY. Watch your step!

  3. Heat and mud are deadly.

  4. Have not been there since 1962 not the same today as in 1962 sad it has come to this.

  5. Those barnacle beaches are killer…will stop you right in your tracks.

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