Driving through the desert in Southern California is a study in contradictions. We drove from the opulent resorts of Palm Springs to the abandoned buildings and forgotten towns of Imperial County, where the unemployment rate is the highest in the state. The desert landscape is dotted with date palms, scrub, and not much else. When my son looked up from his video game player long enough, he looked up and said, "Hey, mom, is that the ocean?"
I was looking in the opposite direction and replied, "We're pretty far from the ocean." Then, I saw it: the calm, blue waters of the Salton Sea, looming on the horizon like a mirage in the desert.
The Salton Sea is on of the world's largest inland seas and one of the lowest spots on earth (-227 feet below sea level). The sea existed in ancient times, but dried up until 1905 when high spring flooding on the Colorado River crashed the canal gates leading into the developing Imperial Valley. For the next 18 months the Colorado River rushed into the dry seabed, creating the current 35 mile long,15 mile wide inland sea. The sea is saltier than the Pacific Ocean, but not as salty as the Great Salt Lake, and the increasing salinity over time has lead to changes in the ecosystem. The only fish that can be caught there are tilapia, but hundreds of gorgeous waterbirds make their homes and migratory stops along the shores of the Salton Sea.
About 14 miles of the shoreline is used for human recreation (boating, kayaking, fishing, and camping), but due to state budget cuts, most of these services are dwindling. There is a State Recreation Area near Mecca, California, and that is where we stopped for a visit.
We drove through a thicket of palm trees to the park entrance, where a friendly park attendant named Nick took our $5 entrance fee and gave us a sticker to put on the car. We drove to the lot by the Visitor's Center, which was closed when we arrived. There was one other family in the parking lot at the time, and a lone fisherman out on a jetty casting a line out to the sea. We decided to explore the beach a little, and could see hundreds of gulls and large white birds that looked like swans floating by in pairs.