Traveler's Journal

By the sea
Matthew Jaffe

As a neophyte map geek, I used to study atlases for hours. One splash of blue southeast of Palm Springs marked "Salton Sea" never quite made sense. It looked out of place and too small to be a sea. Just a drop in the Baltic.

Later I learned its history. One hundred years ago, Colorado River floodwaters breached an irrigation dike and flowed to the lowest point: the Salton Sink, approximately 274 feet below sea level. The river filled the desert basin, forming a body of water now 35 miles long and about 51 feet deep.

The sea's origins and its ongoing water-quality issues often obscure a deeper appreciation. But the Salton Sea is California's largest lake and a key stopover for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. Although it's the product of an epic whoops, the Salton is not entirely unnatural. Today's sea is the successor to lakes that formed here naturally after earlier river flooding.

Tahoe it's not, but the Salton Sea has its moments. I recently looked across its blue waters to the snowcapped San Jacinto Mountains. Storm clouds piled up against the peaks while black-necked stilts fed along the shoreline. Here was Southern California's holy trinity of desert, mountain, and sea ― just not where you would expect it.

Salton Sea State Recreation Area Visitor Center (9-4 daily, usually through Apr; $6 per car; 100225 State Park Rd., 30 miles south of Indio off State 111; www.parks.ca.gov or 760/393-3059).