Salton Sea, California:
Location: Salton Sea, California
Driving Distance: 2.5 hours from San Diego, 3 hours from LA, 4.5 hours from Phoenix and Las Vegas
Time Required: It only takes a half day to see the main sights if you do it on the way between the cities above. Seeing all the sights will take a full day.
Fun Scale: 7 out of 10
The Salton Sea area of California is one of the most unique areas of the country. Culturally, this area has been a crossroads over the last 50 years for Celebrities, commoners, people seeking religious salvation and hippies. The geography is also unique and is boast a man-made mountain, large date farms, a huge salty sea, and the giant Imperial Sand Dunes.
Salton Sea Area Top Things to Do:
2. Salvation Mountain: As seen 2007 hit movie Into The Wild, Salvation Mountain is an inspiring man-made adobe beauty. 50% Dr Suess, 50% Wizard of Oz, and 100% devotion to God, Leonard Knight used 30 years of his life and gave up everything to build this colorful masterpiece. In 1984, Leonard was set out to spread the word of the bible and when his truck broke down he starting building Salvation Mountain on the very spot and lived onsite until 2012 when he was moved to a nursing home. The remains of Leonard’s project are now protected as a National Folk Art location, looked after/maintained by a local group, and remain open to the public 365 days a week. The mountain itself colorful springs out of the barren desert as a focal point and can be climbed as long as you stay on the Yellow Brick Road. We love the incinerate details Leonard left on all of the vehicles surrounding the property and most of all love the Tree Room under the mountain that is an explosion of Dr Suess. Make the mountain a must stop bring some paint or a few bucks as an optional donation. For more info and an awesome video check out our Salvation Mountain Page.
3. Mudpots: Known locally as Davis-Schrimpf Seep Field, the bubbling mudpots are a hidden gem. The mudpots themselves are pocket of warm clay and mud which bubble and gurgle to the surface. The bubbles in the mud occur because of geothermal activity forcing warm water to the surface. Because the area of the Salton Sea lies on the San Andreas fault line, there is a lot of geothermal activity to be had. Some of the mudpots have been bubbling long enough that they now have developed in tall mud volcanoes. If you listen to them, you can even hear the mudspot gurgle. They may not be as impressive as the ones at Yellowstone Park, but these mudpots are easy to get to and very cool.
4. Imperial Sand Dunes: Out of nowhere rises a 15 mile long and 3 mile wide stretch of 400 foot tall sand dunes that will make you feel like you are standing in the middle of the deserts of Africa. The Dunes have been the home to the tapping of many movies including Stars Wars and is a huge haven for dune buggy enthusiasts. Even if you’re not into extreme ATVing or dune buggy running, make sure to check out one of the parking areas and walk out onto the dunes to experience it for yourself. This is one of our favorite things to do in the area.
Permits are require people who are camping or ATVing, however, if you are just looking to walk or hike out onto the dunes there are a few great spots where you can park for up to 2 hours with no fees required. For our insider tips and helpful precautions check out our Imperial Sand Dunes page HERE.
5. Evan Hughes Oasis: It seems like only locals know about this Oasis even though it is right next to the highway. Just West of the Southern end of dunes off Hwy 8, the Oasis can easily be accessed by taking Exit 131 (Even Hughes Rd). The large cluster of bushy palms surrounding the dark green oasis pond make it a really cool place to take photos. It can gather homeless vagabonds after dark but during the day is usually always void of them and great to visit.
6. Dos Palmas Spring Oasis: =The Dos Palamas Spring a key watering hole for many settlers crossing the desert landscape on their way to the California coast. The Spring was originally named in the 1800’s for the the two palm trees it harbored, but since then the spring as grown much, much larger. The photo to the left is from when the spring was featured in Desert Magazine in January 1947. This oasis is cool, but if you are pressed for time feel free to skip in and just one of the smaller oases on this list instead as they are right off the highway.
7. State Park Oasis: If you weren’t able to stop by either of the other two Oases, you’re in lucks and there is a smaller one right next to the office near the entrance of the State Park. This Oasis, while natural, feels a little staged, but still is worth a stop. Right next to the oasis they have set up a nice cactus garden where you can check out different types of local desert plants. If you have yet to see the Salton Sea, the park offers perfect access to the beach and water. The Sea can smell quite bad at times and we don’t recommend getting into the water.
8. Date Farms: The Date Farms are the most important part of the Salton Sea area’s economy today. Ever since the celebrities and tourists stopped coming in the 1960’s most of the area has become a rundown, dingy area, but he Date Farms have stayed strong. It’s easy to get a couple pics by pulled onto a side street, but the best experience comes from actually visiting a Date Farm. The Bautista Family Farm takes visitors on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays with advanced notice by calling 760-396-2337. The Oasis Date Garden is another farm that does tours with notice.
9. Joshua Tree National Forest (90 Minutes): Huge 800,000 acre National Park covering parts of the Mojave Desert and even the San Andreas Fault is home to the Joshua Tree, Desert Tortoise, and many Palm Oases. Joshua tree forest is extremely easy and common to visit as many travelers naturally pass right by it on Hwy 10 on their way to or from the Salton Sea. The biggest things in the park are rock climbing, camping, hiking, and star gazing. They actually have park run star gazing parties one Saturday per month, usually around the new moon, starting at dark and lastly an 1 1/2. For star party dates and details click here. Maps: For the official Joshua Tree Forest map please click here.
If you are more into hiking or rock climbing, the website for the park has a lot of great trail maps here.
10. Palm Springs (1 Hour): The best way to sum up Palm Springs is to say it’s a mini desert Hollywood. Well it’s not quite filled with the high level of stars it was in the 50’s when the Salton Sea was booming but it is still a beautiful place to visit. This oasis town has had many famous residents including Sonny Bono who became mayor, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and even JFK was a part-time resident. Currently still living in Palm Springs are Suzanne Somers and Barry Manilow, among others. There are a number or celebrity tours including Best of the Best Tours, which will show you over 50 famous celebrity homes in an hour and a half for $25.
There are a couple other cool things to check out while in Palm Springs as well. The Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactariumtake which only costs $3 but will let you see over 3,000 cactus’s, and the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which carries travelers up 8,500 ft near to top of San Jacinto Peak for amazing views. The cost for the aerial tramway is $23 for adults/$16 for children however they also have great deals where for just a few extra dollars you can also get a full meal at the club house once you reach the mountain’s peak. If you feel like making a stroll through town the main drag, Palm Canyon Dr, is lines with a ton of palm tree and a 250 person walk of fame.
If you are just quickly passing through make sure to stop and snap some photos under Seward Johnson’s 80 foot tall Forever Marilyn Monroe statue shown on the map above.
11. World’s Largest Dinosaur Museum (90 Minutes): The museum, featured in the movie Pee-Wees Big Adventure, is the definition of a road side attraction. Overall it is pretty corny as a museum and only worth a ticket if you are traveling with kids, but it’s a must stop photo op if traveling along Hwy 10. Just west of the Museum one exit is a large outlet mall if you are looking to get some shopping done.
12. Palm Canyon (Anza Borrego State Park – 90 Minutes): If you’ve ever wondered what Jurassic-sized palm trees may have looked like then the Anza-Borrego State Park and Palm Canyon is your chance to see. This grove of 100 foot tall bushy palms is crazy. The park is located to the west of the Salton Sea the the hike from the park’s visitor center to the Palm Canyon is easy and takes around 45 minutes each direction. If you feel like hiking further there is also a waterfall in the canyon. Please visit the Visitors Center before hiking as you will be hiking in a desert. Photo to the left, courtesy of webshot user denisejonz100, notice how tiny the people look while being towered by these well over 100 foot palms. Click here for a detailed park map. Park office phone is (760) 767-4205.