Anza Borrego and the Salten Sea

The weekend before Thanksgiving Mo and I headed out to Anza Borrego and the Salten Sea for another Field Studies scouting trip. I have done a few of these scouting trips with Mo in the past. One to Zion and Bryce and one to Pinnacles National Park. They are pretty fun and I love going to places I havn't been before and helping her out. We got a van from the college and ended up staying in a motel instead of camping this time.

A lot of the scouting trips involve timing the route, finding bathrooms every few hours, and lining up hikes and speakers. This is my fourth scouting trip and we really needed to scout this one out this time. We (I) missed a turn at one point, there was a fork in the road but no sign of where each fork led. We would pull over and look at maps and re-evaluate what road we were on and where we were trying to go. GPS, iPhones, and maps eventualy got us to where we needed to be, but it took awhile.... For the record we were coming into Anza-Borrego from the Oceanside area and there is a very curvy mountain road you take into Anza-Borrego from that side.

Our first stop was the visitor center and when we parked we were not sure where it was. It turns out it is built into the land and we were near the roof when we were in the parking lot. We followed the path to the visitor center and I loved the huge ram door handles.

From the visitors center we walked to the campground to checkout the group campsite and see a few potential hikes. I am not sure how I felt about the open air bathrooms....

As the sun set we found our motel and watched the last rays of the day over our own little happy hour.

I was up with the dawn and went for a short run. I was trying to find the Borrego Springs Sculptures but didn't have any luck. We had a long day ahead of us and started out a little after 8:30am.

Day two was all about the Salten Sea and I was REALLY glad it was a scouting trip. I was driving the van so Mo could look at the directions she had and take notes for the Field Studies trip. We had a lot of missed turns, confusing directions, and saw a few towns we were not planning on seeing. We finally made it to the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge visitors center. After talking with the volunteer in the office, we took the Rock Hill Hike and I got my first good look at the Salten Sea.

It is huge! And a little strange to have a huge lake in the middle of the desert. The Salten Sea is saltier than the Pacific Ocean and was filled most recently by an enginneering error in 1905 when an outlet canal from the Colorado River overflowed. It took two years to fix the breach and that is how the Salten Sea has water in it today. It is over 200 feet below sea level and sits right on the San Andreas fault line. It is actually a fascinating story and you can read more about it HERE on Wikipedia or HERE from the Salten Sea Museum. The Salten Sea Musuem link has some photos from the 1950s when the Salten Sea was a resort destination. Now a days those resort towns have gone away and pollution and high salt levels have changed the Salten Sea.

From the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge we made our way to the boiling mud volcanoes. Turns out there are some geothermal features on the eastern side of the lake and one of the geothermal plants has allowed access to the some boiling mud. Depending on the weather, you could have boiling mud volcanoes like we did, or boiling mud pools after a rain has washed all the volcanoes down like you can see in some photos on this blog, California Through My Lens. All in all, it was a pretty cool stop. You can hear the mud boiling everywhere! Watch your step...

Our next stop was Salvation Mountain and Slab City. What an interesting place. Salvation Mountain is a three story art installation made out of paint, straw, adobe, and cement poured over a "mountain". An art project of Leonard Knight, the mountain rises out of the desert on the way to Slab City.

Slab City is an interesting place. An old military barracks from the mid-century that was removed except for the concrete slab foundations; today it is a place for snowbirds and squaters. A place where people can live off the grid and away from society. There is no water, trash, electricity, or sewage, but about 150 people call it home year round with the population swelling in the winter months when retired "snowbirds" bring their RVs to live for the season. All are welcome to Slab City as we witnessed when we stopped to check out the pool that had become a skate park. A guy living in a brightly painted school bus stepped out and yelled a welcome to us and said to have a great time looking around.

From Slab City, which I hope to explore more in the future, we made our way to Mecca Beach. When we got there Mo and I started walking toward the Salten Sea. Mo told me the "beach" was made out of fish bones. What? Fish bones? Turns out it is true. The Salten Sea is so salty (25% more than the Pacific Ocean) and only one kind of fish lives in it. Tilapia. There are over 400 species of birds that use the Salten Sea, but only one fish. And these fish, a lot of them die on the shores of the lake. I think (no research to support this) that it is a combination of the pollution in the lake (agriculture run off is a big deal), the shrinking lake is getting saltier, and the fish are controlling for their population. Whatever the reason, this is what you see near the water line:

Lots of them. And they all looked like this on the day we were there. On a warmer day this beach can be really smelly. Dead fish smelly. For obvious reasons. Slowly I was starting to realize why so many of the towns we passed on our way around the Salten Sea were abandoned ghost towns or places that had seen better days. In the 1950's the Salten Sea was a resort destination area close to Palm Springs. When the sea started losing fish and becoming polluted, the resort towns slowly died. The recession didn't help either and the east side of the Salten Sea was hit pretty hard.

On our way back to Anza Borrego we drove through Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area and saw a lot of people enjoying the area. The terrain changed and we made our way back into the desert of Borrego Springs. We pulled into our motel after dark and Alan, a guy that worked there, invited us to come see his date farm the next morning. The Anza Borrego and Salten Sea area is a HUGE date growing region and we said we would be there.

The next morning we met Alan at his farm and had a tour. We started with the citrus trees he had and made our way to the different date trees. I never knew dates were so high maintance to grow. No wonder they are expensive. Mo and I learned about different varieties and came home with some dates.

All and all it was a good trip. I am glad we moteled it instead of camped on this trip because our days were long and full and getting back to camp after dark would not have been fun. When Mo takes her students it will be after the time change and with more daylight hours. Something we talked about on the scouting trip. We figured out everything for the Field Studies Trip and I got to see a new place. 

The weekend was long, a lot of hard work, but worth it. While Anza Borrego and the Salten Sea are not very high up in my list of things I to see again, I would return if the opportunity presented it self.
Have you been to this area? What did I miss? Let me know in the comments or let me know if there are other off the beaten path areas I should check out.


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