Chuck Graham

Soaking In the Salton Sea

California’s Largest Lake Is Underrated Paddling Destination

The Salton Sea in the southeastern corner of California’s Colorado Desert doesn’t get a fair shake. So what if its shrinking shoreline is scattered with dead tilapia and lined with abandoned buildings? It’s still one of the most significant birding locations in the state, tranquil and soothing, the silence intoxicating and best explored from a kayak or stand-up paddleboard.

Only a four-hour drive from Santa Barbara, it’s California’s largest lake, created after the Colorado River swelled in 1905 and the Salton Sink became the Salton Sea. As the decades rolled on it came to be known as the “next Las Vegas,” with Hollywood’s elite frequenting the Salton Sea Yacht Club, when fishing tournaments and waterskiing races were all the rage. However, as the water level dropped, the sea lost its luster and now appears like some postapocalyptic relic.

Come wintertime, though, the calm, silky-smooth lake is an underrated, little-known paddling destination. The Salton Sea State Recreation Area has two kayak camps along its northeast shore, but to fully immerse oneself in the surrounding desert landscape and vast geological wonders, paddle southeast into the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge. An old, dilapidated marina in Niland is the perfect launching pad to a craggy row of extinct volcanoes, glassy obsidian rock piles, and wispy plumes spewing from open geothermal mud pots. Primitive campsites abound and range from pristine, wind-sculpted sand dunes to a smidge of a sandbar at any of the sagging, yesteryear marinas.

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