The Salton Sea area in California is one of the most interesting, unique, and quite bizarre places in the United States. You look one way, and you have one of the largest inland seas in the world with a weird history and an unmistakable smell. You look the other way, and you find a fabricated mountain, giant dunes, bubbling mud pots, palm tree oases, and date farms. The Salton Sea area is one place you need to see with your own eyes to believe it is true for all it’s worth. To help you get a better idea of the 10/10 fun level you can have here, we also prepared a quick list of adventures you will have nowhere else but here! Are you ready for some thrills during your next vacation?
1. Off-Roading the Imperial Sand Dunes
All those who love to ride powerful vehicles always wanted to be part of an action movie and feel the adrenaline on the tips of their tongues need to be here. Just southeast of the Salton Sea, the Imperial Sand Dunes (Algodones Dunes) are the heart of OHV riding and racing. The 3 miles wide and 15 miles long dunes, sitting at more than 400 feet height, give ATV/UTV lovers the chance to experience the ride of their lives.
The landscape makes you feel you just teleported to the Sahara desert and ended up – courtesy of the quantum realm – in a Star Wars movie. Then, when you hear the engines roaring, you might feel a bit like an adventurer in the Mad Max franchise.
The Imperial Sand Dunes call off-road enthusiasts like a beacon. You can quench your thirst for dune buggy running, ATV riding, and SXS racing. These sports are dangerous, and race organizers will not allow you to compete without proper UTV gear and accessories. It is perfectly fine to rent an ATV for the day, but if you are serious about your UTV-riding skills, you need to abide by the rules.
For instance, you can bring your side-by-side vehicle here. It does not matter that you have your heart set on a powerful Honda Talon, a sporty Polaris, or a beast like the Kawasaki. The organizers will request you have a set of extra accessories and the mandatory protective gear. Before you prep your UTV for a week of adventure and glorious riding, see here the most popular UTV aftermarket parts make sure you have them equipped on your vehicle. Don’t forget about a certified helmet, goggles, gloves, boots, a long-sleeved jacket, and trousers.
You also have to buy a Recreation Pass to enjoy the off-road adventures here. The officials will allow you free parking for about two hours so you can hike the dunes, but for any ATV/UTV or vehicular adventure, you should visit the park’s website and get the best pass type for your needs.
2. Touring the Salvation Mountain
It is easy to understand why families with kids hike the Imperial Sand Dunes without engaging in extreme sports but prefer the Salvation Mountain as their main destination. If you are on a road trip to California visiting some of its most fascinating sights, you cannot miss it. This Dr. Seuss-esque artificial mountain springs out in the middle of the desert.
Sitting halfway between San Diego and Phoenix in Niland, California, the Salvation Mountain is a free enjoyment for the whole family near the Salton Sea area. You can roam, take photos, and have the time of your life as long as you are respectful of Leonard Knight’s work.
We recommend you avoid the day heat and visit the mountain in the morning or at dusk. The creator of the mountain is there almost always, upgrading the experience. He is friendly and eager to take you on tour to visit the “Tree Room” or the “Yellow Brick Road.” You cannot miss this for the world!
3. Ghost-Town Crawling around the Salton Sea
When in Rome… or the Salton Sea area, you need to visit this bizarre natural phenomenon that attracts thousands of tourists every year. We recommend it in particular to photographers, as the place is surreally beautiful for panoramic shots.
Once upon a time, the area was a vibrant hub for the rich and famous, with many 50s celebrities coming here. Sonny Bono learned to water-ski here, and many Hollywood A-listers turned the area into their go-to vacation spot. Nevertheless, the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge is the place to be if you and the family need well-deserved recreation.
Then, as the salt concentration began to rise, and more and more fish started dying, life around the Salton Sea changed irremediably. The smell of rotten fish transformed the dwellings and resorts into veritable ghost towns.
A day trip here offers the experience of a lifetime that no adventurer should miss. You can still get a bite and gas for your car in the underpopulated town of Niland. Seeing the rundown/abandoned buildings, admiring the wildlife, photographing the cool beaches, and taking in all this strange beauty is something to put on your bucket list.
4. Listening to the Bubbling Mud Pots
This is what we call having a fun holiday with the family in the Salton Sea area! The mud pots are a hidden gem here that you do not want to miss! On location, you will learn that their name is the Davis-Schrimpf Seep Field and that they make the go-to spot for families, geology buffs, and all adventurers seeking to see something else than architecture and famous tourist sites.Granted, these mud pots and mud volcanoes are not as impressive as the ones you will find in Yellowstone Park, but they are cool and worth your while nonetheless.
Since the Salton Sea sits atop the San Andreas fault line, there is quite the geothermal activity here. Kids will love to listen carefully while they are here because they can hear the mud pots gurgling beneath their feet.
5. Stargazing in the Joshua Tree National Forest
You cannot miss this 800,000-acre national park covering a huge chunk of the desert, as you pass right by it when you go to or come back from the Salton Sea. It is a 90 minutes-drive, so there is no excuse not to visit the park while enjoying your Salton Sea adventure.
The Joshua tree forest is the home of the Joshua tree and the desert tortoise, hosting plenty of palm oases. The national park is a destination in and out of itself, as here you can engage in as many adventures and thrill-seeking sports as you can handle: camping, hiking, rock climbing, and more.
We, however, recommend the stargazing parties held here once a month, usually around the new moon. If you are both a seasoned camper and a passionate photographer, you cannot miss these events for the world.
The park is also open for horseback riding, so planning a vacation here is something you should experiment once in a lifetime if you are all about nature and adventure.
We hope we sparked your interest with our short guide to Salton Sea adventuring. Did you ever visit the area for the famous off-road rides and races at the Imperial Sand Dunes? Have you ever embarked on a journey out-of-time around the ghost towns of the Salton Sea? And have you ever hiked in the Joshua Tree National Forest? If you did, we’d love to hear more about your experiences and thoughts on this unique and strange area!