There is much to read and learn about the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, but visiting is the best way to really know the Sea.

The Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge

The Sea had lost some of its allure as it kept shrinking, enough to make the late entertainer, Mayor of Palms Springs and Congressman Sonny Bono want to give the cause a boost by taking the importance of the wildlife in the region to Washington D.C. The Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge was created.

The 2,200-acre Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge at the southern end of the Salton Sea contains wetland habitats, farm fields growing rye grass for wintering geese and tree rows. It accommodates breeding grounds for wild animals, and their habitats are carefully managed. Two walking trails allow visitors to perhaps catch a glimpse of Desert Cottontail, Merriam's kangaroo rat, the valley pocket gopher and all sorts of other critters. Like the Sea, the refuge is in the path of the Pacific Flyway, so bird watching is a given. This important migration route is vital as a resting place and wintering area for many unique species of birdlife, such as the Yuma Clapper Rail which is often heard but rarely seen.

The Salton Sea State Recreation Area

The State Recreation Area (SRA) is situated on the north shore of the Salton Sea and spans 14 miles of shoreline. Visitors may opt for day use, fishing, boating, picnicking and birding, as well as overnight camping. Some highlights:

  • You can boat or water ski or learn how to operate a powerboat. Due to the high salt content, boats float better, are more efficient and the best thing—they go really fast. The sea is known as one of the fastest lakes in the U.S. Varner Harbor within the SRA provides easy access for boating and water skiing. Kayaking is also popular.
  • Fishing is allowed with a valid fishing license. Due to the salt content of the water, the most common fish currently caught is Talapia.
  • Bird watching could be a fulltime hobby here because the Sea lies on the Pacific Flyway which is a temporary home to 400 species of migratory birds.
  • Hiking is popular with many nature trails. Ranger-led hikes are highly informative.

Around the Salton Sea

Coming in or going out, there are some notable stops to include on your trip to the Salton Sea.

  • The Oasis Date Farm in Thermal, one of the largest date suppliers in the country, is on the way. The 175-acre producing date farm has been certified organic since 2000. Plan on stopping for date samples and a delectable date shake made from their specialty Medjool date.
  • After your date refreshments, you can truck right over to the place that holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest collection dedicated to a single fruit—bananas. Yes, it’s true. The International Banana Museum has made the grade. You’ll believe it when you see the 20,000 banana-related items: the banana lamps, the monkey bowl, the photo-op banana statue and the scratches and sniff stickers on your way out. If you haven’t filled up on dates, linger for a banana split. However, you don’t have to like bananas to get a kick out of this.

Interesting Facts

  • The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake. It is also the third largest saline lake in the nation.
  • The Salton Sea has no outlet.
  • Its surface elevation is 227 feet below sea level.
  • The average depth of the Salton Sea is 29.9 feet; its deepest is about 50 feet.
  • The Sea’s watershed is 8,000 square miles.
  • Annual inflow is 1.3 million acre-feet with an annual salt load of 4 million tons.
  • About 1.3 million acre-feet of water evaporate from the Salton Sea each year.
  • The Salton Sea is the only area in the U.S. for viewing the Yellow-footed Gull.


  • What a wild water-ride the Salton Sea has taken from the lake’s creation in 1905 by a flood to today’s recreational area. In the 1920s, construction of resorts, restaurants and homes began, and, by the 1950s, celebrity visits were numerous with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis attending festive boat regattas. The nautically themed North Shore Beach & Yacht Club opened in 1959, with celebrities from the Marx Brothers to the Beach Boys keeping boats in the marina. A flood destroyed the jetty in 1981, closing the facility. However, the Albert Frey-designed building was restored and reopened in 2010 to serve as the current Salton Sea History Museum and Visitor Center.  To learn more about the Salton Sea’s fascinating history, visit the museum or its website.

More Information

Salton Sea State Recreation Area (SRA) Headquarters
100-225 State Park Road off Highway 111
Mecca, CA 92254
(760) 393-3059 (park)
(760) 393-3810 (visitor center)

International Banana Museum
98775 Highway 111
Mecca, CA 92254
(619) 840-1429

Oasis Date Gardens
59-111 Grapefruit Blvd.
Thermal, CA 92274
(800) 827-8017

Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge
906 W. Sinclair
Calipatra, CA 92233
(760) 348-5278