Did you know the largest lake in California actually sits in the middle of the desert? The Salton Sea is 25 miles long and 10 miles wide.
While you can hike any section of the 360-mile shoreline, the California State Parks’ website suggests the Ironwood Nature Trail. However, I do not. Let me explain.
“Hikers will enjoy Ironwood Nature Trail which explores the shoreline between the visitors center and Mecca Beach,” the website says. However, the trail doesn’t explore the shoreline. The nature trail starts between spots 30 and 31 at a campground about a third of a mile from the visitors center (directions below).
The trail has a trail sign, so you’ll know you’re in the right spot. That’s good. However, the trail is marked with more than a dozen numbered signs and the visitor center and the website do not have a trail guide available. That’s not good.
The nice people in the visitor center said most of the signs have been damaged by the salt and the weather. I don’t agree. In December 2012, most of the posts still had very clear numbers on them.
It was quite odd to walk this numbered trail with no trail guide. Also, the trail is a few hundred yards from the shoreline, so while you can see the sea, you’re not near it. Why would you walk this trail at all if you don’t have a nature guide?
About 1.15 miles from the visitor center, as the trail approaches another campground, the trail bends toward the shoreline. We followed the trail to Mecca Beach. From there, we decided to walk the shoreline back to the visitor center.
Now the hike got a lot more interesting.
The shoreline is fascinating and can be stinky. The smell comes from the sea and possibly from the piles of dead fish. There are lots of different reasons for the dead fish. Some people say it’s an issue with the Salton Sea. Some say the fish don’t like the heat. A sign in the visitors center said the fish are warm weather fish and die when the water gets cold.
If you can avoid looking at the dead fish, take a look at the ground you’re walking on. Yes, there are sections of sand, but most of the ground is a crushed shell-like material. The shells come from millions of barancles. Barnacles are crustaceans made of jointed legs and shells. According to the people at the visitors center, seaplanes used the Salton Sea to practice landings during World War II and left behind the barnacles. Those barnacles reproduced and for decades their shells have been washing up on the shoreline, creating layers that look like sand.
As you walk the shoreline, see how many different birds you can count. The cranes and the seagulls are easy to spot, but hundreds of different bird species visit this sea every year, so it’s very popular with bird watchers.
When you’ve walked about a mile back down the beach, you’ll come to a picnic area. You’ll need to take the picnic area’s road around the boat ramp back to the visitors center.
Details: The hike from the visitors center, down the nature trail to Mecca Beach, back down the shoreline to the visitors center is about 2.5 miles with about 100 feet of elevation gain with the ups and downs.
Directions: From I-10, take Highway 86S for about 9.8 miles to Avenue 66 and turn left. Drive 0.8 miles and turn right on Highway 111. Go south about 12 miles to the Salton Sea SRA Headquarters entrance.
Important links: Salton Sea’s website information about Ironwood Nature Trail. Salton Sea home page.
While you’re in the area, don’t miss Andreas Canyon, Morongo Canyon Preserve, Barker Dam at Joshua Tree NP, Wall Street Mill at Joshua Tree NP, and “The Slot” at Anza-Borego State Park. Check out more than two dozen hikes in the Coachella Valley area here.
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