"A day trip to the Salton Sea?" my family sputtered during our golf holiday in the desert. OK, true, its heyday as the "desert beach destination" of Southern California ended decades ago, but c'mon guys. I did find kayaking and bird watching for us. In an "Audubon meets Venice boardwalk" compromise, a college son countered that he would go along if we added visits to some offbeat sites he had seen on video. Done. During the better part of two days in January, we circumnavigated the unknown-to-us accidental inland lake —115 miles or so of shoreline, longer by road — in a back-to-nature tour of the Salton Sea. Physically, the sea is 140-plus miles from downtown L.A. in the Imperial and Coachella valleys; experientially, it's otherworldly. The tab for our day trips: $45 for fees and activities, $10 for donations and $25 for cold drinks.
Our day trips didn't include an overnight at the sea itself, where much of the lodging is the campground and RV-with-hookup variety at the state park. We made our Salton Sea ventures from one of the closest populated places — La Quinta — where we had scored a sleek, private home with a pool on Homeaway.com.
After fortifying ourselves with inventive brunches — think three-egg frittata with spinach, mushrooms and brie — at La Quinta Baking Co. (78395 Highway 111, La Quinta, Calif.; (760) 777-1699, we packed picnic supplies for our outdoorsy activities because eateries are few and far between along the shore. After leaving the state park at Mecca, we found cold drinks and juicy samples at the Oasis Date Gardens about 15 miles north (59-111 Grapefruit Blvd., Thermal, Calif.;  398-9354.
For the nature lover (me), it's a close call between kayaking almost solo on a vast sunken sea ringed by desert, fields and mountains at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area (100-225 State Park Road, Mecca, Calif.;  393-3059), or the breathtaking bird watching at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge (906 W. Sinclair Road, Calipatria, Calif.;  348-5278). There, I found myself in a sudden snow-globe of a show as masses of shrieking geese startled into flight. Later, Audubon Society members identified sandhill cranes, egrets, herons — and maybe a rare Yuma clapper rail — for me. For my college son and urban explorer, the find was the human and very photogenic contrasts we saw in two sites outside the community of Niland: the colorful manmade Salvation Mountain looming out of the desert in a monumental show of determination, and the gritty-but-cheerful encampment of Slab City, a collection of off-the-grid dwellings on an abandoned military site.
The lesson learned
A visit to the Salton Sea showcases the best and worst of Southern California: tourist boom and bust; environmental issues; stark natural landscapes; miles of irrigated fields; dusty, dry land; thousands of soaring, squawking birds. And truly incomparable, made-for-the-movies sunsets.