Salton Sea And Coachella Valley - Road Trip!

Making Lemons Out Of Lemonade

Last winter the staff of Cruiser discovered, over multiple trips, the ins, outs and joys of Salton Sea and the Coachella Valley. Unless you're a big golfer, the Greater Palm Springs Area isn't somewhere that appears on too many people's radars for a hot spot... or perhaps it doesn't show up because it is such a hot spot. But in the winter (SoCal's rainy season), in the rain shadow of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains, it's usually warm and dry, which for people looking for a good spot to get in and out of with some stunning photography, it fit the bill for us just fine. What we didn't expect was stunning landscapes, some challenging roads in the mountains bordering the valley, and a fascinating population living in a surreal world, that seems so much further from the metropolis of Los Angeles.

Just for the record, I frickin hate the Mojave Desert. For those who think its desolate moonscape is beautiful... well I just don't get it. So if you think this is one of those stories that celebrates the nothing that is the drive between Barstow and Vegas, it's not. Maybe I've had one too many quick trips to Vegas to party, maybe it was dirt bike riding in it as a kid, whatever, it's got zero charm for me. Unless there are big colorful mountains, alien-looking salt flats, or large bodies of water, I'm totally not interested.

So when I called Mike Calabro last fall about doing a photo shoot by the Salton Sea, really just thinking about hitting all of the mountain roads on the dry side of the mountains, and not even considering the Sea itself, I was surprised when he started raving about Slab City, and Bombay Beach, and how cool this was all going to be.

So we did our "Baby Bagger Shootout" (Motorcycle Cruiser, April 2009) there, and went back for our $10k Bargain Big Bikes Test (MC, June 2009), and (for good measure), I went back once more in February (in magazine-time that would be about the time of the July issue of MC) to really explore the space and focus on touring there without the distractions of trying to test motorcycles. Unlike most touring articles, this isn't a blow-by-blow of "we did this, we did that" as we're compiling a few different trips, but more a few ideas on where to go and what to do in the area.

They'd call it the Dead Sea, but that name was taken...The Salton Sea is an oddity on many levels. Millions of years ago, it was the northernmost arm of the Sea of Cortez (aka the Gulf of California), but at some point it was cut off from the rest of the Sea by the Colorado's delta. After that it's gone through periods of lake and sink, with the changing course of the Colorado, appearing as either a large inland sea or a desolate stretch of desert well below sea level. In any case, by the time the white folk got here, it was a desert.

However, all that changed in 1905 when heavy snowmelt in the Colorado combined with heavy spring rain cased the Colorado to burst through a dike and flow once more into (what was then known as) the Salton Sink. Two years (and a couple zillion gallons ) later, the Army Corps of Engineers fixed the breach, and the Salton Sea was born. The comedy of errors didn't end there though.

In the 1920s it became the "California Riviera" with beach resorts sprouting up all over. Sea birds began migrating here to eat the fish species introduced by man for sport. By the 1950s and 60s, agricultural runoff with nowhere to escape, started to raise the level of salinity, which in turn killed off whole species of fish, which then started killing the birds, all of which started dying off en mass. Meanwhile the same runoff caused foul-smelling floods at the seaside resorts and the place began to earn a bad name for itself.

Today, dreams of the California Riviera are long gone, replaced by isolated communities of people truly looking to get away from it all and slip the grid, or just ride their off-road machines without too much government interference. During the three times we visited in the cooler months, the legendary smell was nowhere to be sniffed, and the place had a sort of desolate beauty... and no I don't mean that in a Mojave Desert sort of way. From the east side of the Sea, when the wind is calm, you can see a prefect reflection of the western mountains. Migratory birds fly in formations like long silver kites overhead, and there's a peaceful feel to the place.

The most scenic and accessible area of the Sea is on the northeast side, off State Route 111 at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area. There are a couple of campgrounds and picnic areas right on the water. Evidence of the sea's prehistoric connection to the actual sea is all over the beach here, which is almost entirely made up of tiny fossilized mollusk shells, and the source of the valley's Spanish name: Conchella (which through bad translations, became Coachella). Though, due to algae blooms, swimming in the sea is considered a bad idea, there were a few people out kayaking both times we rode down the east side. For the fisherman, there are still schools of hardy Tilapia inhabiting the salty waste, which might be good for sport... but I wouldn't eat it.

Continuing down the 111 to the southeast, the very next thing you run into is Bombay Beach. What was once a planned resort community, situated on a perfect 1 square mile grid, is now a wasteland of wrecked houses, trailers, empty lots and a huge berm separating the beach dwellers from water. I can say from recent experience that it looks like the desert equivalent of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. During the floods of the 50s and 60s, the sea claimed the southernmost reaches of the town, submerging the dwellings in mud and water (thus the large berm). There is a public beach to the west accessible from the western end of the grid. Public services like the store, fire department and restaurant are on the west side of town, nearest the access road from the highway. Riding around town is a little odd, as you will definitely get some looks from the locals, but we spent a good amount of time on the south side taking pictures and were never challenged.

If you want to take in some geothermal trills on the east side of the Salton Sea, we got a hot tip from a Slab City native. There's a road between Niland and Calipatria off of State Route 111 called Shrimpf. It's a pretty gnarly bumpy dirt and gravel road, doable on a street bike but only if you're pretty confident in your abilities. About three and a half miles down rutted-out Shrimpf on the northeast corner of Davis Road, is a field full of mud volcanoes. The valley and the Salton Sea straddle the San Andreas Fault so there is no lack of geothermal activity around here, including multiple hot springs, and little mudpots like these. They're fun to play with as they gurgle and churn, and I was told by a member of the fairer sex that the mud's good for the skin. If you go be careful walking on the mud, as the wet spots are really slippery.

If you don't mind rutted dirt roads, continuing north on Davis will lead back to 111, but by a longer (approximately 10 mile) route that takes you by the Sea, and out north of Niland.

The western side of the lake, while still showing the marks of a boom time gone wrong, is a little less spooky than the eastern side. Traveling down State Route 86 to the towns of Desert Shores and Salton City, there are less ramshackle buildings dotting the landscape. There are abandoned marinas and a boarded up drive-in theater, but the houses that remain are pretty nice, and the vacant lots are just vacant, mostly not still sporting a rotted hulk of an old building.

While on this side of the Sea we stopped once in the smoky confines of the Red Earth Casino, which played exactly to type: a small, smoky gambling establishment in a state where normally neither is legal.

On the southern end of the Sea are the farming communities of Westmorland and Brawley. Neither is very scenic, but both abound with cheap hotels, cheapish gas, and very, very authentic Mexican food. State Route 78 mixes it up with the 111 and the 86 past the southern end of the Sea and leads west into San Diego County or northeast to the sand dune riding mecca of Glamis, and on to the Colorado River.

Slab City

Out on the east side of the valley is a tucked-away destination so weird and so iconic, it deserves its own chapter. While this area is the ancestral home of the Cahuilla Indians, Slab City is the home to modern primitives: mostly white off-the-gridders who have taken over an area formerly used as a Marine base. Several thousand residents inhabit this place in the winter, though crazy high summer heat takes that number down to about 150 midyear.

The first trick to having a Slab City adventure is finding it. It's just east of the tiny town of Niland off of State Route 111 on the east side of the Salton Sea. There are two main drags in Niland Main and Niland. Take either one through town to the northeast corner where they merge. Follow the road east past the dump and the electrical station, until you see a very colorful hill, otherwise known as Salvation Mountain.

Salvation Mountain is known as the Gateway to Slab City, and as an official State Treasure, it's likely to stay that way. Salvation Mountain is a hillside covered in adobe and paint, built by Leonard Knight for the last 25 years. Leonard estimates he's used over a hundred thousand gallons of paint on the Mountain, and he's not planning on stopping any time soon. Whatever your religious inclination, Leonard is an inspirational man to talk to, with a pure message of love that's refreshingly different from the fearmongers that are so common in some religious circles. Ask for a tour and leave a donation. You won't regret it. The mountain is actually less impressive in some ways than the complex chambers Leonard has built on the side of the Mount, which is a planned museum. He's got a trophy room, and a collection of plaques of old press clippings about the Mountain. Leonard's even embraced the Internet, through volunteers who maintain a website for him (though he admits that he doesn't really under stand the concept).

A free tip from Leonard for your home art projects. If you want cool 3D effects like he has on all of his cars and signs, use shoe repair goop. Apparently it sticks to everything (including paint) and is fairly indestructible.

Continuing on from Salvation, it first looks like you've entered any other RV campground, as camping rigs begin to dot the landscape. But before long you get into weirder and more ornate collections of artistically-arranged knickknacks and trash. It's like a low-rent version of Burning Man that isn't for just one weekend. True, many of the people out here are here due to economic hardship, but lots more just like the absolute anarchic self-governing freedom of the place. Electricity is self-generated via solar or gas, but there's community, a shower down by one of the aqueducts, and on weekends, food vendors and concerts.

There are a few centerpieces to The Slabs that make up a sort of downtown. The Range is the dancehall and concert venue. We came during the day, but were invited back for the free show which goes on every Saturday night from November to April. We happened to show up on Prom Night. They assured us that they had loaner clothes if we didn't bring a tuxes along. There is also a Christian Worship center, a honor-system based library, and a bulletin board which passes for a communication device where cell service (and electricity) is scarce.

There are also a number of social clubs scattered along the main drag, and off in the desert a bit there's an 18-hole sand golf course. Come to think of it, this might not be a bad place to hang out for longer than just a long weekend.

Fun Roads (and some reasons not to dodge the "Big Oops")

While I wouldn't specifically advise against it, I'm not really trying to get a wave of bike tourists out to the Salton Sea for long vacations. Really. But there are so many fabulous roads and sights around, it would be a shame to dodge this monument to man's folly and gritty survival instinct. No, the 200+ miles of straight roads surrounding the Sea are not exciting in themselves, but if you use them to string together a couple of other ones it works.

State Route 78 west off the south edge of the Sea is entertaining enough on its own once it hits the mountains, but even better is Montezuma Valley Road out of Borrego Springs (just a short jog north from 78, or straight west from Salton City on Borrego-Salton Seaway). Borrego has decent food, hotels and gas, and Montezuma Valley Road has great sightlines, smooth pavement, and sweeping vistas of the Coachella Valley. It also links up with a bunch more entertaining roads that wind through the Cleveland National Forest... but that's a whole other story.

As stated earlier, taking 78 East out of Brawley will get you into the Imperial Sand Dunes. Not only are they a sight on their own, sometimes you can watch he high-powered sand toys rip up the sides of the dunes as well. Farther on the road climbs out of the valley and up to the Colorado River, not a bad option if your travels are taking you east.

To the north of the Valley is Joshua Tree National Park. Again, I'm not a big desert guy, but this is another happy exception. If you're touring Salton Sea anyhow there's a cool little backdoor route out of Mecca on the north side of the Sea. If you take 66th Ave east out of town, it turns into Box Canyon Road, which in turn crosses Interstate 10 and continues up Cottonwood Canyon to the Park. It's much better way to go than slogging it out through Yucca Valley.

On both of our first two trips we made a point of heading up State Route 74 out of Palm Desert, in the more touristy part of the valley. The Pines to Palms Highway is also known as Seven-Layer Road both for its numerous switchbacks, as well as the various microclimates you'll go through. If you go in the winter like us, it's a crapshoot just how far you can get up towards the mountain resort of Idyllwild. The passes are a minimum of 4500 feet, so dress in your most versatile outfit if you're planning on doing pines and palms in the same afternoon. On our second trip we were lucky enough to come after a snowstorm but not right after a snowstorm, so we got clean roads, and piles of snow to gawk at. Temps were a very reasonable 50ish degrees.

Heck, just coming in on I-10 from Los Angeles during the day surrounded by miles and miles of wind farms covered with thousands of windmill generators is a thrill for many. Getting pushed around by gusts from the sky and blasts from the fronts of semi trucks is another kind of thrill. If you are coming in this way, an interesting detour is to take the Whitewater exit and go North. You can't get lost, as there's only one road, which goes to the Whitewater Nature Preserve. Even if you don't stop at the preserve, the view of the San Bernardino Mountains covered with snow and the snowmelt river rushing alongside (and over) the road is pretty thrilling as well.

Back on the Grid

For those not looking to camp out at Slab City or crash at some farmhand flophouse in Brawley, one nice thing about being so close to a big tourist area is the infrastructure. You can spend the day feeling like you're a thousand miles from nowhere, and dine at a five star restaurant for supper. Not that we did that. We split the difference, and used the plentiful availability of rooms to cut a sweet deal at a couple of fairly nice joints.

Our first trip we stayed at the Indian Wells Resort Hotel (formerly owned by Lucy and Desi Arnez, we hear) for $50/night to be closer to food, nightlife and State Route 74. It wasn't totally swanky, but it did have some old-school charm with big chandeliers and such. Really, any nicer and we'd feel weird coming in all nasty from a day of riding. Indian Wells is roughly in the center of the golf coursetopia that is the Greater Palm Springs Area, so just about any touristy good or service can be had in the immediate vicinity. A word of caution though, the speed limits are low, and the lights take all day.

Our second and third trips, we stayed up in the lower-rent, but (oddly) more expensive berg of Desert Hot Springs. This was far more our speed, as it was more out of the way, with less lights, and lower cost (but still high quality) food. We stayed at the Miracle Springs Resort, which was close to $100 a night, but true to its name, has a number of hot spring pools to soak in after a long day in the saddle. The best part is, you can take alcohol (in non glass containers) to the spring-fed hot tubs. None of our two groups complained, but if you have a problem with working class folk hanging out where you eat and rest your head, best stay in Palm Springs.

Useful Links & GPS Coordinates

Bombay Beach
3321 03 N 11543 47 W

Salvation Mountain
(Slab City entrance)
33 15'15"N 115 28'21"W

**Slab City

**Corner of Schrimpf Rd and State Route 111
**(Road to Mud Volcanoes)
33 11'54"N 115 31'09"W

Corner of State Route 111 and State Route 74
(Pines to Palm Highway)
33 43'17"N 116 23'29"W

White Water Road.
The "hidden" parts of Salvation Mountain are the best part with hay bales, tires and tree branches anchoring the tons of adobe and paint to make a Dr. Seussesque series of chambers that feels like it's inside the mountain.
Fossilized mollusks hang from a bird's feather on the beach at Salton Sea Recreation Area.
Shrimpf Road (going to the mud volcanoes)
Whitewater River
Mud volcanoes at Shrimpf and Davis
A Slab City sunset
State Route 243 south of Idyllwild, CA
Mollusk shell fossils, and on the Sea, a couple of brave kayakers
Bustling downtown Niland
Slab City at the Range
Mike Calabro photographs our April 2009 Table of Contents
A walk up the yellow brick road will get you to the top of Salvation Mountain and a completely different perspective of the artwork.
Leonard Knight