The Salton Sea first appeared to me back in 2016, a couple of days into the Stagecoach 400 bike packing trip with the Borrachos. It appeared to me then as it appeared on this passage, an out of place body of water in the desert landscape, planar and mirage inducing. It could have been the heat exhaustion the first time I saw it, but the sea seemed to bend the horizon. We only saw it in the distance at that time, as our Stagecoach route took us up and away into Anza Borrego. This time around though, we’d pedal straight for it.
Josh had sent out a text sometime in early November, proposing a bike pack between Christmas and New Years to explore the Salton Sea. He’d seen a TransWorld skate magazine article in the early 2000’s that showed an epic empty pool on the shore of the Salton Sea, and told himself, he’d go there someday to see it with his own eyes. I’d already blocked that time to return to the desert, following a proper adventure to Death Valley in the same window the year before. I was headed that way for some riding, camping, and laying under that brilliant desert night sky, so joining friends for a new route (despite seasonal nightly temps hovering around 32 F) couldn’t be passed up.
I looked at Josh’s proposed route to Slab City against the timeframe, 6 days or so, and couldn’t resist the temptation of neighboring Joshua Tree. Then John Watson dropped the Palm Canyon Epic into the mix and outgrew a proper route. We’d ascend into Joshua Tree, a slice of yucca moth pollinated wonder, with the desert floor growing with scraggly, Dr. Seuss inspired plants. Riding through the Mojave Desert down into the Colorado Desert, we’d pedal through the transition. Due to abnormally high snow and mud in the area, we’d end up avoiding Berdoo and Pinkham canyons and stay on the road and descend down towards the Salton Sea via the Orocopia Mountains Wilderness. From the vibrant desert ecosystem, we’d follow along the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, experiencing the semi-forgotten remnants of human activity, quagmire shores, endless washes, and signs of nature ever so slowly reclaiming the area. Then we’d round it out with a proper road climb up into the San Jacinto Mountains to descend Palm Canyon.
The contemporary Salton Sea was an accident of sorts, a by-product of humans trying to tame and channel the wild Colorado River to provide irrigation to the Imperial Valley for what was, at least for a while, an agricultural boon. For context on what kind of power and scale the Colorado River has, I read this in the book “The Emerald Mile” by Kevin Fedarko and will never forget it. “It took the U.S. and France 15 years to remove 200,000,000 cubic yards of earth to make the Panama Canal, which, in a large rain event, the Colorado River is capable of moving the same amount of material in two weeks.” So the river poured into the Salton Sink instead of the Gulf of Mexico for about 18 months and formed an inland sea 35 miles long and 15 miles wide until engineers damned it up again.
The Salton Sea became a major destination for the better part of four decades. Fishing, water skiing, and resort bliss abounded in this oasis. It was a popular destination for both Southern California residents and tourists from all over. The most enthusiastic of the bunch even took up residence around the Salton Sea. Eventually, the tides shifted out of favor for this resort locale as increased salinity, agricultural runoff, pollution, and flooding created an undesirable condition, untenable for most humans and certainly less than ideal to support a thriving tourism economy.
We made the drive down from Santa Cruz the day after Christmas and were forced to take 101 all the way to LA with I-5 closed over the grapevine due to snow, a not so subtle indication of what lay in store for us.
We woke up at the Best Western in southwest Palm Springs, it was the less ritzy part of town which suited our sensibilities. Confident we’d be able to park our cars there for the duration of our trip as current and returning guests, we checked to make sure – no dice. The manager assured us there was one car per room only and they were full, so we parked our cars in the lot outside Palm Springs Cyclery. The notion of leaving our cars parked in a strip mall lot for 5 nights challenged my usual optimism, but we didn’t have a better option. The guys at Palm Springs Cyclery were super nice and accommodating. They let Mike keep his cross bike at the shop while we pedaled (Mike got in a bonus tour from SC to LA before we all met up for our bikepacking trip). They looked after Mike’s bike and assured us that the cars would be fine while we were away – so off we went.
As we rode north through town, the steep and dramatic Mt. Jacinto loomed in the background, while fur boots and Starbucks Frappuccinos dawdled in the foreground. We received mixed looks from folks as we rode through, I imagined somewhere on the spectrum of “wow, look at those adventurers!” to “who are these weirdos?”
We made it about six miles before a perfect storm of “the best date shake in the valley” met a slow leak in my front tire, so we pulled over to try the shake and pump up a tire. Snacking ensued, as did the inevitable futzing of gear every time we stopped as if there is never-ending optimization to achieve. We pedaled on, only to realize Troy was way behind us, so we soft-pedaled to allow him to catch up. Troy pulled up alongside us, visibly exasperated and a little out of breath, and quickly launched into a diatribe saying “the first rule of bikepacking is to not pedal away while your friend is finishing his ice cream.” For the rest of the trip, we asked if everyone was done with their ice cream as our universal check-in for pedal readiness.
We rode up little Morongo Canyon, riding from pavement to soft sand just packed enough to navigate on 29 x 2.3-2.4 tire range (but not the whole time). Creosote bushes started filling in, as did glowing Golden Cholla Cactus, before the first Joshua Trees arrived, fuzzy, faceted, and sprawling. A pair of Bighorn Sheep scampered
across the road and deftly scaled the rocky and scrubby slope beyond, blending in and moving almost without a sound. The ice hinted at us in the lower elevations, then arrived in full form the higher we went. We topped out around 3,900 ft, passing by a few folks who were doing target practice with a shotgun and snowballs. We managed to watch one round but the shooter missed the snowball. Then they noticed us and we all glanced at each other with relaxed disbelief and exchanged some small talk before Josh used their tailgate to get his leg warmers on.
We part skied, surfed, and biked down the icy snow and mud into the town of Joshua Tree, finding warm respite at Joshua Tree Saloon with 150 of our closest friends. We thawed out, filled up on warm food and cold beer before pedaling down the road to camp at sportsman club RV park. We paid $20 for a picnic table and had access to water and a bathroom. As the weather can sometimes be best described by the clothes you have on, it was two pairs of socks, long johns, down pants, down jacket, a buff, and beanie kind of night. It was just plain cold.
After our shorter than planned first day we adjusted mileage accordingly and pedaled through the heart of Joshua Tree NP. We dove into our first freeze-dried meals of the trip and I opened a package of 2 serving black bean quinoa and poured in its requisite 1 and 3/4 cup of freshly boiled water. When we first started doing these trips a handful of years ago, I had little regard for freeze-dried meals, rehydrated mush of usually bland color and heavy in sodium. For the first time this trip, while packing and reaching up in the cupboard where I stow my ramen, miso soup, Nuun, and bars I pulled down a few freeze-dried meals – leftovers from our Idaho bike pack in August. I looked at their shiny plastic exterior and smoothed out the package, checking expiration dates, only to feel a rush of joy thinking of all the places I’ve been when it’s been a mountain house kind of meal. It’s certainly not world-class cuisine, but I definitely associate them with some of the best experiences I’ve had.
Yuccas, cholla, and creasote abounded, coated by a winter dusting of snow. The north side of the park proved to be much colder and snowier, and as we pedaled through, we imagined we’d end up camping in the snow by day’s end.
Cresting the central rise in Joshua tree through Wilson Canyon, we descended down from the snow-covered yuccas below the snow line, and witnessed a relatively sudden shift in vegetation, with no more yuccas but an intensely dense “garden of cholla”. Where did they all come from?! We had just ridden through miles of Joshua Trees and then this seemingly invisible line moved us into a new vegetative landscape. Slope, substrate, temperature, aspect, all hiding in plain sight, contributed to this shift. We stopped by the garden to get a closer look and Josh and Jon got a feel even, picking up cholla balls that stuck to their shoes and clothes. Damn, they are sharp!
Feeling more optimistic with no snow on this side of the park, we pedaled into twilight, riding quietly and appreciating the desert night sky with palettes of blues and purples and pinks and oranges. We pulled into Cottonwood campground near the southern exit of JTNP just as the day’s last light dimmed into darkness.
In one of Troy’s richer moments, he flatly said while we set up our tents, “well it’s cold, but at least it’s windy”, bringing a warming dose of levity in an otherwise rapidly freezing evening. As long as I’ve known Troy he’s had his own brand of aphorisms, and we used another one of his on this trip quite a few times, “never done that before, but I’ll do it again.”
Just as our body heat was warming up our camp clothes and our water was on the verge of boiling, a flashlight and direct voice came to our little picnic table area. “Excuse me, you are camped here illegally and need to vacate this area immediately”. Cold and hungry, we first asked if we could at least eat our dinner while quickly thinking on our numb feet how to get out of this situation. Our level headed sage, Jon, quickly chimed in and asserted that we didn’t have enough lights to go back on the road and ride anywhere safely, besides the fact that it was already about freezing and we didn’t have any other camp options in Joshua Tree. Plus it was dark, and we had already yard sale’d our gear out. What Jim didn’t know is that Light and Motion had equipped us with fresh Vis 360 adventure lights for the trip, so we hypothetically could have ridden into the night for another hour or two, we just had nowhere to pedal and the temperatures were plummeting. Jim came around after some negotiating but told us to be at the visitor center at 9 am to pay for camping and park passes.
We rolled out of cottonwood to pay our dues with Jim and ranger, who graciously allowed us to camp at the day-use picnic area since the camp was full. We decided to pass on Pinkham Canyon, reports of mud and snowmaking the passage unrideable at best. We opted for the paved descent out of the park. Crossing I-10 to the south, we made our way toward Chiriaco Summit.
The road turned to old buckled and eroded pavement, then to sand, and we made our way south around Orocopia Mountains Wilderness, ultimately descending the phenomenally textured Red Canyon Trail down to Bradshaw Road. Road is a generous term since the road was a desert wash about a half a mile across. We crisscrossed our way, making our best attempts to not ride in the soft sandy fluff created by the side by side off-roaders, which is virtually unrideable without fat bikes. We were fortunate that it had rained the week before, so there were some packed sections we were able to navigate with relative ease. This dynamic kind of riding, when conditions are right, has to be some of the most fun riding you can do (or at least in my humble opinion).
Once we descended out of Red Canyon we laid eyes on the Salton Sea for the first time this trip – hazy and reflective at the same time. Between limited options, needing water, and the allure of hot mineral springs, we splurged for a night of camping at the Fountain of Youth RV Resort, parking our bikes next to a 50-foot rig with a side by side parked next to it. This place has hot tubs, showers, electricity, grocery store, and a cafe so if you’re pinched on a multi-day trip this place functions as a small town. This place is an official wintering ground for Snowbirds, northerners who move to warmer, southern states in winter.
It wasn’t long before an old-timer, a snowbird from Oregon who we came to know as Doc Loomis, paid us a visit. He was intrigued by five guys on mountain bikes rolling into camp. He told us about the trail network he’d been working on for the last 12 years, and encouraged us to follow the red and green rocks south of here on our way to Slab City. He pedaled along and not even a few minutes later we were paid a visit from Fern Fennel from Salmon Arm, B.C. She popped down, jolly as could be with a bag of beer, offered a lantern and to charge some electronics in her RV, and let us fire up her grill for some hot dogs. This phenomenon of utter kindness from strangers while bike touring is not new, but it always surprises me and never gets old. She said to look her and her husband up if we are ever up on Shuswap Lake near Salmon Arm, B.C. – they host touring cyclists on Warm Showers.
We awoke on day four and started with a morning soak at the fountain of youth. Roughly 30 senior snowbirds sang “froggy went a courting” during their 7am water aerobics. They may come down to winter here and relax, but water aerobics is a big part of the program. Then we loaded up on breakfast at the café with omelets, breakfast sandos, and I grabbed an extra breakfast burrito to go – knowing I’d be hungry within an hour. The metabolism while bikepacking seems to grow exponentially with each passing day.
We left Fountain of Youth and rode a couple miles of Doc’s trails south until we landed on Canal Road, and save for a moto and a side by side, we had 16 miles of undulating gravel and sand to ourselves. Then we landed at the entrance of East Jesus. The resident host, Moon, enthusiastically told the story of their founder Charlie Russell and his vision for a world without garbage, and how today, was another beautiful day on spaceship earth. Moon originally came out to East Jesus to make a BBC documentary and then never left. We were lauded for arriving on fossil-free vehicles.
East Jesus has beautiful and bizarre art made out of garbage, as it tries to shine a light on consumption and humans’ take of natural resources. It possessed a harrowing beauty to walk around and a good reminder of all the stuff humans manufacture, consume and dispose of. Humans create an incomprehensible amount of waste, and East Jesus has demonstrated this viscerally.
We rolled out of East Jesus and through Slab City, which by any measure is more or less a large RV park with all types of permanent and semi-permanent structures. It’s an old WWII marine training ground, Fort Dunlap, with only the concrete slabs remaining – hence the name Slab City. All of the folks residing there are technically squatting, in an interesting case of lawless and uncontrolled territory owned by the State of California. The main tourist draw here is Salvation Mountain, which is a massive, colorful, adobe creation paying tribute to g_d. It was built over a few decades and is now overseen by a 501c3 non-profit and stewarded by, ostensibly, a group of locals. The creator, Leonard Knight, wanted to share his message of love and light and used adobe, hay, cement, sand, and an estimated 100,000 plus gallons of paint to create this man-made mountain.
As we exited Slab City, a brightly painted outpost reminded us “Caution, reality ahead”.
The reality, of course, is relative. As we pedaled out of Slab City toward Bombay Beach, the reality we entered still felt pretty out there. Miles of wash and long trains with tagged rail cars stretched on to our right, with miles of soupy substrate and the Salton Sea to our left. Our target destination was the Ski Inn for some beer and onion rings. As we walked in, our eyes caught a sea of dollar bills, thousands, taped all over the place. The beer is good and the people are kind, but finding a place to put your dollar bill will give you a run for your money. We meandered out to the beach for sunset to see the purple orange hues illuminate the chalky white, fishbone riddled shore. Turns out as we were leaving East Jesus a few hours before, this couple decided to take a back scenes tour with the host, the tour we turned down to keep our journey moving. This couple was Ben and Rachel from LA, van-lifers and coffee connoisseurs and artists, and we ended up stumbling upon each other at last light. They had an espresso maker and made us all shots while we indulged in simple humanity with strangers in the dwindling light of the Salton Sea.
We grabbed some quick snacks at the one market in Bombay Beach and then rode 15 paved highway miles in the cold dark all the way to Salton Sea State Park headquarters camp. What we’ll put ourselves through for a picnic table and water…
We awoke on day 5 and spent some morning down by the water, with hundreds of Bonaparte’s Gulls and a few beautiful American Avocets. We rode back the flat and windy miles from the semi-forgotten Salton Sea into expansive golf communities, complete with Porsches, bike lane/golf cart lanes, and green manicured lawns. Flat sprawl landed us at a strip mall with a Ralph’s and an unassuming cocina, Tu Madres, for lunch. If you’re in the area, their Baja burrito is top-notch and their Palomas will quench your thirst. The day we arrived they had been open for two weeks. To make sure we fully appreciated our all pavement day, we polished off the days ride with a 4000 ft road climb up to pinyon flat campground for our final camp of the trip. We’d ride the palm canyon epic for breakfast for the last meal of an epic feast of a ride.
As far as riding Palm Canyon, I’d check out John’s write up from a group ride they did that provides a zoom in on that section of this course.
In total, this course covered 276 miles (~100 miles of dirt) and climbed 15k ft, six days made for a comfortable and achievable itinerary even with the shortest days of the year (as long riding in cold darkness isn’t off the table). Snow, sand, mud, gravel, and pavement were all encountered and if attempting this same route, a minimum of 6 liters of water capacity in the colder months worked well, minimum tire size of 2.3-2.4 to be relatively efficient across the terrain, and good sense of humor when it’s 30 F out and your feet are numb.