Susan C. Anthony

Day Trip:  Drive around the Salton Sea

A trip around the Salton Sea can easily be made in a day on less than a tank of gas (for most vehicles) with time to spare for side trips.  Recently, friends got lost trying to find their way to our recommended destinations using my hastily scribbled notes, so I took a day to drive around, gather information, record distances and GPS coordinates, and otherwise put together a decent guide for our friends and whoever else might be interested.  Let me know if you find it useful.  If there are mistakes, let me know so I can correct them.  The numbers (01 to 25) are there to help you locate additional information about each of the places. I don't want to clutter this guide with too much information, but I want it to be easily accessible when I get a chance to write more detail. 

Preparing for the Trip

The following destinations are right along the way, with no need for a side trip.  Numbers are there to help you find additional information.

  • 07 North Shore Yacht Club, one-time hangout of the rich and famous
  • 08 Salton Sea State Park:  visitor center, short film, harbor, kayak rentals
  • 20 Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge: visitor center, trail
  • 21 Geothermal Plants
  • 22 Westmoreland Date Shake
  • 24 Salton City
  • Shoreline of ancient Lake Cahuilla
  • Fields, greenhouses, citrus orchards, vineyards

The following destinations require side trips.  Prioritize so you know in advance which you most want to see.

  • 01 Oasis Date Gardens:  8.4 mile round trip from Mecca stoplight
  • Box Canyon:  24 mile round trip from Mecca stoplight.  In addition to the canyon, you can see the town of Mecca 02, the Coachella Canal 03, slippage 04, and hike up a slot canyon 05.
  • 09 Dos Palmas Oasis:  9.4 mile round trip from Salton Sea State Park turnoff to the parking lot and .5 mile walk to the oasis over easy terrain
  • 10 Bat Caves:  2-3 mile hike from Highway 111 to or around a rock butte with caves
  • 11 Bombay Beach:  a few miles drive around the town
  • 12 Hot Mineral Spa Road:  6 mile round trip
  • 14 Salvation Mountain / 15 Slab City :  10 mile round trip
  • 18 Red Hill / 19 Mud Volcanoes:  6.5 mile round trip with some VERY rough road.

Preprogram the GPS for "Reset Odometer" Points

In order to allow for side trips of your choice, I recommend resetting your odometer several times along the way.  You might want to program the waypoints below into your GPS ahead of time.  Then read through this document and enter additional GPS coordinates for side trips or places you want to see.  Think about previewing the trip with Google Earth.  Pick up a free brochure from the Salton Sea State Park to get a map.

33° 37’ 12” N, 116° 7’ 20” W 02 Mecca stoplight
33° 30’ 36” N, 115° 55’ 2” W 08 Intersection of Highway 111 and State Park turnoff
33° 14’ 25” N, 115° 31’ 9” W 13 Intersection of Highway 111 and Slab City turnoff
33° 10’ 36” N, 115° 31' 8" W Turn (no reset) at Intersection of Highway 111 and Sinclair Road
33° 10’ 36” N, 115° 36’ 52” W 20 Intersection of Sinclair Road and Gentry Road
33° 30’ 0” N, 115° 50’ 54” W 22 Westmoreland stoplight
33° 21’ 26” N, 116° 1’ 6” W 25 Turnoff to Red Earth Casino
33° 34’ 10” N, 116° 5’ 33” W Turn (no reset) AM-PM, turnoff from Highway 86 to Highway 111


Taking the Trip

Getting to the Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is about an hour south of Palm Springs.  From Interstate 10 or Highway 86, turn south on Dillon Road to Highway 111, then go south to the first stop on the trip, Oasis Date Gardens.

01 Oasis Date Gardens (33° 37’ 12” N, 116° 7’ 20” W)

  • Enjoy free sampled of more than a dozen types of dates. 
  • Ask to watch the short video on the history of dates in the Coachella Valley
  • If the season is right, watch dates being processed
  • Cafe, date shakes, products and gifts for sale, restrooms in the back

Continue south on Highway 111 for 4.2 miles to the Mecca stoplight.  Reset odometer. 

Note:  Optional side trips are in brown.  Skip on to black text if you want to skip the side trip.

Side trip to the best of Box Canyon, 24 miles round trip

02 Mecca stoplight (33° 37’ 12” N, 116° 7’ 20” W Reset odometer.

Turn north at the Mecca stoplight, cross the railroad tracks, go right at the roundabout.  Pass the Beacon gas station and take the first left you can on 2nd Street.  There's a food market and 99¢ Store on the left.  Just past the 99¢ Store is Date Palm Street, and just past that is one of our all-time favorite Mexican Restaurants, Taqueria Guerrero (33° 37’ 12” N, 116° 7’ 20”W).  The Mecca Post Office is on the right, with a mural painted on the side of the building.

Continue straight on 2nd Street until it ends at Home Avenue.  Turn right, go a block, then turn left on 66th Avenue / Highway 195. Continue to a 4-way stop at Mile 4.2, Johnson Street.  The houses end, continue straight.

Mile 4.8:  cross the Coachella Canal.

03 Coachella Canal (33° 34’ 26” N, 116° 0’ 5” W) 

Mile 5.4:  Painted Canyon Road to the left.  The road is five miles of gravel washboard into the Mecca Wilderness Area, ending at Painted Canyon.  Hike up Painted Canyon a ways to Ladder Canyon, one of our all-time favorite hiking destinations.  Consider returning another day for that the hike.

Mile 12:  Pull off to the left.  Across the road you can see slippage.

04 Slippage (33° 36’ 24” N, 115° 55’ 4” W)

Turn around at Mile 12 and head back down Box Canyon.  In .3 miles, come to a Kiosk with a map.  This marks the trail to Little Box Canyon.  If you have a 4WD high clearance vehicle that can handle deep sand, you can see a spectacular example of slippage 1.1 mile up the trail.  Or hike if you have time.  Go up Little Box Canyon 1.1 miles and turn around.  Looking down the canyon, the slippage is on your right. 

04 Super example of slippage (33° 36’ 3” N, 115° 54’ 23” W)

Go back down, looking for more examples of slippage on the way.  Rejoin the highway and continue downhill another 1.1 miles to where a road (Sheep Hole Trail) branches to the left.  Take the rough dirt road to the blocked trailhead (hikers only) and trn right.  In .2 miles, stop.  The slot canyon is to your left and back.

05 Slot canyon (33° 35’ 12” N, 115° 55’ 51” W)

Hike into the deep, very narrow canyon as far as you want.  Return to the car and continue straight on to rejoin the highway at 33° 35’ 12” N, 115° 56’ 3” W.  Note: if you don’t want to drive in the sand, you can stop here and walk to the slot canyon.

When you exit Box Canyon, look left to see the Salton Sea stretching to the horizon.  Back in Mecca go straight.  The Library, with Internet access, is just past the Sheriff and across from the park.  It's open every day except Friday and Sunday.

06 Mecca Library (33° 34’ 10” N, 116° 4’ 26” W)

Continue back past Beacon gas station (Leon's Meat Market), go around the roundabout, over the tracks, and back to the Mecca stoplight.

02 Mecca stoplight (33° 37’ 12” N, 116° 7’ 20” W)  Reset odometer.

Mile 9.8:  Drive south on Highway 111 through North Shore to Marina Drive, .3 miles past the palm tree cell tower on the right.  Turn right on Marina Drive to North Shore Yacht Club.

07 North Shore Yacht Club (33° 31’ 16” N, 115° 56’ 7” W)

The North Shore Yacht Club was a happening place in the 1960s, a hangout for the rich and famous.  Its $2 million marina was the largest in Southern California.  Jerry Lewis, the Marx Brothers and the Beach Boys had boats at the marina, which sponsored events that drew hundreds of prestigious guests.  Speed boat races yielded world-record times.  A flood in 1981 wiped out the marina and the Yacht Club closed.  The current building opened May 1, 2010.  Walk out on the jetty for a closeup view of the Sea.

Mile 11.1:  Back on Highway 111, continue south to a blue sign for Salton Sea State Park and turn right.

08 Salton Sea State Park turnoff (33° 30’ 36” N, 115° 55’ 2” W)

Pay $5.00 ($4.00 for senior citizens) for a day pass.  To the right is a Cahuilla Indian shelter and a cactus garden.  The road to the right ends at the beach, where there's a picnic table and a sign saying no lifeguard is on duty.  Dip in your toes if you wish, but be very careful. Mud or quicksand near the shoreline could dirty your shoes.

Go back past the entry kiosk and parallel Highway 111 for about .3 miles to the visitor center (33° 30’ 14” N, 115° 54’ 54” W). 

Outside the visitor center:

  • Take a look at a more permanent Cahuilla shelter and artifacts to the right of the building.
  • Walk on behind to see Varner Harbor.  Walk around the building and notice the boat launch.  In the Salton Sea heyday, a 15-lane boat launch was in this area.
  • Past the restroom building is a Camp Store that rents double kayaks for $15/hour and singles for $10/hour (never on a windy day and not after 1:30 p.m.).

Inside the visitor center:

  • Check out the displays, which include rocks, nests, bones, furs, etc.
  • Explore the shop, which has films, books and gifts for sale.
  • Watch a 7-minute film about the Salton Sea.
  • Ask any questions you might have of the uniformed staff.

Return to Highway 111 and reset odometer.

Side trip to Dos Palmas Oasis, 9.3 round trip plus an easy walk of about a mile

08 Salton Sea State Park turnoff (33° 30’ 36” N, 115° 55’ 2” W) Reset odometer.

Go straight across Highway 111 across the tracks and up.

Mile 1.8:  Turn right at the T on Desert Aire Drive.

Mile 2.2:  Turn left on Powerline Road (dirt road).

Mile 2.9:  Veer left on a road that branches off.  There's a sign saying Dos Palmas Preserve.  Speed limit is 15 mph.

Mile 4.7:  Reach the parking lot at the locked gate.  There's an outhouse and trails to two oases.

09 Dos Palmas Oasis parking and trailhead (33° 30' 0" N, 115° 50' 54" W)

Return to Highway 111 and reset odometer.

08 Salton Sea State Park turnoff (33° 30’ 36” N, 115° 55’ 2” W) Reset odometer.

Continue south on Highway 111.

Mile 3.5:  You'll see a butte directly ahead of you.  That's the Bat Caves.  To the right of it, a point of land extends into the Salton Sea.  There used to be an RV park there where Dennis and I stayed for several years.

Mile 7.9:  Imperial County Line and trail to the Bat Caves.

10 Bat Caves trailhead (33° 25’ 37” N, 115° 49’ 53” W)

It's about a mile uphill to the Bat Caves (2 miles round trip).  If you want to hike all the way around and maybe to the top, it's about 3 miles. I used to hike up, around, and down every day and it took about an hour.  There used to be a trestle you could walk under.  Now you have to crawl through a culvert to reach the trail.

Continue south on Highway 111.  Along this stretch, you might see a prominent mountain seeming to rise from the sea.  That's Signal Mountain, just north of the Mexican border.  A smaller bump to the left would be Red Hill.  Steam clouds come from the geothermal plants.

Mile 16:  Turnoff to Bombay Beach.

11 Bombay Beach turnoff (33° 21’ 26” N, 115° 44’ 4” W)

The unusual town of Bombay Beach was featured in the documentary Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea.  As you approach the town, take the first left and go as far as you can.  The America Legion Post is on the left.  They serve great food if it's mealtime.  Drive around a little. Notice the dike. It was built to control flooding after much of the town was inundated when the Salton Sea rose in the 1970s.

Continue south on Highway 111 for another 2.98 miles.  You'll notice white motor homes uphill and straight ahead.  That's the Fountain of Youth Spa, one of four area RV parks catering to snowbirds or weekend warriors.

12 Hot Mineral Spa Road turnoff (33° 22’ 36” N, 115° 41’ 39” W)

If you wish, turn left up the road and go straight to the end, about 3 miles (6 miles round trip).  Turn left into Glamis North (formerly Imperial Spa).  There’s a great restaurant and gift store in the park, Sassy’s.  Stop at the pool just south of the road to Bashford's Spa to see some incredible fish.

Six miles south of Bombay Beach is a border patrol station.  You won't need to stop.  Continue to Niland, 17.7 miles south of Bombay Beach. The road to Salvation Mountain and Slab City is just past the United Food Center on the left.  Reset odometer.

Side trip to Salvation Mountain and Slab City, 8.4 miles round trip

13 Turnoff to Salvation Mountain / Slab City (33° 14’ 25” N, 115° 31’ 9”W) Reset odometer.

Mile .6:  Drive over two sets of railroad tracks.

Mile 3.3:  Salvation Mountain entrance on the right.

14 Salvation Mountain (33° 13’ 58” N, 115° 28’ 27” W)

  • Wander around Leonard Knight's amazing creation, featured in the documentary A Lifetime of Childlike Faith.
  • Check out the shady "Museum" built of hay bales and stuff found on the desert.
  • Climb up the yellow brick road to the cross at the top and return down the road to the side. 
  • Talk to a volunteer if one is on site and get a post card.
  • If you feel generous, drop a contribution into Leonard's mailbox.  He would never accept money, but checked his mailbox every day.  Funds are used for upkeep of the mountain.

Turn right when you exit Salvation Mountain and go another .1 mile to Slab City, "the last free place."  Drive until you get to a T and turn right.  Drive another .8 mile paralleling the canal through a wash to the library, on your left.

15 Slab City Library (33° 15’ 21” N, 115° 27’ 8” W)

  • Wander around the library.
  • Check out the collection and reading rooms.
  • Unfortunately, the old L.C. Smith typewriter with "Internut" access has been removed.

Wander around Slab City a bit on the way back through and return to Highway 111.

13 Turnoff to Salvation Mountain / Slab City (33° 14’ 25” N, 115° 31’ 9”W) Reset odometer.

Rejoin Highway 111 and turn south.  Continue several miles to Sinclair Road.

16 Turnoff to Sinclair Road (33° 10’ 36” N, 115° 31' 8" W) 

Turn right on Sinclair Road and drive several miles to Garst Road.

Side trip to Red Hill and Mud Volcanoes, 8.1 miles round trip

Do not take this side trip if there has been recent rain. The mud is unbelievable! The 1.2 mile road to the mud volcanoes is very rough. If you want to spare your car, you can walk.

17 Turnoff to Garst Road (33° 10’ 36” N, 115° 35’ 41” W) 

Turn right and drive 1.6 miles north to the intersection of Garst Road and Red Hill Road (33° 11’ 58” N, 115° 35’ 49” W).  Turn left toward Red Hill, an extinct volcano.  Turn left again at the stop sign and drive around the hill to the campground and boat launch.

18 Red Hill (33° 11' 47" N, 115° 36' 50")

  • Climb the hill.
  • Look for obsidian and other volcanic rocks. 
  • Explore the boat launch and imagine what would it would take to launch a boat there!

To go to the mud volcanoes, return to the intersection of Red Hill Road and Garst Road. Turn left across a bridge and then take an immediate right on Schrimpf Road.  Drive 1 mile on a ROUGH road to Davis Road and turn left. Go .1 of a mile or so on Davis Road to a trail that leads out into the mud volcanoes on your right.  There's a geothermal plant behind them, built just a few years ago.

19 Mud Volcanoes (33° 12’ 1” N, 115° 34’ 47” W)

Drive back the same way (ugh) and return to Sinclair Road.  Turn right.

Continue on Sinclair Road and drive several miles to Garst Road.  You'll pass the Elmore Geothermal Plant on the right.  A mile later, the road will swing left.  Continue straight to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge headquarters.

20 Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge (33° 10’ 36” N, 115° 36’ 53” W)

  • Visit the Visitor Center and get a list of birds.
  • Do some birdwatching.
  • Take a 1-mile easy hike to Rock Hill, looking for birds along the way.

Return to the main highway.  Turn right on Gentry and reset odometer. 

21 Hoch Geothermal Plant and headquarters (33° 09’ 51” N, 115° 50’ 52” W)

You'll pass the Hoch Geothermal Plant on the right and the headquarters building.  We took a tour there some years ago. You have to call in advance to schedule a tour.

Mile 3.7:  Stop sign.  Continue straight on.

Mile 7.2: The road swings right for .3 mile and then left again.

Mile 10.3:  Westmoreland stoplight.  Reset odometer.

22 Westmoreland stoplight and Westmoreland Date Shake (33° 30’ 0” N, 115° 50’ 54” W) Reset odometer.

For the best date shake we've ever had, turn right just before reaching the stoplight and continue to the end of the mini-mall.  If the owner isn't too busy, ask him to tell you about growing dates on his family farm.

Go north on Highway 86 (Westmoreland's Main Street)

Mile 16.3:  Border patrol station.  You will have to stop (or be waved through) as you're traveling north now.  Just past the border station, Highway 78 goes to the left.

Mile 20.7:  Road to the Old Navy Base takes off to the right. 

23 Road to the Old Navy Base (33° 10’ 34” N, 115° 53’ 15” W)

It's not advisable to take this road without 4WD as sand dunes are reclaiming the area.  The base was opened in 1942 and used to train seaplane pilots.  In 1944, B-29s including the Enola Gay dropped dummies of the atomic bomb as part of practice for the Hiroshima bombing.  The base was abandoned in the mid-1970s and thereafter used for live-fire training exercises, which mostly destroyed the structures.

Continue north on Highway 86. The hills to the left are the Gas Domes in Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area.  These are similar to the mud volcanoes near Red Hill.

Mile 29.5:  Salton City stoplight.

24 Salton City stoplight (33° 16’ 44” N, 115° 57’ 51” W)

  • Turn left on S-22 for AM-PM station, Jack-in-the-Box, Family Dollar store.
  • Turn right on South Marina for Post Office, stores, etc.

Side trip through Salton City

Turn right to drive down South Marina, around, and up North Marina back to Highway 86.  At the bottom, turn right to go to West Shores RV Park and the restaurant at Johnson's Landing.  To the right is the old boat launch.  On the far side of the restaurant is a large flat area.  This is a popular airfield for ultralights from all over the country and is now where vendors set up for the annual Jeep extravaganza Tierra del Sol, which takes place each year the first weekend in March. Thousands of people come from all over the country to drive around the desert, rock crawl, show off their cool machines, etc.

25 Turnoff to Red Earth Casino (33° 21’ 26” N, 116° 1’ 6” W) Reset odometer.

This is the cheapest place in the area to fill up with gas.  The casino is owned by Cahuilla Indians whose ancestors lived in the area when the Salton Sink was last filled with the waters of Lake Cahuilla.

Mile 1.1:  The road swings left near the community of Salton Sea Beach.  Notice the line along the hills ahead and to the left.  This marks the waterline of ancient Lake Cahuilla.  It's been jokingly called a "bathtub ring."

Mile 3.5:  Turnoff to Desert Shores.

Mile 5.6:  Riverside County Line.  You'll see date palms, citrus orchards, vineyards (for table grapes) and fields beginning abruptly at the county line. 

Mile 7.1:  Prime Time greenhouses on the right (33° 26’ 31” N, 116° 4’ 33” W). 

Mile 8.9:  Turnoff to Old Highway 86 (33° 27’ 45” N, 116° 5’ 28” W).

Mile 16.7:  Cross the Coachella Valley Channel, which carries floodwaters from cities uphill into the Salton Sea.

Mile 20:  Turnoff to 86 Spur, which leads to Highway 111.  AM-PM station, Starbucks, Del Taco.

CONGRATULATIONS!  Your made it around the Salton Sea!

Source:, ©Susan C. Anthony