Day 1: 29 February 2016: Indio to Salton Sea State Recreation Area: I dream of gardens in the desert sand - Down, Down, Down to the Sea - CycleBlaze

February 29, 2016

Day 1: 29 February 2016: Indio to Salton Sea State Recreation Area: I dream of gardens in the desert sand

In anticipation of a day of short mileage and almost nonexistent climbing, it was by no means the crack of dawn when I left the Forester in the motel parking lot in Indio and climbed aboard the Surly to begin my two-wheeled circumnavigation of the Salton Sea.

The first few miles took me through Indio and Coachella, sometimes considered the plain-jane step-sisters of Palm Springs and ritzier desert neighborhoods of sprawling Riverside County. However, the multiple murals that caught my eye along the way—brilliant and unexpected—made up for some of the cracked pavement, shuttered businesses, and dusty, down-at-the-heels ambience I encountered along much of my route out of town. It didn't take long before I exited the city limits and rolled into the empty desert.

Only the desert wasn't all that empty. At this end of the Salton Sea, irrigation supports surprisingly lush and expansive crops of grapes, oranges, artichokes, date palms, leafy vegetables, and produce I couldn't quite recognize. As I pedaled along, I could see battalions of laborers in the fields bending to the back-breaking work of harvest. A high proportion of the traffic rolling up and down the road comprised big trucks loaded with fruits and veggies fresh from orchards and gardens.

But only irrigated acres sprout crops in this valley where the soil seems to be half sand and half salt. As I continued pedaling through the Coachella Valley, east on 66th Avenue, and down Highway 111, green fields faded away and the landscape looked more and more bitter and dry. The desert and arid mountains in the distance asserted their dominance in a landscape only productive where humans exert themselves to expend precious water.

As for me, I considered myself well-provisioned with water, tea, Gatorade, and other precious fluids, all stashed in plastic containers aboard the Surly. At any point on the circuit around the Salton Sea there's probably no gap of more than ten or twenty miles to the next source of food and water. Given daytime high temperatures forecast to be in the low- to mid-nineties, however, carrying a suitable cargo of liquids seemed prudent. I made a conscious effort to remain hydrated, pausing to drink water every few miles, and practically drowning myself with tea at lunch. In addition, anticipating a burning desire when I eventually reached camp, near the end of the day's ride I stopped at Skip's convenient roadside establishment and purchased a chilled 24 ounce can of beer from a pistol-packing granny.

Highway 111 provided a wide, smooth shoulder remarkably free of debris. Traffic remained fairly light, still including a preponderance of big trucks. Although I felt entirely comfortable on my ample shoulder, practically every big rig running south drifted over to the northbound lane when passing me, assuming no oncoming traffic, which was usually the case. That phenomenon repeated itself over and over again throughout the ride.

On my left, across the highway, railroad tracks paralleled 111. These were not abandoned and certainly not currently candidates for rails-to-trails conversions. Freight trains constantly blasted up and down the line. My advice? Buy stock in rail lines, because business appears to be booming.

By early afternoon, after accumulating a few easy miles and my first layer of sunburn, I rolled into the Salton Sea State Recreation Area. Despite the hot Leap Day sun, it seemed to be a perfectly pleasant but under-utilized park. Perhaps it has achieved a bad reputation because repeated fish die-offs have been known to leave millions of piscine corpses rotting on the beach and fouling the air. The friendly docent at the visitor center had a few words to say about that.

"Okay, I know, a million dead fish wash up on the beach and that's no fun for anyone, but they're gone soon enough, and there's another thirty or forty million out there where they came from, still swimming around, so it's no big fuss. I've seen fishermen standing side by side right out there pulling in fish after fish like nobody's business. They'll each have two hundred or more in their coolers before they quit. There's no limit on how many you can catch in a day here."

"Well," I asked, "what kind of fish are out there? What are they catching?"

"Only one thing in the Salton Sea," he replied. "Tilapia. Millions of them. I don't know why there's no commercial fishing operation here."

I didn't mention it to the docent, but the lack of commercial fishing might be related to the impure soup in which all those tilapia are merrily swimming around and awaiting the next big fish kill. Given the concentration of fertilizers in agricultural run-off and the lack of outflow, there's no telling what kind of tasty fish-and-chemical stew is brewing out there. Certainly the level of salinity in the Salton Sea exceeds that of the oceans, and continues to increase. Try googling "Salton Sea toxins." In any event, I didn't buy a fishing license, go swimming, or gargle with the stuff.

Visually, though, the Salton Sea, set between desert and mountains, can be part of a stunning vista. I was especially pleased with the spectacular sunset reflected off the water, and I'm afraid I went a little snap happy with my camera as the sun slid behind the Santa Rosa mountains.

Besides mine, I think only two tent sites were occupied this evening, plus a few luxury liners up at the RV lot. Expecting a warm, peaceful night, I left the fly off my tent. Not much chance of rain around here. Not much chance of a peaceful night, either, as it turned out, because of those damn railroad tracks on the other side of Highway 111, hard by the campground. The freight trains didn't park themselves for slumber after dark. They screamed up and down the line all night long, making it impossible for me to sleep more than a few minutes at a stretch. Given a chance, I might have dreamed of gardens in the desert sand, but never could I doze off long enough.

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The Surly bids adieu to the lonely Forester in the parking lot of the motel in Indio.

Maybe this photo will help me find my way back here at the end of the ride.
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I'd barely pedaled a mile when I had to stop and photograph part of a large mural on an exterior wall of a building along Indio Boulevard.

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Part of another striking mural on another wall just off Indio Boulevard.

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Another colorful Indio mural. All these wall paintings came as a refreshing surprise.

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I'm not entirely sure about the exact location of the dividing line between the contiguous municipalities, but I think this mural was in Coachella rather than Indio.

In retrospect, not only was it a surprise to see so many colorful murals along my route in the span of a few blocks, but it was even more amazing that none of them had been touched by graffiti.

Somewhere, Diego Rivera is smiling.

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Just beyond the usual sprawl of fast food joints, muffler shops, pay day loans, apartments, and dusty lots, Coachella came to an abrupt end, replaced by barren desert punctuated with plantations of date palms and other irrigation-dependent agriculture.

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I think this is a field of spinach, well-tended and well-irrigated, ready for Popeye.

Part of the Coachella Valley at the north end of the Salton Sea.

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A sobering and unexpected ghost bike marking the death of a cyclist on Harrison Street, my route south for a few miles.

These somber memorials always remind me to ride carefully and safely. I hope motorists feel the same way. In fact, cars and trucks were amazingly respectful of the Surly and me on the entire tour around the sea.

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Detail from the ghost bike memorial at Harrison Street and 60th Avenue.

Rest in peace.

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I crossed a channel of flowing water on 66th Avenue in Mecca. This seemed to be irrigation run-off, one of the few sources of water—salty and chemical-laden though it is—for the Salton Sea.

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Most of the rows of palms around here seem to be meticulously tended. These, by contrast, appeared to be left to fend for themselves in a few wild and sandy acres.

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I'm not sure what this giant cowboy was doing, loitering in front of an abandoned building south of Mecca, but it looks like he wants to pick up the Surly.

Stand back, dude!

This gargantuan guy was the first of many oddities I encountered in the desert.

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The main rail line runs right along Highway 111. A steady procession of freight trains roars north and south almost non-stop, day and night.

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Welcome to the unincorporated community of North Shore on the edge of the Salton Sea. Note the elevation: 200 feet below MSL.

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In the middle of this arid landscape, someone is expending precious water on acres and acres of vineyards. The growers down here must not realize that we have plenty of vineyards in Wine Country, where I'm from, and it actually rains up there. Sometimes.

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There's another freight train rumbling up the line, blaring its air horn, and heading toward Los Angeles.

Of greater import, this odd yellow heavy-metal construct directs curious visitors to the acclaimed International Banana Museum, a cultural institution of which I must admit I was previously unaware. Sadly, it was not open today. However, it did set my mind to pondering just exactly what shapes and sizes of bananas might be on display, how they arrive here, how they're preserved for us to ogle and enjoy, and is there any chance of scoring a brain-freezing banana milkshake right about now?

You never quite know what you'll discover in the desert, as I'm just beginning to learn on this ride.

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Welcome to Skip's!

I stopped here to pick up a tall, chilled, adult beverage in an aluminum can to help cool me down when I reached camp.

The bicycle in front of the Surly belonged to a rather—ahem—down-on-his-luck, weather-beaten, and malodorous gentleman. (Not that I had anything to brag about.) The old desert rat was charging his battered flip phone amid a tangled nest of uninsulated electrical wires protruding from under the barred window near the front door, and he was none too thrilled when I unknowingly chose to park in that spot.

The 75-year-old woman minding the counter in Skip's emporium—she was about five feet tall and roughly eighty pounds, but packing on her right hip a handgun so oversized that it looked like a cannon strapped to her thigh—calmed down the cantankerous denizen of the desert and graciously sold me a cold beer.

Note hi-viz reflection in the window at the left. Now, that's a snazzy denizen of the desert!

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Along Highway 111, looking west, with the northern end of the Salton Sea squeezed between the desert on this side and the Santa Rosa mountains beyond the western shore.

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It looks like the Toro Loco has seen better days.

Sadly, far too many of the buildings along the shores of the Salton Sea and in nearby communities looked to be in the same condition. Despite the abundance of desolate natural beauty in the region, much of my circuit around the sea took me through the middle of the perfect location for a depressing film set in a post-apocalyptic wilderness of plastic-strewn wastelands and radioactive slag.

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The main unit of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area is a welcome oasis, a well-maintained facility with visitor center, snack bar and camp store, boat launch, kayak rentals, RV hook-ups, and tent camping sites, all at nearly 300 feet below Mean Sea Level.

Unfortunately, if the shore of the sea continues to recede—and it will, barring major unexpected shifts in resource management or climate—in a few years it will be a damn long walk from here to the water's edge, assuming it hasn't dried up completely.

Of course, the only reason the Salton Sea exists at all right now is due to a major engineering error on the Colorado River back in 1905.

For an introduction to the fascinating story of the Salton Sea, check the Wikipedia entry.

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I pedaled a circle around the tent camping area, but couldn't locate the hiker-biker site, although the state parks website indicates one exists.

When I wandered over to the sleepy campground host to inquire, he let go a friendly blast of spittle into the dust and smiled. "Well, we don't really get a lot of hikers or bicycles here. In fact, we don't really get a whole lot of campers at all. So we don't really have a special campsite for bicycles. You go ahead and pick out any one you want, and that'll be the bicycle site for tonight."

For $5, I chose site 26, with a view across the sea toward the mountains, hoping for a radiant sunset worth the price of admission. In that regard, I think I won the lottery.

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I set up camp, drained half my aluminum can of adult beverage, wrapped the remainder in a wet towel to keep the can cool for later, and took a nap stretched out atop my shaded picnic table.

Just before sunset, I grabbed my camera and started wandering around.

At about the same time, this couple arrived in a big RV, unloaded folding bikes, and began exploring the campground.

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The dock at the campground, designed to float up and down as the water level of the Salton Sea rises and falls.

By the looks of it, the water level is only falling, and the dock has just about bottomed out.

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Another shot of the dock and little harbor at the campground as the sun begins to set.

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Looking northwest. No boats in the little harbor at the campground as the setting sun begins to imbue everything with a golden hue.

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Looking east as sunset ignites the desert with fiery colors.

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Mountains and sea as seen from my campsite.

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Looking north. The campground beach as the sun goes down.

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Salton Sea sunset.

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As the sun set beyond the Santa Rosa Mountains, many seabirds began to take wing.

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More sunset.

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American white pelicans on the Salton Sea flap their wings in the golden light as the sun disappears behind the mountains.

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Salton Sea sunset, looking northwest.

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Salton Sea sunset, looking south.

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Trees and mountains silhouetted by Salton Sea sunset.

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Desert, mountains, sea, sky, sunset, and flight.

Goodnight from the shore of the Salton Sea.


  • Time: 9:00 to 1:00
  • Distance: Approximately 34 miles
  • Up: Approximately 100 feet
  • Down: Approximately 300 feet
  • Weather: High in low 90s F, low in mid 50s F, with little or no wind
  • Home for the night: Salton Sea State Recreation Area

Today's ride: 34 miles (55 km)
Total: 34 miles (55 km)

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