Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, CA

The Salton Sea is a haven for bird watchers. The Sea is a major stop on the Pacific Flyway and supports one of the most diverse bird populations in the U.S. More than 390 species live or migrate through the Salton Sea area, and up to 4 million birds can be found on the Sea at any one time.

Burrowing Owl Condos along Walker Road, east of Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR Unit 1. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest concentration is from October to February, but there are thousands of birds in residence year-round. The Refuge Center receives over 30,000 bird watchers annually.

The Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge is located in California’s Imperial Valley, 40 miles north of the Mexican border at the southern end of the Salton Sea with farmlands on the east, south, and west.

Because of its southern latitude, elevation of 228 feet below sea level, and location in the Sonoran Desert, the Refuge sees some of the hottest temperatures in the U.S. Daily temperatures from May to October often exceed 100°F with temperatures of 116°-120°F recorded yearly.

The Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge was established as a sanctuary and breeding ground for birds and other wildlife when 32,766 acres were set aside in 1930. In 1998, the Refuge was renamed after Congressman Sonny Bono, who played an active role in restoring the health of the Salton Sea to historical levels.

The courses of the New and Alamo Rivers run through the Refuge, providing fresher water to the Salton Sea. However, because the Sea has no outlet, the salt content of the water has increased steadily over time.

There’s no better time to visit a National Wildlife Refuge than today. Remember to bring your binoculars, birding guide, and camera. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Due to agricultural runoff and rise in the level of the Salton Sea, most of the original Refuge area has been covered completely by the salty lake. At present, only about 2,000 acres are farmed and managed for wetlands. Rye grass is grown on the Refuge as food for wintering geese in the area. However, as farming practices have changed, less water is being used on neighboring crops and therefore runoff into the Salton Sea has decreased over time, lowering the shoreline and further increasing salt content.

The land of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea Refuge is flat, except for Rock Hill, a small, inactive volcano.

The Refuge has two separate managed units, 18 miles apart. Each unit contains wetland habitats, farm fields, and tree rows.

At the Visitor Center
Your first stop should be the visitor center, located at the junction of Sinclair and Gentry Roads. The Center is surrounded by agriculture fields, the Salton Sea, Alamo River, and freshwater wetland habitats. Inside, you will find a bird diorama and a bookstore.

Outside, a self-guided trail will introduce you to the habitats found in a desert ecosystem. There is also an observation tower and picnic area located near the main parking lot.

A pair of American Avocet at Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Visitor Center is open Monday through Friday from 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., April through September. In October through March, the Visitor Center is open Monday and Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 7:00 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The Refuge is open from sunrise to sunset. The Visitor Center is closed on all national holidays.

The Wildlife Refuge is located at the southern tip of the Salton Sea. From Indio, take Highway 111 south for approximately 60 miles. Once you pass through Niland, continue south about 4 miles to Sinclair Road and turn right. Head west on Sinclair Road until you arrive to the Refuge Headquarters parking lot (Sinclair Road ends at this point).

Worth Pondering…
Count your blessings. A grateful heart attracts more joy, love, and prosperity.
—Cheryl Richardson

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