The Salton Sea: A Bike Packers Paradise
This past weekend we traveled out to the Salton Sea to bike pack from Mecca, CA down the Coachella Canal Road/Gas Line Road to Slab City, CA - the Last Free Place on Earth!
Best time of the year to ride this route is during the dry winter months. Keep an eye on the weather because if a storm is brewing, the last place you want to be is in this flood area. Know your surroundings and have a back up plan in case things go sour. Never be afraid to pull back but beware of that mid day sun, don't let it play any tricks on you!
The Salton Sea is a shallow, saline, endorheic rift lake located directly on the San Andreas Fault, predominantly in California's Imperial and Coachella Valleys. The lake occupies the lowest elevations of the Salton Sink in the Colorado Desert of Imperial and Riverside Counties in Southern California.
For the sake of this post's focus to primarily be all things bagsnbikes, I will not dabble into the history of the sea or it's projected future and leave that to your further reading (see bottom for more info ↓)
My route starts in the sleepy town of Mecca, where you can fill up your bottles and packs with all the necessities before starting a multi-day tour. For any bike related needs, the last bike shop is Palm Desert Cyclery, located right off the i10 freeway, 20 minutes before Mecca.
For this trip, you'll need enough food and water for your first camp night and the next full day's ride to the Slabs. There is a rad market in Mecca with fresh veggies and Pan Dulce for those needing a carb kick. Be sure to pack plenty of food and water as the next legitimate fill station is not for another 50 miles of grueling loose gravel and full sun exposure. A large hat and gallon of water + electrolytes held me over through the ride. I've yet to hear anyone complain for having too much water. The night before, I baked a few sweet potatoes which turned out to be my saving force for the ride down to the Slabs. I suggest a big ole' bag of nuts, one or two ripe avo's, some tortillas and a couple of electrolyte sources; all should hit the spot while riding South through the desert.
For our first night we camped up off Painted Canyon Rd. The majority of land around Painted is BLM so find yourself a safe, protected area away from any makeshift shooting ranges and Wilderness areas you may find. If possible, use a existing site to preserve the area as much as possible. If you pack it in, you best pack it out; regardless of what others chose to do.
In and around the canyon, you'll find jeep and dirt bike trails littered all over. Set up camp and get out and explore before the sun sets. Ride the ridges, test your skills in the sand, all while taking in the beauty of Winter in the Desert. 'Tis the season y'all! Explore the area and devise your plan for the unexpected but, of course, have fun!
The route is simple, follow the canal south for some 47 miles or so. As to which side, the high or low line, well that is up to you to decide. We found ourselves mostly riding the Western side of the canal aka Gas Line Road. There are plenty of extra credit buggy trails so save your energy and you'll have a radical time movin' 'n' groovin' through the dunes of the sea. If you start your ride at sunrise, you can make it to the slabs early enough to explore and find a nice site before sundown.
If you're low on water or food, navigate yourself off the Canal/Gas Line Road before Slab City and roll into Niland, as they have a market and water machine out front. Niland and Slab City are two places you ought to be cautious in when rolling around on a pricey bike packing rig. Never leave your bike out of sight or your bike might leave your side. Travel with a buddy for safety and an overall better experience as the Slabs may seem a bit frightening after dark. Stay safe by being seen when necessary and keeping cover when needed.
Upon your adventures in and around Slab City, make sure you descend every Mesa drop you can tackle, visit the iconic Salvation Mountain, East Jesus and, of course, the Slab City Library.
Pick your site wisely as the locals and visitors to the Slabs love to run amuck during the night. Don't be surprised to see (and hear) a late night buggy or two ripping through the desert. Choose a site that will give protection on all sides from any unexpected intruders. We found a location rutted so much that even the lifted up vehicles dare not travel near for risk of getting stuck. It was comparable to an island, tucked just above the Mesa between the Slabs and Salvation Mt. I would pick this location again as it had amazing views of both the Slabs and the Sea. We were able to watch the Super Moon rise just as the sun was setting; a complete jaw dropping experiencing.
Our return route was back to Mecca was via Hwy 111. There is plenty of shoulder to ride and most of the drivers will give up the lane. Exercise extreme caution with on-coming traffic passing each other as this is a one lane highway with a speed limit of 65mph. We chose to ride 111 back for the scenic views and swift tail wind that blew us all the way back to Mecca.
On your return route, some of the highlights include Bombay Beach where you can stop in and have a drink at the Ski Inn bar, maybe a plate of Fish 'N' Chips (note the cod was not caught in the local sea). If you're on a mission, you can knock out the 50 mile return route to mecca in 4-5 hours and have enough time to stop by the Oasis Date Garden where Organic Medjool Dates are grown on site and are freshly bagged.
The entire route took us 3 days which, in my opinion is the only way to do it. The 3 days give you enough time to explore the Slot Canyons of Painted Canyon, the Slabs of Slab City and the Bay of Bombay Beach.
"It's not about the destination but how much you can carry there"
*Major photo credit belongs to RRB's own Wifeeye, she captured each photo, most while riding her loaded bike packing rig. A proficient cycling photographer must be skilled behind the camera lens but also know how to Bob 'N' Weave on the bike; all while capturing the moment. Thankfully Wifeeye is a mean ripper and amazingly skilled photographer.
**Cheers to Wifeeye for granting RoadRunnerBags with exclusive rights to these photos for promotional use.
***Cheers to our lovely friends for being able to have a good ole' time, and show it off! Thank you @ilovebicyclesman and @princess_peppers for the lovely smiles all around and thank you to @tenderliving for sharing his stoke with us! TY everyone!
****Further reading for those interested in the Salton Sea: what it is, where it's been and where it's going as explained by USA Today