The Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge

Editor’s note: This column is written by my fatherRich Ryan, who I’ve invited to be a frequent contributor to Gracefully Global as “Dad’s Guest Blog,” as he calls it.  He’s a retired professor, and he keeps himself busy with frequent traveling and writing a column in the local newspaper of my hometown, the Imperial Valley Press.  This particular adventure we shared together along with my stepmom, Estela.  This is the second post in the series, and the first post was written about Salvation Mountain, which you can read by clicking here.  The photos are by me.

To the southwest of Niland’s Salvation Mountain is the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge.  Entry is free. 

The Salton Sea which straddles northern Imperial County and southern Riverside County is an inland saltwater lake that is a stopover for seasonal bird migrations.  The Refuge, a sanctuary and breeding ground for birds, is over 37,000 acres.  The area is huge.

The Sonny Bono visitors’ center is easily accessible from California Highway 111.  It is approximately a twenty-minute drive from Salvation Mountain to the Wildlife Refuge and less than two hours from Palm Springs.  Driving south on  California Highway 111, turn west on Sinclair Road which will bring you directly to the center’s entrance. 

You will pass a series of huge geothermal plants that run along both sides of Sinclair.  Signage is minimal so be alert.  The visitors’ center is not fancy but possesses the basics:  parking, a gift shop, informed docents, restrooms, and shaded picnic tables. 

Next to the center is a large, unshaded viewing platform from which to observe flocks of migrating birds such as white phase snow geese feeding in an irrigated field.  Bring binoculars.  Migrating is the key word.  These birds are not permanent residents so check the website for migrating bird information. 

Why should you visit the Refuge?  The Refuge is situated within the Pacific Flyway.  If you enjoy the outdoors and watching wildlife in their natural state, this is the place to be. 

Birds from all over the western states, northern Mexico and Canada winter over here.  Even during a brief visit, we saw dozens of pelican formations flying over and landing on the artificial islands established in the Refuge’s lakes. 

Thousands of shore birds line the Salton Sea which is about a half mile walk from the visitor’s center.  I was lucky on my first visit to startle a blue heron as I approached on a canal bank road.  A great blue heron taking off is a majestic sight.

Do be weather-wise when visiting Imperial Valley.  This is low desert, and from late spring to early fall temperatures will usually exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  It’s best to visit during the mild winter, late fall, or early spring.  A sun hat and water are must-haves.  Enjoy your visit.

– Richard Ryan, Guest contributor
   Instagram: @desert_rich


  1. Eliza Waters says:

    Nice post! It really is big birding hotspot in the winter. Apparently, it is quite polluted as there is no outlet and it gets saltier by the year. Birds aren’t there long enough to be seriously impacted, so I guess that is a good thing.

Leave a Reply