OverviewRed Hill is a small island located off the eastern shores of the Salton Sea, in southeastern California. The summit elevation is -127 feet, as in 127 feet below sea level. The shoreline here is about -225 feet, so for a small amount of effort, you get to climb a hill whose summit is below sea level.
The Salton Sea is an inland sea roughly 35 miles long by 15 miles wide. It sits in a natural depression directly astride the San Andreas Fault. Many hundreds of square miles of land, extending from Indio and Coachella south through El Centro and almost to the Mexican border, lie below sea level. Were there no sea here, the lowest point would be about -260 feet, still not quite low enough to beat Death Valley's -282 feet.
The sea was formed by an accident: a canal breach from the Colorado River filled in this depression, c. 1905-1907. Today it is a catch-basin for the irrigation run-off from the Imperial Valley's many farms. The sea's water is very salty and full of chemicals, and it's a good idea not to actually play in the water. The Salton Sea's water level can vary due to evaporation or even due to occasional floods. Most maps list it at about -230 feet elevation, but on my visit it looked closer to -245.
Today, the sea is still an important waypoint for migrating birds, and much of the sea is managed as the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. It's a very interesting, curious place.
Getting ThereGet onto state highway CA-111 about halfway between the towns of Niland and Calipatria. Turn west onto Sinclair Road which will be signed for the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge/Red Hill Marina. Drive about three miles to Garst Road (signed), and go north about 1.5 miles to Red Hill Road (signed). Go west on Red Hill Road to the actual island. A right leads to some camping and the ranger's office. The road also goes left to an old marina.
The big steam-producing plants along Sinclair Road are the Salton Sea Geothermal Power Plants, seven plants in all. The steam plumes are visible from nearby summits from miles away.
Red TapeNo red tape.
CampingYou can camp at the Red Hill Marina (ph 760 348-2310). Cost (as of 2010) is $7 for tent site, a little more for hook-ups. Frankly, give it a miss. If you just show up for the day, it's a $2 fee. There seems to be a few long-term campers there, kind of a scary crowd.
There are cheap hotels in Calipatria and Niland. Bush-camping out here is tricky since it's all farm land - you'd need to drive a few miles to get into proper desert. A better camping option is the state-run Salton Sea Recreational Area complex, located about 25 miles north along CA-111, on the sea's northeast shore: Salton Sea Recreation Area
Calipatria is the lowest incorporated city in the United States at -184 feet. They boast a 184-foot flagpole so that the flag flies at sea level. That's about it for Calipatria. It has basic supplies. Here's their website: City of Calipatria.
HyperxiaDue to the abundance of oxygen at this low elevation, climbers should be aware of hyperxia, in which the brain works hyper-efficiently. You may find yourself talking non-stop, clearly and concisely, on a variety of topics. You'll finally understand things like 10th-grade geometry and the jokes on NPR. If you or your climbing mate shows signs of this condition, it's advised to gain elevation as soon as possible.
ObsidianTo get to the summit, I'd suggest walking the road to the south side and ascending through a natural break in the mud-like cliffs. It's about 70 feet ascent from the road. You will certainly note the abundance of obsidian, black glass-like rock formed by volcanism. Little flakes and chunks of this rock are everywhere. And yes, it's very sharp. There is plenty of obsidian around for many spears. You'll be the hero of your roving band of tribesmen when you show up with an armful of obsidian for your spear-making needs.
Ooh, That Smell.The Salton Sea is famous for its stink. Algae blooms, fish kills and bird die-offs are common and in summer, when temperatures can reach above 120 F (49 C), it is, to put it kindly, one of the most foul places on earth. In winter, the scents are suppressed a bit.
A summer "climb" is certainly possible. The air has a real kick to it, I hear.
Saying the Elevations CorrectlyPlease note it is proper to say "Negative 127 feet", but not to say things like "Negative 127 feet below sea level", since the latter is redundant, and actually incorrect. While most people won't raise a fuss, we math teachers certainly will.
CorrectionThe following was sent to me by a man named Ed Wilson, who has knowledge about the geology of the area: Red Hill is a volcano. It sits above a spreading center formerly in the Pacific Ocean, now overridden by the North American continent. A long series of related spreading centers have formed the Gulf of California. The one at Red Hill is the farthest north. The great San Andreas Fault begins from this spreading center as a transform fault. There are large obsidian flows on Red Hill. NO MUD FORMATIONS! All lava.
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