The Fountain of Youth in the Southern California Desert

“Fountain of Youth”… that makes you think, doesn’t it?

Imagine Ponce de Leon thrashing through the Florida Everglades in search of eternal life. Hucksters pushing gels, creams, minerals and botox to promise the look of vitality come to mind.  Or maybe you empathize with all the wishful thinking of all the folks bearing the aches and pains of a long life.

I think of wrinkles.

Well, wait. I need to back up and fill in some blanks.

A bunch of decades ago Rhonda’s parents were looking to their upcoming retirement. Many summers found them traveling  westward to California, Nevada and Mexico, in no particular order, searching for places to park and camp. Eventually, working their way southwestward past Las Vegas and Yuma, they found the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea was created in 1905 when floods breached an irrigation canal on the Colorado River, sending a wall of water through the Imperial Valley and into the Salton Sink. It took eighteen months to stop the flow of water, and the Salton Sea was created. For decades after that, amounts of Colorado River water and agricultural run-off continued to feed the sea as it passed through Imperial Valley.  It was to become a place for Los Angelinos to revel in a newly created “sea” surrounded by the Chocolate Mountains, and would be even more popular than Palm Springs for a time.

The 20’s and 30’s saw development of the sea. It became the biggest tilapia fishery in California. It featured hot springs and fishing and swimming for those relatively select few who know about it.

In 1949, the 122 mile long Coachella Canal was completed to provide water for farming and to ensure no further accidents like the formation of the Salton Sea. The presence of the canal further encouraged development in the area.

By the 1950’s workers on improving and maintaining the canal would stop by hot mineral pools discovered when the canal work first began. The water from the pools was too hot and full of minerals and therefore not useful for making the cement for the canal. One of these workers, Clyde Hayes from Oregon and J.T. Trily a local contractor, created a resort where people could camp by the pools. They bought land, put up buildings and camp sites. Eventually a separate hot spring was discovered and tapped and the The Fountain of Youth Spa had its own source of the healing waters.

The 1960’s were its heyday as a destination for all the beautiful people. Other spas had popped up, each featuring a hot tub or mineral springs or beautiful mountain and sea side views. The idea that the sea may be doomed was unthinkable. After all, the Salton Sea was a happy accident, modified by men who could build anything with public works and enough money. The Tennessee Valley Authority had stopped floods in the Appalachians. Electricity was produced by great dam projects. Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam and others promised an ever brightening future. Steam locomotives belched fire as they drew natural resources and finished products overland from coast to coast. And even the icon of the steam engine was giving way to modern diesel locomotives. This was an era in which people believed that anything was possible. But today the Salton Sea is in decline and will be costly to rectify.

Welcome sight after several hours driving through the desert.

The Fountain of Youth grew into the resort spa it is today. Three swimming pools, four hot tubs, steam rooms, activity buildings, bocce ball courts, tennis and pickleball courts, well equipped workout facilities, computer lab, sharing library, weekly farmer’s market, hiking excursions, bus excursions to Mexico, sewing rooms, services for nearly every religious stripe, recreation halls, a car wash, a dog wash, a poker room, a mercantile, a cantina, hiking trails through the desert and decent cell service combine with the near perfect weather to entice campers who come in spite of the Salton Sea, not because of it

All the while, the accidental sea was overtaken by its origins; and the run-off from surrounding area farms polluted it. Its decline was evidenced by sight and smell, as well as fish kill off. As Rhonda’s parents later discovered, the occasional on-shore winds from the Salton Sea would make camping in the area most unpleasant.

More recently, in 2007, the state of California decided to cut off what little fresh water it received from the Colorado and the sea’s death became assured.  I wonder if the sea’s location directly above the San Andreas Fault factored at all into the decision.

Our family history with the Fountain of Youth began in the mid-80’s.

The Chocolate Mountains to the south.

At our first introduction to F.O.Y., we were the children of retirees. All grown up and having our own growing families, this “Fountain of Youth” thing sounded very nice to us…nice for old wrinkled people. But after a few years and very insistent invitations to come with her parents, Rhonda and I came with them.

Well, there were a lot of wrinkles.  And lots of sun tans. Lots of laughter. So many smiles and friendly greetings. And such a relaxed mood! The toughest decisions of the day were what time to go to the pools and when to eat. Countless activities offered for its residents, made each decision a quandary. And somehow this all seems not so bad, even a bit more familiar.

Part of our hiking group. the pond you see is one of many created by the canal buildiers for wildlife to use. One easy way to make mileage while hiking in this desert, is to follow the Coachella Canal which irrigates the Imperial Valley and gives it immense agricultural capacity.

Then, as now, the grounds are divided into two areas. Dry camping is mostly up on the hill overlooking the rest of the resort with the scenic Chocolate Mountains to the rear. The remainder is the full hookup area. These are level, tamped down gravel lots with concrete sidewalks for pedestrians. Street signs post the names of the streets. Bikes, trikes, golf carts, electric toads, and 4 by 4’s all cruise around in a genteel, but purposeful flow. Pedestrians always have the right of way and never is a horn sounded. For any reason at all conversations may crop up wherever a pedestrian and any other form of transit meet.

Dress is shorts and short sleeves. Only once I strode down the street shirtless. I was fine, but afterward Rhonda told me I shouldn’t do that, as someone’s sensibilities may be broached. Maybe it’s my giant tattoo of Kilroy peeking up out of my shorts.

Also there is no cannon balling into any of the pools and splashing is kept to a minimum. That’s not to say these folks are comatose, oh no! Karaoke night vies with the bocce ball league nights for real noise. The most noise, though comes from the water polo leagues which play twice a day.  It’s easy to see fun in many forms at the Fountain of Youth.

Like all the pics of the Fountain of Youth, this was taken on a windy day. Winter temps reach down as far as 59 dergees F and with a 20mph wind, not too many take advantage of the heated pools in the evening.

Spread throughout the resort are also permanently installed mobile homes. These are either full time or part time residences. Every last one is immaculately maintained, whether it is new, or thirty or more years old.  At least half the occupants we met during “winter/snowbird” season from October through March were Canadian, all bearing that famous Canadian affability and politeness. (In this observation though, Rhonda and I may be a bit partial. Each of us comes from strong Canadian stock.)

Nearly 750 lots are all fully booked during the “Snow Bird” season, from October to March. Price range varies We snagged a  $450 per month for smaller “economy” lots perfectly sized for Class B RVs, with full hook-ups and cable TV. And such peace! You wouldn’t believe it! The coyotes and mourning doves can sometimes wake you early in the morning, but tranquility rules. (Well there IS an occasional wind which can arise. But watching the weather helps that.)

Regular and double lots are for travel trailers, Class C sized RVs and  fifth wheel rigs and Giant Class A Coaches with their “tow-eds.” Nightly, weekly and seasonal rates are also available. As prices vary by lot size and location, here is the link to their website. https://foyspa.com/  Pull through lots are available as well. All lots have full hook-ups with your electricity being a separate charge. Up top in the Dry Camp area, you will also find a car wash bay, dishwashing station and dog washing station along with the standard restrooms and showers. From dry camp, you have full access to the entire resort… it’s just a few more feet to walk or pedal. We have never found a place with cleaner or better maintained restrooms and grounds, in both the dry camping areas and the full hook-up areas.

Colorful signs belie the artistic abilities found in this community.

Our one day trips to Salvation Mountain, Slab City and East Jesus are experiences to be appreciated on so many levels.

Salvation Mountain is the first of these to greet you. Rhonda and I both found the mountain to be really cool.  In order to give it a fair representation, I thought I’d use text from it’s website:

A view of Salvation Mountain, but a single picture cannot take in this entire work.

“Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain is located in the lower desert of Southern California in Imperial County just east of the Salton Sea and about a hour and a half from Palm Springs. Salvation Mountain is Leonard's tribute to God and his gift to the world with its simple yet powerful message: “God Is Love.” Leonard's passion has lovingly created this brilliant “outsider art ” masterpiece resplendent with not only biblical and religious scripture such as the Lord's Prayer, John [3:16], and the Sinner's Prayer, but also including flowers, trees, waterfalls, suns, bluebirds, and many other fascinating and colorful objects…”

Slab City occupies the site of a former USMC base. When the Marines left, they took everything but the slabs the military buildings were built on.

Over the years people camped, homesteaded and generally occupied it and to be frank, the area became a dump. Much of Slab City looks like the burned out remnants of a third world country. And other parts of it reflects the best people could do to build themselves a life in this desert community. These are quite pleasant. Water is trucked in. Electricity is solar. These people are off the grid. Camping spots for boondockers are available-we chose to return to the Fountain of Youth.

Down the road a bit you’ll find East Jesus, where old hippies go to make art. Still off the grid, East Jesus residents use anything they can find, anywhere they can find it to express their artistic whims. We met two of the official greeters. Both were very calm, likeable, eminently charming individuals, and though we met no other artists in residence, we had no reason to believe they would be anything else. Their  website tells much more.

Yuma, Arizona is just down the pike, and offers EVERYTHING any small city/large suburb could.

We traveled toward Yuma, and crossed over the border to Los Algadonas, Mexico for souvenirs, and medication. No questions were asked of us at Customs on either side of the border, but of course a passport is required. As with another trip we made to Mexico from Big Bend National Park in Texas, we found the people in Mexican border towns to be friendly, eager to sell their wares in street-side stalls and polite beyond polite. Many of the folks from Fountain of Youth go there for excellent, low cost dental work and optical work, offered for one fifth to one quarter the price of equivalent services in the US or Canada.

We found not one, but TWO geocaches in this stone hut.

Anyone who hikes or Geocaches knows the challenges of a new terrain. The Southern California Desert, when you can approach it thoughtfully, is a wonder to behold. Oh, everything in the desert is still of the most unfriendly sort, all pickery and thorny and tough to climb. But whatever is placed on the desert, stays there. No rain to clean it or wash it away. There are fewer critters to investigate it. Winds are the only force for natural “clean-up” and since there are fewer hikers and travelers to dirty it up, the desert seems rather pristine in places. The remnants of canal work are found everywhere in the rock fragments and boulders near the new canal and its predecessor which runs alongside it. Public works in Western United States seldom have the luxury of landscaping to cover the bare earth, leaving no too much to look at.

We DO look out for native critters, the ones that slither, climb webs, crawl, or leap out at you. Luckily, it is early Spring in the desert and none of these were out to be seen.  (HINT: crunching loudly on the path while singing “Waltzing Matilda,” or “Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me When I’m Sixty-four?” may have accounted for the dearth of discernable desert dwellers.

The warning end of an eight year old rattler. We found it squashed on the roadside where we hike.

On this trip we set a goal of finding our 1,000th Geocache. We have 12 yet to go. We will make that before we return home with only a little effort.

This Geocaching Map from our cell phone shows our Geocach “finds” as smiley faces, and those we have yet to find as boxes. The Yellow highlighted line is the Coachella Canal and the area outlined in red is The Fountain of Youth.