Salton Sea

Salton Sea has been on my list for a while, thanks to an OKCupid wannabe suitor. When I found out that it was a short drive from my sister’s house in California, I immediately recruited her for a post-Christmas visit. After all, we had to work off all the Christmas junk food somehow.

We were supposed to go last year, but that trip was put on hold when my sister went into labor 3 months prematurely; a month before my trip out there. And looking back, it probably wouldn’t have been the wisest decision for a lady who was 8 months pregnant to be traipsing around a toxic sea. So, it was probably for the better that I went this year with a much-less-pregnant companion.

The Salton Sea is a phallic shaped body of water smack dab in the middle of the Colorado Desert in California. Originally, it was thought to be fertile land for farming; so, to increase water flow to these areas, the California Development Company dug irrigation canals from the nearby Colorado River in 1905. However, these canals were poorly planned and eventually overflowed, running into the Salton Basin for a period two years, turning the it into a land-locked sea.

For a while, this accident was seen as a blessing in disguise. A sea in the middle of the desert! What an anomaly! And the largest lake in California, at that. Resort towns soon began to pop up, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s it was a booming tourist attraction, visited by the likes of Sonny Bono and the Beach Boys.

Greetings from the glamour capital!

Greetings from the glamour capital!

The area around the sea is composed of long stretches of highway and barren land, with an occasional small pocket where a cluster of a neighborhood will appear. There are 6 towns that line the shores: Salton City, Salton Sea Beach and Desert Shores on the western bank, and Bombay Beach, Desert Beach, and North Shore (the latter two being the only ones we didn’t get to visit) on the eastern bank.

The area isn't as bustling as this map might suggest.

The area isn’t as bustling as this map might suggest.

Then nature ran its course, as it tends to do. A still body of water in the middle of the desert wasn’t really meant to last – in fact, it turned into a bit of an ecological nightmare. For a few decades, the thousands of acres of farmland that surrounded the area had all of its water run off into the sea – water which had collections of salt, pesticides and fertilizers (hey guys, you’re swimming around in animal poop). By the 1970s, the water became uninhabitable for any kind of wildlife, and the shoreline soon became littered with THOUSANDS of dead fish. In addition, the unpredictable rainfall and ebb and flow of the farm run-off  caused the sea to flood throughout the 70s and 80s destroying properties that lay on the water’s edge. Between the stench of dead fish, rotting algal blooms and shoreline stink-water flooding, the area evacuated at an alarming rate, killing the once booming tourist trap destination.

At one point in time, this collection of sticks was someone's home.

At one point in time, this collection of sticks was someone’s beach house. Or maybe yacht club.

If you look up any other pieces of writing on Salton Sea, one of the first items mentioned is the overwhelming stink. Think about it – miles or rotting aquatic carcasses roasting under the hot desert sun. Fortunately for us, we managed to avoid the roasting temperatures and had a balmy 55 degree day…paired with a 60 mph wind. So, the stink was minimal, but the whipping “sand” and dust was not. To be honest, I’m shocked any photos I shot came out at all. My eyes were so blurry with tears that I had to guess when it came to focusing my camera – all while my scarf that was wrapped around my mouth (an attempt to limit my fish-dust intake) whipped furiously around my head, sometimes obstructing my view. I did a lot of running in and out of the car that day.

Oh just a small collection of dead fish…that lined the entire length of the beach. And that gravel they’re sitting on? Granulated bones.

Each town (Are they even considered towns? Neighborhoods?) is surprisingly far away from one another. The size of the sea is deceiving! It takes about 2 hours to drive the entire perimeter. But contrary to how the area looks, each “town” was not completely abandoned. I discovered this when we were first walking around Salton Sea Beach and I saw a decrepit looking trailer in the middle of a barren piece of land. “Look at that abandoned trailer in the middle of nowhere,” I pointed. And right as my hand went up, two little dogs popped their heads up in the window on cue. That was when we realized that most of these “abandoned” trailers were not so vacant.

The aforementioned trailer. I took this from the confines of our car – I was worried that if I got out to take a photo then I’d get a dog (or gun) turned on me.


There are still a few people hanging onto the real estate in the area, for reasons I would probably chalk up to one part stubbornness and one part completely affordable housing. The towns range in population from as little as 295 to 3,700 people – which is far larger than I had anticipated. Salton City and Desert Shores had houses that were a little more distinguishable as housing – some at Desert Shores were actually quite nice, sitting on the waters edge. If you just ignored the stink, the magenta hue of the polluted water and the unbearable winds, it was quite scenic. We even saw two women trying to go for a seaside run, which looked more like some kind of corporal punishment as they pushed their way through the whipping winds. Bombay Beach and Salton Sea Beach had housing that was a little less distinguishable. As I was taking some shots of a decaying club at Salton Sea Beach, I ran into another photographer who told us about the trailers at Bombay Beach. “Do not start exploring the trailers,” he warned, “because despite their appearances, they are very much inhabited. We found out the hard way.” So, for the fear of walking into someone’s living room unannounced, I steered clear of all trailers.

This one was definitely vacant.

This one was definitely vacant, though.

Of the documentaries that have been shot on the Salton Sea, most are shot in Bombay Beach. I’ve heard that the locals there are pretty unwelcoming to visitors – and I don’t blame them. If people were poking around in my living room and blocking one of my ten roads with camera equipment, I’d be pissed, too. There was one small restaurant still in business at Bombay Beach that I tried to convince my sister to  eat lunch in, but she could not be coerced. I won’t lie – I kind of regret not stopping in at least for a beer. It gets 4.5 stars on Yelp! That’s way better than the shitty Del Taco we ate for lunch instead.

There are currently efforts being made by the local government to try and save the sea. The main worry is that the waters will eventually evaporate completely and turn the area into a giant dust bowl (more so than it already is) and blow toxic silt all the way to San Diego. The area is also home to one of the most diverse populations of birds in North America (surprising, right?), housing over 400 species – which we may also lose with the sea. The state is hoping to build a series of levies and then flood small sections of the shoreline with fresh water to reduce the dust and to create a wetland habitat – the first small step in a long process of salvation. The local residents already suffer from asthma and other chronic ailments due to the dust – hopefully the state can help quell this from spreading further.

Just to give you an idea of what I was standing in. That was the most visible that mountain range was during our entire trip.

Just to give you an idea of what I was standing in. That was the most visible that mountain range was during our entire trip.

I’m not here to judge anyone, but life out in Salton Sea has to be rough. Even if you have one of the nicer houses on the waters edge, you’re still living in an apocalyptic wasteland: burned out trailers, furniture and decaying vehicles scattered about, piles of kindling that once resembled buildings, boarded up businesses, insane desert winds and temperatures, and a beach that you can’t use even if you could bear to sit amongst the stink.  I’m not here to judge anyone – my quality of life is definitely not that amazing in NYC – but at least I can walk away from the questionable smells on the subway.




4 thoughts on “Salton Sea

  1. I love that picture of the couch by the sea! You gotta head to Salvation Mountain next time you’re in the area and there is the International Banana Museum nearby…killler banana shakes. Such a funky strange desert area.


  2. Thank you for sharing this experience with us in both words and pictures. As to living there, what comes to mind is the saying it takes all kinds. I find this kind of decay fascinating, and if it weren’t for the the dryness and heat – I know I know; integral parts of the desert – and the stink,- I could see backintheday choosing to stay there for a bit.


  3. Nice article… learn a lot.I always hear about salton sea..and politics trying to do something about it…but did not know the history of Salton Sea.


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