Angry dust devils and debris swirl around the mostly abandoned buildings, and the once vibrant beach is deserted as well. The water looks blue from a distance, but there is a slight tint of something else on the surface and the stench is unbelievable. The sand is long gone, in its place the remains of millions of dead fish, and as you walk along the shoreline your feet make a crunching sound as they sink deep into the bones.
Sounds more like something out of a dystopian novel then a destination, doesn’t it? In fact it’s not a fictional place at all, it’s the very real Salton Sea, which also happens to be the largest lake in California and one of the world’s largest inland seas. At -227 below sea level its also one of the lowest spots on earth. Located just one hour from Palm Springs, a drive around the 130 mile shoreline can easily be completed in one day making a great day trip destination.
You may not think the ruins of a once thriving resort town seem like a great day out, but many people (200,000 every year) are drawn to the Salton Sea, and the remnants of what it once was… My son and husband are definitely in that group. When I spoke to my son about why he liked it, he said it felt very post apocalyptic. Teens…
What is the Salton Sea and What Happened To It?
The Salton Sea was created by accident in 1905 when the Colorado River broke through wooden canal gates in the nearby farmland of the Imperial Valley. It took engineers 18 months to stop the flow of water and the end result was the 45 mile long 20 mile wide Salton Sea.
Because the Salton Sea is located in the middle of a desert and there is no outlet the water is only replenished through agricultural waste runoff and rainwater. When the water evaporates it leaves behind salt and minerals making it saltier than the Pacific Ocean. The combination of high salinity and pollution make the lake uninhabitable for all but a few hardy species of fish. Because there are no bottom feeders when the fish die they float to the surface and eventually wash up on shore.
It’s said that during the height of summer the stench can reach all the way to Palm Springs. Our visit in late March meant we were spared that particular horror. However, the smell was still pretty bad.
The Sea is home to millions of birds who use it as a migratory stopover, but the polluted water didn’t look suitable for swimming or other recreational water sports. In fact the water is rapidly disappearing and if/when the Sea dries up it will pose a threat to the many species of birds that rely on it.
North Shore Beach and Yacht Club
Our first stop was the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club built in 1958 by architect Albert Frey, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. This building is now in use as a recreation center. We walked along the nearby shore and there are some abandoned buildings nearby as well including an old bait and sandwich shop.
Salton Sea Visitor Center
The Visitor Center was a great place to stop and eat our picnic lunch and learn more about the area. I admit we decided to eat in the car rather than the picnic tables. Afterwards we explored the center, spoke with the rangers, and watched a brief video.
Bombay Beach Club
Located on the Eastern shore of the Sea, Bombay Beach isn’t completely deserted, but almost. According to the 2010 US Census there are 295 people living in the community. We spent a little time driving around, and saw signs of a few inhabitants, but not many. The shoreline has become an art installation of sorts with some pieces even making use of the dead tilapia that wash ashore.
Salvation Mountain is located just a few miles east of the Salton Sea, and is Like nothing I’ve ever seen. Made entirely of adobe, straw and thousands of gallons of non-toxic paint the mountain is covered with Christian sayings and bible verses.
Created over the course of 30 years by a local resident, Leonard Knight, Salvation Mountain has been recognized as a folk art site worthy of preservation and protection.
Slab City/East Jesus
Just down the road from Salvation Mountain You’ll find Slab City, a community of campers, squatters, artists, and hippies. Most of them stay for the winter and move north during the hot summer months when temperatures can reach as high as 120 degrees.
The area is uncontrolled with no water, electricity, sewers or trash service and is often referred to as the Last Free Place in America.
Within Slab City you’ll find East Jesus a large art installation made completely from recycled materials of all kinds. Visitors are encouraged to explore and interact with the many sculptures, however they do so at their own risk.
Our last stop was Desert Shores a town of around 1200 people. We stopped for one last view of the Sea before heading back to Palm Springs.
Our visit to the Salton Sea was fascinating and strange. We had a great family day out, but had mixed emotions about the level of desolation and pollution. Our visit opened the door for some good discussion about causes, solutions and possible reasons why people would choose to live in these areas.
Seasons & Climate
Keep in mind a visit to the Salton Sea and surrounding areas in summer means temperatures of up to 115 degrees. The best time to visit is October through May when temperatures are more manageable.
Not knowing what to expect we filled our gas tank and packed a lunch. This turned out to be perfect for us. Bird watchers will want to stop at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge at the South end of the Sea. Banana lovers will love a visit to the Banana Museum, which was closed on the day of our visit. Its located at the northern tip.