The Salton Sea: Remains of a Californian Boom Town

As I walked along the yellow, bubbling shoreline I saw nothing but empty footprints in the cracked ground, the blurred horizon line, and death. The Salton Sea is, in essence, a marine graveyard. It is littered with thousands of decaying fish skeletons, disjointed tires, decimated wooden structures, and it harbors a smell that could send a desalination plant employee to their knees. The perfect post-apocalyptic nightmare. But out of this loss and chaos comes a fearful kind of excitement, for are always attracted to what has been and is no longer; to what could have been. The ruin of this Californian boomtown shows us that change is often abrupt and horribly cruel, but always yields a great adventure. 


In the early 1900’s, the Colorado river was an important source of water throughout most of Southern California. An irrigation mistake in 1905 caused the powerful river to burst through one of its dams, flooding a large plain for over two years before the bank was repaired. This plain, now completely submerged, became the Salton Sea. This man made sea is over 200 ft below sea level, coming only five feet above the lowest point in Death Valley. Sitting directly atop the San Andreas Fault, seismic activity and geothermal energy have had a large impact on the geography of this area. 

The Salton Sea quickly became the largest lake in California. As the 1950’s approached, people began wondering why they weren't taking advantage of this happy accident. The working class began vacationing at the river, bringing their families to swim, relax, and escape the smothering desert heat. Soon, the Salton Sea was popularized as a “Miracle in the Desert”. Small towns were erected, multiple resorts were founded, thousands of fish were added to the river, and many celebrities like The Beach Boys and Cher and Sonny often visited, all making the Salton Sea a trendy, sought after paradise. 

But if everything was going so well, why did this desert paradise become the toxic wasteland that it is today? As the 1970’s crept up, the lake was facing serious challenges. Because of its low elevation, the Salton Sea had no outflow to remove harmful substances or renew the water source. Inflow from agricultural runoff polluted the river, bringing with it numerous amounts of various chemicals and salt. Thanks to the desert's high temperatures, consistent evaporation left the water saltier than most oceans. Barely any life could live in water that held 50g of salt per liter. Fish and birds began to die off in the hundreds. Algal blooms soon turned the water brown and thick, turning away all of the tourists and residents from the 1950’s. Green, toxic water and a shore littered with dead marine life left a sickening, sulfurous smell to develop. 

Most of the seaside community up and left, leaving houses and resorts to be looted, defaced, and left to decay. Deserted boats remain on the shoreline while chairs and shoes lie motionless in the water. Despite all of this, some hopeful people still live in the dilapidated town, waiting patiently for the sea’s beauty to regenerate and the town to return to it’s original luster. 

Places to See

Bombay Beach

This is where the picturesque dilapidation lies. While driving down the main road, turn right at. There will be a small hill that rolls up into the main beach and you can park anywhere in that top area. Bombay Beach is a great place to view the thousands of dead fish on the shore and multiple abandoned structures and houses in the dirt. Some larger structures also live here, like a fallen crane, a small salt-pillared pier, and an abandoned fisherman's boat. Salt pillars jut up from the ground like dirty white sculptures everywhere, and the ground is uncomfortably crunchy and deceiving. I had fun rolling the massive tires around, tiptoeing through the loose mud around lost shoes and children's toys, and watching birds fly silently over the water, mirrored perfectly by the stillness of the lake. Although this isn’t my idea of a good time, a man from Palm Desert informed us--fish carcass in hand--that he and his friends often partook in dead fish fights. Bundles of fun this place is, truly. 

Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain is a colorful wonderland challenging the dry, desolate desert atmosphere. This "mountain" is a large man-made structure forged from straw, broken glass, and adobe clay. Built by Leonard Knight beginning in 1989, this mountain was intended to stand as a testament to God's love. It features the Sea of Galilee, "museum's" featuring artifacts left by visitors (not to mention the plaque declaring Salvation Mountain as a National Folk Art Site), natural imagery, prayers, and scriptures.  It is monumental and gorgeous! You can climb the "Yellow Brick Road" to the top of the structure and enjoy the view, or admire the magnificent craftsmanship tucked in every corner. Although Leonard passed away in 2014, a group of preservationists keep his work in tact, repairing and repainting areas worn away by the harsh climate. You can donate to their cause here. Leonard invited everyone to come and join him at Salvation Mountain, and as he would say, "Love is universal. Love God, love one another, and just keep it simple!"

Have you ever been to the Salton Sea or Salvation Mountain? Let us know in the comments below!