May 17 2011

The Salton Sea

by in North America, United States, West Coast

I have been fascinated by the Salton Sea since I was a kid. I grew up 30 miles north of the Sea, and can still remember the pungent odor that wafted northward from the Sea on a hot summer’s day. Every few years, when I am visiting my parents in the Coachella Valley, I make the drive south to visit this aquatic wasteland.

The Salton Sea isn’t actually a sea, but rather a lake that is saltier than the Pacific Ocean. At 376 square miles, it is the largest lake in California. It averages 15 miles wide, 35 miles in length, and is 52 feet at it deepest point.

Although salt lakes have existed, and then evaporated, in this desert region for many years, the present Salton Sea was the result of an engineering project gone wrong in 1905, when workers attempted to divert water from the Colorado River to irrigate land in the Imperial Valley. The Colorado overflowed, breached the structures, changed course, and began to fill the empty salt basin, creating the Salton Sea. Although the Salton Sea would have eventually evaporated on its own, it soon became a depository for agricultural runoff, which replenished the Sea with wastewater.

In the 1950s, tourism and development promoters billed the Salton Sea as a “miracle in the desert”, where one could relax by the water, water-ski, and fish to your heart’s content. Yacht clubs, hotels, and restaurants were built, turning the area into a “Palm Springs with water.”

This desert riviera, however, was short-lived. As salinity and pollution levels began to rise, the tourism industry collapsed. Today, with the exception of a few hardy residents, most of the developments surrounding the Salton Sea have been abandoned. If one visits Salton City, you can drive through entire subdivisions, all perfectly gridded and marked with street signs, that are devoid of any structures. Walking along the sea, you notice that the beaches are not composed of sand, but rather barnacle shells and the skeletal remains of fish, with more decomposing fish deposited on the shore by gentle waves.

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7 Responses to The Salton Sea

  1. From Troy:

    The pictures make it look pretty. Too bad it is so horrible. I tried to go boating once in the salton sea, took me forever to clean the boat afterwards… covered in some brown goo that defies explanation.

    Posted on May 17, 2011 at 4:45 pm #
  2. From Lindsay:

    I am in awe that you actually attempted to go boating there… :)

    Posted on May 17, 2011 at 4:57 pm #
  3. From Troy:

    It was either that or smoke rock. I figured that I could do both at the salton sea. On an unrelated note- more related to smoking rock than boating anyhow… Did you ever see the movie “salton sea”?

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0235737/

    Posted on May 17, 2011 at 5:10 pm #
  4. From Lindsay:

    Yes! I actually bought a bootleg copy in Russia…I should go watch it again, and maybe get one of those awesome Salton Sea tats that Kilmer had.

    Posted on May 17, 2011 at 5:24 pm #
  5. From Paul:

    Nice article Lindsay! My gf and I are going to S.Cal in late January.Plan to drive from Palm Springs to the sea for a day trip. Thinking of going East, Bombay Beach way but not sure if it’s worth the loop through Brawley and then up West side. Besides seeing the Sea would like to spot remnants of the 50′s. Any help? Thanks.

    Posted on November 24, 2011 at 1:44 pm #
  6. From Lindsay:

    Hi Paul,

    Personally, I feel that it is worth doing the loop, especially if you have allotted an entire day for it. I like heading south on Highway 111 and then coming back up on 86, stopping at the decrepit little towns (Bombay beach, Salton City, etc). As for particular ruins of the 50s, I think these get harder to locate as each year passes. When I drove through last year, a lot of the old buildings seem to have been demolished. Bombay Beach might be your best bet for some of those remaining ruins, though. On your way back to Palm Springs, stop at Shield’s Date Garden in Indio for a date shake.

    Enjoy your trip there…it is really a fascinating place. If you need any recommendations for places to eat in Palm Springs/palm Desert, let me know :)

    Posted on December 11, 2011 at 11:48 am #

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    [...] during the Christmas holidays, we went hiking at Joshua Tree National Park. Much like the Salton Sea, Joshua Tree is another desert wasteland favorite that I try to return to every few [...]

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