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Visiting Salton Sea and Bombay Beach in California

Visiting Salton Sea in Southern California is definitely an interesting experience. Over the years, the lake water has gotten spoiled and salty. But in spite of the toxic water, there are still people living in the quirky art community of Bombay Beach. We stopped there on our last road trip to see what it’s all about.

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Once again I have learned that even after living in California for ten years, I have not seen everything there is to see. There are still plenty of places I haven’t been to and some I haven’t even heard of.

We had just spent a week in Palm Springs when we decided to drive down to the Salton Sea. My husband had read about it and thought it would be an interesting place to visit. He was especially interested to see the art installations at Bombay Beach.

We didn’t know much about Salton Sea before we went there, other than it was a saline lake and that you can’t swim in it. But the sad story of the lake came to us as a total surprise.

SALTON SEA – THE ABANDONED SALINE LAKE OF CALIFORNIA

About the Salton Sea – I don’t even know where to begin. It’s quite a story! At one point, the Salton Sea was a popular holiday destination. People came there from all over California to fish, water ski and swim.

Many resorts, hotels, holiday homes and golf courses were built, and it was a beautiful vacation spot. Even Hollywood celebrities like Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys used to vacation at the Salton Sea in the 1950’s and 60’s. Salton Sea was also a popular bird watching destination. Approximately 400 species of birds nest or do a stopover there.

But today the lake is totally abandoned. While we were there we only saw a couple other people among us. Times for happy vacations there are over, and here is why that is:

How was Salton Sea Formed

The Salton Sea was formed in 1905 when an irrigation canal was dug from Colorado River down to the valley. The aim was to direct water to the farms in Imperial Valley and to help water the crops there. At some point the plan failed; the canal overflowed and created a lake at the bottom of the valley.

Over the years, the water level in the lake kept rising. The lake has no overflow like most lakes do, and the water keeps rising. Many believe that at some point the lake would have dried up completely but the farmers started to run overflow water from the farms in it.

Even though the farmers managed to save the lake from drying, there was a downside to draining the farm water to it. With that water came many kinds of toxic chemicals. In those days the usage of pesticides and fertilizers was not as restricted as it is today and it all poured down into the lake.

The Salton Sea got more and more saline, and now its salinity is double that of the Atlantic Ocean. Since there is no outflow, the salt level does not stabilize but keeps on rising. The water also has arsenic, algae and various kinds of bacteria in it.

View of the Salton Sea from Bombay Beach  in California

Current State of Salton Sea

The golden days of the Salton Sea started to fade away in the 1970’s when scientists discovered high toxicity in fish and warned people about fishing there. In the 1980’s, a huge amount of dead fish started to flush to the beach and birds started to die. Vacationers vanished and hotels deteriorated.

Even today there are tons and tons of fish bones at the beach by Salton Sea. The scientists say that there used to be millions of fish in the lake, but 97% of them are now dead. People also often report a rotten smelling odour from the water. We didn’t notice any smells while visiting the Salton Sea, but we heard that with the high winds it often reaches the cities nearby.

Today only Tilapia fish live in the Salton Sea since all the other species have died. Tilapia are known to survive in extreme circumstances, even toxic and salty waters. At some point though, the saline level will reach so high that Tilapia will not be able to live there. The end of the fish at Salton Sea will be catastrophic for the birds.

The current state of the Salton Sea threatens the ecosystem close by. Since draining the water from the farms is now stopped, the lake is slowly drying up.

The water line getting lower will bring new problems to the area. All the toxins have now been absorbed into the soil and the winds will blow the sand full of toxins around to nearby cities. While we were in Palm Springs we really experienced these winds. Every single night the winds would pick up and blow really hard. I’m not surprised that it is said to be the windiest place in America.

There has been some reports that sand from the Salton Sea has blown as far as Los Angeles. People living close by the Salton Sea have been told to experience abnormal amounts of headaches and asthma. The schools in the area have to monitor the air quality and sometimes keep the kids inside all day. If the lake will dry up totally, the sand will start to blow all around Southern California.

So, that is the story of the biggest lake in California in short. The glorious Salton Sea quickly transformed from a beautiful vacation spot into an abandoned disaster. I have been so surprised to notice that many Californians don’t even really know much about it at all. While actually, we should be in a hurry to fix the situation before it gets any worse. There needs to be a solution how to clean up this mess!

I could talk about the Salton Sea for hours. There are so many interesting and bizarre stories in its history. If you want to know more, or see some photos from past times, this video is quite interesting:

VISITING BOMBAY BEACH

Bombay Beach was one of the most popular holiday resorts at the Salton Sea. Its glory came to an end in the 1980’s, but some of the people living there chose to stay, and they are living there still. Some were elderly, some just had strong ties to the place and didn’t want to leave, and some couldn’t afford to relocate.

Bombay Beach is said to have about 300 residents. However, that seems a little high compared to what we experienced. While we were there we didn’t see a single local person anywhere. A couple other tourists were driving around, but we didn’t see anyone else. I’m not sure where all those 300 people were hiding.

Over all, Bombay Beach was a very quirky place. Most of the buildings were old and broken, or covered in graffiti. There were also so many strange looking art installations, that sometimes we weren’t sure if they were someone’s home or just an abandoned trailer.

Every other year Bombay Beach hosts an art festival that has left behind a lot of art. It is all over the place; at the beach and in the town. They also had a small grocery store and a restaurant. We heard that due to covid the restaurant was closed, but to be honest, I don’t think I would have been comfortable eating there.

The whole of Bombay Beach seemed to be in chaos. I just couldn’t believe that someone actually lived there. Art pieces actually reminded us of Desert X which we had just seen at Palm Springs.

Welcome to Bombay Beach sign.
Closed sign at someone's gate at Bombay Beach
Abandoned house with graffiti all over at Bombay Beach
Televisions -art installation at Bombay Beach
Televisions -art installation at Bombay Beach
Me looking at art at Bombay Beach California
Art installation at Bombay Beach California
Art installation on top of a house at Bombay Beach California
The plane -art installation at Bombay Beach California

At the beach we saw some sofas, chairs, walls and swings. They were all art installations from the past. The area itself was actually quite beautiful so it was incredibly sad to think about how disastrous it was to all the fish and birds.

We didn’t want to spend too much time there with our kids, like we normally would at the beach, since we could see all the algae and toxins in the water… But as a short visit, a stop at Bombay Beach was quite interesting.

"The only other thing is nothing" art installation in the water at Bombay Beach
Star shaped art installation at Bombay Beach
Me sitting in a arm chair at Bombay Beach in California
Our kids at Bombay Beach with art installation

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I have to say that this was one of the most bizarre places I have seen in California. And not in a happy way of course. But in many ways, it was very intriguing and interesting to see.

I was very surprised that there were no signs anywhere about the water not being suitable for swimming. It was like any other beach except the people were missing.

The Salton Sea is actually part of a State Park. They even had a pretty nice looking visitor center. I couldn’t help wondering about who would want to spend their vacation over there?!

I regret that we didn’t stop at the visitor center to see what they have to say about the area. At least their website doesn’t really address the problems that Salton Sea has. So if someone who has no knowledge of the place visits there, they might think that it’s just a normal lake. They should definitely be more open about the problems and try to find solutions to it.

Another very interesting and controversial place close to Salton Sea is Salvation Mountain. We also visited there with mixed feelings.

If you like hiking make sure to check out the Indian Canyon because it was amazing! Both Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve are also not too far and have great trails.

If you are heading to these areas and looking for a place to stay, we stayed in Indio in this family friendly condo. In Palm Springs, this hotel is our favourite.

What do you think, would you visit Salton Sean and Bombay Beach? Or some other “dark tourism” spots that are associated with sad things like this? Or have you visited something similar to this?

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15 Comments

  1. My husband and I stopped at Salton Sea in 2022 to visit and really enjoyed it! We are both swimmers though, so it was a place so great intrigue to us. The visitor center at the State Park was nice and actually had good information and yes, we did do a short swim or rather dip. We weren’t brave enough to put our faces in the water, but it was fun to float without using hands or legs and be that high above the water level. We showered really good afterwards because we definitely stunk from the lake, had lunch, went on a hike, and had a fantastic day there. We went in with an open mind and as a result can definitely say we’d go back again!

    1. I would definitely go there again just to explore more. I don’t think I would want to swim in that water or let my kids swim, but just seeing the whole place is quite interesting.

    1. Why can’t Elon Musk work on fixing that disaster first instead of having us running away to Mars so we can ruin another planet!

  2. As a resident of nearby La Quinta, the time came for us to actually visit the source of the fishy smell that wafts our way when the wind is just right. We went on a hot summer day in August 2022 and were overwhelmed. “The Salton Sea of Sadness” is what we call it now. We got rather obsessed afterward- reading everything we could find… digesting three documentaries found on streaming services… talking to friends who frequented as kids in the 70’s. It remains California’s largest lake even in its current dried-up condition. It represents amazing history and profound tragedy- with Bombay Beach as California’s poorest city. All said, I tell everyone that it’s worth a trip. No place like it….

    1. I see your point, it is definitely not where I would take my foreign guest to see beauty of California. But for us locals it might be good to pay a visit there, just to see how bad things are there. We all should be aware and demand something to be done.

  3. Used to be full of life. Fish and birds in abundance. I once baited my hook and leaned the pole over the rail of my boat to rinse my hands of before casting and corvina were jumping out of the water to get my hanging tilapia bait. I miss it very much.

  4. I would like to visit Bombay Beach for the quirky pictures. I visited the Aral Sea, another man-made catastrophy and it made me very sad. But still I think it is important to visit these places and learn from the history and the mistakes.

  5. I live near enough to make it a day trip and have been only once yet Bombay Beach has been a curious place for me and I would like to go again and visit another area of the Salton Sea. It looks as though there is a lot more art installations than when I was there. I didn’t realize the salinity is double that of the Atlantic Ocean or that there is arsenic in the water. No wonder there are skeletons of dead fish everywhere and you have to wash your shoes before stepping into your house!

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