In my opinion, the Salton Sea area is one of the most underrated travel destinations in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys. The Salton Sea has so many unique places to explore that we’ve started bringing family and friends to the ‘shore communities’ when they visit. It’s a great place to take a break from hiking in the desert or visiting Joshua Tree National Park. Here's a primer on the Salton Sea to start this story.
What is the Salton Sea?
The Salton Sea in Southern California is the largest inland lake/sea in the state. The Sea is about 35 miles long, 15 miles wide, 51 feet at its deepest point and has over 110 miles of shoreline. It is one of the world's largest inland seas and one of the lowest spots on Earth at 238 feet below sea level. It isn't the size that makes this body of water so special, but rather the story behind its creation and how its slow death has created side stories - like the rise, fall, and possible rebirth of Bombay Beach.
How was the Salton Sea Formed?
In the spring of 1905, following extreme rains, the Colorado River flooded and blew out a weakly constructed irrigation canal. All efforts to seal the breach failed—for 18 months, the river continued to flood into the Salton Sink, filling it up with fresh water like an enormous shallow tub. The Southern Pacific Railroad, which had extensive rail interests in the area, jumped in and for two weeks stopped rail traffic in California in order to deal with this costly business interruption. Two thousand workers dumped more than 3,000 specially constructed railroad cars full of boulders, wood, and dirt into the flooded canal. The scheme worked; the Colorado River once again resumed its former course into the Sea of Cortez. The lake left behind by the flooding wasn’t deep, but it was enormous, covering nearly a thousand square miles of land. The Salton Sea, as the lake is now called, was more or less left alone for the next several decades; runoff from the Imperial Valley’s huge farm areas offset much of the heavy annual evaporation rate and kept the lake viable.
Enter the 1950's
With the rising popularity of the nearby desert resort of Palm Springs, developers saw opportunity in the Salton Sea. Communities like Salton City and Bombay Beach cropped up along its shoreline. It became a vibrant fishing and tourist destination with lakeside resort along its banks. People built vacation homes; hotels and restaurants opened; businesses boomed; and the area thrived.
In 1959, the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club opened as the largest marina in Southern California. Celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, the Beach Boys, Jerry Lewis, the Marx Brothers and Desi Arnaz flocked to the lake. The Salton Riviera rivaled nearby Palm Springs and at its peak, the Salton Sea was drawing 1.5 million visitors annually, more than Yosemite National Park. Business was booming; it was called the ‘miracle in the desert’.
Enter the 1970's
The popularity of this man-made California lake was short lived. As early as 1961, the California Department of Fish and Game predicted the Salton Sea would eventually die because of increasing salinity and decreasing oxygen content. Since the Sea does not have a natural outflow, it is unable to flush out the toxins present in irrigation runoff from adjacent farmlands. This prediction is coming true; annual fish and bird kills are a reminder of the fate that awaits the Salton Sea if remediation efforts continue to be postponed. A 2019 report by the Pacific Institute stated that ten years earlier, "There were some 100 million fish in the Sea. Now, more than 97 percent of those fish are gone."
How is it possible that farming in the desert could contribute so significantly to the degradation of the Salton Sea? Here is a glimpse of the irrigation system and the scale of farmlands in the desert surrounding the Salton Sea. These canals transport water from the Colorado River and have transformed this desert into a lush agricultural oasis with year-round harvests. In an ironic twist of fate, the irrigation runoff that poison the sea also sustains it.
In the mid 70's, the Salton Sea problems were exacerbated by of all things - too much water. Seven years of above average rainfall and increased agricultural runoff caused shoreline flooding and developers struggled to raise funds to repair the damage. Then in 1976, Hurricane Kathleen hit Southern California and dropped record rainfall causing the Salton Sea to rise 8 feet in a matter of 3 hours. In 1977, another hurricane struck and those projects that had survived the previous storm were destroyed - never to return. Builders abandoned their partially completed developments leaving behind only a few houses, sewers, empty roads and street signs. What had been called the ‘miracle in the desert’ was now described as an ‘ecological nightmare and disaster’ - a ghost town in the making.
Exploring the Salton Sea Communities
Looks can be deceiving along the seashore communities. Some of these locations look a bit scary, but don’t let the deserted developments and boarded up properties prevent you from exploring these gems. Be respectful of people’s property, this is not an abandoned town for you to explore without limits. Be a smart traveler and you’ll have an enjoyable experience. The neighborhoods and small businesses appreciate tourism and the money that helps sustain them. If you take the time, you’ll meet some interesting people and leave with some great stories.
Like the Salton Sea, the health and viability of Bombay Beach is tied to fluctuating sea levels. Located only an hour or so from Palm Springs, Bombay Beach with a population of 231 residents (2020 Census) is not even officially considered a town, but rather a C.D.P. or census-designated place.
Back in the 50's and 60's, it wasn't just any beach town, it was 'the' beach town of Southern California. Everyone wanted to be seen here and every investor wanted to be part of making Bombay Beach the playground of the rich and famous.
Enter the End
Things changed quickly for this community. The environmental problems of the 60's combined with the flooding of the 70's proved almost fatal to this community, As the Salton began dying so did Bombay Beach. Plans, money, and developers disappeared and the settlement entered a phase best described as 'an almost ghost town'.
At this tipping point in time, the story of Bombay Beach became one of survival. Residents left in droves; many abandoning their homes with their furniture and possessions still inside. The population plummeted from 991 residents in 1990 to just 231 hearty souls in 2020.
The 30-year exodus left scores of deserted business, homes, and trailers. Bombay Beach became a favorite of tourists, social media influencers, travel bloggers, journalists, and photographers looking for the next new and unusual location to promote.
Film-makers were drawn to the apocalyptic landscape that was located so close to LA. For under $1,000 per month, studios could rent entire sections of the community to use as back drops for horror movies and Armageddon themed films.
Much of the infrastructure was left to corrode and collapse in place.
Piles of disintegrating concrete, rotting wood and rusted metal are all that remain of the marina and boat ramps. Most Southern Californians wrote off Bombay Beach as a post-apocalyptic mess and awaited its ultimate demise.
But the diehards remained, refusing to give up on their tracts of land. They were either too poor to move out or too attached to the history of the area to leave. They vehemently rejected being labeled a 'poverty-tourism destination'.
By the mid-2010s, Bombay Beach experienced a renaissance of sorts with the arrival of artists who came to create and express themselves. Slowly, graffiti transformed abandoned buildings into works of art.
If graffiti is a form of artistic expression associated with the universal struggle of life, then Bombay Beach was the perfect 'blank canvas' waiting to be bombed by urban artists.
Along the way, art began to influence the perception of this place. People came to experience the urban art and not the dead fish or impoverished community struggling to survive on the shore of a toxic sea.
The art scene was not as grand and sophisticated as it is in Valparaiso, Chile but the murals stood in sharp contract to the decaying structures and barren Sonoran Desert landscape surrounding this community.
Bombay Beach embraced the street art and the opportunity to redefine itself as a 'desert art and performance hub'. The arts may not have looked as promising as the beaches and marinas of the 1950's but to long-term residents it was worth the gamble.
The next big step forward occurred in 2016 when Tao Ruspoli, an Italian prince and filmmaker, Stefan Ashkenazy, owner of the Petit Ermitage Hotel, and Lily Johnson-White, a public art producer of the Johnson & Johnson family, organized the first Bombay Beach Biennale. These three cofounders sought to establish a 'renegade celebration of art, music, and philosophy by transforming abandoned housing, vacant lots, and decaying shoreline into a unique canvas for creative expression.' The goal was to create something out of nothing!
Each spring, with the exception of the 2020 when the event was cancelled due to the pandemic, Ruspoli, Ashkenazy and Lily-Johnson have convinced renowned artists, philosophers, and creators across many mediums to donate their time and talents to participate in this volunteer-led event. Their focus is on the community aspect — coming together because of a shared passion for art and the written word, not because anyone is being paid to be there. Themes for the Biennale have included 'Chaos Theory', 'Questioning Hierarchy', 'Decay', and 'The Way the Future Used to Be'. The best way to describe the Biennale - think Coachella Music Festival without the corporate hype, sponsorships and $1,000 VIP passes.
As a group, Ashkenazy and friends own more than 40 lots which they endow to artists, imploring them to treat the corroded beach town as their canvas. In return, every year over 100 art exhibits are created for the event. Many have become permanent installation for year-round enjoyment. Click on the link for more information on the Bombay Beach Biennale Art Festival. Below are a few of the exhibits we visited.
Shoreline Art Installations
Artist Sean Guerrero's 2023 installation “ReInCarNation”
You might naively walk by the Bombay Beach Drive-In and think it was just another relic from days gone by.
However, it is in fact a large-scale art installation created by Stefan Ashkenazy and Sean Dale Taylor. They collected rusted car wrecks, golf carts and boats from metal scrap yards throughout the Imperial Valley and arranged them in rows facing a white-sided semi trailer that serves as the drive-in screen.
If you want more of an outdoor experience, there are Ferris-wheel and movie theater seats up front.
There's not a bad seat in the place.
Another permanent exhibit is 'Bombay Beach TVs' created by Jack Parker. According to Jack, he put his old dilapidated TV on the street outside his house and shortly afterwards several other TVs were dropped off. He decided to paint each one a vibrant color and then began haphazardly stacked them in a vacant lot across the street. The collection has grown to over 60 sets, each on supplied by local residents.
In 2023, the Bombay Beach Lit Fest joined the Biennale for a celebration of literature. There were panels on haunted desert debacles and the history of vandalism; stories that center women writers and characters of color; a fireside chat about the history of punk rock; group readings; and more. In honor of the inaugural Literature Festival, a local artist constructed the 'Poetry Dump'. It served as the unofficial Bombay Beach welcome to the writing community.
What's next for Bombay Beach? It's probably not destined to become a gentrified urban neighborhood now that the artists have moved in. As one long-term resident stated, 'There’s no gas station, no laundromat, only a sparsely-stocked convenience store and the nearest hospital is a 45-minute drive away. Temperatures routinely reach 120°F in the summer and when people don’t have AC, they die. It’s just too hard a life for most people.'
It's clear that the arts have breathed new life into this almost ghost town. However, these efforts alone won't save this community but the changes, although small, are a move in the right direction. The State of California must come up with a viable plan to address the toxic mess created by this drying sea and protect the residents from another batch of schemers.
The Sea is drying up each year exposing thousands of acres of lakebed that threaten to trigger toxic dust storms and add to the already high levels of asthma and other respiratory disease among people living in the area.
Remediation efforts have been slowed by competing interests. Should the focus be on constructing shallow ponds to feed migrating birds and control dust, or would it make more sense just to abate the dust on the playa? Should the state of California honor a commitment made in 2003 to restore the Salton Sea, despite moving water away from the area to thirsty coastal cities? Or should this artificial, long-festering sea be left alone to dry up entirely?
In November 2022, an agreement between California, two Southern California water districts and the federal government was announced that provides $250 million for projects to create habitat and suppress harmful, windblown dust at the beleaguered Salton Sea. Maybe after decades of being ignored, something will be done. Property values have already risen in anticipation of some action. Lots that sold for under $1,000 in 2010 are now valued at over $20,000.
Hopefully things keep moving in the right direction. Who knows, maybe the last chapter in the story of Bombay Beach hasn't been written. Maybe the underserved population that call this census-designated place their home will live to see sunsets along the shore of a more clean and healthy Salton Sea. They deserve the chance to once again enjoy this 'miracle in the desert'.
For more Salton Sea adventures, click on the hyperlinks below.