California’s Largest Lake: The Salton Sea

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The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California. From the early days when it was born from a catastrophic failure of engineering, to later a flourishing resort, and now a desolate wasteland, it’s safe to say that this vast body of water has had a colorful history.

It looks like a beautiful white sandy beach

The History

The lake bed was historically dry until 1905, when an engineering problem happened and the lake was flooded.

Over time Salton Sea became a popular tourist attraction in the 50s and 60s. It was a resort town, but doomed to fail because the sea was soaked in the surrounding salt and pesticides from local farming. Soon it was too contaminated to get into, and the waters were filling up with dead decomposing fish.

The water looks clear and blue

When you gaze out at the Sea it’s so vast it looks like the ocean. Even though it was a manmade mistake, it’s now one of the world's largest inland seas. It’s beautiful and almost looks like a desert mirage when you first view it. It’s not until you get closer than you realize the blue sea is a reflection from the sky, it’s actually more of a brown color. The gorgeous white sand is not sand at all, but ground up fish bones from decades of Tilapia destined to procreate and perish in a vicious cycle.

A great vista...

Then a closer look... dead fish.

And then the sun sets and it all disappears into the darkness.

Visiting the Salton Sea

Even though the perimeter of the lake has become less populated and the resort appeal has long passed, there are some interesting points of interest at the Salton Sea. Mud pots, folk art, slot canyons, and ghost towns litter this strange lake shoreline. Below, I’ve listed points of interest if you want to explore the Salton Sea’s wonders and oddities.

Bombay Beach

At one time Bombay Beach was a growing community of the accidental Salton Sea resorts that were popping up. Then as the sea turned to ruin so did the small town, leaving abandoned homes, trailers and cars. Some which have slowly sunk into the soft salty earth, weathered and graffitied over time.

Bombay Beach has seen a revival of art with the Bombay Beach Biennale, transforming abandoned buildings and vacant lots into a canvas for artists to flex their creativity.

Photo by Randy Laybourne

Photo by Randy Laybourne

Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge

There are over 400 different species of birds recorded here making it the most diverse array of bird species of any national wildlife refuge in the West. There are several trails in the area to walk and hike, bring binoculars!

Slab City: Salvation Mountain & East Jesus

Slab city is an off the grid community on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, named for the concrete slabs that have remained there after a Marine Corps camp from World World II was torn down. It has become a “squatters paradise,” where people bring their RVs to escape traditional society and live off the grid. You can find really interesting art installations created from found objects others would consider junk. It’s really quirky and creative.

Tip: Be careful not to piss anyone off here if you visit. It can be dangerous but as long as your respectful you should be okay.

Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain is a great work of folk art by the late Leonard Knight. The artwork is made from adobe, straw, and thousands of gallons of lead-free paint. It’s quite a beautiful spectacle, vibrant and colorful against the desert landscape. Leonard had a message to give the world, “God is Love.” While I’m not a religious person myself, I find that Leonard’s spirit of love and harmony in the world is a truly inspiring. Read more

East Jesus

An art installation within Slab City.


Davis-Schrimpf Seep Field

In Niland on the shores of the Salton Sea, gurgling mud pots bubble up from the surface from carbon dioxide build up.


The Salton Sea

Bombay Beach

Watch a documentary on the Salton Sea right on YouTube

Location: Bombay Beach, California 92257


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