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Ghost Town and Artist Haven: Here's the Bombay Beach Rundown

Ghost Town and Artist Haven: Here's the Bombay Beach Rundown

Bombay Beach is one of the most interesting towns in California. Learn about its rich history, unique art exhibits, and its recent revival. Team


6 min read

June 07, 2023

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On the shores of the Salton Sea sits the famed Bombay Beach. Once a booming desert resort town, Bombay Beach went through many phases over the years, but never actually lost its fame. While people once visited this place for recreational purposes, they now visit it for its post-apocalyptic vibes and the unique artistic creations scattered all around. From a tourist attraction to a ghost town to an artist's heaven, the town continues to give so much to its visitors. If you’re ever in Imperial County and looking for things to do and see, consider visiting this open and unconventional “art museum.” But, before you embark on your journey, make sure you understand the history of this quirky town, and we promise you’ll enjoy it so much more.

Once a tourist hotspot, Bombay Beach was left in ruins when disaster hit.

The Golden Days of Bombay Beach

In 1905, water from the Colorado River accidentally spilled out of an ill-constructed California Development Company irrigation system and made its way to Imperial County, creating the Salton Sea. The newly created lake continued expanding until it was covering a 400-square-mile circumference, becoming the largest body of water in California. On the lake’s shores sits Bombay Beach, the lowest populated point in the United States and all of North America. 

Salton Sea in the 1950s and 60s became a major tourist attraction, and Bombay Beach was at the heart of this sudden fame. Soon, this beautiful oasis was a thriving desert resort, attracting over half a million tourists every year, including major celebs of the era. Visitors spent their days swimming, water-skiing, and golfing, and their nights at the Yacht Club, partying till the sun came up.

What remained of this popular town was decaying homes and furniture left behind.

From a Popular Resort Town to a Ghost Town

As the 70s approached, the popularity of the sensational resort town started dropping, because of floods, which lead the water levels to rise so much, the town almost sank. But the reason Bombay Beach didn’t manage to stand up again was the foreseen ecological disaster, which finally took place in the 1980s. What actually happened was that, since the Salton Sea had no outlet, its waters had to either seep into the ground or evaporate, leaving it with extremely high levels of salt. 

The growing salinity and overall agricultural pollution turned the lake into a disaster; what the fish once called home became their burial ground, and the birds were left with no food. Additionally, toxic dust began spreading, and in some instances, made it as far as Los Angeles. In short, the town became a danger to its population, and so they left with all that they could take, leaving decaying homes behind, and a bunch of good memories. Once buzzing with life, Bombay Beach suddenly became a Salton Sea ghost town.

Bombay Beach has not yet returned to its former glory, but it sure is on the right path, all thanks to the artists who are bringing it back to life.

A Sleepy Town Coming Back to Life

Reminiscent of the olden days, a group of retirees began returning to Bombay Beach, California, which was now the equivalent of a ghost town. The movement began in the 2010s and hasn’t stopped still, despite being slow. Retirees weren’t the only ones taking part in the revival of a city, artists and people looking for a unique place to live joined in the process.

The artists and intellectuals, in particular, began creating a new personality for a town long dead. While many artists were already creating quirky art pieces all over the town, bigger plans were being put to action. Starting in 2016, a group of artists co-founded the Bombay Beach Biennale, an annual festival celebrating art, music, and philosophy. Over the years, the festival went from being an “art moment” to being an “art movement”; many permanent pieces have been created and they have all become a part of the town’s personality.  Even the Bombay Beach ruins have been twisted and turned into mind-boggling art pieces.

Thanks to the rise in the town’s popularity, people are already beginning to buy land and property in the area. Not even the fact that the nearest gas station is 20 miles away and golf carts are the best means of transportation is stopping people from purchasing property here. In fact, property prices are on the rise, and what used to cost a few thousand dollars, now costs tens of thousands of dollars. With two grocery stores and a restaurant, it’s safe to say that Bombay Beach is coming out of hibernation.

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Everything You Need to See in Bombay Beach

The Bombay Beach drive-in is one of the most iconic places in the ghost town. It needs to be on every visitor’s must-see list.

1. Drive-In

The iconic Bombay Beach drive-in is one of the most interesting drive-in theaters in California. Junkyard vintage cars sit in its lot, surrounded by boards with graffiti, quotes from Hollywood blockbusters, and VHS tapes. As you tour the town, make sure to snap a few photos at this cool Instagram spot in the Golden State. It’s not a real drive-in theater, so don’t expect to catch a movie. But the sights and aura of the location is better than any movie you’ll see.

2. Bombay Beach TVs

It’s sometimes difficult to find color in California’s deserts. Not in Bombay Beach, though, where artists have used almost every color known to mankind to create colorful displays. Among the most notable ones are the Bombay Beach TVs, a set of more than 60 colorful box TVs, stacked near a wooden garage. On the far left sits a more modern one, untouched, looking so out-of-place, even in our modernized world.

An airplane holding a spaceship in the morning and a flower at night, Lodestar is a sight to behold.

3. Lodestar

Lodestar is one of the most photographed art installations in Bombay Beach. It’s basically a leaning plane with a spaceship-like figure on top. Come nighttime, the installation’s lights are turned on, and it begins resembling a beautiful pink flower. Lodestar is considered to be one of the most futuristic abstract art pieces in the region.

Artists came to town and depicted the feel of the town in their work.

4. The Only Other Things is Nothing

Representing the nothingness in the region is a sign that read, “The Only Other Thing is Nothing.” The sign was made by Michael Daniel Birnberg and stands right on the shores of Salton Sea. No one will believe you’ve been to Bombay Beach, unless you take a photo standing next to the sign.

5. The Church

What’s awkward about a town having its own open-air church made of wood? Nothing, really. This shoreside structure is one of the catchiest things in the city, and is pretty popular on the internet. It’s fame probably has to do with how out of place it looks in what was, just a few years back, a ghost town.

6. The Bombay Beach Polaroid Museum

The Bombay Beach Polaroid Museum might not be your regular art gallery, but it sure is an attraction you’ll regret not visiting while in town. Everywhere you look around this tiny museum, you’ll find Polaroid photos of an array of topics, one of them being the environmental crisis of the 80s. Just a heads up, that this museum is not family-friendly, so it’s advised you show up and explore without your little ones.

In honor of all the fish that died back when disaster hit Bombay Beach, the Da Vinci Fish stands tall in the city.

7. Da Vinci Fish

Half fish, half airplane, the Da Vinci Fish is another eye-catching art installation in our favorite Salton Sea town. The statement piece represents the ecological crisis the town once underwent. If you look at this gigantic fish long enough, you’ll see it turning around its axel, powered by the wind and solar panels.

9. The Ski Inn

For over 25 years, the Ski Inn has been every resident’s and every visitor’s go-to restaurant. “The lowest bar in the western hemisphere” is covered in thousand of dollar bills, and gives such good and homey vibes. Here’s the one place in all of Bombay Beach where you’ll hear so many untold stories about the area, all in one sitting. The popular spot was even featured in a The Mentalist episode, under a different name.

There’s still so much to see and do in Bombay Beach, California. Sights like the Fallen Star, the Toy House, and the Zig Zag House are all worth visiting. So, make sure to tour it all, and not skip a spot.

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