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What Happened To the Salton Sea? The Story of The Salton Sink

What Happened To the Salton Sea? The Story of The Salton Sink

Once a desert oasis, the Salton Sea has been transformed into an unfruitful wasteland with questionable waters. Here's what happened to it. Team


5 min read

June 08, 2023

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The Salton Sea is a strange, lesser-known saline lake located along the San Andreas Fault, close to coveted destinations such as Palm Springs and Joshua Tree. As the state’s predominantly largest body of water, the endorheic rift lake is critical to wildlife habitat, especially migratory birds. But the mesmerizing Salton Sea has been transformed from a beloved desert oasis into an unfruitful wasteland with questionable waters. So, what's really going on here, and where did it all go wrong?

Once one of California’s favorite lakes, the Salton Sea ended up being dead.

History Of the Salton Sea

In 1905, the Salton Sea was accidentally created when water from the Colorado River spilled out of an ill-constructed California Development Company irrigation system. Over the duration of several years, the lake expanded until people put a stop to the flow. By that time, a 400-square-mile body of water formed on the basin in SoCal, creating the Salton Sink.

The Salton Sea is situated at one of the lowest points in the country — its surface is over 200 feet below sea level — so its water does not flow out through a river or stream; all of this is due to the tectonic tension within faults that are pushing in opposite directions, thus forming a sunken basin. 

The Salton Sea was once a paradisaical land that regularly attracted numerous tourists and celebrities. It is now a ghost town.

Since the Salton Sea had no outlet, it was referred to as an endorheic lake, where the water either seeps into the ground or evaporates — a condition whereby the water is left with an extremely high level of salt. During the 1950s and 1960s, the salt level in the water was considerably lower than it is today, and as a result, the Salton Sea was a hot spot for tourists. Throughout the years, the lake gained the reputation of being a beautiful oasis, attracting droves of tourists during the warmer months.

In the 1970s, the allure of the Salton Sea significantly waned. Challenges such as increased salinity, frequent flooding along its banks, and the overflow of fertilizers from adjacent agricultural lands transformed this once bustling man-made lake into a scene of disarray. These environmental issues led to a sharp decline in the number of visitors, rendering the area reminiscent of a deserted town.

The Salton Sea Attractions You Need to See 

Despite its downfall, the Salton Sea still offers intriguing, worthwhile activities. From parks and preserves to quirky attractions and historic places, these are the spots to visit during a trip to the Salton Sea.

Salvation Mountain is the highlight of Slab City, adding color to the otherwise colorless California deserts.

1. Slab City

Known by its slogan “The Last Free Place,” California’s Slab City is an off-the-grid alternative lifestyle community, with its residents (usually non-permanent) living in trailers, tents and old school buses. The Slab is located in a remote part of the Sonoran Desert on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea. The area’s population goes up to thousands during the winter months, and below 200 during the hotter months, when the desert heat becomes unbearable. Slab City residents and visitors have their own skate park, church, grandstand for shows, and even a private radio station. 

What brings people to Slab City near Salton Sea beside all the freedom in the world and the fact that money has little value here, is its weird desert art attractions. Leonar Knight’s Salvation Mountain is one of the highlights of the region; the hillside visionary environment is the most colorful place in the desert, and people continue enhancing its colors. East Jesus is another Slab City area with impressive art; it is like an open art gallery of unusual pieces, with new installations being added to the collection, whenever an artist feels like it. It’s easy to say that no two visits to East Jesus look the same. With all that said, the Slab is a place you don’t want to miss during your visit to the Salton Sea.

2. Salton Sea State Recreational Area

Found on the northeastern side of the Salton Sea, the park boasts activities such as hunting, fishing, swimming, and camping. The Visitor Center is a great place to start the trip, so you can learn more about the history of the Salton Sea. Stop by one of the many fruit stands by the side of the road and indulge in local dates.

Stop by the historic Bombay Beach drive-in and check out the iconic collection of wrecked cars.

3. Bombay Beach 

Bombay Beach is an artist hub, which looks like a post-apocalyptic art scene on the shores of Salton Sea. Once a booming resort town, Salton Sea’s Bombay Beach is now an abandoned town with unique and weird art scattered all over.

There are tons to see here, but some of the most notable stops include the Ski Inn, a functioning bar with no reservations accepted — it has even been featured in an episode of The Mentalist, where it was renamed “Borrego Gas Diner.” Another outstanding sight is the historic Bombay Beach Drive-In, which is probably the most unique drive-in movie theater you’ll see in California; it displays a miscellaneous collection of wrecked cars, parked as if they're waiting for screening. The Fish Airplane is another top attraction, a giant metal fish with wings, which rotates every once in a while. And a final must-see would be the Bombay Beach Ruins, located at the Bombay Beach Marina, with quirky stuff like a pirate ship made of driftwood, a giant mysterious metal cube, and a sea monster. Your visit to Bombay at the beach will be a good opportunity for a lot of instagrammable photos and reels.

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4. Dos Palmas Preserve

Found in the heart of Mecca, Dos Palmas Preserve displays secret gardens packed with lush groves of fan palms. The 1,400-acre expanse provides ample space for towering trees to grow. Explore the earthy springs and keep an eye out for the Yuma clapper rail — a North American bird — and other species native to the land.

The International Banana Museum near Salton Sea provides all the banana-fun you never knew you needed.

5. The International Banana Museum

Located near the north shore of the Salton Sea, the International Banana Museum is a one-room display of over 25,000 banana-related items. After indulging in everything banana — from the banana couch to the banana turntable — you'll be greeted by a Banana Bar. Go bananas, and order a scoop of homemade banana ice cream or a delicious milkshake. Don’t forget to take a memorable photo with the giant banana statue out front.

6. Imperial Sand Dunes

Sand dunes spanning 15 miles long and 3 miles wide portray a typical desert-like atmosphere. The Imperial Sand Dunes have served as a Southern California film location for world-renowned movies such as Star Wars; it's also quite the attraction for dune-buggy fans. (Permits are necessary if you're ATVing or camping here.) For a chill walk or hike on the dunes, there are a few available spots to park your car for no extra fee.

Some of the bubbling mudpots found in the Salton Sea area have created miniature mud volcanoes.

7. Mudpots

The bubbling mud pots are hidden gems of the Salton Sea region, often described as pockets of warm clay. The mud bubbles and gurgles on the surface due to geothermal activity, forcing warm water to rise. A few of the featured mudpots have been bubbling for so long that they have now created miniature mud volcanoes. 

8. Date Farms

With the number of visitors and celebrity guests dwindling, the Salton Sea area has become deserted and rundown. Thankfully, date farms have remained a constantly growing industry and play an important role in the region's economy. Stop by Bautista Family Farms — where visitors are welcome on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays — to learn more about farming and taste ultra-fresh dates.

Where's the strangest place you've journeyed to? If it’s not Salton Sea, then you’re looking at a California winter road trip.

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