Legends of America

Legends of America

Traveling through american history, destinations & legends since 2003., salton sea, california – ghost town lake in the desert.

Salton Sea, California by Kathy Alexander

The Salton Sea, California by Kathy Alexander.

Situated in the Sonoran Desert in southeastern California is the Salton Sea, the largest lake in the state. The Salton Basin has held various waters over the last three million years as the Colorado River changed its course and spilled over, filling up the basin with freshwater lakes that would eventually evaporate. Then, the process would start all over again.

One of these long-ago lakes in known history was Lake Cahuilla, which formed around 700 A.D. and was utilized extensively by the Cahuilla and the Kumeyaay Indians for freshwater fishing, bird hunting, and marsh plants. The ancient lake continued to occupy the basin off and on until about three centuries ago.

By the time European explorers came to the area in the 16th century, the Salton Basin was completely dry, though just half a century before it had been some 26 times larger than the current Salton Sea size.

Over the decades, the lake continued to rise and fall until the last large infilling occurred in the early 1700s. However, by the time Don Juan Bautista de Anza led the first large European party through what is now known as the Imperial Valley, the Salton Basin was a salt-encrusted mudflat. In the 1800s, the Colorado River flooded the basin several times, creating a number of lakes that came and went.

As early as 1815, salt mining began in the area, and when the railroad came through the basin, large scale salt mining started in 1884, and the dry lakebed began to be referred to as Salton Sink or the Salton Basin.

In the late 19th century, the California Development Company and its ambitious president, Charles R. Rockwood, determined to make the Imperial Valley into an agricultural oasis in the desert. A series of canals were constructed in 1900 to allow for irrigation. For a few years, the river flowed peacefully, regulated by a wooden headgate, and watering the fields of fruits and vegetables. However, the flowing waters contained large amounts of silt, which soon blocked the headgate. To correct this problem, the California Development Company then cut a new channel a few miles south of the Mexican border. Unregulated by U.S. authorities, the new channel crossed an unstable river delta. When the Colorado River waters began to peak from heavy rainfalls and snowmelt in the summer of 1905, the dike broke, and the Salton Basin began to fill at an alarming rate.

For two years, the Colorado River flooded the Salton Sink, destroying the town of Salton and the Southern Pacific Railroad siding. Having substantial business interests in the region, the railroad spent some three million dollars to stop the river’s flow into the Salton Sink, finally succeeding in 1907. However, a “new” lake body had been created, which was called the Salton Sea.

The large sea, surrounded by desert terrain, was a natural site for fishermen. Still, without an outlet, the sea became more and more saline as freshwater was pumped out of the lake for irrigation. When the water returned through run-off, it included dissolved salts from the soil, pesticides and fertilizer residue. As the saline levels increased, the freshwater fish died. Over the years, officials began to experiment with bringing in various species of saltwater fish, including salmon, halibut, bonefish, clams, oysters, and more. Unfortunately, these fish also died due to the high saline level.

Salton Bay Yacht Club

Salton Bay Yacht Club

However, in the early 1950s, certain species survived, including gulf croaker, sargo, orange corvine, and tilapia. As the fish began to thrive, it fueled a recreation boom in the 1950s, and the inland desert sea became an inviting sport-fishing and vacation destination. Its coastline developed numerous resorts and marinas catering to water skiers, boaters, and fishermen in no time. Billed as “Palm Springs-by-the-Sea,” restaurants, shops, and nightclubs also sprang up along the shores. The lake enjoyed immense popularity, especially among the rich and famous, as movie stars and recording artists flocked to the area. From Dean Martin to Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, and the Beach Boys, the lake became a speedboat playground.

However, the Salton Sea’s bright lights would quickly fade in the 1970s when the sea’s water level began rising from several years of heavy rains and increasing agricultural drainage. Shorefront homes, businesses, resorts, and marinas flooded several times until the water stabilized in 1980 after a series of conservation measures to reduce field run-off. However, for the many resort areas, it was too late. The salt and fertilizers of the run-off had accumulated to such a degree that they had reached toxic levels, which began a cycle of decay. As algae fed on the toxins, it created massive amounts of rotten smelling matter floating upon the surface of the lake and suffocated many of the fish.

Within just a few years, the resorts had closed, the marinas were abandoned, and those who could afford to had moved, leaving in their wake abandoned businesses and homes and scattered junk.

Today, the Salton Sea continues to maintain itself, fed by the Alamo, Whitewater, and New Rivers, as well as continued agricultural runoff from irrigated farmland. Covering an average surface area of about 375 miles, it is the largest lake in California.

But, still, the lake is in trouble. The salt in the Salton Sea is higher than that of the Pacific Ocean, and numerous restoration plans have been developed over the years, the latest of which proposes to reduce the size of the lake to make it more manageable at the cost of billions of dollars and more than two decades to complete.

The lake is dotted with “signs” of more prosperous times, and the area is much like a “ghost lake,” surrounded by small “ghost towns,” “ghost resorts,” and “ghost trailer parks.”

Ski Inn, Bombay Beach, California

Ski Inn, Bombay Beach, California by Kathy Alexander

R.E. Gilliagan first developed Bombay Beach – Located on the east shore of the Salton Sea, Bombay Beach in October 1929 as a private community that quickly grew with weekend visitors and retirees. By the 1960s, the town sported numerous businesses and homes. However, the next decade would take its toll on the community as tropical storms and flooding destroyed parts of the town. Though this permanently affected Bombay’s development, the small town still supports about 350 people and a few open businesses amongst a sunken trailer park and abandoned buildings. A dike now protects the west portion of the small community that is located just south of the Salton Sea State Park. It is one of the lowest elevation communities in the U.S., sitting about 225 feet below sea level.

Desert Shores – This small community still supports more than 1000 people and has actually grown over the last several years. However, signs of its resort community heydays can still be seen in a few abandoned businesses and fading billboards. One of the many communities that developed during the sea’s heydays in the 1950s, the city was bustling in the 1960s with the Desert Shores Yacht Club, Marina Mobile Estates, a five-fingered marina, a fishing barge just offshore, and numerous businesses. However, in the 1970s, the town was battered by a couple of tropical storms, and the rising sea level flooded many of the shoreline resorts and homes. Desert Shores is located just north of Salton Sea Beach on the west side of the sea east of SH 86.

Niland, California Horses, Kathy Weiser

Niland, California Horses, Kathy Weiser

Niland – Another small town on the lake, Niland was once known as the “Tomato Capital of the World,” and though not the agricultural center that it once was, it still sports an annual Tomato Festival, which has been held for more than 60 years. Like neighboring towns, it also developed into a fishing and hunting paradise during the Salton Sea’s heydays in the 1950s and 60s. Today, it is still called home to about 1,000 people, many of whom work at the nearby Calipatria Prison. Another quirky addition just outside of town is Salvation Mountain , a colorful artificial religious folk-art mountain that draws numerous visitors each year.

North Shore – Developed in 1958 by Ray Ryan and Trav Rogers as yet another resort on the coastline of the Salton Sea, they began to sell lots in 1960 and to build the crown jewel of the area — the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club, as well as the North Shore Motel.

The $2 million Marine Paradise opened in 1962 to much fanfare and was described as one of Southern California’s largest marinas. Catering to the rich and famous, the resort soon claimed visitors such as Jerry Lewis, the Marx Brothers, and the Beach Boys who were frequent visitors or kept boats at the marina.

salton sea ghost town

North Shore Beach, Salton Sea, California

The marina was a hotspot, especially when it featured speed boat races, parties, and dances that drew hundreds of visitors. However, like most resorts on the Salton Sea, fluctuating water levels and flooding created problems in the 1970s. However, the yacht club hanged on until 1981 when it suffered a severe flood that wiped out the jetty and the marina, making it impossible for boats to dock there. The popular club closed to later be utilized as a rehab center and then a nursing home. However, the once-glamorous resort is entirely abandoned today. People still live in homes that dot the hills above the water, but North Shore’s heydays are long gone. However, North Shore is still notable as the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge home, one of California’s greatest bird watching areas. Established in 1930, the refuge covers several thousand acres. North Shore is accessible via State Route 111, and the wildlife refuge and campground is just a short distance south of the town.

Salton City – The most ambitious of the Salton Sea developments, Salton city was developed in the late 1950s by M. Penn Phillips and the Holly Corporation, shortly after Phillips had successfully developed the high desert community Hesperia. The development plan called for 25,000 lots, 250 miles of paved roads, swimming pools, churches, parks, a golf course, and a $500,000 luxury yacht club and hotel. Opening in 1958, the development was an immediate success as busloads of people were trucked in to view the new development. By 1964, some $20 million had already been spent developing the community, and about 15,000 lots had been sold. A yacht club was soon built, and motels, restaurants, a championship golf course, airport, and other amenities followed. It’s brochures touted that the “Miracle Salton City by the Desert Sea” would be the most popular sea resort in all of Southern California. And for a time, it was, as sailing regattas, powerboat races, Hawaiian luaus, and fishing tournaments derbies attracted thousands of people including the rich and famous such as Frank Sinatra, Dwight Eisenhower, and Desi Arnaz.

However, though there were numerous lots sold, few homes were built as most people seemingly purchased the lots for investment purposes. And when the lake began to flood, and the saline levels started killing off the fish, Salton City’s plans were doomed.  Today, the yacht club is closed, many businesses stand abandoned, and empty streets lined with dying palm trees feature hundreds of lots for sale but no homes. Though it’s certainly nowhere close to its intended vision, the small town still boasts a population of about 1,000 people and several open businesses. “New” California developers and home builders are also working hard to attract new residents. Salton City is located on State Highway 86 on the west side of the Salton Sea.

Lots for sale at Salton Sea, California, Kathy Weiser

Lots for sale at Salton Sea, California, Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

In addition to the many ghostly relics to be seen in the area, there is still active fishing at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, which also provides for camping, picnicking, and boating. Additionally, the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge is a bird-watchers paradise that features more than 375 species of birds, many of whom are endangered. The Salton Sea is located about 30 miles south of Indio, California, on Highway 111.

Contact Information:

Salton Sea State Recreation Area 100-225 State Park Road North Shore, California  92254 760-393-3052

©  Kathy Weiser / Legends of America , updated December 2020.

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Ghost towns and toxic fumes: How an idyllic California lake became a disaster


  • The Salton Sea's increasing salinity is killing off wildlife and its receding shoreline is exposing communities in the Riverside and Imperial counties to toxic fumes.
  • The lake has been shrinking for decades. But the problem has grown severe in the past few years.
  • Once a hot tourist destination, experts say the Salton Sea has become the worst environmental and public health crisis in modern history.

IMPERIAL COUNTY, CALIF. — The vision for Salton City was clear: A bustling, resort community along the crystal blue waters of the Salton Sea. Residents could enjoy their own boat docks and stroll down palm tree-lined streets to the beach.

The city's reality is more grim. Instead of a vacation spot, it feels like a post-apocalyptic ghost town. Most of the homes were demolished or never built. The palm trees are stumps. And the sea, while beautiful, is toxic.

"People here used to fish, swim, bring their boats," said Frank Ruiz, Audubon's Salton Sea Program Director, as he stood by a crumbling dock on land that once held water. "They went from living in paradise to living in hell."

Here in the southeastern corner of California, flanked by sprawling mountains and desert, lies the state's largest and most troubled body of water, along with the mostly abandoned communities near its shore.

The shrinking of the Salton Sea could be a preview of what will happen in other communities across the U.S. West as water supplies become less predictable with climate change. Years of drought have severely depleted reservoirs that feed the Colorado River and looming water cuts could affect millions of people.

The landlocked lake was created in 1905 when an accidental inflow of water from the Colorado River filled a low-lying depression in the desert called the Salton Sink. The lake grew to 400 square miles in just a couple years and remained full because of drainage water from farms mostly in the Imperial Valley.

Tourism and wildlife flourished at the sea in the mid 1900s. During the 20th century, California lost about 95% of its wetlands and inland lakes , which made Salton a critical habitat for millions of migratory birds.

In the 1970s, the lake began to experience rising salinity levels and contamination from agricultural runoff. Now, the lake's ecosystem is collapsing, and scientists forecast the water could become so salty that only bacteria will be able to survive. In 1999, the sea covered 375 square miles but has since shrunk by more than 45 square miles.

Many of the more than 400 bird species reliant on the sea are dying, and all but one fish species has died off in the sea's main body of water, according to the National Audubon Society. Former lakebed is turning into exposed playa, which has created a public health hazard for more than 650,000 people.

The lakeside homes in Salton City, the populated tourist beach of Bombay, and the yacht club that once hosted prominent figures like Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys are now mostly deserted and badly polluted.

"Fifty years ago, you'll find restaurants, night clubs and golf clubs here," Ruiz said of the abandoned yacht club on the northeastern shore of the sea. The club was closed in the 1980s after its jetty was destroyed by fluctuating water levels. It's since been converted to a museum about the lake's history.

"Now look at what we have," Ruiz continued. "The worst environmental, health and economic crisis in modern history."

Toxic fumes harm poor communities

The Salton Sea has been shrinking for decades, but the problem has grown severe in the past few years.

The major cause of the sea's water loss stems from California's effort to use less water from the Colorado River, which supplies water and power for more than 40 million people across California, Arizona and several other states.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the major reservoirs on the river, are experiencing a record decline in water levels while water demand from surrounding cities and suburbs remains high. The federal government will begin rationing water from Lake Mead for the first time next January .

In order to reduce its reliance on the river, California in 2003 struck a deal with the Imperial Irrigation District, which supplies Imperial Valley farmland with Colorado River water, to transfer as much as 200,000 acre-feet of water to coastal San Diego for up to 75 years.

The deal, called the Quantification Settlement Agreement , was the largest agricultural-to-urban water transfer in U.S. history. To mitigate damage to the Salton Sea, the deal mandated that the Imperial Irrigation District send additional water to Salton through 2017.

Imperial Valley farmers continued to farm many of the country's winter vegetables successfully while consuming less water. Even after the water transfer, the Imperial Valley uses more than half of California's entire water draw from the Colorado River, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

When the deal expired as planned, the decline in quality and quantity of water inflows from Imperial Valley to the Salton Sea accelerated, and the Imperial County Board of Supervisors declared a local state of emergency over air pollution at the sea.

Progress has been slow and the cost of inaction is significant. A combination of worsening air quality, a loss of ecological habitat, declining recreational revenue and property devaluation could cost up to $70 billion over three decades, according to a report published in 2014.

Imperial County, one of the poorest counties in California with predominantly Latino residents, has been especially affected by a rotten-egg odor from hydrogen sulfide overrunning the sea's oxygen-deprived water. It's also exposed to the dust billowing from dry lakebed, which contains toxins like arsenic and selenium.

Imperial is now known for some of the worst air quality in the country. It has the highest rate of asthma-related emergency room visits for children in California — about double the state average, according to research in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

The sea highlights an environmental justice crisis in the state, as some experts point out that policy delay and inaction is linked to the fact that populations living closest to the sea are predominantly low-income, communities of color.

"If the sea was next to Los Angeles, it would have been fixed long ago," Ruiz said. "But it's next to poor communities — and they don't have the political leverage."

"I think things will change when the sea starts affecting wealthier communities in Palm Springs," Ruiz added. "When the gated communities start feeling the effects of poor air quality, more action will be taken."

Robert Schettler, a spokesperson for the Imperial Irrigation District, said the district is working on some projects at the sea, like smaller air quality mitigation plans and vegetation establishment, but said the solutions are the state's responsibility.

"It's a huge problem that needs immediate attention," Schettler said. "IID understands the interest in seeing the issues at the Salton Sea get the attention they deserve, and while action may be slow in coming, we are pleased to see that more has been happening."

California is far from a fix

County officials for years have urged California to move forward delayed plans to build wetlands along the lake's exposed shoreline.

In 2018, California instituted the Salton Sea Management Program to manage the crisis. The state's Natural Resources Agency unveiled a 10-year plan to construct 30,000 acres of habitat and dust suppression projects and is evaluating importing water.

One possibility is bringing in water from the Sea of Cortés, desalinating it and pumping it into the lake, though it would be expensive. Another idea is to lease water from agricultural users in the Imperial Valley.

California has committed over $270 million in funding to implement habitat, dust suppression and water quality improvement projects at the sea. The state also committed another $220 million for the sea earlier this year as part of Gov. Gavin Newsom's water infrastructure and drought response proposal.

It's also building a $206 million Species Conservation Habitat Project, the first large-scale habitat project for the sea. The project, which is home to wildlife like egrets and shorebirds, is set to be completed in 2023.

But the state's work on the Salton Sea has been slower than promised.

By the end of 2020, the state had constructed a total of 755 acres of dust suppression projects — its original goal was 1,750 acres — and had not completed any habitat projects, according to the Salton Sea Management Program's 2021 report.

Michael Cohen, a senior researcher at the Pacific Institute, has studied water use in the Colorado River basin and the management of the Salton Sea for more than two decades. Cohen said the crisis has "absolutely not" been adequately addressed and prioritized by the state.

"The state is well behind schedule on the restoration of Salton Sea," Cohen said. "There's a lot of money available and a lot of water. But they haven't staffed up quickly enough. And there's a lot of bureaucracy, which takes a long time."

"The challenges of the Salton Sea are complex and urgent, and further degradation of the sea will compound existing problems," Arturo Delgado, assistant secretary for Salton Sea Policy at the Natural Resources Agency, said in a statement.

"We recognize that progress has been slow in the past, but the state and its partners have demonstrated a solid commitment to deliver projects on the ground," Delgado said. "While the past has seen many delays, we have built strong momentum in recent years and have added key staff to expand our capacity."

One major economic prospect is lithium extraction. As the sea's shoreline recedes, it exposes playa that can provide access to lithium, a component of electric vehicles and energy storage.

The state's energy commission has provided funding to energy companies to explore for lithium, with the vision that geothermal development and lithium recovery could provide clean energy and spur local job growth.

The Salton Sea can never be restored to what it once was, since California doesn't have enough water to fill it again and climate change continues to worsen drought conditions.

But while progress towards addressing the crisis has been stalled, experts urge that it's not too late for California to find and implement fixes.

"We have a moral obligation to look after the wildlife and communities affected by the Salton Sea," Ruiz said. "I'd love to see this lake full of water, but it's not feasible. The solution is for communities, water districts and environmental groups to find common ground and protect it."

How the Western 'megadrought' could cause more 'water wars'

Abandoned Homes of Salton City

Hello everyone! This is a friendly reminder that any of these fun places we may visit, we are a guest at. Please treat both businesses and trails with the utmost respect. We here at Hidden California follow the 'Leave no Trace' mantra, meaning whatever you bring with you comes back with you. If you see trash on a trail, please do your part to help remove it. Remember, we are not picking up trash from another person but instead cleaning up for Mother Nature. Happy adventures!

10565 Highway 111 Niland, CA 92257

33.423957, -115.835334

Dog-Friendly:  During mild weather, yes     Kid-Friendly:  Yes

About the Abandoned Homes of Salton City

salton sea ghost town

Article by Allison Garton:  Former private marina, now a haunting graveyard of boats. Eerie, dusty, creepy, especially when explored in the evening by car headlights. Shadows twist and play tricks on a susceptible mind. There is a powerful smell of death; old and fresh.

Last owned by Bob Granillo, Bob’s Rivera Playa was another victim of the Salton Sea’s swelling and shrinkage. Many area marinas sued the Imperial County Irrigation District in the early 1980s to recover a portion of their lost investment. Looking at old maps, and playing on Google Earth, you can see the dramatic rise and fall of the waters and what little remains.

Directions:  Turn off of Highway 111 to the west on unsigned Crooker/Tilapia Road roughly 1/4 mile north of Corvina Mobile Estates. Drive slowly and pay attention.

salton sea ghost town

Personal Experience

We did not even begin to scrape the surface of all the abandoned buildings and homes out here. It truly feels post-apocalyptic and it is so creepy! One gets the feeling that there have been many disposals of bodies out here….. If you happened to go to this page and not the Salton Sea page, please head over there next because you’ll definitely want to explore it while you’re out there.

This is such a mysterious and eerie place but very intriguing! What I am gathering so far is drugs are rampant out here and the rules are scarce. Be careful and do not go alone.

We will be back–hopefully soon to unmask more of the long-forgotten stories. We found a boat graveyard when it was nighttime, so unfortunately I only got one good shot of the place. Next time!

Here’s a quick documentary on Slab City, one of the mini “towns” in Salton City:

salton sea ghost town

There was this one area FILLED with seagulls.  It was so bizarre!

salton sea ghost town

This looks SO similar to Chris McCandless’ bus from Into the Wild!

salton sea ghost town

Check out our other site too!

salton sea ghost town

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That is some inspirational stuff. Never knew that opinions could be this varied. Be certain to keep writing. dfaedacefg

This is amazing! I have a lot out there and never knew of this location. How long ago did you stop by?

I have some similar photos from 2 separate trips last spring. I can’t wait until it cools down again so I can go back – the Salton Sea is an amazing and unique place to photograph.

I love this place! I just bought a 42 foot Chris Craft I want to get shipped here from Rhoad Island. Of course God gave me Revelation of how to fix the Salton Sea.

I plan on going here soon to explore…Think it’s possible to stay overnight?

The buildings here have since been razed to their foundation. Nothing is left

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A lakeside California town lay desolate after ecological disaster killed its fish and drove away residents. But through art, life found a way back.

  • After ecological disaster struck a California town in the 1970s, locals abandoned it in droves. 
  • Severe flooding and dead fish turned a once thriving seaside community into a ghost town.
  • But through art, the town, which is now home to just 231 residents, has been reborn.

Insider Today

Out in the desert of California lies a town that was left almost entirely empty for decades.

Most of the residents of this town – known as Bombay Beach – abandoned it in the 1970s after a series of ecological disasters rendered nearly inhospitable.

Before then, it would be safe to say that Bombay Beach was thriving. Established in the early 1920s, the town is nestled on the shore of the Salton Sea , a body of water created by accident at the beginning of the 20th century when the Colorado River irrigation system flooded the area. Masses began flocking to Bombay Beach to enjoy all that its pristine shoreline had to offer.

The golden years were not to last. After experiencing devastating floods and rising salt levels slowly killing off its marine life, Bombay Beach became more or less of a ghost town , a shadow of its idyllic past. 

But that's not where this story ends. In the early 2010s, life found a way back to Bombay Beach – thanks to the arts. Here's a closer look at the remarkable ghost town that has evolved from an apocalyptic-like wasteland to a piece of art in itself. 

Bombay Beach is a town located on the shores of southern California's Salton Sea, created in 1905 when canals directing water from the Colorado River burst.

salton sea ghost town

Source: SaltonSea.com

Located 223 feet below sea level, Bombay Beach entered its golden years in the mid-1900s when tourists would arrive in droves to the idyllic town built by a desert oasis.

salton sea ghost town

Source: Bombay Beach Arts and Culture

In its heyday, Bombay Beach was said to have welcomed up to half of million visitors each year. Those who came enjoyed activities such as water skiing, fishing, and yachting.

salton sea ghost town

It was so popular that even a few famous faces – Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, and Sonny Bono, to name a few – were spotted there.

salton sea ghost town

Source: Los Angeles Magazine

But that all ended in the 1970s after a series of natural disasters rendered the landscape nearly inhospitable.

salton sea ghost town

Source: California.com

Flooding caused by Hurricane Kathleen in 1976 meant businesses located closest to the shoreline in Bombay Beach were shuttered. Residents who lived in houses close to the water were also forced to relocate.

salton sea ghost town

Though some homes and establishments were salvaged, others were left to rot away in the floodwater and ultimately collapsed into the sea.

salton sea ghost town

At the same time, residents were dealing with the knock-on effects of the level of salt rising in the sea caused by water evaporation.

salton sea ghost town

Source: Salton Sea

This included fish species that had once thrived in the lake dying out.

salton sea ghost town

As temperatures rose in the summers, the bleak conditions were exasperated by algae blooms that caused millions of fish to wash up dead on the shores of the Salton Sea.

salton sea ghost town

Source: Bombay Beach Arts & Culture

Unsurprisingly, the smell of the dead fish didn't make visiting Bombay Beach the most inviting idea anymore.

salton sea ghost town

Source: Vice

It also had consequences for migrating birds – a huge number died after contracting avian botulism from eating rotten fish in the 1990s and early 2000s.

salton sea ghost town

Source: CNBC, Los Angeles Times

But even though the Salton Sea is still in the midst of an ecological disaster, life has somehow found a way back to Bombay Beach.

salton sea ghost town

Around 230 people still live in town. In the early 2010s, they started sharing it with groups of creatives who showed up to Bombay Beach to produce art there.

salton sea ghost town

In 2015, director Tao Ruspoli co-founded the Bombay Beach Biennale – an annual art celebration where artists transform the remains of the town into quirky installations.

salton sea ghost town

According to the festival's official guidance, the Bombay Beach Biennale is a "tool to amplify the largely unknown and ignored ecological crisis that is the Salton Sea."

salton sea ghost town

Some of the most impressive art installations in recent years include an array of colorful painted televisions of all sizes placed around a disheveled trailer.

salton sea ghost town

Other pieces have referenced Bombay Beach's golden years and called attention to how the ecological disaster has transformed the landscape.

salton sea ghost town

Ruspoli said the smell of dead fish may have been "unbearable" for most of the old residents, but it hasn't deterred "eccentrics" from staying and like-minded artists from joining them each year.

salton sea ghost town

Source: "Life is a Festival" podcast

Whether they're longtime residents or recent arrivals, Bombay Beach locals have made clear it's no longer a ghost town. "We live here. Be respectful," the Biennale's guidelines read. "Even lots that may look abandoned, belong to people who care about them."

salton sea ghost town

Source: Bombay Beach Biennale

salton sea ghost town

Salton City: Intended As A Resort City, Now Inhabited By Ghosts

There were once big plans for the proposed luxury resort city of Salton, but it now lays abandoned, with ghosts as the only guests.

Visiting Salton City is like stepping into a post-apocalyptic landscape. Located just a short drive from the golfing resort town of Palm Springs the contrast just couldn't be greater. Palm Springs is an awesome attraction in itself and is a great base to explore Salton City, Slab City, and Joshua Tree National Park.

Just next to Salton City is the odd and must-see squatter / seasonal snowbird community of Slab City. Slab City may seem like anarchy being "the last free place on earth" it is certainly one of America's strangest places .

The Creation of The Salton Sea

The Salon Sea is the result of one of California's greatest environmental disasters. It was formed in 1905 when the Colorado River broke through a canal head-gate and diverted parts of the river into the Salton Basin for two years until the repairs were completed. Today it is a shallow highly saline lake about 15 by 35 miles in size.

  • Created: By An Ecological Disaster In 1905

A resort boom started partly fueled by the that in the 1900s California had lost 95% of its wetlands and inland lakes, this made Salton a critical habitat for millions of migratory birds. But by the 1970s the lake started to get poisoned as its salinity rose and contamination from agricultural runoff.

  • Wildlife: It Became And Important Refuge for Birds As Other Wetlands Disappeared
  • Impact: The Birds and Fish Are Dying

Today the lake's ecosystem is in a state of collapse and it is thought that it will become so salty that only bacteria will be able to survive. Tragically more and more of the 400 species of birds who have come to rely on the lake are also dying. Only one fish species is still managing to cling on while all the other fish species are now dead.

  • Toxic: The Water In Salton Sea Has Become Toxic

But even more than that, the former lakebed that is exposed as the lake recedes is turning into an exposed playa that is creating a public health hazard for over 650,000 people around according to CNBC .

The major cause of the Salton Sea's decline is California trying to save the water of Colorado and conserve more of it. The river is vitally important as among other things it supplies water and power for over 40 million people in California, Arizona, and beyond.

Related:  Death Valley Is Worth Visiting If You Can Handle The Heat, And This Is How

The Rise And Apocalypse of Salton City

In the 1950s and 60s, the lake became a resort destination and communities sprung up with hotels and vacation homes along its shores. The greatest project was Salton City in Imperial County.

The population of this place was 5,611 up from just 978 in 2000. But that growth is hiding what is really going on. It was planned and developed as the largest resort community to support a population of 40,000 residents with 12,000 residential lots.

  • Planned City: 40,000 Residents with 12,000 Residential Lots
  • Actual Population: 978 in 2000 (5,611 in 2020)

The infrastructure was built, the roads, the water systems, the sewers, and the power grid for the future city of 40,000. But the people never came. The demand for property in Salton City fell drastically short of what the planners had in mind.

  • See: The Infrastructure for 40,000 People Who Never Came

In 2010 81% of the surveyed lots remains undeveloped while 38% of the habitable residences in Salton City were unoccupied. Today it really does feel like an eerie modern ghost town. Its infrastructure is developed and yet there is almost no one living there, it is haunted and mostly abandoned. Most of the homes were demolished or just never built.

Related:  These Are The Best Hikes Through Joshua Tree National Park

What Is Like To Visit Today

The vision was for a bustling resort community where locals could enjoy their own boat docks and stroll down the palm tree-lined streets to the beach. Today the docks are far above the receding waterline, the beaches are far from the water and the coastline is filthy squelchy mud, and the palm trees are dead sticks. To boot the sea is toxic.

Once people would come fish, swim, and bring their boats there. But it all changed from being a California desert paradise to a living hell.

  • Accommodation: Recommended To Stay In Palm Springs


A visit to Salton City will take one into the world of dystopia movies of a world of post-apocalypse. See places like the beach of Bombay where the yacht club once hosted figures like Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys. It is now basically deserted and badly polluted.

It may give one a feeling of disgust or send shivers down one's spine to think that 50 years ago there were restaurants, nightclubs, and golf clubs there. It has gone from a resort frequently by the wealthy elite to “ The worst environmental, health and economic crisis in modern history " - CNBC

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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.

California.com Team

June 08, 2023

Disclaimer: California.com is not receiving any type of compensation for reviewing any of the products or services mentioned in this article.

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?

salton sea ghost town

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. 

salton sea 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.

But when the 1970s came along, the popularity of the Salton Sea suddenly dropped: With rising salinity, shoreline flooding, and fertilizers overflowing from nearby farms, this man-made lake became utter chaos. As environmental troubles started arising, fewer visitors set out to the lake, making it akin to a ghost 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.

salton sea ghost town

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.

salton sea ghost town

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.

salton sea ghost town

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.

salton sea ghost town

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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Top ways to experience Salton Sea and nearby attractions

salton sea ghost town

Salton Sea - All You Need to Know BEFORE You Go (with Photos)

  • (0.13 mi) Salton Sea State Recreation Area
  • (9.51 mi) Painted Canyon
  • (2.33 mi) International Banana Museum
  • (9.63 mi) Ladder Canyon Trail
  • (8.32 mi) Box Canyon Road

Salton Sea Information

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  • © OpenStreetMap
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salton sea ghost town

California's Post-Apocalyptic Salton Riviera

This is what happens when paradise gets polluted.

  • Featured Trip Guides

Created by Roadtrippers - September 1st 2016

The abandoned Salton Riviera and ruins of Bombay Beach were once a thriving resort community, just a few miles outside of Los Angeles. The ambitious development included 25,000 residential lots and over 250 miles of paved roads (along with electrical power, water and sewage). Today it’s a ghost town. And it smells really, really bad.

Salton City was developed in the 1950s and bordered the Salton Sea, which is “a saline, endorheic rift lake located directly on the San Andreas Fault.” However, due to its isolation and “lack of local employment opportunities” little development took place over the years. Initial designs for the resort included a business district, churches, a championship golf course, schools, and a luxury hotel/yacht club/marina.

Photo of Abandoned Salton Riviera

Salton City, CA, US

Abandoned Salton Riviera

The “Salton Riviera” (as the resort community came to be called) was an initial success, taking in over $4.25 million in lot sales in just its opening weekend. Politicians and Hollywood celebrities frequented the desert oasis, and it became one of California’s most popular recreation retreats. However, most of the lots that were purchased were for investment and few were developed.

The resort community collapsed towards the end of the 1970s. Buildings were abandoned as the sea level rose and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, salinity and pollution levels in the Salton Sea increased-- it doesn't drain anywhere, and pesticides and other remnants from human settlement along the shores washed into the lake, poisoning and killing the fish population. If you visit the Salton Riviera today, you’ll still see the haunting abandoned remnants of once thriving beach town. Just beware, the stench from the pollution and rotting fish corpses can be quite pungent.

Photo of Bombay Beach

9592 Avenue A, Bombay Beach, CA, US

Bombay Beach

Bombay Beach is one of the resort towns that suffered the effects of the pollution in the water. However, it's still managed to keep from turning entirely into a ghost town... as of 2010, it had a population of nearly 300. That being said, the town is surrounded by abandoned resort buildings and even more homes and businesses in the west part of Bombay Beach are submerged or half-buried in mud and water. It's a crazy place to explore and take some pictures. Tips: the nearest gas station is 20 miles away, so top off your tank. If you need a drink, there's one bar in town: the Ski Inn.

Photo of Beach Made of Bones and Barnacles

California 111, CA, US

Beach Made of Bones and Barnacles

The sand at this beach is pretty unique-- it's made of bones! They're mostly fish and bird bones, which washed ashore after dying in the toxic lake water.

Photo of Salton Sea State Recreation Area

100-225 State Park Rd, North Shore, CA, US

Salton Sea State Recreation Area

This little corner of the lake is known as the Salton Sea State Recreation Area. Stop by here for the great historical and environmental displays at the visitor center and the easy access to the beach. If you're looking to fish (which you can still do in the lake) or just kayak on the water, this is a great place to start. You can also camp here! Sure, the shores here are very different from, say, the beaches in LA, but they're still a fascinating spot to visit.

Photo of Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge

906 W Sinclair Rd, Calipatria, CA, US

Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge

The southern end of the park is home to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, which is working to restore, preserve, and protect the natural habitat of the lake and surrounding wetlands. Birds and fish call this oasis in the Sonoran Desert home, and, as a Congressman, Sonny Bono did a ton of work to save the Salton Sea so

Photo of Mud Volcanoes

Davis Road and Schrimpf Road, Calipatria, CA, US

Mud Volcanoes

As if beaches made of bones and abandoned retro resorts weren't enough, they have mud volcanoes too! The Salton Sea lies on the end of the San Andreas Fault, and the geothermal activity below the Earth's surface causes mud to bubble up from the ground here. On a good day, you can see a proper eruption, but generally the mud is just bubbling and hissing... it really does add to the post-apocalyptic feel of the Salton Sea, though

Photo of Salvation Mountain

603 E Beal Rd, Niland, CA, US

Salvation Mountain

The region isn't totally devoid of life... a visit to Salvation Mountain is proof that there's still big things happening. Salvation Mountain is a folk art mecca. The main feature here is the mountain itself, a series of clay hills brightly painted with positive (and sometimes bizarre) messages. But lots of artists live here, and at nearby Slab City, so make sure to thoroughly explore the landscape here for all kinds of weird art.

Luckily, you can escape the post-apocalyptic wasteland back to the comforts of reality. Palm Springs is about an hour and a half away, and Joshua Tree National Park is even closer, and both make for cozy places to set up your home base for exploring the area.


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Monday, July 11, 2016

Photographing ghost towns of the salton sea.

Decayed Chair Salton Sea Beach Ghost Towns Photography

Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World , a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.

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Melody Sample, an artist, built an installation as part of the Bombay Beach Biennale, an art festival in town.

In a forgotten town by the Salton Sea, newcomers build a bohemian dream

Bombay Beach, once a desert resort, fell into decrepitude. Now an influx of artists, intellectuals and hipsters are making it their playground

When ecological disaster hit Bombay Beach, a resort town marooned by a dying lake in California’s desert, the result looked apocalyptic.

Birds and fish died. Toxic dust swirled. The air stank. Tourists and most residents fled, leaving a virtual ghost town of abandoned, decaying homes.

For decades the only regular visitors were film-makers who came to shoot horror flicks about zombies and Armageddon.

Now, Bombay Beach, population 295, is enjoying a rebirth of sorts with an influx of artists, intellectuals and hipsters who have turned it into a bohemian playground.

There is an opera house, a gallery, an “Hermitage” museum, a conceptual pavilion and a drive-in movie theatre. Which sounds rather grand, but the desert wind whistles through the cracks and it looks like Mad Max did the decorating.

The closest thing to a hotel – a shipping container with plywood floors and walls – is adorned with photographs of the criminally insane.

There are also giraffe sculptures, a defunct sensory deprivation tank, a four-dimensional hypercube called a tesseract and a fake particle accelerator made of gold-painted junk. Plus a festival, the Bombay Beach Biennale , with exhibitions, philosophy seminars, ballet and poetry. Sandstorms and scorching sun can make it feel closer to Mars than Venice’s biennale.

Tao Ruspoli, a film-maker, poses with art from the Bombay Beach Biennale.

“People are engaging with the idea of creating this outpost of freedom and creativity. Hopefully it just stays authentic and weird,” Tao Ruspoli, a photographer, musician and film-maker who has led the charge, said last week, giving the Guardian a tour.

Ruspoli, 42, started coming in 2007, making the three-hour drive from Los Angeles , and friends followed, intrigued by his declaration that here was the most interesting town in America.

Several have bought property – trailers, bungalows and empty lots – as homes, studios and exhibition spaces.

“We don’t want it to be a passing thing. We want to leave a mark, though with the knowledge that everything is impermanent. We’re attacked from all directions – vandalism, extreme heat, 50 mph winds,” said Ruspoli, who is also the son of an Italian prince.

He considers the corporate razzmatazz of the Coachella festival , 40 miles north, the antithesis of the “Dadaist” experiment unfolding in Bombay Beach, which has little commerce besides two grocery stores and two bars. The nearest gas station is 20 miles away.

Even so, an influx of artists who buy property and push up prices may sound ominous to those pushed out of homes by gentrification in formerly run-down parts of Brooklyn, Oakland and Los Angeles. Some activists say artists pave a path for moneyed investors and speculators.

Prices are rising in Bombay Beach. Some bungalows which cost a few thousand dollars 15 years ago now fetch tens of thousands of dollars.

“They’re buying up all the old stuff, it seems like they’re taking over,” grumbled an 80-year-old customer at the Ski Inn bar, who gave his name only as Wacko. “A lot of the buildings are painted ridiculous colours.” Vandalism and petty theft has hit some exhibits, suggesting there are additional detractors.

Wacko, an 80-year-old resident, at the bar inside the Ski Inn.

Still, Wacko appeared to be in a minority. Of a dozen residents interviewed at random, 11 welcomed the bohemians. “The town was dying. They’re bringing in young people, fixing places up,” said Mark Hagedorn, 65.

“It’s a shot in the arm,” said Ernest Hawkins, 75. “This place used to rock. Then it went to sleep. Everyone left or got old.” Lisa Trujill, 52, a housepainter, said she wanted more music, more arts. “I love it.”

A 2012 award-winning documentary chronicled some of the town’s lost souls .

Without wind, from a distance, Bombay Beach looks ravishing. It sits by the Salton Sea, California’s biggest lake, a 360 sq mile swath of tranquil water ringed by white beaches.

Appearances deceive – the lake is dying. It formed in 1905 when the Colorado river breached a canal and poured into this dry desert basin, creating a habitat for hundreds of species of fish and birds. Bombay Beach and a few other resorts sprang up and thrived in the 1950s.

Then growing salinity and agricultural pollution killed the fish. Their bones are what makes the beaches white. Hunger and disease ravaged the birds. The lake is receding, leaving winds to whip up toxic, odiferous soil. The smell can travel far, notably in a 2012 event known as “the big burp”.

State authorities announced a plan last year to restore some of the lake, the first phase of a long-promised rescue. Skeptics fear it will never happen.

Stefan Ashkenazy, who owns a hotel in Hollywood, at Bombay Beach’s drive-in movie theater.

The Bombay Beach Biennale – which despite the name has taken place each year – riffs on its environs. The first in 2016 was themed on the “art of decay”. The 2017 festival asked artists to imagine the future that did not happen. This year, held over a weekend in March and aided by a Getty foundation grant, was themed “God’s silence”.

Melody Sample, 31, built a “dream house” installation in a ruined bungalow which included a bathtub and a table set for high tea. “The energy here is really fresh. It’s like a forgotten place in a death, rebirth cycle,” she said. This applies to her exhibit: thieves stole the benches and incense and other artifacts, leaving the dream house somewhat forlorn.

Stefan Ashkenazy, who owns the Petit Ermitage hotel in West Hollywood, is Bombay Beach’s svengali. He has bought several abandoned lots and brings in artists to transform them.

He arrived last week at the wheel of an open-top Mercedes playing Bizet. The appeal was not property but experience, he said. “Of all the things I do this is the most free, the most inspiring.” He wants to turn E street into a cultural hub to host, among other things, film premieres at the drive-in which is populated with vintage, wrecked cars.

Wacko, the refusenik, was not impressed. “They wouldn’t allow that in LA. Down here they get away with it.”

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There's An Abandoned Town In Southern California That Was Never Completed And It's Eerily Fascinating

salton sea ghost town

Danielle Schwartz

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If you’re looking for a mysterious trip through an endlessly interesting place, you should definitely make your way to Salton City in Southern California , a town that wasn’t completely finished. It’s a fascinating look into the construction of a town and the look of abandoned spaces on the West Coast. Located in Imperial County, California between Anza Borrego Desert State Park and Joshua Tree National Park, Salton City, California is a unique census-designated place.

salton sea ghost town

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The Creepiest Hike In Southern California Takes You Through The Ruins Of An Abandoned Estate

The Creepiest Hike In Southern California Takes You Through The Ruins Of An Abandoned Estate

salton sea ghost town

Take a look at how Salton City was in the past compared to now:

Salton City, California has quite a challenging history, but it has an up-and-coming present that is undoubtedly leading to a happy future. Have you been to Salton City in SoCal before? Share with us your experience in the comments section! While you’re exploring, take a drive to see some of these other abandoned places in Southern California .

OnlyInYourState may earn compensation through affiliate links in this article. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

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Abandoned places in southern california.

What are some other abandoned places in Southern California?

Other abandoned places in Southern California include:

  • Mojave Airport
  • LA Zoo in Griffith Park
  • Town of Cima
  • Bombay Beach
  • Lake Delores Water Park

After investigating this unfinished town of Salton City, check out these other abandoned places in Southern California .

Where are there haunted places in Southern California?

Haunted places in Southern California can be found at:

  • Joshua Tree Inn
  • The Hollywood Roosevelt
  • Hotel Del Coronado

If you’ve got the stomach for it, look into these haunted places in Southern California afterward.

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The Salton Sea: A Ghost of Former Glory in the California Desert

The Salton Sea. It’s a poetic name for a place that is neither poetic nor a sea.

The landlocked body of water in the California desert is actually the state’s largest lake, a saline-filled depression in the earth with a higher salt level than the Pacific Ocean and a story that reads more like science fiction than geology. In just a little over a hundred years, the Salton Sea transformed itself from accidental creation to resort destination to environmental hazard to ghost town.

It takes about three hours to reach the Salton Sea from San Diego. Herb and I leave the house early, hoping to arrive at the Visitor Center by 10 a.m. We head northeast toward Palm Springs and California’s popular desert resort towns, traveling on Interstates 15 and 10 past rather uninspiring scenery and typical highway exits for gas and fast food. But when we turn south on Highway 111, the view dramatically changes, and we find ourselves on a two-lane road lined with railroad tracks on the east side and dusty brush-filled desert on the west.

Shortly before reaching the Salton Sea, the scruffy brown desert turns into farmland, like the The Wizard of Oz changing from black-and-white into a burst of color. We pass fields of luscious green lettuce and forest-like rows of spectacular-looking date palm trees. It turns out that this part of California’s Coachella Valley and Imperial Valley produces more dates than anywhere in the U.S.

salton sea ghost town

A Little Salton Sea History

We turn off the road at the Visitors Center, a modest red brick building run by the California Department of Parks and Recreation.  A friendly volunteer offers to show us a ten-minute film about the Salton Sea’s history, but cautions that it was made in 2017, when the sea was still used for some level of recreation. “You will see kayaks,” she told us. “And you will see where the water level used to be.”

The Salton Sea was formed in 1905 when floodwater from the Colorado River broke through a nearby irrigation canal and poured into a formerly dry lakebed called the Salton Basin. The canal was repaired, but the sea remained, an “endorheic” body of water having no outflow to a river or ocean and losing water only through evaporation or seepage into the ground. At 15 miles wide and 35 miles long, the Salton Sea was an impressive sight that continued to thrive from Colorado River water runoff used by local farmers for irrigation.

The area’s wetlands became a key stop for birds migrating from Alaska to Patagonia on the “Pacific Flyway” route. And in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Salton Sea became a popular destination for people – a recreational area offering watersports, boating and fishing. Neighborhoods of vacation homes, shops, marinas, and nightclubs sprang up along Bombay Beach, a spot where Frank Sinatra famously performed.

But in the 1970s, the Salton Sea began shrinking, revealing a muddy sea floor contaminated with pesticides from the agricultural run-off. Toxic chemicals from the sea floor created a harmful powdery dust that spread through the air. Fish and birds died. Salinity levels rose to dangerous levels. The vacation destination disappeared, leaving behind a ghost town of its former self.

salton sea ghost town

Bombay Beach

Back on Highway 111, we drive about 20 miles south along the Salton Sea coast to Bombay Beach. At 223 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest community in the United States. Although about 200 people live here, the place has the aura of a ghost town, a shell of its glory days as a resort destination.

The town is laid out on a four-by-eight grid, with 1 st through 4 th Streets and Avenues A through H. There are abandoned houses and trailers, broken and boarded windows and yards brimming with discarded items of every imaginable sort. And every block or so, there is art. Somewhere along the way in its rise-and-fall past, Bombay Beach has become a place for eclectic, eccentric artists to showcase their creativity.

salton sea ghost town

We drive a few blocks to the beach, where art installations continue to dot the landscape. Several cars have made a makeshift parking lot on the sand, and we decide to park there as well. I had created a sort of scavenger hunt list of installations I’d hoped to find, not having any idea how spread out they would be. We walk along the beach, taking photos and taking in the scenery. I can’t help thinking what a grand place this must have been.

salton sea ghost town

Salvation Mountain

It’s almost noon when we return to the car. We decide to push on to our next stop before taking a lunch break. Our destination is Salvation Mountain, the main attraction in an “off the grid” desert community called Slab City. We travel 20 miles south on Highway 111 and turn onto Main Street in the town of Niland, passing empty graffiti-covered structures, a food market and what looks like an abandoned bank building complete with ionic-style columns and a wrap-around portico.

Niland’s Main Street becomes Beal Road, a desolate stretch of cracked, worn and bumpy desert pavement, neglected for who-knows how many years. We pass an ironically-located tire repair shop, a power sub-station and a haphazard collection of makeshift tents and structures, driving about five miles until the mountain comes into view.

Salvation Mountain was created by a local resident named Leonard Knight “as a tribute to God and his gift to the world.” Built on a hillside using adobe bricks, discarded materials and thousands of gallons of paint, Salvation Mountain became Knight’s life’s work as well as his home. He slept in a pick-up truck at the base of the mountain, embracing a life in this community with no running water and no electricity. He died in 2016, and today his mountain is staffed by volunteers.

salton sea ghost town

The Lowest Bar in the Western Hemisphere

We retrace our route back to Bombay Beach for a lunch stop at Ski Inn, a place that lays claim to the title of “lowest bar in the Western Hemisphere.” It’s a lively spot, a sort of dive-bar-cum-tourist-destination. The first thing you notice are the dollar bills that cover just about every imaginable surface. As the story is told, the tradition began in the 1950s when vacationers would write their names on dollar bills and attach them to the walls.

We order at the bar – cash only – opting for burgers with a side of fries and potato salad. The bartender says it will take 45 minutes, which seems unusually long, given the availability of tables. We’re quite hungry, but we willingly agree, giving each other a look that says, “When will we have another chance to eat at the lowest bar in the Western Hemisphere?”

We settle into a red vinyl booth reminiscent of another time and place. I find myself thinking that I should be reaching to the wall to flip through song titles on one of those mini juke boxes that once came with a booth like this. There’s also a patio out back with red umbrella-shaded tables, but we prefer to take in the atmosphere inside. The juke box is going strong, conversations are humming and customers keeps streaming in.

salton sea ghost town

The 45-minute wait turns out to be well over an hour and fifteen minutes. Herb tries to figure out the why of the long wait. This isn’t a typical place where a burger is thrown on the grill when it’s ordered, he says, convinced that the cook prepares one complete order before moving on to the next. Herb may be right. But I also have the feeling that people who travel to Bombay Beach do not rush.

And neither, it seems, should we.

salton sea ghost town

What a fascinating – and really quite sad – place, Mary. I can’t believe how long it took for your lunch to arrive and am full of admiration for your patience. Lesser mortals would surely have given up and found an alternative…except, just a minute, there isn’t one! I guess the alternative would be to go hungry? I had never heard of The Salton Sea until now and I am grateful for you and Herb sharing your impressions. Though I love the open, empty places in your vast country, perhaps The Salton Sea is somewhere I don’t need to experience first hand 🙂

Hahaha, Gill, you are correct that there are no alternative places for lunch! I think the long wait was part of the whole “lowest bar in the Western Hemisphere” experience, and I honestly wouldn’t have missed stopping there. “When in Bombay Beach…” I agree that the Salton Sea wouldn’t be at the top of a list when visiting the U.S. But I would add it to the itinerary if you are in the Palm Springs area. It’s less than an hour’s drive and just incredibly weird and interesting!

One other comment…I would only recommend visiting in the winter months. California desert temperatures soar in the summer, and I don’t think the Salton Sea or Bombay Beach would be especially pleasant that time of year!

Excellent advice, Mary!

Hello Mary,

Your adventures continue to Salton Sea, a desolate and eclectic place. There was a documentary about Salvation Mountain and Leonard Knight. It was televised around the time of his passing. I look forward to your next blog!

Kindly, Nancy

Hi Nancy! “Desolate and eclectic” are perfect adjectives to describe the Salton Sea. Herb and I always wondered about it whenever we’d fly into San Diego and see this large body of water in the middle of the brown desert. The Leonard Knight documentary sounds interesting and worth checking out. He must have been quite the character to have survived a life in Slab City all those years. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

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Want Nightmares? Paranormal Activity At The Salton Sea

The Salton Sea was originally viewed as a blessing, as it was created purely by accident back in the early 1900’s.

The Colorado River erupted after the failure of enduring a heavy rain, and millions upon millions of gallons of water would burst into what was a dried out lake bed in the middle of nowhere in the California desert.

Photo credit: flickr/beansshots

Updated 2/10/2020 – The Salton Sea was considered a blessing; a fluke; an act of mother nature that would turn a piece of land that had been completely forgotten into a booming tourist attraction.

In media, the lake was often referred to as “the miracle in the desert,” but nothing could have been further from the truth.

Originally, the Salton Sea would attract over half a million visitors a year.

Property around the lake was also in high demand, as real estate agents would escort potential buyers over the land via aircraft, and sell them piece of lands without ever landing on the ground.

Table of Contents

  • 1 Paradise Lost
  • 2 Things Get Creepy
  • 3 Who Or What Are These Things?
  • 4 The Watchers
  • 5 Directions to The Salton Sea

Paradise Lost

Photo credit: flickr/sjrohde

Quickly, people began to notice that things weren’t quite right with this piece of property.

As remains of dead fish and other aquatic life washed upon the shores, it was obvious that there was something wrong with the water — something wrong with the land.

The lake had a stench that you could smell from miles away; and this was your warning sign that you were too close to the lake, and should turn around immediately.

Things Get Creepy

The land became barren; unsuitable for human habitation.

However, this didn’t stop people, such as urban explorers , and other tourists, from becoming curious.

They wanted to see a ghost town — and they may have gotten more than they bargained for.

Some visitors have reported that while traveling to the Salton Sea, the stench would become so overpowering, that they had no choice but to pull over, and exit their vehicle, as they thought that they may need to vomit from the immense smell emitting from the desolate land.

Some say that while on the outside of their vehicle, they could see people-like shadows seemingly watching them from a distance with glowing eyes.

Who Or What Are These Things?

Photo credit: flickr/bloomfield and george

Due to the numerous reports of incidents that have occurred around the Salton Sea, there’s been a great deal of discussion as to who or what stalks the land.

A great deal of locals believe that the lake wasn’t an accident at all.

Instead, they believe that there was some sort of extraterrestrial intervention that created the lake.

People have reported seeing weird lights hovering above the lake in the midnight sky.

While some believe that the lake is a creation of aliens from the great beyond, other locals are adamant that they know the reason as to why the land is so violently potent, and seemingly kills off all of the wildlife in the area — radiation.

Rumor has it that the lake was a testing ground for nuclear weapons at one point, and the land is radioactive.

The Watchers

Photo credit: tumblr/okayspacebird

The radiation theory would also validate the claims of people being watched in the night by people-like creatures, as locals believe that families whom purchased plots of land while the Salton Sea was a booming tourist attraction refused to leave, and raised their families on the land.

In doing this, they have subjected themselves to radioactive poisoning, which has caused genetic defects over the years.

Even though locals are split when it comes to theories revolving around the Salton Sea, they can all agree on one thing: Don’t visit the area at night !

Directions to The Salton Sea

So you’ve decided to check out the Salton Sea?

Be careful and keep your eyes open.

But first, Click Here To Get Directions To The Salton Sea.

Have you been to The Salton Sea?

What have you experienced, tell us in the comments below and share this with your friends., click the share button below..

salton sea ghost town

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salton sea ghost town

GhostTown: Abandoned Salton Sea

The abandoned salton sea.

It’s hard to imagine, but this place was once a desired getaway destination for tourists, with beautiful views, and relaxing by the water. Those days are long gone, thanks to the lake being destroyed by human activity. “According to a report from San Diego State University,  the shoreline is heavily receding  because of rapid evaporation, which is  onset by climate change . “. Today, the abandoned Salton Sea is little more than a ghost town with some art installations along the beach.

History of the Salton Sea

At the start of the twentieth century, in 1905, the landlocked lake was created by accident/economical disaster, when an inflow of water from the Colorado River flooded a dry basin, which was known as the Salton Sink. After the flooding was done, the Salton Sink, now known as the Salton Sea, grew to 400 square miles over a few years, remained full because of drainage water from local farms, and had become California’s largest non-coastal body of water.

In the mid 1900’s, tourism and wildlife at the newly created lake flourished. The area turned into a crucial habit for millions of migrating birds, as California had lost about 95% of it’s inland lakes and wetlands. And people were enjoying the new waterfront area as well. It was estimated that roughly 1.5 million people visited the “Miracle in the Desert” annually. Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, vacation homes popped up around the Salton Sea, eventually leading to the creation of a new town, Salton City. The ideas of a resort town and beachfront property in the middle of the desert attracted tons of people, especially boating enthusiasts. 

Developers mapped out 25,000 residential lots, and paved more than 250 miles of roads along with providing electrical, water, and sewage infrastructure throughout the new town. Plans and projections were made for accommodating roughly 40,000 people, but the demand never rose to those heights.

Evens so, for a while, the new Salton City project was as success and life was great. It was an in-demand location and brought in celebrities, politicians, entertainers, and athletes. Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack would take weekend trips to the Salton Sea. There were stories of The Beach Boys and the Pointer Sisters performing concerts on the shores of the beach.

Downfall of Salton City and the Salton Sea

Even though Salton City and the Salton Sea were a hot destination, that wouldn’t last. In the 1970s, the lake became “poisoned” by rising salinity levels and contamination from agricultural runoff. Thousands of fish began to die, floating to the top of the lake. Birds that depended on the lake became sick., and the tourists began to disappear. The once thriving restaurants, bars, and the Yacht Club where Sinatra performed, all closed down and became abandoned.

By the 1980’s, the once booming town was almost completely abandoned. Resort development plans were halted mid-construction, buses, RVs, campers, and vacation homes were all left behind as people left the dying town. Speaking of dying, by the 90’s, the wildlife were also dying off in astonishingly high numbers. During a four-month stretch, more than 14,000 birds died. The corpses of the birds and fish littered the shores of the beach. A large percentage of the birds that died were Pelicans. Due to their large bodies, they had to be disposed of by being burned, which lasted for several weeks.

The Abandoned Salton Sea Today

The vibe and experience of visiting the Salton Sea today, is a lot different. The lake’s ecosystem is in a state of collapse and it is believed that it will become so salty that only bacteria will be able to survive. More and more of the 400 different species of birds who depend on the lake the lake to survive, are dying. Only one fish species is still managing to live in the water,  while all other fish species are now dead.

“But even more than that, the former lakebed that is exposed as the lake recedes is turning into an exposed playa that is creating a public health hazard for over 650,000 people around according to CNBC .”

However, the apocalyptic looking ghost town that looks like an inspiration for the video game, “Fallout” , and its neighboring towns are still a popular destination for photographers and urban explorers. The abandoned buildings and art installations on the beach provide for some unique subjects, unlike any other. 

A few things to keep in mind if you plan to visit the abandoned Salton Sea. Plan accordingly. It’s in the middle of the desert and it gets super hot (and the hottest part) so keep that in mind for what time of the. year you plan to visit. The water isn’t safe to swim in/boat/etc., even if you see others in it. Do it at your own risk. While there are lots of intriguing and unique things to see in the local towns, remember that there are still people who live there, so please be respectful. 

Salton Sea Photo Gallery

Below are some image from the Salton Sea, as well as a nearby abandoned ice manufacturing plant.

Abandoned Salton Sea

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Salton Sea Mud Volcanoes near Niland, CA

Solo Camping – How to Not be Scared

A Salton Sea Ghost Town (Beholding Bombay Beach California)

If you’ve ever wondered what a post-apocalyptic USA might look like, look no further than the Salton Sea Ghost Town of Bombay Beach, California.  The sign on your drive into Bombay Beach, CA says “Population 295, Elevation – 223 feet.”  That’s right – negative 223 feet.  This town is probably the lowest town in America.  This quirky town is a place you either love or hate.  It’s a place where it’s easy to get sucked in and befriend the locals in the local watering holes.  Bombay Beach is a Salton Sea Ghost Town that just keeps on ticking.

A Little Bombay Beach History

salton sea ghost town

The Salton Sea was created by accident in 1905, but it was eventually developed for tourism with it’s heydays in the 1950’s and 60’s when Hollywood celebrities made their way to resorts in newly developed towns like Bombay Beach, where swimming and waterskiing were popular activities.  Eventually the water of the sea started to rise, and Bombay Beach built a levee to protect itself from the rising water.  But then the sea levels started to fall without replenishment.  The tasty Orange Mouth Corvina fish and others started dying.  The levee was now causing water to pool on the wrong side of the levee – bogging the town down with mud every time they received significant rain.  Bombay Beach could easily be a Salton Sea ghost town, but it has some year-round and snowbird residents as well as visitors coming to see the unusual town.

The Beach and Former Dock Area

Bombay Beach pier

You can drive up the levee (believe me, it’s safe to drive up and in the parking area but don’t try to drive down on the beach – see the photo later in this post to find out why).  There are various art installations and dusty boats in the sand.  Take a good look at the sand – you will discover the white sand is actually crushed fish bones ☹.  If it’s been raining, the beach is especially soft and quick-sand like, so walk with caution.

The Town & Structures

Bombay Beach teddy bear bomb house

The town is primarily made up of mobile homes and RVs, but there are a few permanent homes.  One of the locals approximated 50% are occupied, even if it doesn’t look that way.

Bombay Beach Art Scene

salton sea ghost town

It’s fun to explore the streets of Bombay Beach and look for hidden and not hidden art.  Try to find the house made of mirror balls.  Some of the art may be an eyesore to some, but I think it’s brilliant.  The beach is especially full or interesting structures.  In March, there’s a newly formed arts festival called the Bombay Beach Biennale that features music, dance, and visual arts.  It’s high on my bucket list to come back for this festival someday.  The locals speak highly of the Biennale. 

The Bombay Beach Drive In

Bombay Beach Drive-In Movie Theater

The coolest art installation in Bombay Beach is the “Drive-in” Movie Theater.  Except these cars can’t exactly drive-in.  Classic cars, trucks, and boats make up the vehicles pointed at the movie screen (the back of a semi-truck, painted white).  From time to time there are movies, even premiers, shown at this funky movie theater, with bonfires ablaze in the hollowed out engines of the parked cars.

Bombay Beach Sunsets

salton sea ghost town

The sunsets in Bombay Beach are to die for. Bombay Beach can surprisingly be one of the most Romantic Getaways In California .

Friendly Locals

You can meet the locals at either of the town watering holes.  I met one guy out walking his adorable bulldog named “Humphrey Bogart”.  This dog was a movie star, literally.  The film “Tyger Tyger” was being filmed during my visit to Bombay Beach and his dog was an extra!

Ski Inn Bombay Beach

Ski Inn Bombay Beach

The Ski Inn is the lowest bar in the western hemisphere.  It’s the kind of bar you walk in and all the locals say hello.  My favorite sign on the bar says “Please don’t talk about yourself.  We’ll do it when you leave.”  Great prices – a pint of domestic beer at $2.50 and cheeseburger and a side for $6.50.  A great selection of classic hits on the jukebox. Can it get more appropriate than playing Garth Brooks “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places.”?

Bombay Beach American Legion

Not to be undone by the Ski Inn, the American Legion is a place where you can get a cold drink and a meal.  The Legion has a different meal available most days of the week including Taco Tuesdays and other times dedicated to burgers, spaghetti, and steak. 

Inspiration for Grand Theft Auto V?

I gave a fellow traveler a tour of Bombay Beach and he exclaimed how eerily similar it was to the setting for a character named Trevor, a meth-head that lives in a trailer in a dusty desert town.  Trevor’s neighborhood contains deserted trailer homes, a cell tower, a couple shops, levee, and a lake – nearly identical to Bombay Beach.  It wasn’t until later when my fellow traveler drove me around in the Grand Theft Auto V game that we discovered the windmill house… this exact house is in the game. 

salton sea ghost town

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A Little Salton Sea Ghost Town Advice

Don’t drive on the “beach”. It’s really mud. You only need to look at this picture to understand why:

SUV stuck in the mud

Bombay Beach California – Where to Stay

There are a few Airbnb’s in Bombay Beach, but I didn’t see any of them.  However, I can highly recommend the Fountain of Youth RV Spa, which is only a 10 minute drive away.  You can pitch a tent, van, or RV camp at this all ages resort with 2 pools, 4 hot tubs, steam room, private mineral baths, great showers, and loads of activities from playing Pinochle to Pickle Ball.  ( Check Rates and Availability ) 

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  • Fern Fennell on January 12, 2019 at 5:47 pm

Very interesting tidbits about a bizarre little town created because of a human made disaster. Good to hear that people are making a living out of creating art and slinging cheap beer! Nice to meet you at FOY!

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    August 6, 2022 The Abandoned Salton Sea It's hard to imagine, but this place was once a desired getaway destination for tourists, with beautiful views, and relaxing by the water. Those days are long gone, thanks to the lake being destroyed by human activity.

  20. Exploring Salton Sea ABANDONED Ghost Town

    What was once known as a dreamy "Miracle in the Desert" that was bustling in popularity as a resort community amongst celebrities in the 50s and 60s, is now ...

  21. A Salton Sea Ghost Town (Beholding Bombay Beach California)

    Dead fish on the beach of Bombay Beach. The Salton Sea was created by accident in 1905, but it was eventually developed for tourism with it's heydays in the 1950's and 60's when Hollywood celebrities made their way to resorts in newly developed towns like Bombay Beach, where swimming and waterskiing were popular activities. Eventually the ...


    Join us as we visit the The Salton Sea and Bombay Beach in California.#TheSaltonSea #BombayBeach #VisitCaliforniaWant a personalized VIDEO MESSAGE from us? ...

  23. Ghost Towns Salton Sea (Abandoned Salton City, California)

    In this video, I am exploring the ghost towns at Salton Sea, California, an accidentally created lake in the desert! The Salton Sea is a shallow, landlocked ...

  24. Salton Sea

    The Salton Sea is a shallow, landlocked, highly saline body of water in Riverside and Imperial counties at the southern end of the U.S. state of California. It lies on the San Andreas Fault within the Salton Trough, which stretches to the Gulf of California in Mexico .