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The Sad, Strange Salton Sea

It’s still terribly frigid here in New York, so I’d rather blog about my warm weather adventure at the Salton Sea this past December!

Salton Sea | Postcard: People at the BeachNow, you might be wondering where in the world is the Salton Sea?! It’s a long, desolate 50 mile drive from Palm Springs, and one of the strangest places on the planet.

Salton Sea | MapPlagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea

My fascination with the Salton Sea began after watching the documentary PLAGUES AND PLEASURES OF THE SALTON SEA (narrated by John Waters!). The film documents the history of California’s largest lake, including its unlikely beginning, rise to become a recreation hot spot and its sad fall to post-apocalyptic nightmare. Enamored by the strangeness of this place, I just had to see it in person!

Check out the trailer and be sure to see the whole film!

The Glory Days of the Salton Sea

Salton Sea | Postcard: Glamour CapitalThe Salton Sea, once considered the “California Riviera” and the “miracle in the desert”,  was a vacation destination that rivaled Palm Springs in the 50s and 60s. Frequent visitors included Frank Sinatra, Desi Arnaz, President Eisenhower, Jerry Lewis, and the Beach Boys.

Salton Sea | Sinatra Lewis LombardoPhoto of Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis and Guy Lombardo via the Salton Sea Museum.

Just check out this promotional video for the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club, built in 1958. This place was swanky!

The Salton Sea had it all– recreation, boating, fishing, celebrity visitors, a hopping real estate market and a popular 18-hole golf course. Who wouldn’t want to take a trip to the Salton Sea?!

Disaster Strikes the Salton Sea

But within just a couple of decades, all of the glamour was gone, replaced by ruins:

Salton Sea | RuinsPhotos of the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club’s dilapidated remains via Flickr.

The Salton Sea was never supposed to be a lake in the first place. In 1905, some levees of the Colorado River broke during a botched attempt at diverting water for agricultural purposes, and the resulting flood waters created the Salton Sea.

Without a natural out-flow, water could leave only through evaporation. As evaporation occurred, the water became increasingly salinated and contaminated by fertilizer and pesticides from agricultural run-off. Sitting in the middle of the sweltering desert, these conditions caused the Salton Sea to start rotting and smelling. It literally became a hot mess!

To make matters worse, severe flooding destroyed beach front properties in the mid 1970s as a result of tropical storms and above average rainfall. The resort economy was devastated, as it had no other way to sustain itself without the throngs of vacationers. And so began the exodus from the Salton Sea, leaving behind a strange wasteland.

Here you can see the remnants of a beach front bait shop and the docks at the North Shore Beach.

Salton Sea | Bait ShopLost America has amazing shots of the bizarre devastation left behind, taken over the course of 15 years (and much better than my iPhone photos!).

From a distance the salty coast has a beauty to it that belies the stench that is almost unbearable even during my mild-December visit. I can’t imagine what it would smell like in 100+ temperatures. It’s no wonder tourism began to dry up.

Salton Sea | Salty Coast

On closer inspection, the beach is a strange mix of sand, salt and dead fish parts. The combination of high salt content and contaminants cause regular die-offs of fish and birds.

Salton Sea | Fish Parts

Despite the regular die-offs, the Salton Sea is still an important stop over for millions of migratory birds each year. What a strange combination of death and life that can be seen here.

Salton Sea | Migratory Bird

(There were thousands of birds there, but I only managed to get a sort-of-close-up photo of one bird!)

Salton Sea | ApocalypseI accidentally turned on this black and white filter while taking photos and it seems to accentuate the eerie quality of the Salton Sea.

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