The Salton Sea is a weird, wonderfully beautiful place located in Southern California, about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs. The inland sea (also considered to be California’s largest lake) is huge, about 15 miles wide by 35 miles long with over 100 miles of shoreline. Now largely forgotten, a pending environmental disaster and past its prime as a recreation area, it’s still a beautiful and wonderful place to visit.
While the area is a huge natural depression (the Salton Sink) that millions of years ago was a part of the Gulf of California, the Salton Sea as it exists today was caused by man. The sea was formed in 1905 when a nearby Colorado River-fed irrigation canal failed. Over a few months, a massive amount of water leaked out of the canal and settled in the natural depression in the earth that existed there. Once the canal was repaired, the sea remained and has been there ever since, fed by a few small rivers and irrigation run-off. Unlike most lakes, there is no outflow, no rivers flow from the sea and it does not empty into the ocean. Whatever flows in, stays there.
Over the years, this man-made thing has become a very important ecological site, especially for bird migration. It’s a key stop on the North-South America migration route for many species of birds. During World War II, the area was part of the army’s desert training center and bomber pilots used the sea for target practice. There was a naval base located at the sea and the area was used to prepare pilots to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. Some of the original bombing targets, white wooden structures in the middle of the sea, remain today.
The Fun Years
In the 1950s and 60s the Salton Sea and several locations on its shoreline (like Bombay Beach) became recreation areas. Entire neighborhoods of vacation homes were built, along with shops, nightclubs, marinas and yacht clubs. Famous celebrities like Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack stayed, performed and played at the Salton Sea.
The Salton Sea was a popular watersports and aquatic recreation area. There was boating, water skiing and other watersports. Also in the 50s and 60s the sea became a very important stop on the jet boat race circuit, helped by its normally mirror smooth, windless, waveless surface. It was also a popular sportfishing destination with seasonal stocking of several varieties of fish. Families would come with their boat and spend time on the water and the area became the aquatic counterpart to nearby Palm Springs.
The Sea Today
Now largely abandoned, the sea is still an amazing place to explore and visit. In the 1970s, water levels began to drop, due to less use of river water for irrigation, the only source for the sea. The desert doesn’t see enough rain and the sea was dependent on the constant in-flow of water. When salinity levels rose, fish and wildlife died off and people stopped coming.
After years of diverting the various inflow sources, the sea has been shrinking and the depth is decreasing. These changes have also boosted the salinity of the sea to a point where most fish cannot survive. In fact, the Salton Sea now has only one species of fish, the desert pupfish.
The biggest environmental disaster is the toxic, micro-fine dust is created when the water evaporates, exposing the sea floor. The mud on the sea floor is filled with toxic chemicals and metals, as a result of years of pesticide and fertilizer-filled run-off from agriculture. This micro-fine dust is then blown in the air and wind, causing health problems for local residents. This dust now pollutes the entire Coachella Valley and spreads out to also effect more and more of Southern California.
Visiting the Salton Sea
The sea is an easy 45 minute drive from Palm Springs or a three-hour-drive from LA. The Salton Sea State Recreation Area is a good place to visit, it offers hunting, fishing, boating and camping along its 11 mile length of coastline. There are a few small motels in the area and many more in the city of Coachella and Indio, about 15 minutes away.
The area’s stark natural beauty is great for photography and I drove the 2021 BMW M5 Competition out to the sea to do a photo shoot. The car, in Voodoo Blue, looked amazing in contrast with the completely deserted beach area.
Read more of Freddy Sherman’s take on travel on his Go World Travel Blog. You can also follow more of his adventures at luxuryfred.com, on his @luxuryfred Instagram feed and on his popular YouTube channel.