Once a celebrity haven east of L.A., the Salton Sea now attracts tourists interested in the macabre.
Ruins are often thought of as ancient crumbling facades in faraway places—i.e. not Southern California. But just as people have ventured to the Golden State in search of sunshine, stardom, and starting over, so too did those hoping to create an inland beach town worthy of Los Angeles' elite. Setting their sites on the Salton Sea, a manmade lake about two and a half hours east of L.A., ambitious developers and excited vacationers filled the area with hotels, restaurants, and condos, only to watch their oasis crumble when nature intervened.
A booming tourist attraction in the 1950s and 1960s, the Salton Sea today looks more like the set of a post-apocalyptic film starring Mel Gibson. Scattered with weathered RVs, boarded-up motels, rusting construction equipment, and cracked empty pools, the area provides both a glimpse into the recent past and a reminder of colossal human error.
Formed in 1905 by engineers trying to reroute the Colorado River for irrigation canals, the Salton Sea was created when the water unexpectedly overflowed, flooding a historically dry lake bed and forming the largest lake in the state. Though the area was a popular destination among fishermen and outdoors enthusiasts during the next few decades, it wasn't until the 1950s that it sparked the interest of developers looking to create the next Lake Tahoe or Palm Springs.
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Hotels, boating communities, restaurants, and private clubs all seemingly popped up overnight, drawing in some of the biggest celebrities at the time, like Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, and Sony Bono. (Bono later set out to restore the area when he was elected to the House of Representatives.) But the Salton Sea’s heyday was short-lived.
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With no natural aquifers, the lake’s rising salt levels combined with pesticide and fertilizer runoff from surrounding land to create an ecological nightmare, killing thousands of fish and birds at a time. By the 1970s, the smell alone was intolerable. The crowds and glitterati abandoned the beach town, leaving behind only a hint of its golden years.
Today many of the yacht clubs and restaurants that once served the likes of Guy Lombardo and the Beach Boys are mostly underwater. The white beaches are still white, but the shores are made up of pulverized fish bones instead of sand. The seemingly blue lake is actually a murky brown when examined up close.
The 115-degree temperatures and accompanying rotten smell keeps most people away, but even though the area is unequivocally—and very literally—dead, a new crop of tourists has recently been drawn to the area, seeking beauty in these modern ruins.
"There's not exactly a lot to do," says photographer Dan Krauss. "But there's so much to see." The former oasis is surrounded by a stunning mountainscape, and is often illuminated by a large harvest moon at night. "It's absolutely mesmerizing," says Krauss. "The draw is probably the sheer insanity of it all. It's just a wasteland. A shattered travel destination."
The rotting vacation town is also a hotbed for political battles. As it dries out, the exposed lake bottom becomes a source of toxic dust that contributes to air pollution. The dead fish and decaying algae stench from the area at times reaches as far as Los Angeles and is reportedly affecting Coachella Valley's tourism economy. Various plans have been discussed as to what should be done with the briny remains of the lake and the surrounding land, but action has yet to be taken. "It's a small example of the impact that human error can have in nature," says Krauss. "And yet we still don't seem to do much to fix it."
While a solution is battled out on a local and state level, photographers, campers, filmmakers, artists, and curious road trippers alike still head out to the Salton Sea to see this strange and desolate landscape up close. The lake lies only an hour from Palm Springs and 30 minutes from Coachella, making it a possible destination for an easy day trip or an adventurous overnight. "A group of us got there at night and it was almost a full moon," says Cristina Costa, a teacher who recently visited the area. "It was really incredible how the water looked black and the sand looked white. It just looked like death."
Located on the northeastern side of the sea, the Salton Sea State Recreation Area offers hunting, fishing (if you dare), swimming (again, if you dare), and camping to visitors. "I had a great time there with some good people," says California-based photographer Michael Mullady of his one-time adventure. "We camped out, had a bit of whisky, and pretty much took photos the whole time. We walked the shoreline and explored some abandoned homes. It was overall a good time despite the horrible smell."
Only a handful of residents still reside on the lake's shores in the dilapidated town of Bombay Beach. Niland, the closest true town, is about 30 miles away and is the site of an art installation called Salvation Mountain. Made by Leonard Knight, the colorfully painted adobe and straw structure displays murals and bible verses and draws a consistent arty crowd. Visitors can even climb to the cross on the top by following a painted yellow brick road. "It's all very surreal," adds Mullady. "The weirdness of it all was the draw for me."
And if it’s art you crave, nearby East Jesus is an experimental community that’s home to an ever-evolving collection of art installations. But the area comes with a foreboding warning. "By visiting East Jesus, you do so at your own risk and assume all liability for any property damage, injury, illness, or death that occurs," reads the community’s website.
Both eerie and beautiful, the Salton Sea is inarguably unique. "It seems like you can do anything you want there and not be bothered," says Krauss. "Unrestricted freedom. You probably won't see anything else like it."