The Salton Sea is one of those decaying places photographers love to visit. Nature is reclaiming neighborhoods that have long been abandoned, though some holdouts continue to call the Salton Sea home. The Salton Sea stinks like sulfur and rotting flesh. The barnacle shoreline is covered in petrified fish that died gasping for breath. Streets that appear on the map suddenly end in dirt and sand. Neighborhoods are ghost towns, full of gutted homes with graffitied walls and decomposing furniture.
We both used to visit the Salton Sea as kids. Rome used to go fishing for tilapia. I’d tag along with my mom and her friend who loved bird watching at the Salton Sea. You can check off hundreds of bird species from your bird watching checklist at the Salton Sea.
What we didn’t visit as kids were the Salton Sea ghost towns. Our trip to the Salton Sea was prompted by my desire to practice some night photography and capture the Milky Way over the Salton Sea at night, but as I researched Salton Sea night photography locations, I found so many odd and unusual places to visit around the Salton Sea during the day.
The Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, was an accident. In 1905, the Colorado River broke and filled up the basin of an ancient lakebed. The newly born Salton Sea seemed like a great resort possibility. Gus Eilers built a resort, Date Palm Beach, in 1927. The resort was purchased by Roy Hunter in 1947 and it became a yacht club. Resort towns popped up along the shore in the 1950s and people thought the Salton Sea was going to be the new place to see and be seen. This dream was short-lived as the Salton Sea increased in salinity and pollution from agricultural runoff and started to stink. Now the places that were going to be booming resort towns have turned into desolated ghost towns.
The first Salton Sea ghost town we visited while we circumnavigated the Salton Sea was Salton Sea Beach. Salton Sea Beach is a small neighborhood just north of Salton City and south of Desert Shores. There were no signs of life in this ghost town, except for the birds. Salton Sea Beach has dirt streets, collapsed buildings, a lot of colorful graffiti, and a surprising amount of decaying furniture sitting out in the middle of nowhere.
Just a little north of Salton Sea Beach is Desert Shores. This area is more inhabited. We found this neighborhood had some good places for night photography, especially on the beach along Capri Road.
At the North Shore is the North Shore Beach & Yacht Club. The yacht club was abandoned for a long time, but has recently been restored and is used as a community center.
Probably one of the most interesting towns along the Salton Sea is Bombay Beach. Bombay Beach will be of special interest to gamers, especially fans of the Grand Theft Auto series. We had barely pulled into Bombay Beach when Romeo started exclaiming, “This is Trevor’s place!” One of the Salton Sea’s not so great claims to fame is being a meth capital, giving it the dubious honor of being used as a model for Grand Theft Auto V’s Sandy Shores, the residence of one if its main characters, Trevor, a meth addict. What was really weird was driving through this Grand Theft Auto town while driving our friend’s Call of Duty Jeep….
There are some interesting things to see in Bombay Beach. One of our unusual finds was a shell of a house with milk cartons nailed to one of the outside walls. Each milk carton has a photo of a person, a narration, and the word missing.
Another interesting spot is the Ski Inn, self-proclaimed world famous and the lowest elevation bar in the western hemisphere. Of course, Anthony Bourdain did visit Ski Inn during season four of No Reservations, so that is quite a claim to fame.
Slab City is the opposite of a ghost town, though it is off-the-grid and somewhat less populated in the heat of summer. Slab City is famous for being the last free place in America. It used to be frequented by snowbirds looking to save money but now has a more permanent population. Slab City has no water, no electricity, and no sewer. However, Slab City does have a sculpture garden called East Jesus.
A short drive away is Salvation Mountain, a man-made tribute to God. Whether or not you’re religious, this is an interesting stop and piece of art. Salvation Mountain is a work in progress that started with one man who lived in his truck.
The hill is made of clay and straw and paint. Lots of paint. Over 100,000 gallons of paint have been used. There is also a “museum,” a domed area built with straw, tires, scavenged wood, glass, and, of course, more paint.
Slab City and Salvation Mountain are a short drive from the Salton Sea town of Niland, which has some ghost town qualities with its quiet streets and abandoned general store.
As we continued our clockwise drive around the Salton Sea, we didn’t encounter any more ghost towns. But we did find a few other spots perfect for photography. A natural and other-worldly phenomenon along the Salton Sea is the Salton Sea Mud Pots. During the cooler months, the mud pots are hot pools of water. During the heat of summer, the pools dry up, but mounds of mud still gurgle and splutter from within, making the sounds of a coffee percolator, and spewing the occasional spout of geothermal water.
Our final stop, at 3:00 in the afternoon when it had reached 116 degrees, was on the shore at the corner of Young Road and the Vail Seven Drain. The surrounding land is all farmland, a juxtaposition to the cracked dried mud and lifeless fallen tree trunks along the shore.
There aren’t many hotels close to the Salton Sea. We chose to stay in Borrego Springs, a 40-minute drive from the Salton Sea, at The Springs at Borrego RV Resort & Golf Course. The Springs has great little cottages, kind of like tiny houses, for travelers who don’t have an RV. Our cottage had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a dining area, and a loft. The cottages are dog-friendly and have air conditioning, so we left Henry and Charlie in the comfort of the cabin while we braved the 100+ degree heat.
The Springs has a pool, mineral baths, recreation center, workout room, laundry facilities, dog park, and nine-hole golf course, of which Rome took advantage in the morning before we left.
While the original plans for the Salton Sea of becoming a resort area and the next Las Vegas did not come to fruition, the Salton Sea’s ghost towns and nature make it a sought-after destination for photographers and travelers who are looking for a more unusual place to visit.