The Salton Sea is a strange place

January 29, 2007

My friend Patrick & I took a one day road trip to the Salton Sea this past weekend.  Since I’m not a good photographer I made up for it by taking about 100 photos, all of which are in a flickr photoset that documents the trip.  Each photo is named & captioned, and they’re in the order of the journey, so it gives a bit of a feel for the sights, but honestly there’s no substitute for being there.  I saw so many things that absolutely didn’t make sense I literally broke my “normal” barometer, to the point where it took about 24 hours back in society before I really felt grounded again.

The Salton Sea is a giant salt basin that filled up with water due to break in a levee on the Colorado river back in 1905 that took two years to dam up.  The end result was a gigantic freshwater lake (literally, once you discount the great lakes, the Salton Sea is the 2nd biggest lake in America in surface area, just behind the Great Salt Lake in Utah) 40 miles long & 25 miles wide. 

As Los Angeles grew in population, specifically the post WWII boom, this accident of nature became Southern California’s version of Lake Tahoe, with an entire industry servicing the sportsfishermen & watersports enthusiasts who flocked to the lake in droves.  Unfortunately, like most things that don’t occur naturally, the lake had some issues.  There’s no proper circulation of new water replacing old, so what water that does flow in from farm irrigation, etc, arrives with a reasonable measure of salinity & a reasonable measure of toxicity (pesticides, etc).  What water that exits does so via evaporation, which takes the liquid, but none of the salt or poison.  So every year the water that remains gets saltier, and more toxic.

In the mid 1970s, things went south, and by the 1990s the whole area was largely abandoned.  A series of fishkills had lined the beaches with tens of thousands of dead fish, even as the government restocked with hardier species like tilapia.  Eventually the entire area became predominantly known for being a haven for societal outcasts, methamphetamine makers & users, and the very poor.

I won’t go into too much detail – if you want the entire travelogue, the Flickr set is the best place to get it, since a picture’s worth a thousand words, there’s just over 93,000 words worth of description contained within.  However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to list the 5 most interesting things I saw on my trip to the Salton Sea.

5. Wild dogs.  In West L.A., if you see a dog roaming the street with no owner, quite frequently people will stop, check for tags, see if there’s something they can do to help the pup.  On our way to the Salton Sea, once we passed Palm Springs we entered a downward spiral of less & less mainstream society with each mile & an increasing amount of freedom, most directly represented by the dogs.  We passed a few live wild dogs by the side of the road before we came upon the first corpse of one in the middle of the road.  But the highlight was when we drove by a dog eating the corpse of another dog in a ditch.

4. Bombay Beach.  A six block by 8 block group of homes in the Eastern shore of the Salton Sea, the occupancy rate is currently between 30% to at most 50% of the buildings.  A resort town that no longer has (nor ever will again) a tourist trade, the town is an even mix of fixed homes & trailers, with maybe two active businesses in town – one restaurant & one market.  The nearest gas station is 20 miles away so what few residents we saw out of their homes were driving golf carts.  The abandoned homes are left to rot all around the few remaining occupied ones.  Somehow water, power & other services still seem to be in place, even as the town sinks into a post apocalyptic miasma.  Several streets had one occupied trailer surrounded with burned out, rotting or otherwise derelict abandoned properties on all sides.  In the mid 1990s, the Southern half of the town flooded away as the Salton Sea breached its banks.  Since then, the town has constructed a ten foot high sea wall, obscuring any view of the cursed lake that gave birth & a reason to exist to the town in the first place.  And yet the survivors continue to remain, despite the complete absence of any chance of a turnaround.

3. Slab City.  Several hundred people spontaneously built a city on desert land that was owned by the government, and continued to occupy it for decades despite the absence of any services that are taken for granted in civilization, such as water, power, gas, sewage, garbage, phone, postal or governmental authority.  Since the marine base outside of Niland California closed up shop just after WWII & left behind only the concrete slabs that the quonset huts were built on, Slab City has continued on in a smaller version of Burning Man’s Black Rock City.  Despite the absence of any fixed structures at all, there are three nightclubs in Slab City, including a singles bar.  Also, there’s a stage for live weekly rock & roll shows.  The seats in front of the stage are a Frankensteinian mixture of lazy boys, airline chairs, school workdesks, park benches & anything else with back support, all stolen from the local trash dump about four miles down the road.  I imagine a live action re-enactment of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery is how major ballot initiatives get decided in town.

2. Salvation Mountain.  A mountain made from bales of hay & mud, located in the middle of nowhere, built between 1984 & now (still under construction).  The man behind the mountain is Leonard Knight, a veteran of the Korean War who fell into religious fervor & built a monument to Christ in the Southwestern desert.  The mountain is painted with a thousand different bright New Testament messages, but it’s the museum that’s most compelling.  The museum is a second mountain, built adjacent to the first, again out of bales of hay & mud, and supported by a forest of artificial trees that Leonard, now 75 years old built from telephone poles that he lashed together & driftwood lumber that he drilled to the poles using rebar.  All done by one man, all done with no power tools, all done under extreme desert heat without running water, all done non-stop every day for over 20 years, it’s the most impressive & unbelievable sight I’ve ever seen.  Here’s a great shot Patrick took of me sitting in one of the unfinished rooms of the museum.  You can see a tree in mid construction – when it’s done, the roof will be added and more paint will be applied.

1. Jesus Dinosaurs.  The Cabazon Dinosaurs give Salvation Mountain a brief run for their money in terms of one man’s lunatic devotion to a project.  A Brontosaurus & a T-Rex sit by the side of the 10 Freeway in Cabazon, just outside of Palm Springs.  For years, they sat abandoned after the original creator passed away, until recently, when they were purchased by an evolution denier who uses them to push his message that Adam & Eve were chased by dinosaurs around the garden of eden.  Inside the belly of the giant brontosaurus, what used to be a restaurant is now a gift shop & museum dedicated to proving how the fossil record is being misinterpreted and that dinosaurs & humans coexisted for quite some time.  There’s even a tableau of medieval knights fighting the dinosaurs, which is such an awesome idea I wished it was true, rather than just a crazy desert jesus-freak’s wild justification of fossils.


  1. This is really incredible!! Thx for sharing.

  2. Whoa. I’m glad you made it back alive. That’s some seriously freaky shit.

    Best. Entry. Ever.

  3. Single RV’ers!? Is parking lot sex socially acceptable when it’s in an RV?

  4. Are those the same dinosaurs from the movie where the kid is a Nintendo wizard but cannot communicate with anyone?

  5. I think so – I believe they were in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure & the video for Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” also.

  6. Amazing.
    The Flickr set blew my mind.

  7. That could be the most depressing fucking place I’ve ever seen. Wow.

  8. i wanna go!

  9. I’ve actually purchased some funny gifts inside the dinosaurs.

    It’s always a little weird being inside the belly of a dinosaur. But well worth it.

  10. I just took a look at your photos, and yes, I would concur that it is a strange place

  11. What a strange place out there in the middle of the desert. I drove through there a few years ago after leaving Palm Desert. It’s story is fascinating.

    Nice blog article and photos. They capture the mood of that area well.

  12. […] while surfing through WordPress blog listings, I came across this rather interesting blog called The Salton Sea is a Strange Place. In addition to the article, this blogger has posted a good many rather interesting photos about […]

  13. It True! the Salton Sea is bizare. Its like the entire town is an exploding sewer. I had the pleasue of visting on a recent vaction. The place is rooten beyond belief.

  14. […] Read it in full on JonsonBlog […]

  15. Great job on the pix, JR–fascinating place.

    Some elements of this are what I imagine New Orleans looks like now. Love to hear how this place got on your ‘must visit’ list (and how your wife let you go!).

    I’ve only ever seen the place at night on my late-night crank runs, so i appreciate the daylight context you’ve provided 😉


  16. Years ago, I read about Slab City and the Death of the Lake thinking I would never want to go there. (Lived in San Diego 1982-92) Thinking it was just Hard Luck folks the age I am now. But living on a lake, I’ve grown curious about it and want to row into the weirdness to see what is there. Yours is the first account that gave me any clues. My Santa Fe Friends would say “Truth or Consequences, you don’t want buy property there. It’s all trailers and crystal meth.” But we loved the lake and artists loved the storefronts and filled them full of galleries, books stores and a good coffee shop, the owner from L.A. I think we have to go see Salton Sea for ourselves. Thanks for the great account.

  17. I love your write up pictures of the Salton Sea. It’s a place that I’ve been fascinated with from the moment I heard of it. I’d love to visit there some day.
    Is there any type of law enforcement presence at all? Surely this area is under some agency’s jurisdiction. What an eerie, beautiful and strange place.
    Thanks for sharing!

  18. I have visited there to go fishing but it looked like they were fencing in the canal when they put concrete down.

    Did they?

  19. Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea

    A present day portrait about several eccentric communities that surround the Salton Sea in southern California, the film covers the history and environmental issues connected to the sea. A little off-beat, funny, and maybe even strange, the filmmakers investigate the subjective notion of success and failure, amidst the backdrop of the American Dream.

    At each screening, the audience can fill out postcards in the memory of Sonny Bono, late entertainer and former congressman, who had championed the Salton Sea. There is a national wildlife refuge dedicated to Sonny Bono at the Salton Sea. The cards will be addressed to the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and encourage the delay of some of the currently scheduled water transfers. It’s a little tongue in cheek, but then it will also address an issue that is affecting all of the USA.

    For more information, feel free to e-mail Co-Director Chris Metzler at cametzler@gmail.com or call (415) 771-9987.

    Thanks for any help you can offer in spreading the word about the film.

    ***** begin press release *****

    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – http://www.saltonseadoc.com


    Fri: 5:45pm, 7:45pm, and 9:45pm

    Sat-Sun: 1:45pm, 3:45pm, 5:45pm, 7:45pm, and 9:45pm

    Mon-Thurs: 5:45pm and 7:45pm

    Laemmle’s Grande 4-Plex

    345 S. Figueroa St.

    Downtown Los Angeles

    (213) 617-0268



    Directed by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer Narrated by John Waters Music by Friends of Dean Martinez

    contact: metzler@rocketmail.com

    “Weird and wonderful.” – The New Times

    “A heartbreaking, sidesplitting parade of humanity.” – Village Voice

    “Historically thorough and thoroughly hysterical.” – L.A. Weekly

    “An interesting, disturbing, and humorous look at environmental disaster.”

    – The Berkeley Daily Planet

    “A hilarious and kindly ode to a fallen paradise.” – SF Weekly

    “Four stars! Offering you a vacation like you’ve never had before… in this charming, yet sad documentary.” – Film Threat

    Fabulously offbeat and refreshingly upbeat, this lovable film gets friendly with the natives of the Salton Sea‹an inland ocean of massive fish kills, rotting resorts, and 120 degree nights located just minutes from urban Southern California. This award-winning film from directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer details the rise and fall of the Salton Sea, from its heyday as the “California Riviera” where boaters and Beach Boys mingled in paradise to the present state of decaying, forgotten ecological disaster.

    From wonderland to wasteland, PLAGUES & PLEASURES ON THE SALTON SEA captures a place far more interesting than the shopping malls and parking lots of suburban America, a wacky world where a beer-swilling Hungarian Revolutionary, a geriatric nudist, and a religious zealot building a monument to God all find solace and community.

    Crisply and hilariously narrated by oddball auteur John Waters, and featuring music by desert lounge rockers Friends of Deans Martinez, PLAGUES & PLEASURES ON THE SALTON SEA melds high camp with stark realism, offering both a sobering message about the consequences of tampering with nature and a heart-warming tale of individualism.

  20. Great synopsis of the Salton Sea……..I know the Sea well and know of it’s history. I have also lived here a little over a year and have done my own exploring.

    Everything you say is true about the Sea but I would like to add a few other “attractions” of the Sea.

    The Chocolate Mountain gunnery range comes to mind and their military plane maneuvers and their midnight flares in the sky.

    The thousands of snowbirds who “flock” to the Sea every year.

    The date palms, orange groves, and grape vines that are nearby.

    The nation’s largest state park (Anza Borrego State Park) is 5 or so miles away.

    The Travertine Grill off of 86S has some really great food. (In Salton City.)

    You forgot to mention that we are well below sea level and that it gets extremely hot for months every summer.

    Again, I enjoyed the words you wrote about this strange place. I agree—but I actually like it. I woun’t be here forever but it’s a nice change of pace.

  21. Hello! Just wanted to tell you what a great little blog you have here! I was just looking up what Travertine meant when I stumbled upon your blog. I’ve driving by and around the Salton Sea hundreds of time but never explored, maybe due to fear since I could see the desolation from the 111 and just never wanted to stop.

    But after reading this, it may just be something I do one of these days to learn some of California’s history – and blatant curiosity. Also, I saw a documentary of Slab City and the Mountain on the Huel Howser (sp?) show “California’s Gold” that’s on PBS and thought how weird it was that I’d been by so many times and never knew existed. Thanks again for sharing!

  22. PS. LOVED the Flicker slideshow! Was very interesting to me that I read and looked at all of them.

  23. I used to live at Slab City when I was a homeless rodeo clown but not anymore. Now I am a world class magician !

  24. i used to live in niland and i loved it i was also a slaber baby and thats what we call babies rasied in the slabs i moved to arkansas and i’m telling what i would love to move back beacuse it is f**king cool and i met my husband there !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  25. hello

  26. What’s the chances of meeting single females looking to couple up at Slab City?

  27. …um… via this blog? poor.

  28. i am SOOOOOOOOOOO going, i live about 60 miles from the playa!(burningman) i walways wanted a year round place. i think its been developed in slab city. game over im quitting my job!!

  29. nice posts. great to hear that california is still a haven for weird wild wacky freedom lovers.

  30. […] Metafilter, this fascinating Flickr set of a road trip to Salton Sea, a 60s resort destination in Southern California where holiday and watersports […]

  31. Thanks for posting this. I’m doing a 1-day road trip through the Salton Sea as well, and this was pretty much the most useful information I’ve found to planning the trip.

  32. at one time this was a beautiful place full of people who one time loved it like sonny bono and many others what ruined this place was the politicians

  33. Great expose of the Salton Sea. I Always wanted to see ever since I heard about it as a kid in the 60s. Your article and photos saved me a trip since it’s a dying desert city which I’ve seen many of.
    It’s a shame they never could divert a small portion of the Colorado river in for fresh water to keep the sea viable. Clear Lake in Nor Cal. has the same problem, massive algae.
    Nice work, Thanks for posting it…………….Paul

  34. dont talk shit niqqa salton sea is badass n unique n no it aint juss 4 tweakers u wouldent kno tht cuz you a judging mothafucka

  35. shoot, I wish I would have found your blog BEFORE I went – I just sort of headed there (expecting that most of the buildings would be cleaned up/gone by now…) but, wow, most of it is still there rotting in the sun! I just sort of drove around the lake aimlessly, but I’d recommend people planning more/following the above. here’s my review and photos from my trip…http://glad.is/article/buddha-and-the-salton-sea-impermanence/

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