One of the greatest things about living in Southern California is the amount of things that you can do within a couple hundred mile radius. Only having moved to San Diego about a year ago, exploring the diverse terrains and cities has made life into an adventure.

But the beautiful and popular areas of Southern California are not the only amazing places to visit. There are also plenty of areas with rich history that escape tourist scrutiny simply because they are overshadowed, or worse, tainted. That’s why Salton Sea’s bizarre and sad history was more than compelling enough to warrant the two hour drive from San Diego.

Salton Sea was once supposed to be the perfect getaway for the rich and famous of Southern California. Investments and tourists were pouring in, and buildings, homes and infrastructure were built seemingly overnight. But then it all went wrong. The people stopped coming, the businesses closed down and the entire local economy dried up soon after. Today, Salton Sea is a ghost town.

Salton Sea: A Brief History

Decomposed fish skeleton on Salton Sea beach by Jack and Gab Explore

Wondering what happened to cause this mass exodus? I’ll keep it brief.

The Salton Sea was created back in 1905, when irrigation canals from the Colorado River spilled millions of gallons of water into the Salton Trough. The end result was a body of water 45 miles long and over 80 feet deep: The Salton Sea.

Flash forward to the 1950s and 60s, Salton Sea was at its prime. Tourists flocked to this destination to relax lakeside, and a freshwater ecosystem began to thrive.

Paradise was short lived. In the 1970s, Salton Sea began to fall victim to pollution from pesticide runoff from nearby farms. The problem was worsened by the fact that Salton Sea has little to no inflow and is located in a region with minimal rainfall.

Eventually, the entire ecosystem died, leaving decomposed fish skeletons along the beach. The local economy dried up shortly thereafter.

It’s a sad example of history gone wrong.

Today, Salton Sea is mostly abandoned. It is however, the largest lake in California and one of the lowest points in the entire United States (second only to Badwater Basin).

Facts About Salton Sea

  • Salton Sea is the largest lake in the state of California. [Wikipedia]
  • The Salton Sea was created on accident, when when failed irrigation canals diverted the Colorado River into a large basin. The raging river also brought the snowmelt from the Rockies with it, forming the Salton Sea. [Atlas Obscura]
  • The median household income for residents of Salton City is $34,280, nearly half of the median household income for the state of California of $67,169. [United States Census Bureau]

Planning Your Trip to Visit Salton Sea

View of Salton Sea from the beach by Jack and Gab Explore

There’s a few important things to keep in mind when planning to visit Salton Sea. First and most importantly, October through May is the best time to visit Salton Sea. If you go during the summer, temperatures can get up to 115 degrees with direct sunlight and few bars and restaurants for refuge.

Also, remember that the lake itself is huge so you have to pick a spot that you want to visit. At over 300 square miles in size, it’s the largest lake in the entire state of California. That’s why you want to make sure you pick the right spot, so you don’t have to waste time driving around the lake to get where you want to go.

The Salton Sea State Recreation Area is on the eastern side of the lake and is a great option for people visiting Salton Sea for the first time. It has picnic tables, as well as great views of the lake and offers the option to fish for tilapia, the only fish that populates Salton Sea.

Also, Salton Sea is only a short drive from the charming town of Julian, which is famous in California for its delicious apple pie. If you’re planning a trip to Salton Sea, a stop in at Julian is a must. Here are some Fun Things To Do In Julian should you decide to go.

Our Visit to the Salton Sea

Clearly an area with a rich history, we set off on our road trip from San Diego to visit the Salton Sea. It’s a gorgeous drive, only about 2 hours with very little highway driving.

The drive first starts out on a winding road through the mountains. It’s the kind of road that makes you carsick no matter where you’re sitting, but the road straightens out quickly into long empty stretches of desert with mountains in the distance.

Driving up on a sunny Saturday morning, we were basically the only people on the road. Granted, it didn’t help that we were headed to a ghost town.

Driving Through Salton City

Beautiful desert drive through mountains to Salton Sea by Jack and Gab Explore

After a few hours of driving, we started making our way through Salton City, the town directly adjacent to Salton Sea. We had no idea what to expect when we arrived, and we decided to keep an open mind. But the ghost town that we arrived at was shocking.

The first thing that we noticed as we started driving through was the lack of people. Here we are, next to this massive body of water, and yet there’s barely a house in sight.

Driving through, there was only one stoplight that we could find in Salton City. Nearly every commercial lot we could see was devoid of buildings or businesses, with the exception of a gas station and convenience store–one of the few retail stores in town. The terrain and surrounding mountains are absolutely gorgeous, so it really highlights how sad it is that barely anyone lives in this forgotten town.

 View of deserted Salton City near Salton Sea by Jack and Gab Explore

Since we were driving in from the west, we definitely wanted to stay on the Western side to keep our drive shorter. Taking a look at Google Maps, we noticed the Anza Ditch, a small peninsula protruding out of the western side of Salton Sea, easily accessible from the main road through Salton Sea. We decided to go for it.

Map of Salton Sea by Jack and Gab Explore

Salton Sea: The sights, the sounds, and (unfortunately) the smell

A few minutes later after passing through Salton City, we were pulling up on Seaport Ave next to Salton Sea. Stepping out of the car, I couldn’t believe how quiet it was. It is one of the most vast and lonely and beautiful things I have ever experienced. It is this truly massive body of water, and its isolation is unlike anything you will ever see. It will take your breath away.

Across the water, you can just make out the sloping mountains in the distance. There are no homes or businesses or buildings visible anywhere along the water. Just sand, sea, and mountains.

The picturesque views might just be able to make you forget the lake’s history and desolation, if it weren’t for the smell. When you first arrive at the lake, the scent is more faint. A little unpleasant, but definitely bearable. Unfortunately, as you walk closer to the lake the smell gets way worse.

It’s a smell that I could only describe as comparable to rotten eggs, and apparently that’s for a reason. The scent that Salton Sea gives off is because it is actually bubbling up hydrogen sulfide, the same very same substance that gives rotten eggs their odor. The hydrogen sulfide is created because of the combination of chemical runoff in the lake and the thriving algae population. Pleasant, huh?

Walking on beach of Salton Sea by Jack and Gab Explore

As you walk across the beach, the sand starts to change in texture and substance as you get closer to the water. Eventually, it no longer even resembles sand. It is crunchy and hard and swampy, with small pieces breaking off with each step you take.

If you look closer, there is a layer of green substance laying in patches along the sand. It’s almost the color of moss, but it smells like something that’s been rotting. As you continue to approach the water, there are fish skeletons scattering the beach, many starting to dissolve into sand.

Sand on beach at Salton Sea by Jack and Gab Explore

It’s very difficult to reach the water itself, and I’m not sure you’d want to. As you get close to the water, the sand starts to break apart and dissolve. Go even further, and the water starts to seep through from underneath the sand, soaking your shoes. I know this from experience. And let me just say that shoes soaked with salty water is not what you want.

According to Salton Sea Sense, it’s actually safe to swim in the water for short periods of time. The high salinity of the water allows you to easily float and cool off from the surrounding deserts. However, they also note that the odors are not pleasant to spend extended periods of time around, not to mention that this lake has killed numerous fish.

Leaving Salton Sea and Walking back to car by Jack and Gab Explore

After about an hour of exploring on the beach of Salton Sea, the hot desert sun started to get to us and it was time to leave. We had seen what we’d come to see.

The Crisis

Currently, Salton Sea and the surrounding communities are facing a severe crisis. Salton Sea is drying up and as the water evaporates and the waterline recedes, it exposes new lake bed. This lake bed is toxic due to the chemicals from the industrial runoff that flow into the lake. As the sun inevitably dries this newly exposed toxic lake bed, it causes toxic dust to rise and descend upon the surrounding communities.

And this toxic dust is having a severe impact on the region where Salton Sea is located. There are increasing reports of asthma and other respiratory problems, and it’s only getting worse. In 2018, a new water transfer agreement was made that will reduce water flow into Salton Sea by 40%. Thousands of people’s lives are at risk, but you can help! Sign the online petition and make your voice heard.

Map showing entirety of Salton Sea by Jack and Gab Explore

Salton Sea isn’t the place to go if you’re looking for a typical Southern California getaway. No, you’re about 60 years too late for that. But it is an incredible yet harrowing piece of California history gone wrong. Be sure to visit it before it’s too late!

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Visiting Salton Sea: California's Abandoned Wasteland

What do you think: Is Salton Sea interesting enough to visit, or is it just a piece of California’s forgotten history? 

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. The salton sea is a cool place to visit and not too far from Salvation Mountain!

    1. We haven’t been to Salvation Mountain yet! It looks so cool we will have to check it out! 🙂

  2. Great piece on what it’s actually like to visit Salton Sea! Thank you for distilling all this information and adding great pictures. So sad to hear about the current crisis…I will definitely sign the petition!

  3. This is super interesting! We were in Palm Springs for a day while in CA & we could see the Sea from our hike in the mountains. Looked beautiful from there!

  4. We were in Salton City last week, having driven down from Joshua Tree, CA while on vacation in JT. I find it incredible that the author did not mention the motel in Salton City, now run by the original owners’ (Ray and Carol) grandson. We had an opportunity to speak with the grandson (Gary), now owner, who provided much insight about the area and it’s history and created a route with points of interest for our drive around the full expanse of the sea and return to Joshua Tree, via Box Canyon Dr. Love the national parks, but thanx to Gary, our visit to Salton City was by far the highlight of our vacation to CA.

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