Our next stop in California was the Salton Sea.
Have you ever visited an area for the first time, and instantly known you’d been there before? That’s how I felt the first time we drove out this way. For whatever reason, the first time we arrived at the Salton Sea, it felt like I had come back to a familiar place. Maybe I lived there in a past life, but the Salton Sea and Joshua Tree areas of the desert have this weird feeling of home each time I visit them.
Briefly: the Salton Sea is an accidental man-made lake in the middle of the desert. It’s about an hour’s drive east of Palm Springs. In 1905, the Colorado River overflowed after some changes to irrigation in the area. The then-Salton Basin filled with water and became the Sea, which is the largest lake in California. However, over the years, it proved to be an unsustainable habitat. It remains filled mostly due to agricultural runoff from farms in the area, and the salinity levels rise every year.
Rising salt levels mean it’s less likely that fish can survive. And as the fish die and wash up onto the shore… Well. Suffice to say that on a hot day (and there are LOTS of hot days in the desert), the smell can get a little overwhelming. What was once a bustling vacation spot 50 years ago, is now a nearly-desolate area with only a few residents and even less jobs and businesses.
Why then, am I so emotionally attached to this place?? Girl, I don’t know. But I am. And so if you’re me, or you’re married to me (sorry, Husband), you have to visit the Salton Sea every once in awhile to check on it. Very few people live here: mostly just a few humans who have stuck around from the heydays in the middle of the 20th century, but also a lot of artists and people who want to be a little way away from the rest of humanity. And just past the Salton Sea, even further into the desert, is the isolated artist’s colony of Slab City. That is where our afternoon at the Salton Sea began.
There’s a whole day’s worth of art to take in at Slab City. Just past this sign is East Jesus, which has so much interesting art, mostly made from trash and junk. We didn’t have time to visit this year, but we’ve gone in the past and you could spend hours taking it all in.
Instead, we visited Salvation Mountain, another place I never tire of seeing.
Leonard Knight started building Salvation Mountain in 1984, and he worked on it until his health declined in 2012. He passed away in 2014, but his work has been taken over by other volunteers who maintain the massive sculpture in the desert.
We have visited three times now, and this year was the most crowded (the first time we went on a weekend). But even with big crowds, everyone is generally pretty nice and takes turns, so you can still get some great photos.
This side trip takes a little while if you are visiting from the Palm Springs or Joshua Tree areas (about an hour & a half from Palm Springs), but it is definitely worth it, just to see this awesome piece of art.
After visiting Salvation Mountain, we headed back west to Bombay Beach. Bombay Beach is the last area of the Salton Sea’s north coast that is still really habitable. (A side note: you do have to drive through Border Patrol between Salvation Mountain & Bombay Beach. However, it’s generally very quick, and we usually haven’t even needed to have our IDs out.)
The beach itself is not much of a scenic spot. Most of the sand is covered in fishbones from the tilapia that wash up, dead or dying, onto the shore. But the rumor is that the sunsets are still beautiful here (although we have yet to see one).
And of course, there are political statements within the art. (The Salton Sea is often a subject of proposed government grants and measures aiming at revitalizing the area, but so far, nothing has been of much help.)
This year, we got to stop at the famed Ski Inn, the last restaurant remaining in Bombay Beach. The bartender and the locals were SO NICE and welcoming. (We actually met one of the women who was featured in the John Waters documentary I linked above, and I was nerding out but afraid to ask her for a photo.)
I’m always rooting for the Salton Sea. There are theories that it will dry up completely in the coming years, which would be devastating to the wildlife. There’s a huge wild bird preserve here (one of Sonny Bono’s special projects for his beloved Salton Sea before his death). I don’t know that they will ever re-emerge as the Californian Riviera that they were for those brief years in the middle of the last century, but this part of the world still has a story left to tell. And I am certain we will be back again and again to watch it unfold.