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Things to Do in Salton Sea, the Largest Lake in California

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The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California, and its origins are astonishing. Accidentally created in 1905 due to the breach of a drainage canal, it has gone from being one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations to an almost abandoned place that poses serious ecological risks to the entire surrounding area.

The surroundings of the Salton Sea, if visited with some precautions, still offer very interesting landscapes and a truly unique atmosphere that will especially captivate those passionate about photography and those who love unusual places.

Salton Sea History

Salton Sea history

How, then, did a tourist paradise turn into a toxic and mostly abandoned land? First of all, it must be noted that the Imperial Valley area where the lake now exists was known to be particularly fertile, although the lack of a nearby water source prevented the full exploitation of the area.

In the early 1900s, efforts were made to find an efficient way to irrigate the Imperial Valley using water diverted from the Colorado River through the construction of canals. In 1905, due to heavier rainfall, the flow of the Colorado River significantly increased, and one of these canals suffered a breach, leading to an uncontrolled flooding of the valley until 1907. The river water thus poured in large quantities into the basin located in the Colorado desert, creating the Salton Sea. In other words, the lake was “created” due to human error.

During this period, the lake’s popularity began to grow thanks to the presence of numerous fish species within it, attracting enthusiasts from all parts of the state, as well as a remarkable variety of migratory birds drawn by the availability of food. However, the real tourist boom occurred in the 1960s when the lake was considered a kind of “oasis” in the desert and managed to attract an increasing number of tourists drawn by the favorable climate, its beaches, and the recreational opportunities provided by the calm waters of the lake.

Over the years, a whole series of luxury hotels, resorts, campsites, and attractions were created to accommodate and entertain the increasing number of tourists who flocked here every year. At the height of its popularity, the Salton Sea even attracted more tourists than Yosemite National Park.

Many Hollywood celebrities couldn’t resist the allure of the Salton Sea either; some of its most famous guests included Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, and even the American President Dwight Eisenhower.

However, the golden age of the Salton Sea came to an abrupt end towards the late 1970s when a series of strong storms rapidly raised the water level, causing flooding of many activities built along the lake’s shores. In particular, Hurricane Kathleen completely submerged Bombay Beach, leading to a rapid and drastic reduction in tourism.

The final blow to the area, though, came from the very characteristics that had led to the formation of the Salton Sea. We need to return for a moment to the lake’s origins, when its name was chosen due to the high concentration of mineral salts present in its waters.

This uniqueness was due to several factors. The main one was that much of the water in the Salton Sea comes from surrounding irrigation canals. The water that passes through agricultural lands along its path absorbs many mineral salts dissolved from the soil. Additionally, unlike many other lakes that have an outlet, there are no waterways contributing to draining the lake. The water entering the Salton Sea remains somewhat trapped (also because we are 233 feet below sea level) and, due to natural evaporation that is particularly pronounced in a desert region like the Imperial Valley, and the limited influx of fresh water, the concentration of mineral salts has steadily increased.

To give you an idea of the salinity level, in 2020 it reached twice that of the Pacific Ocean.

You can understand how over time this area became increasingly inhospitable, also due to the high levels of pollution in the lake exacerbated by the inflow of chemicals used in agriculture and wastewater from surrounding communities.

In recent decades, multiple efforts have been made to address the environmental issues of the Salton Sea, with the latest being the Salton Sea Management Program.

How to Get There

The endorheic basin of the Salton Sea is located in the Imperial Valley in Southern California, along the course of the San Andreas Fault. The roads that border its two ends are California State Route 86 and 111.

Here are the distances and travel times to reach the Visitor Center of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area from the main cities in the area:

  • From Los Angeles (about 155 miles): a little over two and a half hours
  • From Palm Springs (about 48 miles): about an hour
  • From San Diego (about 149 miles): about three hours

Things to Do in Salton Sea

things to do in salton sea california

Visiting the Salton Sea area can be interesting for those who want to discover the allure of a decaying and nearly entirely abandoned region with a very unique history.

There are some recommendations to keep in mind, most of which are just common sense: the first and foremost is, of course, not to swim in the Salton Sea. If you’ve read the previous paragraph dedicated to the lake’s formation history, you’ll understand why.

If you venture along the beach (especially in Bombay Beach), be cautious about where you step; it’s not uncommon to find rusty material that could cause injuries, so it’s better to wear closed-toe shoes.

Speaking of the beach, it’s important to note that you’ll be walking on the skeletal remains of fish, birds, and other animals (which also contributes to less-than-pleasant odors in some areas), so it’s best to avoid touching them with your bare hands. Furthermore, the closer you get to the lake’s waters, the muddier the terrain will be, and you might get dirty with mud that’s better left out of your car.

International Banana Museum

Salton sea california

Let’s start with a Guinness World Record attraction, the International Banana Museum. Everything here revolves around the well-known yellow fruit, from the decor to the massive collection of various objects.

Inside the museum, you can observe over 20,000 pieces, including toys, advertising posters, kitchen utensils, t-shirts, artworks, plush toys, and much more, all centered around the banana. It’s precisely for this reason that it’s entered the Guinness World Record as the largest museum dedicated to a single fruit.

Undoubtedly, it’s an unusual and fun place to visit, especially for those seeking something unique and eccentric to see and share. Just so you know, the only petrified banana in the world is displayed here.

The museum’s hours vary, so I recommend checking the official website.

Note: Since 2020, this museum has been closed, and it’s still uncertain if it will reopen in the future.

Salton Sea State Recreation Area

salton sea state recreation area

This is the Visitor Center of the area, and it’s a recommended stop for those who want to delve into the history of the Salton Sea, including through a documentary that is screened inside. You can also find a gift shop here.

In the area, there are picnic tables if you wish to stop for an outdoor meal, but it’s best to bring your own food since there are no food vendors available. Once you’ve parked your car in the ample parking lot, you can take a stroll and approach the lake’s shore.

Bombay Beach

Bombay Beach California

This was once one of the most well-known beach resorts in the area. Now, it’s an almost entirely abandoned town that has, however, managed to reinvent itself. Its coastline has become an open-air museum featuring various artistic installations, much like what happens in the nearby East Jesus area with Salvation Mountain.

In fact, this is where the Bombay Beach Biennale takes place, an unconventional artistic event that combines art, music, performances, and installations in a unique and unusual setting like this.

The idea originated from a group of artists in 2015 with the aim of transforming a post-apocalyptic place like Bombay Beach into a source of inspiration and renewal through art. During the event, which starts on January 1st of each year, various artists transform abandoned buildings, ruins, and the surrounding environment into interactive and undoubtedly captivating works of art.

You can find more information on the official event website.

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In this town, you can also enjoy a great hamburger at the Ski Inn, which boasts of being the restaurant located at the lowest elevation in the entire Western Hemisphere. Here, we’re actually 223 feet below sea level. As you walk in, you’ll notice the most striking visual feature: the entire interior is covered with one-dollar bills, somewhat reminiscent of the restaurant in the Oatman Hotel.

Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge

Salton Sea National Wildlife Refugee

This is a nature reserve primarily suited for birdwatching enthusiasts. It’s named after Sonny Bono, an actor, singer, and politician (he also served as the mayor of Palm Springs) who played a significant role in the conservation of the Salton Sea.

Established in 1930, this wildlife sanctuary aims to protect the local wildlife species and migratory birds, as it serves as a vital resting point along the Pacific Flyway, one of the major bird migration routes along the western coast of North America.

Here, you’ll find trails and elevated observation points that allow you to enjoy the natural beauty of the reserve and spot birds and other wildlife. Among the various options, I particularly recommend the Rock Hill Trail—a walk of just over 2 miles that takes you to the top of a rocky promontory, offering panoramic views of the surrounding area.

Salton Sea Mud Pots

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The Mud Pots of the Salton Sea are among the most curious geological features found in this area. They are actual pools of boiling mud caused by underlying geothermal activity.

These pools can vary in shape, size, and consistency, with some resembling craters or cones of mud (the latter can also be seen from a distance along the roadside). In the area, you might also hear the distinct gurgling sound, which results from the release of gases to the surface.

You can find them in an open field near a power plant that’s situated at the crossroads of two dirt roads: Davis Rd and Schrimpf Rd, about 6 miles from the town of Niland.

Given the very nature of the phenomenon that led to the formation of these Mud Pots, please maintain a safe distance. Make sure the ground you’re stepping on is secure, and avoid lingering longer than necessary.

Desert Shores and Salton Sea Beach

Salton Sea Beach

They are the counterparts of Bombay Beach on the western shore. Unlike their counterpart, these towns are more populated and less abandoned, although the area still features a series of deteriorated buildings that recall the golden age of the Salton Sea.

Apart from walking along the shoreline, there aren’t many other things to do in these towns.

The Salton Sea in Popular Culture

Given the saga that the Salton Sea has been a part of, it’s not surprising that it has had a significant influence on popular culture. Indeed, numerous films, books, and even video games have been set in this area. Let’s take a look at the main ones.

In 2002, a film titled “The Salton Sea” was produced, starring Val Kilmer. Directed by D.J. Caruso, the movie tells the story of a man caught up in a drug network in the Salton Sea region.

On the musical side, it’s worth noting that Michael Jackson filmed the music video for his song “In the Closet” (featuring Naomi Campbell) right on the shores of the Salton Sea.

However, perhaps the most significant contribution to pop culture came from the video game “Grand Theft Auto V.” The Alamo Sea in the game is inspired by the Salton Sea, while the town of Sandy Shores, where the co-protagonist Trevor Philips resides, is partly based on Bombay Beach.

Nearby Attractions

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In the immediate vicinity of the Salton Sea, there are many attractions, parks, and towns worth visiting; here’s a list of the main ones.

  • Salvation Mountain, Slab City, and East Jesus: Staying in the theme of quirky and curious activities, how can we not mention the picturesque Salvation Mountain, made immortal by the film “Into the Wild”? Slab City is an anarchic community (often referred to as the only city in America without laws) located nearby, where many people live in trailers and abandoned mobile homes. On the other hand, East Jesus is an artistic area with creative installations and eclectic artworks.
  • Anza-Borrego Desert State Park: This is the largest state park in the United States, offering spectacular desert landscapes and often referred to as the “other Death Valley.” For more information, read our article about the things to do in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Also in this area, don’t miss the sculptures at Galleta Meadows.
  • Painted Canyon: A stunning canyon near the town of Mecca characterized by fascinating rock formations displaying layers of different colors.
  • Palm Springs: A renowned desert resort city in California, famous for its resorts, golf courses, hot springs, and adobe architecture.
  • Dos Palmas Preserve: A BLM-managed oasis hosting hundreds of fan palms, providing a unique sight for those who decide to visit.
  • General Patton Memorial Museum: a museum dedicated to the life and career of General George S. Patton Jr., one of the most famous American generals of World War II. Inside, it features displays of military vehicles, uniforms, weapons, and historical memorabilia related to Patton and his troops.

Places to Stay Near the Lake

We do not recommend staying overnight on the shores of the Salton Sea. Firstly, it’s not the healthiest place due to environmental factors. Secondly, aside from a few campgrounds, there aren’t many accommodations to choose from, and the quality is subpar.

Based on your itinerary, we suggest looking for lodging either in the Palm Springs area or near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. You can find specific recommendations by reading our articles.

In any case, if you want to explore all the accommodation options available in the area, you can click on the link below.

Places to stay near the lake

Our Tip:
Looking for accommodations for your trip from California to other parts of the Southwest? Read our guide that contains reviews of hotels and strategic tips for finding accommodations near major attractions: Where to Stay: Our Tips for the SouthWest Area

Warning: Operating hours can change and closures for extraordinary events can occur, so we strongly suggest to check the venues official websites.

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Filippo Nardelli

I have a degree in History of North America and have always been fascinated by the United States.

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