The Salton Sea and Bombay Beach

On the south end of the Coachella Valley, there’s a sea in the middle of the desert.

It’s not a natural body of water. Well, sort of. In 1905, the Colorado River, which flows down from the Colorado Plateau and passes about 40 miles east on its way south to Mexico and ultimately the Gulf of California, began flooding. This was the days before Hoover Dam when the river ran wild and the 19th century canal barriers along the river were no match for the rising waters. Soon, those waters began spilling into the Coachella Valley and, as water does so reliably, flowed to its lowest spot (which happens to be 220+ feet below sea level).

The flooding continued for an incredible 18 months before the breach in the canal barriers was fixed. The result was a 45-mile long, 20-mile wide, body of water that became known as the Salton Sea. Technically, it’s known as an endorheic rift lake, a fancy way of saying it’s a drainage basin sitting atop a seismic fault. It is, effectively, a giant 110 year old puddle.

Southern Californians loved their new desert sea. It is indeed picturesque, rimmed as it is to the west with the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains. And being a sea in the middle of the desert, there are plenty of sand beaches, pretty much as far as the eye can see. By the 1950’s, the shores of Salton Sea were a popular weekend destination for RV camping and boating.

Now that it was a destination, nobody minded that the sea wasn’t going away quickly. It still continues to be fed by sparse rainwater and the valley’s agricultural runoff. It is a unique and delicate ecosystem, and despite its high salinity and pollution problems, fish and birds thrive here.

The Bombay Beach Resort

The Bombay Beach Resort
“Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter”


The Bombay Beach Resort

The Bombay Beach Resort
Images from Bombay Beach, California


Not unexpectedly, in 1929 a developer created a resort town to attract visitors and retirees to a spot on the Salton Sea’s eastern shores. It was given the exotic-sounding name Bombay Beach. A road plan was laid out, lots sold, and it seemed the spot to be. Until 1976, that is, when tropical rains raised the level of the Salton Sea, flooding much of Bombay Beach with salty, polluted waters, and bringing the town’s growth to an abrupt halt. What’s left today is something straight out of a post-apocalyptic movie. Amidst the boarded-up, fenced-in, derelict houses are camper homes, concrete block houses (some, admittedly, nicely kept), and empty lots given back to the desert. At night, we’re pretty certain zombies wander the streets.

Today, the Salton Sea is managed by the California State Park system as the Salton Sea State Recreation area. It still offers a number of seaside campgrounds, and the south end of the sea is designated as the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, where you can enjoy fishing and bird-watching at a safe distance from Bombay Beach’s walking dead.

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