Salton Sea, California – If Hollywood is California’s toothy, beaming white smile, the Salton Sea is its hidden third nipple.
Nearly three hours southeast of the Magic Kingdom by car, the largest lake in California is perhaps the least-known of the state’s many attractions – abandoned, decaying and undeniably fascinating.
Over 100 years ago, eager engineers dug irrigation channels from the Colorado River into California’s barren desert. In 1905, when the river flooded, the canals were all but destroyed by the sheer force of the water. By the time repairs were made, what was previously an empty sinkhole (itself a lake centuries before) emerged as a new body of water with no outflow. In perhaps more ways than one, the Salton Sea is terminal.
For several decades beginning in the 1930s, game fish were gradually introduced into the sea, with varying results. It became a new travel destination for Californians, largely because of its bird life, wide open waters and emerging resort culture.
By 1960, beach and yachting clubs had sprung up, even a golf course, along with small support communities along the sea’s coastline.
Tourism thrived for a short time as urbanites craving a getaway visited. At its busiest, the Salton Sea was more popular than Yosemite National Park and attracted celebrities of the day.
Sometime in the mid-70s, though, things began to change. Environmental problems caused flooding, while increased salinity began to take a slow but massive toll on local wildlife.
By the early 80s, most of the Salton Sea’s vacation communities were all but abandoned. During the 90s, the few surviving species of fish began to mysteriously die off – by the thousands each day. Birds, which fed off the rotting carcasses, soon followed.
What remains today is a lake 24 kilometers wide and 56 long, surrounded by a scattering of deserted motels and bruised vacation homes. If you explore long enough, you’ll pass a staircase that leads to nowhere and an empty, rusted playground that reminds you of that dream sequence from Terminator 2. (Keep shaking that fence, Sarah – the kids ain’t coming back).
In the middle of all this, you’ll find Salvation Mountain, a bright neon beacon of religious extremism created by outsider artist Leonard Knight, a resident of the small local RV squat called Slab City.
Knight has painted and carved giant Bible verses into a desert hill, and for a small donation (or free if you can sneak in while he’s out buying canned carrots or whatever), you can climb through a remarkably colourful piece of folk art. Salvation Mountain must be seen to be believed.
Clearly, the area is a horror movie waiting to happen. Driving that far into the desert, surrounded by the abandoned and forgotten, you feel as though the zombies that are coming for you are just beyond the horizon.
For me, travelling to the Salton Sea was like driving three hours out of my way to watch the apocalypse in slow motion. The perfect anti-tourist destination, it’s oddly attractive. Conditions have improved significantly over the past 10 years, and a number of restoration proposals might actually offer new life to the sea.
In only a few decades, this area could re-emerge as a viable site for agriculture, recreation and environmental research. Until then, though, the Salton Sea is ripe for exploration by those seeking a uniquely macabre adventure.