Salton Sea; California’s largest inland sea, surrounded by ghost resorts!

The great flood of 1906 caused the Colorado River to flood its banks, running unchecked for 18 months into the Salton Sink, creating California's largest lake

Floods of 1976, 1977 inundated resorts around the Salton Sea
Once a beach-side trailer home, this unit was inundated, and buried in five feet of muck from the 1970’s floods at Bombay Beach
Former home in Bombay Beach, abandoned after flooding in the 1970s
Abandoned business in Bombay Beach is result of 1970s floods

One of the benefits of going in search of California’s national parks is the fun of discovering other natural wonders nearby.  Such was the case recently when we set off to visit (new to us) Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, along with a return visit to the Grand Canyon National Park.  Since our travels had taken us to Yuma, AZ, the Salton Sea was just south of Joshua Tree National Park.  And, having my father’s innate love for snooping around new discoveries, we spent a day exploring the Salton Sea.

Skee, Salt, other dry washes and unyielding desert herald your arrival to Bombay Beach on the eastside of the Salton Sea. Bombay Beach, a former resort community, was almost completely destroyed by huge floods in 1976 and 1977.   Skeltons of houses, trailers, abandoned and ruined homes and businesses located blocks inland from the current seafront makes for a very spooky, depressing visit.

In the late 1800s, the California Development Company built a canal to take water from the Colorado River to irrigate the desert region to the south of the Salton Sink (a giant desert depression like Death Valley) – this area would eventually become known as  the Imperial Valley.

By 1904 and 1905, the canals had clogged with sediment; the CDC built a second canal, then a third. Later that year, with what would be determined to be an El Niño weather pattern, the desert Southwest experienced the most rainfall on record.

The Salton Sea was formed in 1906 as a result of a huge flood of the Colorado River – the entire volume of the River poured into the Salton Sink, unimpeded for over 18 months, forming a 25 x 35 mile inland ocean, 52 feet deep and 220 feet below sea level!

In the 1950s and 60s, fish were introduced into the Sea and the advent of air conditioning brought big resorts to several of the Sea’s towns: Bombay Beach on the east shore, Salton Sea Beach on the west shore.

But then came the floods.  Tropical storm Kathleen hit the Imperial Valley in 1976, quickly followed by Tropical storm Doreen in 1977.  With no where to go but into the Sea, sea levels rose dramatically, inundating these resorts and ruining the local economies.  By the 1980s, these towns were barely hanging on, property values collapsed and owners abandoned properties and left the area.  Today, modern-day ghost towns are the result, while only a few hardy hangers-on remain.

How to get there: From Stockton it is about 490 miles and 8 hours; take Interstate 5 south to the LA area, then Interstate 10 east to Indio, then Hwy 88 south to the west shore, or Hwy. 111 south to the east shore.

When to go: Spring or fall are best times to visit.  Summertime temperatures can hit 110 in the shade!

What to see: The resort ghost towns of Salton Sea Beach and Desert Shores on the west side, Bombay Beach and North Shore on the east side.

What to take: Camera and binoculars, of course.  Bird watching is a fun activity while there!  If you plan to walk or hike, water bottles and food.

Where to stay: Brawley to the south, and Coachella to the north offer motels and restaurants.  The Salton Sea State Recreation Area on the sea’s east shore offers camping.

What’s nearby: Joshua Tree National Park is just 70 miles north; don’t miss this amazing desert environment!  By the same token, Anza Borrego Desert State Park is about 75 miles west on Highway 78.  And, Death Valley National Park is just a few hours north of Salton Sea.

For more information: See Salton Sea State Recreation Area web site,

For more travel inspiration, see my bi-weekly travel blog:  Happy trails in the west!



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