This Seemingly Apocalyptic Desert Lake Is Alive with Art
If an acid trip was a place, this magical barren landscape would be it.
Despite first impressions, the Salton Sea is far from lifeless. The apocalypse has, in fact, not visited this often-overlooked section of Southern California, but you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise—what with the rotted beach houses, discarded boats, and piles of dead fish (we’ll get there).
If your California dreams lean more Tahoe villa than desert oasis, you probably haven’t experienced the largest lake in California. Located about 60 miles south of Palm Springs, the Salton Sea was created in 1905 when the Colorado River flooded the Imperial Valley, which sits 227 feet below sea level (not the first time this valley flooded). The sudden appearance of a lake ushered in resorts, fancy houses, and even The Beach Boys. The area was dubbed the “Salton Riviera” back in its 1950s heyday, netting more annual visitors than Yosemite.
By the 1970s, however, the lake was drying up. The accidental water mass had no natural outflow, and thus no stabilization system. It soon grew saltier than sea water. The runoff started killing off the fish, and those ever-present vacationers finally said, “Maybe let’s go to Yosemite instead.” The Salton Sea has since become legend among abandoned places enthusiasts, seemingly tempting fate even further by straddling the San Andreas Fault.
But here’s the thing: The Salton Sea still has a local population—a point driven home by Estamos Aquí, a documentary made by young residents. From the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians who have always been there to transplants who settled there more recently, the Salton Sea is no ghost town. Somehow, despite the fact that the lake continues to shrink—and solutions to mitigate the resulting toxic dust just aren’t coming together—life is flourishing.
Enter Salton Sea’s thriving arts scene. If you dig an oddball desert aesthetic that’s less corporate than Coachella and less tech bro-ey than Burning Man, the Salton Sea promises to deliver. Head south on California 111 past the date farms, keep an eye out for the sparkling blue water, ignore the dead fish smell, and immerse yourself in this bizarro little piece of the world. Here are just a few of the wonders that await.
Bombay Beach is basically the Art Basel of the Salton Sea. The community of 215 is littered with large-scale art, thanks to the Bombay Beach Biennale, a yearly (yes, the name contradicts that) three-day celebration that brings more than 150 art installations to town. Festival founders Lily Johnson White, Stefan Ashkenazy, and Tao Ruspoli—the latter of whom runs the coolest Airbnb at the Salton Sea—created the event, which includes everything from sunrise opera performances to a banned-book library.
You can visit Bombay Beach anytime to see the art that lingers long after the festival. One of the most captivating installations, “The Bombay Beach Drive-In” by Stefan Ashkenazy, Sean Dale Taylor, and Arwen Byrd, consists of rusted cars facing a blank screen (like a drive-in movie theater, but post-Rapture). Another must-see is “Lodestar” by Randy Polumbo, a crashed plane that kind of looks like a carnival ride.
Head down to the beach and you’ll see a swingset out in the water. It’s “The Water Ain't That Bad, It's Just Salty” by Chris “Ssippi” Wessman and Damon James Duke. (Side note: A lot of people wade out to this and take thirst traps.) Back on the sand, among all of the fish bones, you’ll find “The only other thing is nothing” by Michael Daniel Birnberg—also known as MIDABI—a metal sign that says exactly that.
There are many other installations, including a 40-foot-long fish/aircraft (“Da Vinci Fish” by Sean Guerrero, Royce Carlson, Juanita Hull-Carlson, and John Murphy) and a door that leads nowhere (“The Open House” by Keith Jones and Lee Henderson). After checking them out, grab a cheap drink at the Ski Inn—the lowest bar in the Western Hemisphere—before moseying along.
The North Shore Beach and Yacht Club
Bombay Beach’s dried-up lake bed is scattered with discarded boats that have been reimagined as canvases, but a little less than 20 miles in the opposite direction lies an under-the-radar attraction for architecture buffs. The North Shore Beach and Yacht Club originally opened in 1959 as a ritzy hangout and a fixture of the Salton Riviera scene. But like much of the area, it became battered by both time and the elements, ultimately throwing in the towel in 1981 and sitting empty for decades, gathering dust and graffiti.
Today, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and, following a multimillion-dollar restoration process, it’s been reimagined as the Salton Sea Museum and community center. So why all the attention for what could have otherwise been the abandoned shell of a marina? Because it was designed by Albert Frey, the father of desert modernism (think retro motels with breeze blocks or those Mad Men episodes where Don goes to California). Designed to look like a submarine, the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club is outfitted with nautical porthole windows similar to the ones Frey installed in one of his own homes. People pay for architecture tours in Palm Springs without realizing that one of Frey’s coolest designs is hidden in plain sight over at the Salton Sea.
Salvation Mountain and Slab City
Located 20 miles south of Bombay Beach, Salvation Mountain stands tall, looking like what people who’ve never dropped acid probably imagine an acid trip to be like (we guess). The rainbow-painted, 50-foot clay mound is outfitted with a yellow staircase, flowers, birds, hearts, and colorful stripes (Fun fact: Kesha filmed a music video here). Salvation Mountain was created by Leonard Knight, a Korean War veteran who found Jesus while reciting the Sinner’s Prayer in a van in San Diego.
Knight originally wanted to spread the Good Word via hot air balloon, but upon discovering the California desert, he instead decided to build his own colorful mountain. He toiled away at the mess of paint and clay during the day and slept in his truck at night until his work was complete. Knight passed away in 2014 at the age of 82, but Salvation Mountain lives on, still bearing the words of that prayer he spoke in the van all those years ago: “Jesus, I'm a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.”
Venture beyond Salvation Mountain and you’ll find yourself in Slab City, the self-proclaimed “last free place in America.” This rogue settlement rose up from the parched desert after World War II marine base Camp Dunlap was demolished, leaving behind the concrete slabs that give the settlement its name. The sprawling and extremely unofficial town is populated by snowbirds, artists, and dedicated desert rats who all have one thing in common: A desire to live very, very off the grid.
Residents—technically squatters—have no running water and no access to electricity. Some say they have no laws. What they do have, however, is a vibrant community situated in a harsh, unforgiving environment. Summer temperatures can soar above 110 degrees while winter winds bring an unholy chill, but the people remain. These days, there’s even a library, a hostel, and a solar-powered music venue. If the Salton Sea gives you apocalyptic vibes, Slab City is proof that even in a post-apocalyptic landscape, art, human spirit, and creativity can flourish.