This Seemingly Apocalyptic Desert Lake Is Alive With Art

No, you're not hallucinating. Unless you want to be.

Randy Polumbo's "Lodestar" is a fixture of Bombay Beach. | ROBYN BECK/ AFP/ GETTY IMAGES
Randy Polumbo's "Lodestar" is a fixture of Bombay Beach. | ROBYN BECK/ AFP/ GETTY IMAGES

Despite all appearances, the apocalypse has not fallen on the Salton Sea. You'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise, what with the rotted beach houses, discarded boats, and piles of dead fish (we’ll get there). But the Salton Sea is far from lifeless.

If your Californian aquatic inclinations lean more Tahoe than desert outpost, you probably haven’t been to the largest lake in California, so here’s a quick history lesson: Located about 60 miles south of Palm Springs, the Salton Sea was created when the Colorado River flooded the Imperial Valley, which sits 227 feet below sea level, in 1905 (not the first time this valley flooded). The sudden appearance of the lake brought resorts, fancy houses, and even The Beach Boys. The area was even dubbed the “Salton Riviera” in the ‘50s, netting more annual visitors than Yosemite.

“The Bombay Beach Drive-In” by Stefan Ashkenazy, Sean Dale Taylor, and Arwen Byrd. | Unsplash/Naomi August

But by the 1970s, the lake was drying up: The accidental lake had no overflow, and thus no natural stabilization system. It became saltier than sea water. The runoff began killing all the fish, and vacationers were like, “maybe let’s go to Yosemite instead.” It’s been a legend among abandoned places ever since, seemingly tempting fate even further by straddling the San Andreas Fault.

But here’s the thing: The Salton Sea still has a population—a point driven home by Estamos Aquí, a documentary made by young Salton Sea residents. From the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians who have always been there to those who bought homes more recently, the Salton Sea is not a ghost town. 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. 

Case in point: the art scene. If you dig a weird desert aesthetic that’s less corporate than Coachella and less tech bro-ey than Burning Man, the Salton Sea will deliver. Head south on California 111 past the date farms, look for the sparkling blue water, ignore the dead fish smell, and immerse yourself. Here are just a few of the wonders to behold.

Abandoned boats are blank canvases in the desert. | David McNew / Stringer/ Getty Images

Bombay Beach

Bombay Beach is basically the Art Basel of the Salton Sea. The community of 295 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 has remained 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 (picture a drive-in movie theater post-Rapture). Another must-see is Lodestar by Randy Polumbo, a crashed plane that kind of looks like a carnival ride.

“The Water Ain't That Bad, It's Just Salty” by Chris “Ssippi” Wessman, and Damon James Duke. | Kevin Key / Slworking/ Moment/ Getty Images

Head down to the beach and you’ll see a swingset out in the water. This is The Water Ain't That Bad, It's Just Salty by Chris “Ssippi” Wessman, and Damon James Duke. (Confounding side note: A lot of people wade out to this and take thirst traps.) Down 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). Walk to all of them, and then grab a cheap drink at the Ski Inn—the lowest bar in the Western Hemisphere—before moseying along. 

An architectural treasure has been resurrected. | Flickr/Devon Christopher Adams

The North Shore Beach and Yacht Club

The dried-up lake bed is scattered with abandoned boats that have been reimagined as canvases, but a little less than 20 miles in the opposite direction of Bombay Beach is 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 time and the elements, ultimately throwing in the towel in 1981 and sitting abandoned for decades, gathering dust and graffiti. 

Today, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and, following a multimillion-dollar restoration process, it has 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 motel 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 had in one of his own homes. People pay for architecture tours in Palm Springs without realizing that one of Frey’s coolest designs is at the Salton Sea.

Salvation Mountain is one of the area's surreal sights. | ROBYN BECK/ AFP/ GETTY IMAGES

Salvation Mountain and Slab City

Located 20 miles south of Bombay Beach, Salvation Mountain is what people who have never taken acid imagine an acid trip to be like: a rainbow-colored, 50-foot hill of clay mound outfitted with a yellow staircase, flowers, birds, hearts, and colorful stripes (Fun fact: Kesha filmed a music video there). 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 a colorful mountain. He toiled away at the mound 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 and it still bears the words of that prayer he said in the van all those years ago: “Jesus, I'm a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.”

Slab City: The Last Free Place on Earth. | DesignClass/Unsplash

Venture beyond Salvation Mountain and you’ll find yourself in Slab City, the self-proclaimed last free place in America. This rogue desert community 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: They want to be very, very off the grid.

Residents—who are technically squatters—have no running water and no electric grid. Some say they have no laws. What they do have, however, is a thriving community in a harsh, unforgiving environment. Summer temperatures can soar above 110 and winter wind brings an unholy chill, but people remain. These days, there’s even a library, 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 will remain.

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Krista Diamond is a freelance/fiction writer who lives in (and often writes about) Las Vegas. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, HuffPost, Eater, Business Insider, Fodor’s, and Desert Companion.