From Hot Spot To Ghost Town: 33 Photos Of California’s Abandoned Salton Sea

Published June 4, 2017
Updated March 14, 2019

These photos reveal how the Salton Sea went from vacation to ghost town and now remains a forgotten piece of Americana.

Retro Postcard
Rv Park Cafe
Green Bloom
Shore Salton Sea Yellow
From Hot Spot To Ghost Town: 33 Photos Of California’s Abandoned Salton Sea
View Gallery

Just 60 miles from nearby Palm Springs with its meticulously maintained golf courses lies the Salton Sea, California's largest lake and at one time during the mid-20th century, a tourism hot spot. Things have changed, however, and now it's clear that time has not been kind to the Salton Sea.

The sea — a lake, actually — was created by accident in 1905 when flooding from the Colorado River into irrigation canals eventually led a 40-mile stretch of desert known as the Salton Sink to fill with water, thus creating the lake.

Because its waters never discharge into the ocean and just seep into the ground or evaporate, the water has a high salinity level that just goes up as the years roll on.

Its salinity level was much lower 70 years ago, however, and the area quickly became a vacation spot, drawing tourists to the area year-round. At the Salton Sea's peak, it was pulling in 1.5 million visitors annually, more than Yosemite at that time.

The area's reputation for fun on the lake and fishing didn't last long and by the 1970s the fish population had begun to die. With a dwindling fish supply and water that had rising salinity levels as well as fertilizer runoff, tourism quickly dried up.

But then, a glimmer of hope arrived for the area in 2002, when a utility company made a deal to divert billions of gallons of water to the surrounding San Diego County on the condition that the state of California would assume future responsibility for the lake. The company would supply mitigation water from farmland to offset the Salton Sea's shrinkage. California failed to take appropriate action, however, and the area has now become an ecological sore spot.

Large parts of the lake have since dried up, leading to dust storms and several public health concerns.

Salton City and Bombay Beach, which lay near the lake, are now shells of their former selves with abandoned motels and rusted out RVs looking like tombstones of a forgotten era. The area still has a small population, but most of its 15,000 residents left long ago, leaving behind the remnants of a forgotten piece of Americana.

Next after viewing these Salton Sea photos, see more of the Salton Sea. Then, check out some European natural wonders sure to spur your wanderlust.

Joel Stice
Joel Stice is a writer who enjoys digging into all things pop culture, history, science, and anything weird.