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
A postcard promoting the Salton Sea as a family tourist destination during its heyday of the 1950s. Instagram/@thesaltonsea

Rv Park Cafe
This RV Park and cafe looks like it hasn't seen a busy lunch crowd in decades. 2009. Flickr/Philippe Reichert

Green Bloom
Fertilizers from local farms have drained into the Salton Sea and caused a think layer of algae, 2008.Wikipedia Commons/Nandaro

Shore Salton Sea Yellow
As the algae dies, it creates a thick layer of dead muck on the lake's bottom, cutting off oxygen. 2008.Wikimedia Commons

Fish Bones
Because the dead algae cuts off oxygen, hydrogen sulfide gas is created, killing wildlife. 2012.Library of Congress/Carol Highsmith

Dead Tilapia
Several dead tilapia on a dried-up patch of beach. 2013. CJ Glynn/Flickr

Fish Closeup
A dead fish that died because of the polluted water. 2009. Flickr/Brazilfox

Big Catch Fish
A couple of proud anglers show off their catch from a day of fishing in the Salton Sea. 1962. Los Angeles Public Library

Abandoned Bait Shop
An abandoned bait shop leftover from the area's glory days. 2006.Wikipedia Commons/Kit Conn

Beach Sign Salton Sea
The area was once renowned for its beaches, but is now a shell of its former self. 2006.Wikipedia Commons/Jeremy Engleman

Bombay Beach Drive In
The Bombay Beach Drive-In is now a junkyard for rusting cars. 2016.Flickr/slworking2

Church Sign
The West Shores Baptist Church welcomes any visitors to the area. 2013.Wikipedia Commons/Tuxyso

Fun In Sun
A family on the shore watches as people enjoy water sports. 1958. Los Angeles Public Library

Restaurant Postcard
A postcard from the 1950s advertises the Hofbrou Restaurant, now long since closed. Instagram/@thesaltonsea

Salton Sea Picnic
Families enjoy a sunny day picnicking on busy beaches. 1958.Los Angeles Public Library

Ski Inn Bar
The Ski Inn bar and grille is one of the few joints still kicking and is open seven days a week from morning until midnight to serve any customers who may walk through the door. 2017. Flickr/DClemm

Abandoned Structure
One of the numerous abandoned and forgotten structures littering the area. 2012. Library of Congress/Carol Highsmith

Bombed Out Bombay Beach
Parts of Bombay Beach now look like a bombed-out war zone. 2008.Wikipedia Commons/Alexander Novati

Houses Salton Unfinished
Unfinished and abandoned houses sit on a street near the Salton Sea. 2010.Wikimedia Commons

America Past
Another abandoned lot of Salton City and a reminder of a piece of Americana now gone. 2013. Flickr/Kazuo Murata

Bird Watching
A sign advertising the once popular nature activities that brought people to the area. 2013. Flickr/Adam

Burrowing Owl
Pelicans, gulls, and burrowing owls like this one still call the area home, though finding food isn't always easy for them. 2015. Flickr/Chuck Coker

Broken Ground Bottle
The California drought is slowly shrinking the Salton Sea, leaving much of its lake bed cracked and dry. 2011. Flickr/Kent Davis

Beach Welcome Sign
Visitors to the area in the 1950s would have seen this sign that welcomed them to the beach and told them of the Salton Sea's accidental creation. 1958. Los Angeles Public Library

Mud Dry
Geothermal activity has created "mud volcanoes" that can be up to eight feet high and ooze out mud that's 128 degrees Fahrenheit. 2006. Wikimedia Commons/Atmoz

Waters Edge Kids
A few teenagers investigate the water's edge. 1938. Los Angeles Public Library

Aerial View Salton Sea
An aerial view of the Salton Sea's north shore. 1958. Los Angeles Public Library

Salvation Mountain
Salvation Mountain is a massive art installation covering a hill north of Calipatria, California, just several miles from the Salton Sea. 2012. Library of Congress/Carol Highsmith

Salvation Mountain Truck
A decorative truck parked at the Salvation Mountain art exhibit. 2012. Library of Congress/Carol Highsmith

Community Center Tan
The Bombay Beach Community Center is a place to gather for the 295 residents who call the town home. 2008. Wikimedia Commons/Alexander Novati

Dog Beach Walk
A girl enjoys a walk along Bombay Beach with her dog. 1938. Los Angeles Public Library

Salton Sea Boating
A busy day of boating on the waters of the Salton Sea. 1958. Los Angeles Public Library

Salton Sunset
Sunset on the Salton Sea. 2016. Flickr/Slworking2

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.