Salton City: From Desert Oasis To Abandoned Wasteland

Madeline Hiltz
(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 3.0)

Salton City is easily one of the strangest landmarks in California. What was once a thriving resort destination that entertained huge Hollywood stars now looks like a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Doomed from the start?

Welcome to Salton Sea sign
(Photo Credit: ROBYN BECK/ AFP via Getty Images)

At the start of the twentieth century, the California Development Company began carving out an irrigation canal to bring water from the Colorado River to the farmlands of the Imperial Valley.

a shack in Salton Sea
(Photo Credit: Forsaken Fotos/ CC BY 2.0)

When the Colorado River breached the canal, it flooded a dry basin which would later become the ‘Salton Sea.’ By the team the breach was plugged, Salton Sea had emerged as California’s largest non-coastal body of water.

Salton Sea spaceship
(Photo Credit: Mike Ault/ CC BY-NC 2.0)

Salton Sea’s day in the sun

Tire repair station in Salton Sea
(Photo Credit: Randy Heinitz/ CC BY 2.0)

By the middle of the twentieth century, Salton Sea was becoming a booming resort town. In fact, the destination attracted 1.5 million people annually, and was referred to as the ‘Salton Riviera,’ or ‘miracle in the desert.’

abandoned RV at Salton Sea
(Photo Credit: moominsean/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, vacation homes popped up all around the Salton Sea area. The resort town attracted celebrities and boaters alike. People were sold on the idea of a beachfront property in the middle of a desert.

Abandoned couch in Salton Sea
(Photo Credit: moominsean/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In the 1950s, a town was further developed. The town of Salton City was mapped out on the west shore of the Salton Sea. Developers laid out 25,000 residential lots and builders paved more than 250 miles of roads. Supporting electoral power, water, and sewage infrastructure was installed throughout the development.

Salton Sea abandoned building
(Photo Credit: Ciera Holzenthal/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Urban planners also envisioned the town including a business district, schools, churches, parks, community services, an 18-hole golf course, luxury hotels, yacht clubs and the biggest marina in California.

Abandoned chair on Salton Sea beach
(Photo Credit: Don Barrett/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For a while, Salton City was truly a major success. It attracted celebrities, politicians, entertainers and athletes. Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack friends would often take weekend trips to the resort town. The Beach Boys and the Pointer Sisters were also known to perform concerts on the shores of this once-beautiful desert oasis.

abandoned motel in Salton Sea
(Photo Credit: Kathy Drasky/ CC-BY-2.0)

Short-lived success

Abandoned motel at Salton Sea
(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 3.0)

However, Salton City’s success didn’t last long. In the 1970s, thousands of fish were dying and floating to the surface of the lake. Obviously, people are not going to be inclined to swim in a lake full of dead fish, so this posed a major problem for Salton City.

Abandoned homes at Salton Sea
(Photo Credit: GregManninLB/ Wikimedia Commons via Public Domain)

Researchers and scientists quickly identified the cause of the problem. Agricultural runoff from surrounding farms was being deposited into the Salton Sea. This runoff caused an increase in algae growth in the water. When algae dies, it sinks to the bottom of the sea where there is no oxygen. Thus, hydrogen sulfide gas is created from bacteria eating this dead algae.

Abandoned buildings along the Salton Sea coast
(Photo Credit: Jeff T. Alu/ Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 3.0)

Hydrogen sulfide gas is extremely toxic and certainly not ideal for a holiday resort town. Birds began eating all the dead fish. These birds began to get sick and started dying at a shocking rate, which added to the gruesome scene on the beaches of the Salton Sea.

Salton Sea Beach
(Photo Credit: moominsean/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

People quickly stopped coming to Salton City in the ’70s. To make matters worse, a series of tropical storms caused the water levels to rise and flood, causing severe damage to existing buildings. In 1976, flooding from Hurricane Kathleen had the Salton Sea area completely underwater.

Sea and Sun motel sign
(Photo Credit: Forsaken Fotos/ CC BY 2.0)

Salton City was almost completely abandoned by the 1980s. Vacation homes were deserted, resort developments were halted mid-construction, and RVs and boats were all left behind in the rotting city. By the 1990s, birds and fish were dying in astonishing numbers, and their corpses littered the shores of Salton Sea. During a four-month period in 1996, 14,000 birds died in the area. Nearly 10,000 of these birds were pelicans, and their massive carcasses had to be burned nonstop for weeks on end.

Sculpture at Salton Sea
(Photo Credit: Don Barrett/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Today, Salton City is an eerie, apocalyptic-looking ghost town. The buildings of the once-bustling resort city have succumbed to the elements of the toxic lake. The beaches are far from the water, the palm trees are essentially dead sticks in the ground, and the entire area smells horrible.

Abandoned chair at Salton Sea
(Photo Credit: mst7022/ CC BY 2.0)

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Salton City has gone from a one-time resort for the elite to now being called “the worst environmental, health, and economic crisis in modern history.”