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The Salton Sea, Imperial County California: A Toxic Wasteland

Updated: Dec 17, 2021

A landscape view of the Salton Sea and beach

The Salton Sea, what used to be the number one vacation spot in Southern California is now a toxic wasteland. The once sandy beach is now only dead fish carcasses that blow up toxic dust. The once large salty sea is now full of harmful chemicals and receding by the minute. When I first heard of this place I figured there were some dead fish on the beach and it smelled sort of bad, but I was dead wrong. In this post, I'd like to take you through the history of the Salton sea and my experience of visiting this beautiful disaster.

A close up shot of the fish bones that make up the beach of the Salton Sea



What is the Salton Sea?

A sign that reads Welcome to Salton Sea Beach

The Salton Sea was created by a flooding of the Colorado River in 1905, this, followed by intense rain caused the Salton Basin to fill creating the Salton Sea. This brought hundreds of farmers to come to take advantage of the new water source and open fertile land. Throughout the years, developers started coming in to try to make this location the new SoCal hot spot and by the 1950s this was the place to be. From families to celebrities, everyone wanted to be at the Salton Sea.

An old building in the Bombay Beach community of Salton Sea

Unfortunately, in the '70s a few tropical storms hit, and with no way for the sea to drain, it flooded all of the surrounding homes and resorts killing this vacation spot. From there the lake started to fill with chemicals and pesticides from runoff from the nearby farms, this brought the salt level to over twice of the pacific ocean's! As this progressed, thousands of local birds died along with millions of fish, and as the sea is receding the shoreline is now only a graveyard of those carcasses.



What is the Salton Sea like today?

A lone egret wading in the Salton Sea in California

When you look upon the Salton Sea from the drive up, it seems like a desert oasis. A large sparkling body of water in the middle of the desert with a beautiful mountain backdrop. The only strange thing is that there was no one around except a few campers by the beach. Then we decided to get a closer look. This is when I realized that what I thought was a bright sandy beach wasn't sand. It was only bones. Mostly small fish vertebrae with the occasional head or tail bone just to remind you what you're walking on, and there were miles of it. The entire beach is now feet below us, underneath millions of dead fish left to dry out in the desert sun. I happened to make my visit in the fall so the smell wasn't so bad, but I've heard in the summer it can smell like Sulphur all the way to Los Angeles.

You can still see some of the old remnants of what used to be the booming 50s resort community at Bombay Beach to the East and Salton Beach to the west. Some people even still live in the area in old trailers and mobile homes, covered in trash and graffiti.

A water bird wading in the Salton Sea

You can also see hundreds of migratory waterbirds (which are my favorite category of birds). From cattle egrets to great blue herons to black-necked stilts, this piece of water has become a globally significant place for bird conservation. This small piece of water is one of the only ones for miles making it a perfect spot for birds to rest when they're migrating across the desert.



With the water only getting saltier and drying up by the day, there is a large movement to conserve this significant body of water. Saving the last surviving fish and birds that call the Salton Sea home. Not to mention the actual residents of the area, that have to deal with the toxic dust coming off the dried fish bones all year round.

While there are plans to fix this ecological disaster none of them are coming soon enough, and as the years go by the closer it is getting to a full-out catastrophe.

Hopefully, the more famous the Salton Sea gets, the more attention and help it can receive. Please feel free to share this with others to help spread the story, so maybe our small efforts can help in some way.

Also, as always, feel free to comment below, DM me on Instagram, or email me if you have any questions or insight on this post as I would love to know what you think about the Salton Sea and the issues surrounding it.

Until next time,

Happy Trails!

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Hey there! My name is Hannah Smentkowski, I'm the photographer, writer, hiker, camper, and craft beer drinker of this blog!


Here, I share my travel, camping, and hiking tips to help anxious explorers get outdoors with confidence!

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