Bright Dead Things: The Lost World of The Salton Sea

I first stumbled upon Salton Sea while en-route to the famous Salvation Mountain, which is relatively nearby. Its weird whitewashed landscape is absolutely covered in the bleached bones of fish & birds, & the salty stench of decay & drainage runoff haunted me for months until I made a second trek out to explore the strange beach of this once thriving resort lake.

The lake looks super inviting here, but don't go swimming in these polluted waters!


Salton Sea is a saline lake in the California desert south of Palm Springs. Surrounded by artificially irrigated farmland, abandoned structures, & a small handful of trailer dwelling locals, Salton Sea was intended to be a destination resort town in the 50's but its popularity waned as the lake increased in salinity & pollution. If you know anything about me by now, you've probably noticed that I am a sucker for the decaying weirdness of once thriving places, & Salton Sea is as weird a wasteland at they come.

The lake itself is what's called an Endorheic Rift Lake, which basically means it's a drainage lake formed in the rift created between tectonic plates. Salton Sea is directly on top of the famous San Andreas Fault, & is fed by the New, Whitewater, & Alamo rivers. The Sea is super polluted by years of being fed by local agricultural runoff so you're not going to want to swim in this lake!

Nothing but decay & death. Gorgeous!


The lake is also, fascinatingly, below sea level. About 235 feet below sea level to be exact. During the last ice age (the Pleistocene AKA one of my fave geological periods if you're wondering) Salton Sea was part of a giant inland sea, which covered much of Southern California (I love the ice age y'all... it was WEIRD).

If you head to the Sea the first thing you'll undoubtedly notice is all the death. There are literally thousands of fish corpses & bird bones along the shoreline. In a phenomenon after my own heart, the lake is actually getting saltier, increasing in salinity by about 3% per year. This, combined with the increase in fertilizer runoff into the lake causing giant algal blooms & skyrocketing bacteria levels means the sea has become a graveyard for everything but the most hearty of creatures.

A small selection of corpses.


It gets weirder! Much of the contemporary interest in the restoration of the Sea was sparked in the 90's by then congressman Sonny Bono (yes, THAT Sonny Bono) during his time representing California's 44th district. There are ongoing restoration plans & projects to this day. But you won't see much evidence of them as you approach the lake. I recommend Salton Sea State Recreation Area & Bombay Beach, with their nearly completely vacant structures. Be careful where you step on the lake's shoreline... it can be easy to sink in & fish bones can act like needles in soft soled shoes. Also take note, that it is HOT out here in the summer months. One of my several trips to the Sea clocked a 118 degree high. Bring water, snacks, & fill up your gas tank, as there are no services nearby.

Read the Wikipedia Entry about Salton Sea, it's some fascinating stuff.

FUN FACT: I made a experimental poem/film out here.... watch the trailer on my website, where there are also some more photos of this beautiful place.

I am extremely glamorous, eating rice & beans shoreside at a dying lake.


As an aside, this post's title is 100% stolen from the excellent book by Ada Limon. I heard Limon give a reading at AWP in Los Angeles a few years back & was so dumbstruck that I immediately got up & bought her book with literally my last $20. The book will leave your jaw on the floor. Highly recommended.

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