While many travelers heading east on the 10 freeway will never venture past the luxury pools of Palm Springs or the music festivals of Indio, those who stay the course for an extra 60 miles will be rewarded with a dusty, robust adventure deep in the heart of the desert. Just a 40-minute drive from Palm Desert, the Salton Sea is a quiet, desolate locale, with adjacent communities that brim with eccentricities.
The Salton Sea was formed by accident around 1905, after extensive flooding caused the Colorado River to bust through irrigation diversions and pour into the Salton Basin for a year and a half. Once heralded as California’s answer to the French Riviera, the Salton Sea was hyped in the 1950s as the new, lakeside version of neighboring Palm Springs. But soon the salinity of the lake increased. Fish began to die off en masse and wash up on shore. A lingering smell of rot filled the air. Developments were abandoned mid-construction, and vacation homes quickly shuttered.
The area is now the antithesis of resort living, which makes it even more worthy of a visit. The landscape looks like something out of Mad Max: sprawling, sandy, with an underlying touch of danger. Its ominousness makes it even more attractive. In fact, a litany of photo shoots and videos has been shot around the Salton Sea; the dramatic landscape is an edgy setting for music videos such as Grimes’ “Go” and Michael Jackson’s “In the Closet.”
The shores of the lake are piled with dried fish bones. In the summer, the Salton Sea gets scorching hot, causing the decayed-fish smell to reach almost comical levels of stench. While some fish are still intact — their hollowed ocular holes giving you a side-eye — others have disintegrated to what looks like sand, which crackles when you walk on it.
The best way to see the whole marvel is to drive the lake’s perimeter, making occasional stops along the way. Start at the crossroads of the 86 and the 111 freeways, at the massive Mecca rest stop. Stock up on water, road-trip snacks and maybe even an emergency burrito or two, as markets and restaurants around these parts are sparse.
Head southeast on the 111 to the North Shore Beach & Yacht Club, a two-story relic of days past designed by renowned architect Albert Frey. Known for pioneering the iconic style of desert modernism, Frey is credited with designing Palm Springs’ City Hall, the Aerial Tramway Valley Station and private residences, which are marked by an abundance of floor-to-ceiling windows, clean lines and an indoor-outdoor feel.
One of the Salton Sea’s former resort developments, Bombay Beach, is now home to a small population of residents, a market and liquor store, and a bar. On the way into town, pop into the Ski Inn, a charismatic dive with walls covered in dollar bills, inscribed with notes by wayward travelers. Grab a beer and a burger, then take a leisurely stroll through the delightfully ruined town. Flanking the shore, the tidy rows of abandoned, graffiti-covered houses with broken windows, set against a sprawling desert, create a striking, almost apocalyptic image.
Hop back into your car and continue south toward Slab City. A few clicks before you get there, you’ll pull into a large, dusty parking lot off Beal Road and come face to face with Salvation Mountain. This colorful, 50-foot-tall adobe clay work of art is covered in paintings of waterfalls, flowers, birds and religious scripture. You can climb up a narrow path to the top of the steep mountain and stand victorious under a large white cross; beneath it, you’ll find the phrase “God Is Love.”
Even the most secular of folk can’t help but be moved by the positive vibes of this 150-foot-wide installation, and the determination of the man responsible for it. Leonard Knight, a relentlessly religious man, began building the original structure in the 1980s with just half a bag of cement. After four years of work, the mountain collapsed. Undeterred, Knight began again, this time using adobe and copious gallons of Technicolor paint. He spent nearly 30 years lovingly tending to the structure, until he died in 2014.
After stretching your legs at the mountain, it’s back to the car and around the southernmost part of the sea to reach Thermal and Salton City, where the true adventurer will spend the night at Ray and Carol’s Motel By the Sea. One of the few lodging options in town, this no-frills, slightly nautical-themed motel has a front-row view of the desert and is just steps from the shores of the sea.
Get there before dark so you can cross the street to Johnson’s Landing, where you can treat yourself to an icy beverage and get to know the chatty locals. The Salton Sea is filled with a tough breed of folk, from military veterans and off-the-grid survivalists to families who’ve been priced out of their former neighborhoods. Their grit is what makes them great. After dinner, head down to the water’s edge to soak up the full span of the sea and catch a mind-blowing sunset, which is even better than the ones that get Instagrammed in L.A.
Getting there: The Salton Sea is about a 3½-hour drive from downtown Los Angeles, a straight shot on the 10 freeway deep into the heart of the Imperial Valley. Once you get out of the city, traffic flows easily, and there’s ample opportunity for pit stops at beloved landmarks such as the Cabazon dinosaurs or the numerous outlet malls.
What to do: The Salton Sea is surrounded by sights best seen outside of a car. You can kill a whole day meandering around the lake and stopping to check out communities along the shore. If you’d like to expand your adventure over the course of a long weekend, the Salton Sea is less than a two-hour drive from the Mexican border. Pack your passport and head south to Baja.
Where to eat: Johnson’s Landing in Salton City provides a front-row view of the sea along with casual fare of brisket and burgers. Across town is Alamo, a family-style Mexican restaurant serving up gigantic burritos covered in red sauce and cheese. Pay close attention to operating hours, because they can be wonky during summer months.
Where to stay: For those looking to live as close to local life as possible, Ray and Carol’s Motel By the Sea is the perfect spot. A night in this zero-frills motel costs about $60 to $80, depending on which of the four rooms you book. The rooms are clean and equipped with air conditioning, and some have a small patio. If you’re craving a little more pampering, La Quinta is just 45 minutes away and offers a variety of reasonably priced suites, resorts and luxury hotels. During the sweltering summer months, even the La Quinta Resort and Club (a Waldorf Astoria spot) can be booked for about $200 per weekend night.
Wild card: Get psyched up for your trip by watching the weird and wonderful documentary Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea. Narrated by the master of eccentricity himself, John Waters, the film not only takes a deep dive into the Salton Sea’s history but also interviews locals who provide insight into what the area has become.