Odometer (Legend): 542,210
Odometer (ILX): 157,959
Trip Distance: 315 Miles
I have a not-so-secret fascination with abandoned places. There’s something that pulls me in and makes me wonder, “Why’d everyone leave?” For that reason, the Salton Sea in Southern California made its way onto my must-see list a long time ago, and I just this weekend got around to finally checking it out. My friends Jason and James joined for the party.
Once a popular destination for tourists (“The Miracle in the Desert”), this is one lake that’s definitely not on anyone’s recreation radar anymore. It’s more salty than the Pacific Ocean, and getting 1% saltier in each passing year because it has no outlet. It’s still California’s largest lake and, a surprise to many, was actually created by accident.
For millions of years the Colorado River flowed through the Imperial Valley where the Salton Sea is located. It’s at a low point in the region and positioned right over the San Andreas Fault. Before 1905, the lake bed was mostly dry, but an engineering “accident” diverted gallon after gallon of irrigation water there for two full years before repairs were completed and the inflow stopped. In that time, the lake bed filled up and even overtook some small towns. The small influx of water that now makes its way into the sea is enough to keep its level current, though it’s anticipated the level will progressively get lower between now and 2021.
Today the Salton area has a certain allure to it for those of us who love off-beat destinations. Where else can you find a banana museum, remains of a mobile home park, mud pots, and a giant painted mountain all in a day’s drive? My road trip partners and I were determined to see what kind of stuff we could uncover. After a hearty breakfast at Denny’s on Saturday morning, we departed from our motel in Indio and headed along Highway 111 which hugs the eastern shores of the lake. We were in three vehicles: my 2013 Acura ILX, James’ 2016 Chevy Malibu (press / loaner car), and Jason’s 2004 Mazda 6.
Sadly, the International Banana Museum – which really appeared to be no more than a convenience store with a little building attached – was shut down when we pulled up. From the looks of the bars over the windows, it felt more like a prison of some sorts. A typewritten note was taped to the front window stating that the hours were 12:00 p.m. to dusk, so I guess we missed that opportunity since it was only about 9:00 a.m. At least it saved us the $1 admission fee.
We next visited the North Shore Beach & Yacht club, which sounds all sorts of classy, but it’s really not. Maybe at one time it was. Today it’s been restored – it’s a nice looking mid-century modern building designed by Albert Frey and originally built in 1959. It was abandoned by 1984 and left to vandals and pillagers until a 2009 grant allocated some money toward the rebuild. We peeked our heads in only long enough to see that were was a gymnasium and some sort of community center.
Random geography lesson: Calexico is a town on the border with Mexico. Its Mexican counterpart across the international line is Mexicali. I like how they’ve mixed “California” and “Mexico” in the naming of those cities. Another 25 or so miles down Highway 111, I hit the right blinker and led our threesome of cars onto “Avenue A” in Bombay Beach, California. In the 1950s and 1960s, Bombay Beach was a popular resort destination, even called a paradise.
But that all changed within the first couple of decades as the ecosystem changed and the quality of the water deteriorated. People departed en masse by the 1990s as dead fish washed up on the beaches. While pretty from afar, the beaches are no place for sunbathing. The water is dirty and it smells about like you’d expect it to. The few residents who remain live in trailers and must keep to themselves, since we didn’t see a single soul out and about in any yard. Our drive took us down to 5th Street where we proceeded to make a loop – or square, rather – around the entire town.
Our attention was quickly drawn to the ruins we were passing. There were abandoned homes lining the street with elaborate graffiti paintings all over them. I backed the ILX into one driveway of a home that looked almost move-in ready. NOT.
We drove up over a dike and to the beach which had a wooden boat on a stand. The water’s edge was littered with dead fish and the flies were abundant. Allow me to introduce my new boat: “Miss Take.”
I decided we should stop for a soda at the Bombay Market and that was a cultural experience in itself. Talk about a one-stop shop. I found the 7-Up I wanted, but what surprised me was the variety of other stuff available. “Step right in to the gift shop area,” said a sign. But there was no separate area. It was just a single shelf. There were T-shirts for sale with the logo “Living In Paradise.” Surely out of sarcasm, right? Maybe not! A woman in a straw hat behind us in the check out line had nothing but raves to say about the town. “I just came from Indian Wells and it’s the most stuck-up place I’ve ever been,” she said. “Bombay is at the complete other end of the scale.”
We made one more pass through the center of town, make sure to note that the bar there, “Ski Inn,” is the lowest bar in the western hemisphere. That must be due to the fact that Bombay Beach is America’s lowest elevation community, at 223 feet below sea level. (Reminded me of when I visited the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin in Death Valley). I was ready to move on so we hit Highway 111 to our next wacky destination near Niland, California: “Salvation Mountain.”
So here’s the scoop on Salvation Mountain: A guy named Leonard Knight spent his lifetime dumping buckets of paint onto a hillside in the barren desert, creating both a living space for himself as well as a religious statement for all who pass by. The site is absolutely vibrant with colors and covered in Bible verses and Christian sayings. “God Is Love” is a recurring theme.
A yellow-brick (but not really brick) path leads up a stairway to the cross perched atop the tallest portion of the site. We took a walk through the area and noticed that people had been leaving keepsakes of all sorts in different rooms – driver licenses, student ID cards, photographs. The construction method for Leonard’s creation was similar to the way the Navajo Indians built their hogans – hay bales and straw were the main building materials. The place reminded me a little of Phoenix’s Mystery Castle.
Knight spent the last years of his life in a long-term care facility for dementia, and he died in 2014, but the site lives on thanks to volunteers who staff it daily. Oh, and they are taking donations of latex paint if anyone has a gallon or two to spare.
Thanks for joining for this first part of the trip. Come back for the second half next time!
More pics here. First, a pit stop in Quartzsite at the Tyson RV & Mobile Home Park, with my road trip snack essentials.
Dinner on Friday night at Mario’s Italian Cafe in Indio with James & Jason
Jason checking his oil in the 187,000 mile 2004 Mazda 6 on Saturday morning pre-departure.
Int’l Banana Museum sign
Your $1 entry fee is refundable if you make a “purchace.”
NSBYC: North Shore Beach & Yacht Club. A lot more exotic sounding than it really is.
Looking southbound on desolate Highway 111 along the eastern shores of the lake.
Graffiti in Bombay Beach: “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter.”
Needs a little TLC, but a great fixer-upper.
I hope this graffiti isn’t some sort of gang sign that could get me in trouble (Leif, if you’re reading this, I’m thinking of you!)
The ILX looking over Salton Sea.
Garbage and dead fish all over the place.
Jason and James
Perfect for a swim, no?
T-shirts in the market
Entrance sign to Salvation Mountain
Painted truck at Salvation Mountain
More very soon!