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The Salton Sea: The Strange Beauty of the Post-Apocalypse

Tim KesselSeptember 04, 2015
A forlorn welcome to a once-thriving resort mecca.

A forlorn welcome to a once-thriving resort mecca.

“Beautiful, beautiful. Magnificent desolation.” That was how astronaut Buzz Aldrin described what he saw as he left his famous boot prints on the moon’s surface. I am compelled to repeat those sparse, succinct words as I leave my decidedly un-famous Sidi boot prints on the beach of the Salton Sea.

I have always enjoyed exploring places that combine raw, natural beauty with the skeletal remains of a bygone society, especially when that exploration involves a motorcycle ride. Yes, I love a ghost town. The Salton Sea, however, is more of a ghost region—a vast juxtaposition of the strange, the dying and the magical.

Abandoned marinas once cradled the toys of the rich and famous.

Abandoned marinas once cradled the toys of the rich and famous.

The sea was formed in 1905 when the flooding Colorado River breached its banks and created California’s largest lake. In the 1950s and 1960s, the sea was promoted as the “American Riviera” and became a popular recreation and resort destination. Then came the apocalypse. The ever-increasing salinity of the landlocked sea began an aquatic holocaust of the fish and ultimately drove away both visitors and residents. What is left is a kind of dystopian wonderland.

Exploring the Sea

Stunted palm trees struggle to survive in the saline soil.

Stunted palm trees struggle to survive in the saline soil.

My visit to the sea is perfectly situated in February. A motorcycle tour of the Salton Sea is by necessity a winter affair. A Southern California desert summer brings with it a relentless string of sweltering 100-plus degree days. The flip side of this coin is that winter offers wonderfully moderate temperatures and a less “odiferous” sea.

I begin my ride in the farming community of Brawley, California, which cups the southern tip of the Salton Sea. My chosen loop around the sea is clockwise, and as soon as I motor out of the farming region to the northwest, the agricultural greens give way to a stunning visual division of the deep blue of the sea to the east and the muted browns of the desert to the west.

 

The West Coast

The highway on the west side of the sea is a larger, straighter and more traveled path than that on the east. I use the time to roll on the throttle and get a full motorized “feel” for the region. What becomes immediately clear is that, while the sea itself is killing the aquatic life within it, the water holds a magnetic attraction to birds and water fowl of all kinds. Birds scour the beach for food, fly in formation and skim the sea’s surface. The abundance and variety of winged creatures is truly amazing.

This part of the ride is straight and fast. At times, State Route 86 parallels the sea at some distance, but the water is generally visible from the tarmac. This is the stretch just to ride as my research has indicated that the eastern portion of the loop will offer numerous reasons to explore.

The colorful and ever-changing labor of love that is Salvation Mountain.

The colorful and ever-changing labor of love that is Salvation Mountain.

About 40 miles up the west coast sits Salton City. While the “city” is the largest development on the banks of the sea, it is not nearly the size it would appear from looking at a map. Most of the roads sit undeveloped and deteriorating and its marina and docks are abandoned monuments to mid-century aspirations. Riding farther north, Salton Sea Beach and Desert Shores are both small, crumbling developments on the sea’s shore.

Again, I must emphasize that a tour of the Salton Sea is for adventurers who hold a romantic view of past hope, failed dreams and raw beauty. It is only fitting that I am taking this tour on the ultimate post-apocalyptic survival vehicle, the BMW R 1200 GS. While the main roads circumscribing the sea are well maintained, the side roads are a testing ground for the bike’s long suspension.

The colorful and ever-changing labor of love that is Salvation Mountain.

The colorful and ever-changing labor of love that is Salvation Mountain.

The East Coast

It’s with anticipation that I head south down the east coast of the sea. I have planned my day so that I can watch and photograph the sun rise over the saline waters of the central east coast. The morning air is crisp and the subtle red hue of the predawn is hinting at a beautiful morning.

I motor past a few more crumbling developments on my way to my destination and, thankfully, the road is a bit curvier than what I experienced to the west. Again, the main route is smooth and well paved.

The author reflects on the hope of the rising sun from the desolation of Bombay Beach.

The author reflects on the hope of the rising sun from the desolation of Bombay Beach.

At the southern edge of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area sits Bombay Beach. Rolling through the tiny eclectic community, I receive a few questioning looks from behind the residents’ morning coffee and cigarettes. Bombay Beach sits at an elevation of 223 feet below sea level, making it the lowest community in the United States. The place is a strange mix of trailers, houses and hobbles. Its population hovers at about 300 hearty souls.

However, it’s not the town I came to see. The actual beach is my target. Testing the big BMW’s dirt-worthiness, I crest a large embankment that is obviously maintained to protect the community from the sea. There it is—the beautiful, troubling, awe-inspiring vision of the crimson sunrise over the ruins of the original Bombay Beach and the waters of the sea. I have seen few sunrises that rival this. I spend my time at the beach watching birds, tracing my boots through the bones of sea creatures that make up the sand, and contemplating the once thriving community that now sits crumbling in the salt.

Abandoned marinas once cradled the toys of the rich and famous.

Abandoned marinas once cradled the toys of the rich and famous.

Southern Attractions

Map of the route by Bill Piton/compartmaps.com

Map of the route by Bill Piton/compartmaps.com

I make my way to Salvation Mountain near Niland, California. The 50-foot-high mountain that Leonard Knight created from local adobe clay and donated paint is a living and growing religious monument that looks like a three-dimensional mash-up between the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine album cover and any book by Dr. Seuss. Another nearby southern attraction is the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, which is a landing strip for the plethora of bird species that call the Salton Sea home.

Final Thoughts

As I alluded to earlier, a Salton Sea excursion is not for everyone. However, if your tastes run to the vast, the strange and the beautiful, a winter ride around the sea will not disappoint. It truly is “magnificent desolation.”

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Lodging Near the Sea

Palm Springs
This upscale desert resort community sits to the northwest of the Salton Sea on Interstate 10. The city’s winter lodging rates are more expensive than other area communities, but if you are looking for comfort before and after your adventure, Palm Springs is the place.

Brawley
Sitting at the southern tip of the sea, Brawley is very close to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge and Salvation Mountain. There are a handful of clean lodging options in the town.

El Centro
South of Brawley, El Centro is an affordable larger desert city with a substantial number of lodging and restaurant options. It is conveniently located on Interstate 8.

These 1960s postcards celebrate the short-lived heyday of the Salton Sea.

These 1960s postcards celebrate the short-lived heyday of the Salton Sea.

These 1960s postcards celebrate the short-lived heyday of the Salton Sea.

These 1960s postcards celebrate the short-lived heyday of the Salton Sea.

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