How To See The Best Of Bombay Beach – The Most Fascinating Town In California
I still can’t believe I had never heard of Bombay Beach until last week. I was sitting at home during our second month of quarantine, looking for a new place to take a road trip to, and then I discovered the Salton Sea. The history behind this place was extremely interesting so I called up my friend & photographer Mire, and we decided to take a day road trip out there from LA. The drive was about 3 hours there and 3 hours back which seems like a lot, but we both needed an adventure. (I made a music playlist for road trips that you can listen to here.)
I want to start off by saying that the idea of beachfront property in the middle of the desert with the backdrop of the scenic Santa Rosa mountains is literally my ideal rendezvous. You know my obsession with Palm Springs and jet skis so this place just seemed too good to be true…
The Salton Sea was created in 1905, when the Colorado River busted through poorly built irrigation controls and then proceeded to flood the plain that was meant to grow crops on, for two years. This accidental lake became California’s largest lake with over 70 miles of shoreline. Yet it’s deepest point only being 51 feet. Real estate developers seized the opportunity to turn desert wasteland into a thriving tourist attraction by the 1950’s.
With some development and a massive advertising campaign, they successfully jazzed up the image and coined it as the “Salton Riviera.” Within a few years towns started popping up along the shoreline such as Desert Shores, Salton City, and Bombay Beach. There were motels, resorts, restaurants, yacht clubs, beach clubs, marinas, houses, and schools – it was booming. It was a postcard-perfect vision of a resort town.
A “miracle in the desert” they called it.
The North Shore Beach and Yacht Club opened as the largest marina in Southern California. People started buying second houses there to store their boats, and some even retired by the lake. Celebrities including Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, the Marx Brothers, and Desi Arnaz flocked to the lake as well as Los Angeles weekenders. The Salton Riviera actually attracted more tourists than Yosemite National Park and rivaled nearby Palm Springs. It was a booming desert playground for Hollywood in the 60’s. Waterskiing, boat racing, and fishing flourished here. It seemed to be a dream, until it quickly became more of a nightmare.
By the 1970’s, the tourists were gone and the towns mostly abandoned due to frequent floods. The lake went from having too much water to experiencing multiple droughts over the past few decades. Many of the part-timer’s houses were ransacked and stripped of appliances and valuables. With the cost of repairs now exceeding the value of the property, many of the lots were abandoned to foreclosure and the elements. Many structures have been let go or are rotting and frozen in time.
The sea water has no way for the water to exit besides through evaporation. So over time the water has become more and more concentrated with minerals. It became saltier than the Pacific Ocean which makes it difficult for most fish to survive.
Additionally, agricultural runoff from nearby fields offset evaporation but filled the water with pesticides and fertilizer, turning it into a murky sludge. And then algae blooms covered large swaths of the water’s surface making it difficult for fish to survive.
It’s important to note that in the 50’s the Department of Fish and Game actually stocked the lake with sargo, corvina, croaker, and other fish in a successful effort to attract fisherman. The corvina quickly multiplied to millions, growing up to 30 pounds! Even Sports Illustrated rightly projected that the Salton Sea would become an angler’s dream. And it was originally very successful because fishermen averaged nearly two fish per hour. They barely needed bait. Even sea birds altered their migratory patterns to feast on the fish, adding to the budding ecosystem.
So they did try to make this place booming, they just should have been smarter with the irrigation.
Los Angeles weekenders used to flock to Bombay Beach when it was a popular resort destination.
Bombay Beach Today
My first impression of Bombay Beach is that the vibe was very Mad Max meets Burning Man meets apocalypse zombie land. However, after further exploring the town and doing some more research, I have a lot of hope for Bombay Beach! I see so much potential here. The story of this sea is fascinating to me.
Exciting construction is underway on the $3.5 million Red Hill Bay project. The project plans to pump and mix water from the Alamo River and the highly saline Salton Sea in two 210-acre holding ponds on the lake’s southeastern shore to create a bird habitat.
Additionally, they refurbished the abandoned North Shore Yacht Club as a community center in 2010.
The Future of the Salton Sea
However the nonprofit Pacific Institute estimates that without intervention, the surface area of the 350-square-mile lake will shrink 100 square miles by 2030, the salinity will triple over 15 years, and the fish will disappear in seven years. San Diego’s water purchases from Imperial Valley — which ramp up to 2021 — are to blame, but low rainfall and water conservation also hurt. Read more here.
The Bombay Beach Biennale
The Masterminds Behind Bringing Bombay Beach Back To Life
In 2015, Stefan Ashkenazy (hotel developer), Tao Ruspoli (film director & Italian prince), and Lily White (Johnson &Johnson heiress) created a plan to raise awareness for the Salton Sea environmental crisis by producing an offbeat art happening in Bombay Beach. The first Bombay Beach Biennale took place in 2016 and has occurred annually since then except not this year in 2020 because covid-19 & quarantine. They have already produced over 150 art installations, performances, and musical acts – entirely self-funded and led by a group of dedicated artists and friends who volunteer their time and talents to improving the small town.
Ruspoli (Italian prince and film director – also Olivia Wilde’s ex), says, “I’ve always been attracted to the contractions that manifest in this place: It’s both ugly and beautiful, natural and unnatural (while the sea was formed by accident, it’s now an essential habitat for millions of fish and birds that depend on it), impoverished, yet rich with history and ongoing narratives of all kinds. Bombay Beach, when we started coming here, was both abandoned and full of the most colorful and eccentric characters. The list goes on, but my sense is the more we can embrace and foster these paradoxes and contradictions, the better.
Hence the opera, the ballet, the academic conference, the formal gardens, the absurdly long names, the annual biannual, etc… All this helps provide fertile ground for artists and thinkers, who get to contemplate and delight in how different what they experience in Bombay Beach is from the otherwise mundane and homogenized and ultimately much more desolate landscape one finds in places like suburban America.”
“It’s soil that interesting fun art can be made in,” says Biennale organizer Stefan Ashkenazy, owner of West Hollywood’s Petit Ermitage hotel, and co-creator of “The Last Resort.” This includes the billboards as well as the storage container hotel he hopes to establish on site, where each room’s interior will be designed by a different commissioned artist.
As a group, Ashkenazy and friends now own more than 40 lots within the town’s 30-some gridded blocks. They endow these lots to artists, imploring them to treat the corroded beach town as a canvas for free expression, experimentation, and spectacle. Several in the group have ultimately established themselves out here as part-time residents, mingling at the Ski Inn and working through the fall and winter to produce the festival.
I think it’s so cool to see a group create these art museums that actually give back to this community. The Biennale group has turned Bombay Beach into a remote arts district. Something of a Burning Man meets Marfa Texas – on the banks of a sea in the middle of the desert.
I encourage you to visit the Salton Sea area and explore this unique town. In 5-10 years this place will be a hip destination so go before it’s cool:) And make sure to donate to help this fascinating slice of California come back to life 🙂
Fun facts about the Bombay Beach
- The population is less than 200.
- The “Salton Riviera” was thriving in the 1950’s-60’s.
- It’s the lowest community in the US located 223 feet below sea level.
- The Salton Sea is only about an hour away from Palm Springs, and an 1.5 hours from Mexico.
- The best time to visit the Salton Sea is September to April. This part of Southern California gets extremely hot between May and August. It was 105 degrees when we went.
- The Salton Sea is almost twice as big as Lake Tahoe
- The Salton Sea accident is what later led to the construction of the Hoover Dam in 1929. Created in order to better control the Colorado River.
- In 1929, two thousand excited spectators witnessed 5 world speedboat records. High salinity in the lake made boats more buoyant. At more than 200 feet below sea level, barometric pressure improved performance.
- In 2010, 295 people still lived in Bombay Beach. 40% of them live alone, their heavy-shuttered houses sealed up against the punishing heat.
- The Salton Sea is now mostly known for Bombay Beach & it’s art installations, birdwatching, and hiking.
- The nearest gas station is 20 miles away. This is why most residents ride golf carts or walk around town rather than drive cars.
- East Jesus is an artists community and exhibition space southeast of the Salton Sea and out past Salvation Mountain and Slab City. Resident artists are constantly developing and updating the art garden.
The Last Resort Billboard
When you drive into Bombay Beach you will see a large billboard display a vintage, black and white photo of women in ‘50s era swimsuits and hairdos, riding side-by-side on water skis in the sea. The sign says “The Last Resort,” in bold letters. The Biennale group, who is continuously working to make Bombay Beach more of an arts district, is responsible for putting this sign up a few years ago.
Ski Inn, the lowest elevation bar in the western hemisphere, is the only bar in Bombay Beach making it a popular hang out spot for the local residents and a common stop for tourists. It’s been under the same ownership for more than a quarter of a century and was actually featured in the fourth season of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. It was also used as a filming location in an episode of The Mentalist where it was renamed “Borrego Gas Diner.”
Burning Man Airplane
The Burning Man Airplane! This airplane was actually featured at Burning Man in 2018, but now it’s permanent home is here in Bombay Beach.
Bombay Beach Drive-In
Known for it’s kitschy, atomic age sign, the Bombay Beach Drive-In resonates as conceptual art that also functions as a drive-in movie theater for the community. The outdoor theatre serves as a year round cinema with additional screenings held during the Bombay Beach Biennale.
Ashkenazy scavenged the wrecks from an Imperial Valley junkyard, hand-selecting cars to match the apocalyptic vibe. The choice of colors, and formation of the rusted classic car shells and boats are just so unique. It looks as though the cars and boats are parked for a drive-in movie, except instead of a movie screen, they face a blank, white truck trailer.
The Swing & Mailbox
The swing in the water was my #1 favorite in Bombay Beach by far! Make sure to go during sunset. The swing reflection with the desert sunset colors and mountain backdrop… It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve witnessed in California.
The Door to Another Dimension
This art installation is right in front of the swing so you won’t miss it. There’s a creepy bed to the left of it too.
Bombay Beach Opera House
The artists turned one of the abandoned houses into the Bombay Beach Opera House, a cerulean blue performance space, displaying a cardboard piano and hundreds of discarded flip-flops.
Other places to go near the Salton Sea
- The International Banana Museum
- East Jesus
- Salvation Mountain
- Palm Springs
- Joshua Tree
Things to know before going
- Make sure to get a full tank of gas before going because there aren’t many gas stations around the lake.
- The area is always changing so some art installations will be different each time you go.
- Please be careful when exploring the abandoned structures because there are a lot of sharp objects and broken glass. Also make sure to respect the locals and do not trespass their property.
- Do not drive on the sand! It’s a big problem here and it can take days to get your car out.
You can donate to the Salton Sea here.
• Sunscreen – Maui Babe Reef Safe Sunscreen
• Food and water – I always overpack but it came in handy this time. You are in the middle of nowhere so make sure to bring enough water and food for the day.
• Camera – Canon 5d Mark IV
Read other travel posts here.
And you can read this article about the Salton Sea here.
Watch our Salton Sea VLOG here.
How To See The Best Of Bombay Beach – The Most Fascinating Town In California