Black dog on salty ground.

The Salton Sea

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

You probably haven't heard of it, but the Salton Sea is the largest lake in California as seen from above, at thirty-five miles long by fifteen miles wide. Or it was once that large, though it is currently evaporating at an accelerating pace and growing increasingly salty.

There is a dramatic history to the lake, which was formed in its current state through a series of industrial mistakes where the 1906 San Francisco earthquake played a minor role. Originally created to prepare this area of California for farming, the irrigation channels accidentally directed most of the Colorado River into the Sea for over a year.

Later in the 1950s and 1960s, the Sea grew in its glory days to a destination for resort vacations–a lake twice the size of Tahoe, stocked with fish and more popular with visitors than Yosemite. 

Through another series of ecological twists and turns, the lake today has become a crusty sore, surrounded by a salty ring covered in dead fish skeletons and periodically throwing up fine dust from the former lakebed.

The site is still an important site for many bird species who have learned to stop over during migrations, but the area produces some of the worst air quality in the state.

To walk there along the vast shores is to contemplate twenty-five-mph winds whipping up dust over an acrid-smelling lake that is both important for the ecology and completely an accident. 

I can’t say why, but visiting there feels more like a Californian pilgrimage than Coachella (15 miles from the Sea) or Joshua Tree (40 miles away).

The mood is somber, and the muted colors of the ridges are spectacular. You sense the history of human error, boom and bust, destruction and persistence that signifies a life of the West.