“A Beautifully Awful Paradise”

salston sea, mecca beach. southern california


Salton Sea: a 21st century Twilight Zone – the place where the American Dream died, along with millions of Tilapia.

Salton Sea was a thriving waterside resort in the 1950s and 1960s – a playground for aspirational post war fun seekers. But in 1976 the dream transformed into a desert wasteland, when Tropical Storm Kathleen swept through Imperial Valley, followed by Tropical Storm Doreen in 1977. Above average rainfall for the next seven years, along with increased agricultural runoff and increased flows from Mexico, caused flooding of the Sea’s shoreline resorts, destroying hundreds of homes, caravans and trailers. The rich packed their belongings and left, never to return. Some of those who’d sold everything to relocate permanently by the Sea chose to stay… because they had no choice.

Salton Sea in its heyday


50 years later

In 2010, Helen and I visited Salton Sea while on holiday in southern California. I planned the trip to coincide with the October full moon, in the hope I’d capture a number of long exposure night photographs.

In our brightly colored camper van, we were one of only four residents on the campsite that first night. Here’s our nearest neighbour:

I didn’t venture too far that first night. After photographing our neighbour’s Airstream trailer and the Mecca Beach entrance sign (above), I found this little open air theatre nearby:


Over the next couple of nights I drove further south; to Bombay Beach, one of the areas hardest hit by the flooding in the late ’70s and then across to the west side of the Sea to South Shore and Salton Sea Beach.

bombay beach, derelict trailer

This abandoned trailer at Bombay Beach has been catalogued by numerous photographers over the decades. Each passing year sees the roof-line get closer and closer to the ground.


Still on the east side of Sea, the abandoned Corvina Cafe serves as a makeshift signpost for the local RV company


On the way to Bombay Beach on Highway 111, you pass the ‘alien crash site’

Over on the other side of the sea, near Salton Sea Beach and Desert Shore, some of the casualties of the 1976 flood:

salton sea, caravan, abandoned



Royal Spartanette, salton sea, caravan, abandoned

The photo of this half-buried Bell Boy boat appears on the Salton Sea Wikipedia page:

Here’s my night time version of the same boat (the green cast was created by a nearby streetlight):

Bell Boy Boat, salton sea, abandoned

If you’re interested in finding out more about Salton Sea, a little of its history and some of the amazing characters who decided to stay after the floods of the 1970s, checkout this John Waters narrated documentary from 2004: Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea.

A trailer from the film:

Give me Salton Sea and Bombay Beach over the Grand Canyon and Yosemite any day (or night) of the week 😉

This clip features Anthony Bourdain paying a visit to the Ski Inn, Bombay Beach.



7 thoughts on ““A Beautifully Awful Paradise””

  1. This is a strange and beautiful place. I live nearby and frequently visit the area. I’m always impressed by the popularity of this place with artists and photographers – I love that people would come from so far away to see this place. Flickr is filled with Salton Sea pics taken by Europeans.

    The place is compelling as a metaphor for American decline (as you say, where the dream died). The place was a sort of Atomic Age leisure paradise, a tropical lake a few hours drive from Los Angeles and San Diego. But the times change and we have: local economic collapse (a house on the Sea can be had for about $10,000); environmental catastrophe; and a lack of political will or capacity to do anything about it.

    Excellent work!

    • Thanks for your input. Hard to believe an area that had (or should that be ‘has’?) so much potential is being left to rot and die. A unique and special place.

  2. Beautiful work John, love the light painting on the derelict trailer shots. If you fancy somewhere a little more run down, but without the air miles, why not try Rhyl?

  3. Hi Mike, it’s a long time since I last visited Rhyl. Do you remember the Robin Hood and Winkups holiday camps (early 1970s)? We had a few family holidays there when I was a kid.

    • We stayed in Towyn just up from Rhyl, so Robin Hood & Winkups were off the radar for us, but you won’t believe it John, both of them are still going! So it seems that compulsary fun must have an enduring attraction. Must go, there’s a baby crying in chalet 6. !

      • I Googled Robin Hood and Winkups after my previous reply and was surprised to find they’re both still in existence! Brings back childhood memories of my sister having to visit the nit nurse after a week long stay at Winkups 😉

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *