Have You Seen the Salton Sea?

Abert’s Towhee is a bright-eyed visitor to this accidental, man-made, and now essential resting spot for migratory birds traveling along the Pacific Flyway. How the sea was formed and its melancholy history—particularly as a short-lived, mid-century vacation resort—is worthy of note . . . and perhaps even a little road trip (the lake is located about 30 miles from Indio, CA). It is the largest lake in California—and it was created by a huge engineering miscalculation.


Abert’s Towhee at the Salton Sea.

In 1900, in an effort to bring the dream of agricultural wealth to California’s dry Imperial Valley, irrigation canals were built to divert the flow of the mighty Colorado River. This was fine until 1905, when a combination of heavy rainfall and summer snow melt caused the Colorado to flood . . . and over the next two years the catastrophic, unstoppable flow of water continued to fill the ancient and dry Salton Sink. By the time a fix was in place, the little town of Salton and its Southern Pacific Railroad tracks lay far below the water’s surface—and a new lake, 15 miles wide and 35 miles long, was crowned the Salton Sea.

By the 1920’s, the lake was a fishing and camping Mecca . . . but things really exploded in the 1950’s-60’s with the arrival of land developers, the Hollywood crowd, and a speedboating recreation boom. Billed as the “California Riviera” or “Palm Springs by the Sea,” the Salton Sea became a vacation hotspot—its coastlines dotted with resorts, marinas, restaurants, night clubs, and shops.

Albert Frey’s North Shore Beach and Yacht Club in its mid-1960’s heyday.

It was a happening place that attracted wealthy patrons and celebrities alike. Frank Sinatra, his famous Rat Pack, the Marx brothers, and the wildly popular Beach Boys were all said to have enjoyed the trendy North Shore Beach and Yacht Club, with its clever nautical styling and beautiful V-shaped marina. Designed by noted Palm Springs architect, Albert Frey, the resort opened in 1962—and was host to glamorous parties, yachting events, and Hawaiian luaus. Hot days; colorful sunsets; and warm, breezy nights made desert lakeside-living a tonic.

Sadly, all this began to change in the 1970’s—when fluctuating water levels, salinity issues, droves of dying fish, and odorous waters (the result of seasonal algae blooms) began to signal the demise of the Salton Sea as a vacation resort. By the 1980’s, the tourism boom was over—and the end arrived for most resorts, motels, marinas, trailer parks, and other collateral businesses. Desert winds now whistled past the sad patchwork of unfinished homes, undeveloped lots, empty streets, and faded “For Sale” signs.

Books, documentaries, and even a film have all tried to capture the odd and ghostly essence of the Salton Sea.  My own reaction to the place is a feeling of melancholy. Just for a moment, you wonder at what it all must have been like in its mid-century glory.

. . . and now, beautifully restored and serving as the Salton Sea History Museum and Visitors Center.

The ruined interior of the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club in 2009 . . .

Today the future of the Salton Sea as a recreation area is very much in question. But there is little doubt about the importance of its necessity as a way station and natural resource for the more than 400 bird species who stop here for a little rest and refreshment before winging their  way across long and traditional migratory paths. What will be the final outcome?? As usual, it’s complicated.


If you would like to spend a little more time virtual-visiting the Salton Sea, check these out:

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