Competition for the title of most surreal location in America is hot, but the Salton Sea in California is undoubtedly a contender.
And the eerie, post-apocalyptic feel of this bizarre body of water and the ghost-town settlements on its shoreline has been captured in a stunning newly released photo series by Julian Lennon, the son of Beatles legend John.
The landlocked body of water is one of the world’s biggest inland seas and at 226ft (69m) below sea level one of the lowest places on earth. It has appeared and disappeared several times over the ages, but was re-created in 1905 when the Colorado River, which runs to the east, overwhelmed an irrigation system and flooded a basin called the Salton Trough. For 18 months, according to parks.ca.gov, the entire volume of the river flowed into the basin and by the time it was halted in 1907, a lake 45 miles long and 20 miles wide had formed.
Spotting an opportunity to make fast bucks, developers moved in during the 50s and 60s and it blossomed into a tourist hotspot, with settlements, resorts, hotels and attractions popping up left, right and center. However, due to farm runoff, the lake became increasingly toxic and salty, fish and birds began dying and the settlements became like ghost towns. It was hoped around 40,000 people would live on the Salton Sea’s shores. But homeowners tend not to like environmental disasters and today the population is between five and 10,000, though the area does attract, in normal times, up to one million visitors a year for bird-watching and water sports.
Lennon told MailOnline Travel that he’d ‘always heard so much about the place’, so he decided to head out on a last-minute road trip in 2019 with a friend and explore the area for himself. He describes Salton Sea, which he has visited several times since, as a ‘mysterious and surreal place’ with an ‘eerie calm’.
He added: ‘It sounds a little cliched, but I wanted to show through my images that there can be beauty in death. Salton Sea has a bad rep because of the environmental catastrophe and it is almost a “dead” lake. But seen at the right time of day, especially just before sunset, the light is just incredibly beautiful. Even when shooting in black and white, there’s a stark beauty to be seen.’ Scroll down to soak up some of Salton Sea’s salt-weathered scenery for yourself…
A stunning, newly released photo series by Julian Lennon, the son of Beatles legend John, captures the eeriness of California’s Salton Sea. Pictured here is a shot of the Death Ship, which was created and installed by artist Sean Guerrero at a settlement known as Bombay Beach
The area attracts, in normal times, up to one million visitors a year for bird-watching and water sports
Over recent years, the lake has attracted an influx of artists and hipsters. This image shows installations left over from the Bombay Beach Biennale, an art festival founded in 2016
Lennon told MailOnline Travel that he’d ‘always heard so much about the place’, so he decided to head out on a last-minute road trip in 2019 with a friend and explore Salton Sea for himself
A sign and lone palm tree on Bombay Beach, which was once one of the most vibrant resorts around the Salton Sea
Corroded signs for the Ski Inn bar, which prides itself on being the lowest bar in the Western Hemisphere, around 226ft (69m) below sea level. The dive bar is one of the few remaining businesses open in the Bombay Beach area. One recent visitor described it as ‘truly a hidden gem’, adding that ‘the beer is cold, the staff super-friendly and the steaks are great’. The bar has attracted much media attention over the years. The late Anthony Bourdain featured it on his TV series No Reservations, dining on a patty melt
Weburbanist.com notes: ‘California’s Salton Sea was once a sparkling desert oasis, attracting vacationers in mobile homes and RVs. The people have gone but their trailers remain’
Lennon describes Salton Sea, which he has visited several times since his initial visit in 2019, as a ‘mysterious and surreal place’ with an ‘eerie calm’
The resorts around Bombay Beach attracted the rich and famous during the 1950s, with star guests including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and the Beach Boys
The landlocked body of water is one of the world’s biggest inland seas. However, due to farm runoff, the lake became increasingly toxic and salty
Lennon encourages others to check Salton Sea out, stating: ‘Salton Sea has a bad rep because of the environmental catastrophe and it is almost a “dead” lake. But seen at the right time of day, especially just before sunset, the light is just incredibly beautiful’
Today fewer than 300 people live in the Bombay Beach neighborhood. And according to california-demographics.com, 76 is the median age
A portion of Salton Sea is cared for by California State Parks. The Salton Sea Recreation Area, which extends for 14 miles along the northeastern shore, is open for birding, fishing, and camping. The parks.ca.gov Salton Sea page notes that because of increasing salinity in the Salton Sea, fish stocks have declined and algae-eating tilapia is now the most common species
There have been more than 400 avian species spotted around Salton Sea, with gulls, grebes, cormorants, and pelicans among the regulars
Lennon says of the Salton Sea: ‘Even when shooting in black and white, there’s a stark beauty to be seen’
Today the Salton Sea measures around 35 miles (56km) long, 15 miles (24km) wide and 51ft (15.5mi) at its deepest point
In this photo, a sunlounger can be seen washed up on the rocks, a remnant of more prosperous times
Many fled the area due to health concerns around agricultural toxins feeding into the water. Today the main communities include Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, and Desert Shores, on the western shore, and Desert Beach, North Shore, and Bombay Beach to the east
Lennon says that there’s occasionally a rotten egg smell around the Salton Sea due to high levels of hydrogen sulfide but ‘he’s never had that displeasure’
A bartender named Scheherazade from the Ski Inn in Bombay Beach previously told Roadtrippers.com that life by the Salton Sea can be tough with no gas station, one ‘sparsely stocked convenience store’ and temperatures reaching 120F (49C) in the summer. She added: ‘When people don’t have AC, they die’
In 1992, 150,000 eared grebes and ruddy ducks were found dead on the Salton Sea. Scientists were unable to determine why the birds died. At the time, it was one of the nation’s largest bird die-offs
Lennon decided to head to the Salton Sea ‘for a little day getaway’ from all the of the work he had on in Los Angeles. He says that ‘heading off into unknown territory’ helps him to clear his head and recharge
A staggering four million tons of dissolved salts enter the Salton Sea every year. The Salton Sea Authority notes: ‘That is the equivalent of approximately 13,500 train cars. The salt comes from agricultural drainage and tail water and the Colorado River itself.’ Today, the water is around 25 per cent saltier than the ocean
After the Salton Sea re-formed in 1905 fish were abundant and the area became a major sport fishing destination for almost 60 years
The Salton Sea is topped up by agricultural runoff, along with water from the New, Whitewater, and Alamo rivers
The remains of dead fish and mollusks can be found strewn along the shores of the Salton Sea. In 2006 around 3 million fish suffocated to death, marking the biggest die-off since 1999, when around 8 million tilapia met the same fate
In its heyday, the Salton Sea was awash with speedboats and jet-skiing was a popular activity
Despite many people writing the Salton Sea off as a wasteland, Lennon says that there’s something about Bombay Beach that ‘still draws me back’. He says that he wants to show through his images that ‘there can be beauty in death’
Two heavy storms in the late 1970s caused the Salton Sea to flood and many businesses and homes around the shore were damaged beyond repair. These flash floods signalled the start of the area’s demise
Salton City is one of the largest communities on the shores of the Salton Sea, with just over 6,000 residents. There are several restaurants, including a Pizza Hut
Another point of interest is the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, which is located on the lake’s southeastern shores and encompasses 37,900 acres. It is named after the late Palm Springs mayor Sonny Bono, as he campaigned hard to save the Salton Sea and breathe life back into the area
The Salton Sea area receives less than three inches of rain per year, while the US average in 2020 was just over 30 inches
The Salton Sea has a history dating back to 10,000BC, when Native Americans inhabited the area. Before the Salton Sea, there was an expansive body of water known as Lake Cahuilla. Sci.sdsu.edu notes: ‘[It was] possibly one of the largest lakes of the past. It was a huge freshwater body covering over 2,000 square miles to a depth of more than 300 feet.’ However, by the 1600s it appears the lake had completely evaporated and the area remained arid until the 1905 re-creation
To learn more about Julian Lennon’s photography visit julianlennon-photography.com and to purchase his photographs email [email protected].