The Apocalypse came early for the Salton Riviera


3rd Oct, 2012

There is a place where beaches are made not of sand, but of the skeletons of millions of fish. Luxury yacht clubs are now frequented only by pigeons, vacation homes lay open to the elements and RV camp grounds look more like burial grounds.

(c) above Jeremy Engleman & JBennett Fitts below

Not 60 miles from the fresh golf courses and glitzy hotels of Palm Springs in California, lies the shell of a once-booming resort town. From a distance, like a mirage in the desert, Salton riviera still appears to be a beautiful place, but close up, it is a foul and feculant place.

Conceived as a resort paradise in the 60s and 70s for boaters, water skiers and vacationers, the Salton Seaside was once called the next palm springs, hailed as the American Riviera and a “miracle in the desert”. Vacation homes popped up like cactus blossoms, holidaymakers flooded the beaches and yacht clubs served martinis with views of the sunset.


The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California. It’s existence is also a total accident. In 1905, flooding caused the Colorado River to spill over the man-made irrigation canals to pour into what was then known as the Salton Sink– 40 miles of pure desert. It took two years to stop the flooding, by which time the largest lake in California had formed. Half a century later and this desert land had become a holiday paradise. The town’s population grew to 15,000 people, with thousands more arriving on weekends. But the paradise would not last …

Vimeo link

What happened to this lush oasis that it now stands eerily silent as an empty waste land of foul smells, abandoned homes and acres of dead fish?

Disaster struck in the 1970s, when masses of fish suddenly died and floated to the surface. What was killing the thousands of fish was quickly identified as agricultural run off from local farms into the Salton Sea. The lake didn’t have enough drainage (this was after all, how the body of water was formed) and had no ecosystem to refresh itself.

Here’s the science: With all the fertilizers from local farms flowing into the Salton, there was a tremendous growth of algae. And when algae dies, it sinks and creates a layer at the bottom of the sea where there’s no oxygen. So then we have bacteria that’s eating all of this dead organic matter and creating hydrogen sulfide gas.

by Jim Lo Scalzo

Hydrogen sulfide gas is as toxic as cyanide and causes extreme damage to the central nervous system, eventually destroying the ability to breathe. In fact, this is the very same substance that was used as a poison gas in World War I. (Not really ideal for a holiday resort).

The toxic gas killed millions of fish, even up to 7 million at one time. Then the birds that ate the fish also got sick. Residents claimed they could smell and taste the gas in the air.

David Zimmerman

People stopped coming to the salton sea. Vacation homes were abandoned, resort developments stopped in mid construction. Neighborhoods to be, never were. RVs, boats, spas and yacht clubs, were all left behind. Today where thousands once lived and played, only a few hundred remain in each of the tiny shoreside communities, surrounded by the ruins of vacation homes. Decades after being abandoned, the effects of water, sun and salt, are clear.

Bosko Hrnjak

The RV power hookups throughout the camping sites are like tombstones to the dead campground.

What looks to be like an old airstream trailer has been exposed to the environment for up to 40-50 years. As soon as a window broke or a crack opened, the environment entered the trailer, and it became food for the environment.

Steve Bingham

Like the people dribbling away from the toxic sea, the structural elements slowly disappeared from the homes.

Buildings still have some structural frame in place, but there’s not much left. Most of the recognizable materials will soon be buried deep beneath the Salton sands (or fish skeletons).


On any given day, you can wander around Salton City without seeing another soul.

Over the years, plans to revitalize the area and rebuild a town to inhabit up to 40,000 were proposed and even approved by government officials, despite the obvious environmental dangers. But more years passed, and the once-glamorous riviera still remains an eerily silent and doomed wasteland.

Ultimately, Salton City will probably go back to being the desert land it once was– with a lot of garbage on it.


Images via J Bennet FittsThe end of Beingwikimedia

Check out this short documentary on the Salton Riviera featuring some more archival footage and extensive footage of the abandoned resort.

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