Prior to this moment, the road has taken us from Los Angeles to Palm Springs—a place that we had planned to stay for two nights. With the words “Frank Sinatra used to live here” still ringing in our ears given the number of times Palm Springs locals utter the phrase, Far Out headed out-of-town to see what Salton Sea and Salvation Mountain was all about.
In hindsight, it might have been a good idea to cut our two nights in Palm Springs in half and spend one of them in the vicinity of Salton Sea, an area that is essentially descended into somewhat of the post-apocalyptic beach and holiday resort.
You’ll be aware that water, the moderation of water and the constant threat of running out of water has had the state of California on high alert for decades. So, to offer a very brief history into the area that was previously entirely made up of desert land, begins with unusually heavy rainfall in the 1900s causing what would turn out to be one of the largest national accidents in state history. The Colorado River burst its banks and flooded the previously dried-out farmland. What ensued was an unforeseen lake that has endured a hectic and troubled life.
An incredibly popular boom in the ’50s and ’60s saw some branding the new ‘Sea’ as the “miracle in the desert” offering the beach time, yacht clubs and lake party vibe that neighbouring Palm Springs could never do—and about half a million tourists a year duly obliged.
However, from what was initially an idyllic miracle in the desert soon became a nightmare. The lake, which ran across farmland littered with pesticides and filtered salt water from the ocean, soon became an economic hazard. The water was so badly infected that any potential living species in the lake were soon washed up on the beaches, the same waterfront that had previously lined the most luxurious of sunbeds. As the dead fish began to take precedent, tourists abandoned the area and left behind mountains of fish bones, brown toxic water and houses running into disrepair.
There’s still a fair few people riding it out and taking the cheap house prices despite some claims that the toxic fumes from the lake have links to increased chances of cancer if consumed for long enough. Of course, you’ll be fine to check it out, and while you’re there should visit Bombay Beach and the famous Banana Museum as well as Salvation Mountain, but more on that further down.
Due to the lake slowly evaporating and the rise of dead animals being washed up, the late Congressman Sonny Bono—the same Sunny who was once married to Cher—attempted to introduce legislation to restore the Salton Sea, but estimates to repair the ecological damage run as high as $500 million.
That said, the dire situation becomes a harsher reality when considered that Salton Sea is the largest lake in California, at some 375 square miles and, according to the San Bernardino County Museum, has the second-highest count of different species of wildlife in the nation.
To put the current situation into perspective, before 1985, the Salton Sea’s State Park had more visitor days per year than did Yosemite National Park.
Apparently, in 1964, there were more than 1,600,000 visitor-days at the Salton Sea, with 61,000 boat launchings.
So, Salvation Mountain is pretty surreal.
The whole thing was created by a man named Leonard Knight and is made from adobe, straw, natural desert findings and thousands of gallons of lead-free paint.
California Senator Barbara Boxer described it as “a unique and visionary sculpture… a national treasure… profoundly strange and beautifully accessible, and worthy of the international acclaim it receives”—and she wasn’t wrong.
Vice did a nice interview with Leonard Knight before he passed away in 2014, it follows the creator around his work and offers a glimpse into his thinking and you can see that below.
The whole feeling there is truly extraordinary.
We picked a particularly hot day to visit the mountain and, in a moment that made me believe that the area was undoubtedly holy, a miracle arrived upon me. There I stood, soaking in the atmosphere under the blistering heat, sipping the last mouthfuls of warm water in a melting bottle as I sweat out into my jean shorts then, I see it… an ice-cold bucked of bottled water—and this was no mirage.
Fellow disciples of Knight have kept up the running of the mountain since his passing and offer refreshments in favour of a donation. You’ll need to be brave when driving through the ghost town to reach it but when you do, the reward is truly staggering.