Affiliate Disclaimer: This article may contain affiliate links. We may earn a small commission if readers clicks through and make a purchase. See Affiliate Disclosure here.

DON’T Swim In This Lake ❌ The Worst Lake In California

In the 1950s this place was a popular tourist attraction with Hollywood elites like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra visiting the place!

It was so good that people started dubbing it the French Riviera of the US. 

But then things started to take a disturbing turn in the 1960s and 1970s. 

This tale includes death, toxic dust and residents flocking to escape this nightmare lake that was once a haven of leisure. ☠️

Join us as we explore the worst lake in California and why you probably shouldn’t visit it. 

(And also some reasons why you SHOULD visit it)

Where It All Began – The Accidental Lake? 🧐

This lake is actually the largest inland lake in all of California (but it is constantly shrinking) and you might be surprised to know that it was made through an accident.

This lake’s story begins in the early 1900s when water was diverted by engineers from the Colorado River to Southern California’s Imperial Valley, a region known for farming.

salton sea imperial valley california (1)
Imperial Valley – California

In 1905, the Colorado River unexpectedly breached its barriers, pouring into the dry Colorado Desert for over a year. 

Eventually, the flow from the Colorado River was cut off, but by then an accidental lake covering an area similar to Lake Tahoe had already formed.

Initially seen as a miracle and a potential paradise for development, the lake’s unintended creation had consequences that shaped its troubled future.

The lake’s name was the ‘Salton Sea’. 

The French Riviera of California? 🤯

At one point in time the Salton Sea was a popular leisure destination. 

salton sea beach marina sign

Everything from golf courses, resorts, large marinas and yacht clubs were built around the lake. 

You could find people enjoying boating, waterskiing, swimming, and fishing on the beaches of the lake. 

In fact, it was so popular around the 1950s and 1960s that it was frequently visited by the Hollywood elite. 

People like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra are known to have visited the Salton Sea. 

The Beach Boys and The Marx Brothers are also known to have visited. 

The area of the lake was even dubbed the ‘French Riviera of the US’.

But then, things started to take a turn for the WORSE.

The Downfall Of The Salton Sea ☠️

In the 1960s and 1970s things started to take a turn for the worse. 

salton sea dead fish
Dead fish in the Salton Sea

Remember that the Salton Sea was created by accident? 

Well, the flow of water that caused it was sealed up (after around 18 months according to NASA).

After this point, the Salton Sea was mainly sustained from agricultural runoff from nearby farming. 

This lonely body of water began to evaporate and the water that was left behind grew progressively more saline and polluted.

This eventually led to:

  • Foul odors filling the air from dying fish 🤮
  • Birds dropping dead on the beaches from eating the toxic fish ☠️
  • Toxic dust filling the lungs of locals when winds sweep in 💨
  • Residents trying to escape the area 🏃🏻‍♂️

Here’s a quick timeline of events starting from the 1960’s


The lake experienced its first major fish die-off, indicating early signs of water quality problems.


The salinity levels began to rise significantly as agricultural drainage continued to flow into the lake without adequate freshwater inflows to balance it.


The lake’s shoreline began to recede due to increasing salinity and reduced water inflows, impacting fish populations and bird habitats.


Multiple fish die-offs occurred, further highlighting the deteriorating water quality, and the lake’s reputation as a recreational destination declined.


The Salton Sea faced intensified environmental challenges, including larger and more frequent fish die-offs, avian habitat loss, and unpleasant odors due to decaying organic matter.

2010s and Beyond

Ongoing efforts to address the Salton Sea’s problems through restoration projects and water management strategies were initiated.

However, the lake continued to face issues related to shrinking water levels and worsening environmental conditions and still does to this day.

Reasons NOT To Visit The Salton Sea

You can see why people wouldn’t want to visit, but here’s a quick summary of the reasons you should not visit the worst lake in California.

Abandoned chair salton sea (1)
Abandoned Chair – Salton Sea

Unpleasant Odor Due To Fish Die-Offs.

As water pollution and salinity have risen, there have been unpleasant odors in the lake and surrounding areas. 

This is particularly obvious in the hot summer months when you can REALLY smell the sulfuric stench in the air (think of rotten eggs). 

Poor Water Quality For Swimming Or Boating

It kills fish, and it’s definitely not good for humans either. 

It’s around double the salinity of ocean water and there are also harmful algae blooms that can cause a lot of problems for humans. 

And don’t forget that the main source of the Salton Sea is agricultural runoff which can include things like fertilizer, heavy metals and toxins like arsenic and selenium.

It’s safe to say, you probably shouldn’t swim in the Salton Sea. 

Limited Recreational Activities

Adding on to the previous point, since the water quality is so bad, you’re not going to find many recreational activities on the water.

But there are some things to see and do in the area (covered later in this post).

Health Concerns

The exposed lakebed contains fine particles and dust that can become airborne, especially during windy conditions.

Inhaling these particulates can lead to respiratory problems, including exacerbation of pre-existing conditions like asthma and bronchitis.

Chemical contaminants from agricultural activities and industrial sources contribute to air quality issues and pose health risks when inhaled.

Long-term exposure may lead to chronic respiratory conditions like asthma.

Odor’s from fish die-offs and warm weather can cause nausea and headaches in some individuals.

Microorganisms from the lake’s water can also be carried in the air and may cause respiratory infections if inhaled.

Residents and visitors in the Salton Sea area are advised to take precautions to mitigate potential risks, such as using dust masks and avoiding outdoor activities during windy days.

10 Reasons Why You SHOULD Visit The Worst Lake In California ✅

Despite the problems, there are still some reasons to consider visiting the Salton Sea.

salton sea lake in california
Salton Sea Lake in California

Unique Ecosystem

The Salton Sea boasts a unique yet troubled ecosystem that beckons both nature enthusiasts and history buffs.

Witness the annual migration of thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes, creating a spectacular avian spectacle.

Historical Significance

Explore the remnants of old resorts and communities that once thrived during the Salton Sea’s heyday, such as the ruins of Bombay Beach.

Scenic Landscapes

Capture the striking desert landscapes surrounding the Salton Sea with your camera.

The stark contrast between the salt-encrusted shores and the desert backdrop provides a unique and picturesque setting for photography.

Recreational Activities

While swimming and boating may be limited due to water quality concerns, there are still opportunities for fishing, hiking, and picnicking in designated areas around the lake.

The Salton Sea has killed off a lot of fish but it is still home to various fish species, including populations of tilapia and corvina.

Artistic Inspiration

The eerie beauty of the Salton Sea has attracted artists and photographers alike.

Be inspired by the lake’s post-apocalyptic aesthetic, reminiscent of the work of artists like Richard Misrach, whose photography captures the area’s unique character.

Geological Interest

For those interested in earth sciences, the Salton Sea offers geological intrigue.

Explore geothermal features around the lake, such as bubbling mud pots and hot springs found at the nearby Salton Buttes.

Peace and Tranquility

Despite its challenges, the Salton Sea can provide a peaceful and remote getaway for those seeking solitude and tranquility.

Away from the more crowded tourist destinations, you can find a serene environment along its quieter shores.

Local Culture

Immerse yourself in the unique culture of the Salton Sea’s local communities.

Experience events like the annual Bombay Beach Biennale, which showcases art and creativity in the area, and gain insights into the resilience and character of the local residents.

Agricultural Tours

Discover the importance of the Imperial Valley’s farming practices by taking tours of nearby agricultural fields.

Learn about the region’s role in food production and its significance in the agricultural landscape.

Conservation Awareness

Visiting the Salton Sea can raise awareness about the urgent need for conservation efforts and restoration projects to protect this fragile ecosystem.

By participating in volunteer efforts and conservation programs, you can contribute to the ongoing restoration and preservation of the Salton Sea’s unique environment.

Related Reading

Sophie Davis

Born and raised in the Bay area of California, Sophie is a California native. She joined our team in 2023 to create travel guides on California.

Learn more about the Traveller's Elixir Team.

Share to...