Bombay Beach: A Toxic Wasteland And Unique Art Community

One of the places I knew I wanted to go on the little road trip with my parents was Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea. I didn’t know a whole lot about it and what I thought was wrong.

I thought it was an abandoned town, basically, and it sort of is but also isn’t. It is still a town and about 450 people call it home. It’s not a ritzy town by any means but it has character unlike some other places I’ve been.

the last resort sign at Bombay beach salton sea california
Not the Salton Sea Resort anymore!
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Some of the Bombay Beach ruins

I also didn’t realize how big it is, I thought it was more of an abandoned resort property, but it’s more than that. I though it was just art in one little spot and that’s all but it’s all of Bombay Beach!

Some of the houses themselves are really cute but there is art all over either made there or brought in from Burning Man. The Banana Plane was at Burning Man in 2018 and lives in Bombay Beach now.

Some of the art, like the Bombay Beach Opera House and the Bombay Beach Drive-In are art but also functional for what they are, which is so cool!

Our first stop was the Flying Fish at Bombay Beach Arts and Culture where we found Steve. He isn’t the owner of it, but he helps take care of it and was working on something when we pulled up.

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Future job opportunity at the Bombay Beach Club Marina?

We just looked from outside the fence but he told us we could come in and look around. He told us a little about the town and also told us about the opera house and drive-in.

I guess the opera house brings in opera and ballet performers for a, well, performance once a year. I’m not sure if it’s part of the Bombay Beach Biennale or a separate thing, though.

wall of old pop cans at Bombay beach salton sea california
bombay beach california

The front of the house actually opens up to the sides to reveal a performance space covered in flip flops found washed up on the shores of Lago, Nigeria. It’s also an unassuming house painted Caribbean blue. I love it.

The Bombay Beach Drive-In is a lot with wheel-less cars arranged like seating, facing a white semi-trailer with some old ride seats in front. Sometimes they open it up for movies! They project them onto the trailer, pull in some cars, and enjoy the show.

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A BYOL (bring your own lunch) Bombay Beach Restaurant

I’m not sure how often that happens, but it’s a pretty cool place. The drive-in and Opera house were, I think, my two favorite stops here.

He also said to keep an eye out for the painted TVs and found those near the Bombay Beach Estates and giant cube things. This was up there in my favorites, too, for sure.

We didn’t really have a plan for how to tackle all the stops, especially since I didn’t realize what Bombay Beach was really like, so we just kind of drove up and down all the street so we didn’t miss anything.

banana plane Bombay beach salton sea california
diva station bombay beach california
You can actually get food at the Ski Inn, the only Bombay Beach restaurant

We stopped at the Banana Plane, the Flying Fish, the Bombay Beach TVs, the opera house, the drive in, the welcome sign, the Bombay Beach Estates, the giant cube things, and the actual beach and some of its art.

With no idea what to expect, I ended up loving this former resort getaway. It’s sad to think about a thriving place just closing down, basically, but I loved seeing the art community it’s becoming.

A lot of people say it smells awful here, but none of use noticed that and it’s not like it was cold or anything, it was like, 85 degrees and it didn’t smell like eggs, gas, dead fish, or anything else terrible. Maybe we got lucky that day, I’m not sure.

rainbow sculpture bombay beach california

Bombay Beach Quickie Q+A

Can you visit Bombay Beach at the Salton Sea? You betcha!

Can you swim in the Salton Sea at Bombay Beach? Maybe technically but I definitely would say no.

Is Bombay Beach safe? As far as personal safety goes, I think so. We didn’t feel unsafe while we were there but that’s not too say crime in Bombay Beach is nonexistent. It sounds like petty theft and vandalism happens but there isn’t much to find online about crime there.

Is Bombay Beach toxic? Fishing was officially banned in the 1980s because the water in the Salton Sea was too toxic. So sort of? The air can be bad because of it but we didn’t experience that on our visit (not to say it doesn’t happen, it just didn’t that day.)

When was Bombay Beach abandoned? While Bombay Beach isn’t a ghost town, it doesn’t have many residents. I’m not sure the exact year things became abandoned but as far as II can tell it was sometime between the 1960s-70s. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.)

Who lives in Bombay Beach? I think a lot of artists but also just some other random people that either liked it or maybe used to live there? Again, there isn’t much out there in regard to the Bombay Beach inhabitants other than artists.

How big is the Salton Sea? 360 square miles, the biggest lake in California!

What is Bombay Beach known for? It’s known as being a former flourishing resort town turn almost ghost town. You can now see a lot of cool art and the Bombay Beach ruins.

Is the Salton Sea radioactive? Not as far as I’m aware but it is toxic.

Can you camp at Bombay Beach? Negative. You can camp elsewhere on the Salton Sea though.

What is the Salton Sea?

The Salton Sea is a toxic wasteland and environmental disaster in southern California, but it hasn’t always been this way. It used to be a thriving resort town in the 50s and 60s that was even frequented by celebrities.

The sea was formed in 1905 when a canal overflowed from the Colorado River, was diverted, and filled the dry lake bed. It settled in 1906 with it’s own little ecosystem.

Bombay beach drive in salton sea california
Bombay Beach Drive In
tesla charging station on bombay beach california
the Bombay Beach Tesla charging station!

Once the canal was repaired, it had no water flowing in from natural sources and only received runoff from the nearby farms. Runoff that was full of chemicals that, combined with ancient salt deposits, raised the salinity of the sea.

In the 20s it was approved for use in agriculture and things started to blossom in the area, but really picked up in the 50s when property values skyrocketed thanks to fishing, boating, water skiing (the Ski Inn), hotels, and even a yacht club.

ski inn bar on bombay beach california

Things boomed, birds thrived, and it attracted more visitors than Yosemite, even with the threat of the overly salty water ruining everything at any time. It was really the farming that brought on the demise of Booming Bombay Beach.

Irrigation drained into the lake, brining salt and pesticides with it causing wildlife to die and toxic algae to bloom, polluting the lake even more.

colorful chevron building in Bombay beach salton sea california
ski inn bar on bombay beach california

In 1986, fishing was banned in the area because of toxicity levels and in the 90s, things just got worse. The water quality killed hundreds of birds and even led to an outbreak of botulism.

It’s now the largest lake in California with over 70 miles of shoreline (!) and is home to water saltier than the pacific. Over time, odor advisories were issued that could reach as far as Los Angeles.

bombay beach estates california

There are worries now that as the lake shrinks and gets drier, the silt at the bottom will be drying out and blowing into the air. Why is this so worrisome, you ask?

Because of all the agricultural runoff. Over a century’s worth of runoff in the ground. Locals have some of the worst respiratory problems in the state and the drying sea just poses further risks and issues.

old tv Bombay beach salton sea california
toilet brush shadows at bombay beach estates california

Where is Bombay Beach?

Bombay Beach is on the southeastern shore of the Salton Sea. It’s about an hour and forty minutes from Joshua tree, about 2.5 hours from LA and San Diego, and just 26 minutes from Salvation Mountain.

toilet brushes at bombay beach estates california
One of my favorite stops in Bombay Beach, the toilet brush room.

Is Bombay Beach free to visit?

Yes! You can stop at the Ski Inn for food and drinks but other than that, it’s free to visit, drive around, and see the art.

bombay beach estates california

What is there to do in Bombay Beach?

Art! That’s the main draw, driving around to check out all of the really cool art, but you can wander along the beach (without swimming), and have lunch or a drink at the Ski Inn, the only business in Bombay Beach.

All we did was drive around and look at the art, talk to Steve at Bombay Beach Arts and Culture, and walk along the beach looking at the Salton Sea and the art there.

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The Bombay Beach flying fish

Bombay Beach Map

Here is a map with the main sights marked on it, but I would just recommend driving up and down all of the streets to see everything becuase there is all kinds of little stuff, too.

One thing to note: there are people that live here and there are abandoned structures, some of them are open for exploring and it’s pretty easy to tell which those are. The Bombay Beach Estates is a good example of this. If you’re not sure if you can go into it, don’t.

And if you are going into any buildings or structures, be careful. There’s garbage, glass, and other stuff all over and I don’t want anyone getting hurt here. If you’re not sure a building looks safe enough, just admire it from outside.

bombay beach estates california

Can you stay in Bombay Beach?

No, there is a campground but it’s closed as of 1/2/22 and I have no idea if/when it will change. There was other camping available at the Salton Sea not far from Bombay Beach though. Here is more information about camping at the Salton Sea.

And the Ski Inn sounds like a hotel, but it’s actually a bar and restaurant. The only bar and restaurant in Bombay Beach. It’s open daily from 10AM to 12AM.

mannequins in Bombay beach salton sea california
bombay beach TVs

Can you swim at Bombay Beach?

Negative, ghost rider. That is some toxic water (literally, because of toxic runoff from farms) and you do not want to be in that. It’s also what contributes to any air toxicity.

bombay beach opera house Bombay beach salton sea california

Is Bombay Beach safe?

It’s safe enough? Encouraging, right? Bombay Beach is fairly run down and there are squatters that live here so stay vigilant but don’t let that scare you off.

I would probably be more worried about the air quality and anything coming in from the sea, but I also wouldn’t let that discourage you from visiting unless you have bad asthma or other serious breathing/lung issues.

Bombay beach salton sea california

I didn’t feel threatened or in danger at all while we were here. I also didn’t notice any horrible smells (my parents don’t remember it being stinky either, I just asked), even down by the water.

If you’re just stopping by for a drive through town or or a couple of hours to check out the art, you should be ok, but that’s definitely something you’d have to decide for yourself and decide how comfortable you are with that.

Is Bombay Beach worth it?

Absolutely! I loved it and would definitely go back. If you’re going to Salvation Mountain and Slab City, this is super close to that, like less than 30 minutes and would be the perfect detour.

I don’t know if everyone needs to visit, but if you like abandoned things, street art/sculpture parks, this is a must-do. You don’t even need tons of time here, it’s a great stop if you’re in the area. We squeezed it in on our drive from Joshua Tree to Tucson.

Have you been to Bombay Beach at the Salton Sea? Or somewhere else at the Salton Sea? What did you think of it? Did you ever go in it’s glory days? Do you want to go?

4 thoughts on “Bombay Beach: A Toxic Wasteland And Unique Art Community

  1. My travel days are about over and I sure enjoy looking at things with your eyes =- =Thankd — Hal

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