Into The Desert, Part Two

Words by Matt Willis

About four-hundred miles south of Death Valley and the high desert lies the Salton Sea basin, an area which I’ve become very familiar with over the years. Where the high deserts seem to be more grandiose in terms of beauty and natural phenomena, the lower desert is often considered dull and disgusting at first glance.

It is the starting point for much of the common produce you eat; the soil around the Salton Sea is some of the most fertile in southern California. Though the sea is naturally maintained, its creation was an accident. In the early 1900s, controlled canals were created in the Salton Sink to divert water into the valley. However, the silt from the river built up and began to block the canals. Engineers couldn’t control the problem; and after a heavy winter swell, a massive flood overran the canal system. The resulting two waterways, the Alamo River and the New River, are now the only feeds into the Salton Sea from the Colorado River. The Sea is the largest lake in California, at nearly 550 square miles of surface area and 52 feet of depth.

In the 1950s, the Salton Sea was widely known as a recreational lake. The Holly Corporation was responsible for much of investment in “beachfront cities” such as Bombay Beach, Desert Shores, Salton City and others surrounding towns. Original development plans for Salton City called for 25,000 lots, 250 miles of new roads, pools, churches, parks, a golf course and a $500,000 luxury yacht club and hotel. It wasn’t long before people began to take interest. Frank Sinatra, Desi Arnaz and Dwight Eisenhower were among the big names that visited the sea for yachting, sailing, golf and more; along with thousands of others. Early investors called the Sea the “greatest gold-mine in the desert”, and they speculated that it would surpass Las Vegas in tourism revenue. They were wrong.

In less than a decade of expansion, the Salton Sea’s popularity came to a screeching halt. The lake flooded, submerging or destroying many lots and businesses. The saline levels rapidly increased when the lake later receded, killing off many fish and making the surrounding area barren and nearly uninhabitable. The lack of understanding about the Sea’s very unique ecosystem resulted in million-dollar losses. From that point on, the towns around the Sea have seen little life. Just the weathering from the blowing dust and fierce sun…

It’s one of the eeriest places I know. Not so much haunted or anything, but I just get a strange feeling when I think about how quickly everything was abandoned. Nothing was ever cleaned up or packed away; it was all just left there to die.

One of the in-flow canals coming from the south. “Signal Mountain”, shown, is located in Mexico. It is the highest visible point in the valley. As a footnote, the images to follow are from different trips and times.

A wash in the southern part of the Salton Sea. The trees in the background are “frozen” with solidified salt.


The view from Red Hill Marina. The waterline once reached the shore here.

I’ve done some research on this house. It was actually an unfinished vacation home that was being built in the 60s.

This looks like it may have been a pool or something, at one point. Care to take a dip?

Dead Tilapia fish are always a concern of visitors. The Tilapia actually thrive in the sea, but their generations build and die off very quickly due to the changing environment of the sea.

Abadoned area near Bombay Beach. The crust on the ground is all salt.

Salt buildup.

One of several mobile homes destroyed by time.


Off the shore of Bombay Beach, a steel “Tomatoes” sign still stands.








On a trip with Tim, he grabbed some shots of my Integra on the west side of the sea.



I would suggest everyone in southern California pay a visit the Sea at some point. It’s not pretty or breathtaking, but it does make you look at things a little differently, and it is a interesting experience.

To the south of the Salton Sea lies the main city in the valley, El Centro. Other than being a large source of agriculture, this is the winter home of the US Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron, and a facility to for pilots to practice aircraft carrier landings and other flight/combat operations.



Expansive skies with high cirrus clouds make the valley the perfect place for flying.


One of the very cool things about the base here is that you can pretty much get right into the landing path and blow your eardrums out, and nobody will really bother you. I love hearing cars, but nothing beats the sonic roar of a jet engine.

Planes can get less than 100 feet above the ground in this landing path.



Here is some god awful video I took a couple years ago as they landed in a slight crosswind. The mic doesn’t do it justice, it is much louder. I’ll have to get some better footage soon…


500+ MPH pass at about 100 feet off the ground…





On my last visit, I caught a few of the new model “Super Hornet” pilots under instruction. Many of these new aircraft are from Lemoore (Central) California, but come here for different aspects of training.





Many of the instructors wave hello as they fly over.

Out east of El Centro, at the Arizona border, lies the city of Yuma. This is home to the main irrigation flow from the Colorado River and other sites.





Me overlooking Senator’s Wash.

Palm Tree farms…



Miles of railroad stretch through these deserts…


Along with power lines…


Back in the Imperial Valley lies a nestled area southeast of the Salton Sea called Calipatria. There isn’t much here, but it is home to a small town and a hotel. On a recent trip, we found a few abandoned factories near this area.


This was the K-Bar firelog factory, a company whose last records were found in grocery store ads in the late 70s. Spools of their firelog wrappers (pallets and pallets) are still at this site, along with all their equipment and machinery (albeit, very worn and non-functioning).



Off in the background of this shot, you can see a fire burning. Normally fires in this area are set intentionally to clear crops quickly; this was an exception. I read later it was an act of arson. We went to check it out.




I get asked all the time, and the truth is I still don’t know what I like about the blistering heat, the barren land and the dusty air. But I keep going back, searching for whatever I can find. I feel like it’s a part of me, and there’s no avoiding that. Special thanks to my Dad for some of these shots.


Special thanks to my Dad for some of these shots.

Thanks for reading. – Matt

64 thoughts on “Into The Desert, Part Two

  1. Great photos! I love them all, but for some reason I really love your pictures of the torn up sofa. What kind of lens do you use the most? I love the perspective.

  2. While in the Marines, I was stationed in 29 Palms, CA. Because of that, I had the good fortune to see quite a bit of California, but sadly missed the areas shown here. Great photos and congrats on being freshly pressed.

  3. @ Charlie

    For desert shots, I always find myself turning to a 16-35mm wide angle.

    Thanks for the comments!

    – Matt

  4. Congratulations on being freshly pressed!

    We were in your part of the world this past March, including the Salton Sea area. I so enjoyed your photography of the desert. Thank you.

  5. What fascinating photos. It’s like a combination of devastation, annihilation, beauty and a reminder of what was before we destroyed it. Your photos capture a strange, quiet beauty, even when it’s horrible destruction. Thanks for sharing (and congrats on the FP).

  6. Tim! congrats on being Freshly Pressed. Great pictures. I will admit I was too lazy to read what you wrote, but I am sure it was good. haha


  7. My husband and I were stationed in Yuma for 3 years. I hated it to be honest. You made El Centro and the surrounding desert look so beautiful, I commend you. Some of the most beautiful sunsets were in Yuma, and we LOVED fire chasing after the winter crop picking. Good job

  8. Love the pics and post about Salton Sea. Definately the type of place I drool over the idea of visiting! 🙂

  9. “But I keep going back, searching for whatever I can find. I feel like it’s a part of me, and there’s no avoiding that. ”

    A great sentence which support all of your images perfectly. Home is where your heart is,indeed. Great work!

  10. Beautiful stuff. I’ve got to stop visiting all these photographers blogsites because my lists of places to go is getting too long. haha Thanks for the provocatively enticing photos. 🙂 A travel agency could use you to make even the worst places to visit worth looking at! Great job!

    – Ben

  11. You just convinced me to visit the Salton Sea on my next trip to San Diego. Your photos tell a compelling story. The aircraft pictures are fantastic. I agree there is nothing more exhilarating than to hear and feel the power of a military jet kicking it into afterburners.Thanks for sharing.

  12. I, too, am fascinated by the loney desert. Is it the feeling that I’m the Omega Man that pulls me back? Like you, I can’t define it. But it’s real.

  13. Reblogged this on Waves and Tidings and commented:
    I think I am adding El Centro to my bucket list of places to see. The deserted towns near Salton Sea basin would seem like a cool bonus to see, but to be able to experience jets flying that up close would be awesome, so close they can wave to you. I grew up going to air shows and watch the likes of the Blue Angels fly. And now my own brother flies in the Navy. It might blow your ear drums but to see jets that close would be amazing. This blog post from shows some great photos and a nice video clip of the Blue Angels, and also some good pictures of the deserted Salton Sea basin area.

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