The Sonoran Desert in the far southwest corner of the United States regularly reaches temperatures over 105°F and sees barely half an inch of rainfall across the entire year. That might make it an unlikely place to find a lake, but remarkably, California’s vast, shallow, and highly saline Salton Sea stands at the desert’s northern end.

Sandwiched between the city of San Diego and Joshua Tree National Park; the sea, which is really a rift lake, formed in a depression along the southern tip of the San Andreas Fault, covers some 340 square miles. But even more remarkable than that, the desert not only has a sea, it allegedly has a shipwreck.

Legendary stories about a treasure-laden Spanish galleon lost somewhere beneath the sands of the Californian, Nevadan, or Arizonan desert have endured for centuries, with the first tales thought to have emerged sometime in the 18th century. The Gold Rushes and Land Rushes of the 1800s helped make these stories more widely known, so that by the tail end of the 19th century, the lost ships of the deserts of California were being immortalized in books, poems, and folk songs. Meanwhile, many luckless prospectors had even tried launching expeditions deep into the desert, in vain attempts to locate their treasures.

So is there any truth behind these tales? And is there any chance of an ancient ship being lost somewhere in the desert? Oddly, it could be argued that there is, and that these tales are not quite as bizarre as they might sound.

Back when Spanish colonists were first exploring and settling the west coast of North America in the 1600s, many of the region’s inland seas and lakes were still connected to the coast by narrow streams and tributaries. Most of these ancient waterways have long since been dammed and had their waters redirected for agricultural or domestic use, or else have dried up entirely due to climate change or the changing landscape of the area. But according to some versions of the lost ship legend, a Spanish galleon laden with gold and pearls sailed inland from the Pacific Ocean along one of these rivers, propelled along by an unseasonable high tide in the Gulf of California. Some 100 miles inland, the ship was struck by a sudden deluge of floodwater coming the other way from the Colorado River and capsized. As the floods and the tidal waters receded, the ship became stranded on dry land and was eventually lost beneath the shifting desert sands.

Another version of the tale claims that a ship became stranded in the Salton Sea basin by a mudslide or a landslip triggered by thunderstorms, floodwaters, or even an earthquake. Yet another version claims that the ship became stranded in the basin when an unusually powerful tidal bore (i.e. a wall of water swept inland by a high tide) knocked clean through a giant levee or land barrier beside the Salton Sea and swept the ship into the basin. This latter tale might seem unlikely, but in 1922 an exceptionally strong 15ft tall bore swept along the Colorado River with such force that it indeed managed to capsize a steamboat, killing perhaps as many as 100 of its passengers.

As unlikely as these tales may seem at first glance, they are neither without precedence, nor are they impossible. But if a ship were to be lost somewhere in the deserts of the southwest United States, we can presume that it has long been swamped by sand and now resides somewhere hidden from view. Whether it will ever be seen or found again remains to be seen!