Off the grid (literally). Hot. Dry. Off-beat. It’s known affectionately as “the last free place” – enter Slab City, a desert community completely void of fresh water and electricity. Some come to escape the winter chill and snow while others call this lawless place home year-round. The abandoned buses, shacks, RVs…lots of RVs, and tents scattered about the Sonoran Desert are where the residents of “the slabs” call home. This is another America, an odd one, one that our family really hasn’t been much exposed to. The place draws all sorts of people, some old fashioned hippies, some snow birds on a budget just looking to warm-up, surely a few trouble makers, and lots of people just looking to do things their own way – marching to the beat of their own drum.

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At one time (back during WWII) this now quirky spot known as “the Slabs” was the location of the barracks for U.S. Marine base Camp Dunlap. Yup, the current slabs are actually the remains of the old barracks – it turns out they make a great makeshift RV pads as well! Years later the historical ties still remain as the name of the city is founded in the leftover concrete slabs that were littered behind when the camp was abandoned.

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We’ll admit, the following activities are probably a tad off-the-grid and most definitely are very quirky. However, there is something to be said about living your life free from schedules, jobs, or the “chains of consumerism.” This place is all about that old Fight Club quote regarding how the things you own end up owning you.  Even so, it’s impossible to call this a minimalist haven, as most people seem to have piles of junk (…er, treasure?) piled up high. What it is, however, is a temple of ingenuity, freedom, and resourcefulness. People make due with what they have and seem genuinely happy to be there. They seem genuinely happy to be alive.

Part of me thinks they’ve stumbled upon something special. Unconventional, yes – but no less worth exploring than anywhere else we’ve taken our kids. We aren’t about to dive in head first, but there is something here to take away. That’s the superpower of travel, right? It’s the ability to take little pieces of a bunch of places and apply them to your regular life. Add enough of them and suddenly you look up and your regular life isn’t so regular.

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Activities

Salvation Mountain

Located in the city of Niland, Salvation Mountain is the perfect example of how one person’s hard work can create something incredible. A self-made monument to the love of God built by Leonard Knight. We first heard about this place in the movie “Into The Wild” where the main character passes through before eventually making his way up to Alaska. Knight himself is actually in the movie, and comes across as a gentle person enjoying desert, trying to spread his love of God, and the kindness of human kind.

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Through Salvation Mountain, he found a way to express this in a really remarkable way. This is one of those places where you can feel how the Desert vibrates at a different Hz than the rest of the country. It is a very cool place to see and experience – and in our opinion shines the best at sunset. There is no better sunset than a desert sunset…except maybe in the Perhentian Islands. 

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As you make you’re way towards the mountain you’ll notice several old trucks that are adorned with Bible verses, tons of paint and have been weathered over the years. The amount of time and planning that went into creating this entire landscape dedicated to our creator is beautiful. So. Much. Detail.

In our opinion the mountain is kinda set up into two sections. The first section is the main mountain which includes the yellow brick road that you can walk up to the top of the mountain and take in a great view of the neighboring community of Slab City.

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The second gives you an opportunity to walk through a portion of the mountain. As you walk in, notice the hundreds of left over paint cans that line the way. I would love to know how many gallons of paint have been used to make this monument and moreover how many people have dedicated their time to maintaining this place.

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It’s amazing how old windows, car doors, and tree limbs take on a much bigger meaning when used to create such a special place.  There are all sorts of nooks in this part of the mountain where you can sit and enjoy #allthecolor or if your Penny, play in the dirt. There is plenty of dirt.

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Knight passed away in 2014, but he left an incredible monument to God and Love. Just remember to be respectful and when walking up the mountain to stay on the yellow brick road in order to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to enjoy the art installation. Additionally,  while you’re visiting, pause every now and again to just take it all in. The love that has been poured into this place over the years is simply – awesome.

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Salvation Mountain:

  • Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free

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East Jesus

Yup, East Jesus aka a little desert community past Salvation Mountain and Slab City and even more so really out-in-the-middle-of-who-knows-where. Home to writers, visionaries, artists, dreamers, and creatives alike all with the same goal: reuse (before recycling) as much consumable trash as humanly possible. According to the very nice people hanging out at the front of the community’s art garden, East Jesus actually started off as the “dump” for Slab City – intrigued?

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The local stated that overtime, people came to appreciate the value of the left over items and eventually, the residents actually raised the money to purchase the land from the State creating the only official museum in the county.  Their slogan – “Everything is trash, so free to break whatever you want” perfectly epitomizes their philosophy.

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Honestly, the spot isn’t hard to find really. Just head past Salvation Mountain and through Slab City. Eventually the road will end and you’ll come to a somewhat large sign with an arrow pointing you in the right direction. There is nothing else out here, so it’s near impossible to miss.

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From here, just keep following the hand written signs accompanied by arrows and you’ll eventually see an entrance to the East Jesus Art Garden. We suggest you park here and pop out for a bit if time permits. Entrance to the area is (of course) free and open to all. We really have come to love the free-spirit and individuality that can be found in this part of the desert. Stroll around freely and take as many pics as you like – the whole Salton Sea area really is a paradise for photographers. The residents are really fun to talk to as well and their personal stories are nearly as awesome as the art garden itself.

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Editorial Note: Britt’s middle name is Ruth.

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As a side note, we wrote this destination page in 2020, so if you travel here after us we would love to see how the art installations have grown! Feel free to leave a comment below and post your own pics!

East Jesus:

  • Hours: Open 24/7…it’s a city. Probably best explored during daylight.
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free

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Salton Sea

Make a stop at the Salton Sea State Recreation Center sometime on your trip to the Slabs as the two spots are only about 35 – 40 minutes drive apart and just take a look around. Looks gorgeous, right? Well, the Salton Sea was “created” by accident in 1905 when the Colorado River flooded and spilled out of a poorly constructed irrigation system. It took nearly two years to stop the flow of water into the low lying desert. What was left was the Salton sea, a body of water substantially larger than California’s Lake Tahoe (albeit it is much less deep).

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It’s a beautiful area to be sure, and in the 1950s was actually a resort area filled with people boating and enjoying this surprise body of water in the middle of nowhere. It became a wildlife hotspot, with millions of birds and excellent fishing as well. However, with no natural inlets, as the water slowly evaporates the salinity has been increasing. Among other things, this has made it more and more difficult for the lake to support marine life.

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In addition to evaporation, runoff from neighboring farms rich with fertilizer had nourished algae blooms which steal oxygen from the water and create mass fish die offs. As fish die, so do the birds that rely on them. These have been so significant that now a large portion of the shore is made up of fish and bird bones. As a word of caution, the Sea is less than refreshing as you approach the brackish waters and we would advise that you don’t arrive when the wind is in full swing. The wind stirs up the water and released gas from the decomposing sea bed – it smells just as good as you would imagine.

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Okay, truly we aren’t meaning to turn you off from this spot. But before going further, we should also disclose that the sea itself lacks bottom feeding fish, so whatever dies in the blue-ish (?)…errr brownish…abyss usually gets washed up…double yum.

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Yep, the shore is essentially made up of pulverized fish bones.

Now that I’ve made this once coveted vacation spot sound super appealing let me ratchet it back and state that you should absolutely visit this spot…and whhhhyyyy you may ask? Well, outside of the doom and gloom of this man-made ecological disaster is a great science lesson for the kiddos as it demonstrates the delicate balance our planet requires to stay habitable. It’s also a perfect spot to let them get some energy out – there are even picnic tables, outdoor grills, and RV camping spots if you are so inclined!

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Salton Sea State Recreation Area:

  • Hours: Visitors Center: Daily, 1000 – 1600
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: The first 15 minutes are complimentary. If you (like us) plan on staying longer the parking fee is $7/vehicle.

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Bombay Beach

Nestled in Imperial County, California, this little leftover town located on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea was once made up of tons of folks (kinda like Desert Hot Springs back in its mid-century hey-day it was a thriving resort community) who flocked to the Salton Sea for vacay in the 1940s and 50s! As you pull in and see the welcome advertisement with the gorgeous ladies skiing you can just envision Don Draper and a girlfriend pulling in to enjoy this once paradise. However, flash forward about 80 years and the little washed up dot on the map is made up of crumbling buildings and just about 300 peeps (according to the most recent U.S. census in 2010 – yup, we are due for an updated population count soon) and is considered one of the most destitute places in California. But why the mass exodus? Why the poverty? If you, like us, are wondering how then read on!

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You see, as the neighboring Salton Sea flooded and many of the homes of residents of the area were engulfed. Although some folks rebuilt, others simply could not. Over time, the rising levels of salinity in the sea have become a growing concern as water continues to evaporate without a constant inflow (y’all the Salton Sea is 25% more salty than the Pacific Ocean!). As the sea slowly evaporates, so has Bombay Beach. In reality, who wants to live by a sea of dying birds and fish?

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Bombay Beach is one of the lowest communities (altitude wise) in the United States measuring in at ~23 feet below sea level. Compare this with the neighboring 10,000 foot peaks and you get an idea of the power of plate techtonics pushing Pacific and Continental plates together. As a community, Bombay Beach seems somewhat frozen in time and lost in the past. We drove into town past numerous deserted homes, immediately passing the Bombay Beach Drive-in, now a combination junk lot + art space full of decaying cars. It’s hard to explain the appeal of this area, just a few hours from L.A. yet held suspended in a completely different decade.

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This spot has held appeal to so many for years and it was hard to really put our figure on why. It sure isn’t the same paradise that the opening advertisement states anymore or the next up-and-coming Riviera that it was once billed as. It holds a strange appeal that is no doubt linked to its isolation and slow decay. In fact, the late Anthony Bourdain’s crew from the Travel Channel’s hit series “No Reservations”  stopped by this post-apocalyptic place back in 2011, hitting several of our favorite spots around the region. Additionally, Bombay Beach was also one of the film sites for “The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake,” a made for TV movie which aired on NBC back in 1990. Not all is lost on this once dreamy vacay spot, and in fact the community is attempting a come-back (sorta) of its own as it hosts an annual festival called, Bombay Beach Biennale, that spans three days.

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This is an America that is so different than the one we are accustom to. It strays away from the normalcy and embraces the weird and the off-beat. We can’t say that we are looking to move in anytime soon (although we hear real estate is pretty darn cheap), but we can definitely appreciate why some people dig it. Just check out the plane installation below by artist Randy Polumbo. Kinda resembles a banana? Kinda looks a bit like a fish? Reminds us a little of Burning Man… We encourage you to embrace the quirkiness here with an open mind as you explore this wasteland turned art hub.

Bombay Beach:

  • Hours: Sunrise – Sunset?
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free

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International Banana Museum

The only museum in the country dedicated to a single fruit. Say no more…we are there! The dilapidated sign is falling down and from the outside the museum has seen better days, however how could we not stop as this fantastic (albeit odd) treasure? We certainly wouldn’t recommend driving out just for this, but if you are out in the the desert exploring the Salton Sea you would be amiss to drive right on by! In all seriousness though, our kids really liked this crazy place and it was a great way to get them out of the VW to stretch out.

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Started by Ken Bannister in 1978, the one room museum contains 25,000 banana related items. We won’t get into the details about how a private collection evolved into a museum, but as far as road side attractions go this is a pretty interesting one. In 1999, Guinness Book of World Records certified it as the worlds larges’t museum devoted to a single fruit. It is very easy to miss (in fact, we drove by and had to turn around to find it), but is definitely worth a stop.

In addition to all the banana paraphernalia, should you be hungry you can indulge in some banana flavored snacks as well! Banana nut muffins, banana bread, banana soda, banana milkshake, chocolate covered bananas, and banana ice cream were all available to purchase. Alright, it’s time to split! Have a banana-rama day! #peelyoulater #allthebananapuns

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International Banana Museum:

  • Hours: Friday – Monday, 1300-1700 (Closed Tuesday – Thursday)
  • Admission: $1/Adults and Children
  • Parking: Free

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