We had some wonderful experiences exploring the southern California Coast (In case you missed it, that blog post is here: Southern California Dreaming). Our next stop was the California desert that lies between San Diego and Las Vegas. We saw some pretty wild stuff on this leg of our journey! Keep reading to find out more!
The Salton Sea
After leaving the lovely beaches of SoCal, we made our way back into the desert and found some great free dispersed campsites just south of Joshua Tree. We decided to head toward East Jesus, CA to check out some spots we had found in our research: the Salton Sea, Bombay Beach, Salvation Mountain, and Slab City. The drive out to this area was really interesting. There was the usual vast desert scenery but soon we started seeing palm tree forests. It looked like tree farms you might see up north, but with palm trees instead of pine trees.
Our first stop was the Salton Sea. For those of you who don’t know about the Salton Sea, here is a quick history. Even if you don’t like history, you might find this pretty interesting! In 1905, water was being diverted from the Colorado River to irrigate the nearby lands in the California desert. One day a flood caused the diversion to fail and the water filled the valley creating the largest lake in California. So essentially, the lake was formed by accident! In the 1920s the lake became a tourist destination for boating and fishing. New hotels and restaurants were built and there was even a yacht club! However, over time the water became extremely salty (saltier than the Pacific Ocean!) due to lack of drainage and rain. The runoff from nearby farms polluted the lake with pesticides and the lake became extremely toxic. Much of the wildlife began to die and an algae bloom created a truly terrible smell. Eventually the tourists stopped coming to the lake and many of the attractions around the lake fell into disrepair. (Click here for more info: Salton Sea History)
Our first stop at the Salton Sea was the Bombay Beach “ruins”. The beach itself was covered in the remains of old buildings that had collapsed and deteriorated. There were dead fish and broken glass everywhere and a very pungent fishy smell in the air. There was also a random abandoned boat propped up on the shores for no apparent reason. We didn’t stay here too long.
The town around Bombay Beach was a small grid of streets with houses and mobile homes, many of which looked abandoned, and old rusty cars and RVs. There was a lot of graffiti and what appeared to be art installations, like a wall covered with milk cartons with “missing persons” on them, shown in the photos below. This whole place had a very strange vibe to it. It felt eerily abandoned and a bit creepy to be honest, although we did see a handful of people still living there.
We continued on to Salvation Mountain, a huge piece of artwork and “tribute to God” created by a man name Leonard Knight. I had seen many photos of this place, but none of them really did it justice.
The main facade is a “mountain” of dirt and straw covered with a colorful painted mosaic of colors and patterns, sprinkled with messages about God and Love. There is a “yellow brick road” that you can climb up to the top.
Behind the painted mountain is a cave-like area full of strange doorways, hidden rooms, tiny glass windows, and colorfully painted wooden logs. There are also painted car doors and small framed photos strewn about. The whole scene was full of both vibrant and pastel colors and it felt like walking through a beautifully illustrated Dr. Seuss book. This was a very interesting spot and was like nothing I have ever experienced in my life.
We then took a very quick drive through Slab City which is known as “the last free place in America”. You may remember this location from the movie Into the Wild about the adventures of Christopher McCandless (if you haven’t seen this movie, I highly recommend it!).
Here is another quick, but not boring, bit of history! Slab City used to be a Marine training base called Camp Dunlap, but the military pulled out after WWII and left only slabs of concrete behind (hence the name Slab City). It has turned into a place where people sleep, squat, and live freely without paying rent or taxes. Apparently there are year-round residents who live there as well as “snowbirds” who come during the winter months.
Steve and I had originally considered spending the night here (we love our free campsites!), but a quick google search revealed a Reddit post called “I was hunted at Slab City”. The validity of this story is up in the air, but it was enough to convince us not to spend the night and to only do a quick drive through in broad daylight. We saw signs for the Library, Skate Park, and “The Range” which is an open air movie theater. There are RVs everywhere and a lot of trash and abandoned vehicles. While being a very unique and fascinating place, I don’t recommend going to Slab City unless you were very curious to see it.
Our last spot before the Las Vegas airport was Joshua Tree National Park. We drove north through the entire park. The southern half is a wide open, vast desert with beautiful mountains in the distance. This part of the park is less popular and we couldn’t believe how incredibly silent it was. It had a lovely, earthy smell and beautiful serene views in all directions. We stopped at the Cholla Cactus garden. There are thousands of cacti that look fuzzy (and actually have the nickname “teddy bear cholla”) but we were warned about their terribly sharp and painful spines so we walked carefully! This spot is an incredible sight to behold. We took the quick quarter mile walking path through the cactus garden and read from the informative pamphlet as we walked.
We then continued to the northern part of the park where Joshua Trees begin to appear. They are beautiful and interesting trees. Every tree has a completely unique and different shape from the tree next to it. The drive was lovely and we stopped a few times to walk around the paths and enjoy the scenery.
We stopped at skull rock as well, which was a slight letdown in my opinion. I bet this park would be amazing if you are a rock climber! However, since Steve and I don’t rock climb, two days in the park was plenty of time to get a good feel for the place.
We watched a lovely and serene sunset in Joshua Tree where we were completely alone aside from the rabbits, birds, and insects. This was one of those experiences that while not being particularly adventurous or exciting, will be likely turn out to be one of the wonderful memories from this trip that I will cherish for years to come.
After my trip to New York, Steve and I will be continuing to explore California. I can’t wait to see more beautiful coastal views and to explore the mountains and redwood forests. I am beyond excited to see some places that have been on my bucket list for many years, including Yosemite, Death Valley, Big Sur, and Sequoia. We have a lot to see and do in California but feel free to pass along any “must see” locations, special spots, or hidden gems in case we are missing anything! Leave me a message or find me on Instagram (@carrieoutdoors).