So.Cal: Salton Sea & Bombay Beach

Our afinity for weird and wonderful places continues. But this place, in Southern California, has weirdness in spades! Our campground host cheerfully declared, “WELCOME! The lake water is toxic, the beach is made of tiny crushed shells that will cut your dogs’ feet in a couple of seconds, there is a homeless girl squatting right outside the campground on her way to The Slabs encampment, and watch out for hobos jumping off the train here. Have a great time!” Someone noted on YouTube, “if California needed an enema, this is where they would insert the tube.” Well then!!!

Salton Sea was created by a BIG ole accident, and we don’t just mean the kind of accident where you forget to unmute yourself on a Zoom call. In 1905, an irrigation canal dam was breached and the waters of the Colorado River rushed downward into this Valley for a full 18 months, before engineers could figure out how to stop it. Finally, in 1907, the accidental creation of this 342 square mile lake, with 130 miles of shoreline, was complete. The white streak below is the water … a true mirage in the desert.

Making lemonade out of lemons, the area surrounding the resulting 20-mile x 45-mile “Accidental Sea” became a resort hot spot during the 1950’s and 60’s. Expensive resort hotels! Yacht clubs! Marinas! Restaurants and bars and celebrities galore, including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and The Beach Boys. This was the place to be for fabulous water-based recreation, and they welcomed more tourists than Yosemite.

Fast forward to today … the Salton Sea is one of the great environmental disasters of our decade. Yes, it’s one of the world’s largest inland seas, but don’t think you’re a-gonna be swimming in it anytime soon! No sirreeee! Since the river water stopped flowing into this artificial lake, it has been continually shrinking, and with no fresh water source, its salinity is now much greater than even the Pacific Ocean.

Add in fertilizers and toxins from agricultural runoff to all that salt, and you get algae blooms, dead fish by the millions, birds croaking just from flying overhead, the stench of sulfuric gasses belching from the surface, and a general doomsday scenario. And just to be a further bummer, once the entire lake dries up entirely, thennn all that toxic dust will get spewn into the air and distributed throughout California and beyond. Good times!!!!

You might think there is no bright side to all this, but you might potentially be wrong! Turns out there might be a sh*t-ton of lithium, required for all those electric car batteries we’re a-gonna be needing (current unleaded gas price here, as I write this … $6.19/gallon … eeek) in the bed of the Salton Sea. So much so, that it could produce 600,000 tons of lithium per year. Compare to the entire world’s production in 2019 … only 85,000 tons! It will be fascinating if this comes to fruition in the years ahead.


Salton Sea is the **second** lowest elevation in North America at 236 feet below sea level. We happen to have visited the **first** lowest elevation just a couple of months ago in Death Valley, at 282 feet! So we’re checking them both off the list … check …. check …. also, our new puppy, Finn, seems to be growing fast!

The town of Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea was the epicenter of all the good times way back when. “Once upon a time, there was a place with a future as bright as the California sun.”

Now, it’s basically a decrepit ghosttown, except for a bunch of fascinating art installations in town, on the water, and even IN the water, a motley collection of debris spun into art and social-statements in the “Bombay Beach Ruins.”

There is even an art festival here: the Bombay Beach Biennale, “a renegade celebration of art, music, and philosophy that takes place on the literal edge of western civilization, at the shores of the Salton Sea,” takes place in April. But regardless of when you visit, even more unique land-based awaits you back in “town,” which is a motley assortment of ramshackle, run-down, mostly abandoned shacks.

Bewitched fans! Remember Dr. Bombay?
Great article from Roadtrippers about Bombay Beach!

Another 15 miles past Bombay Beach is Slab City, or “The Slabs.” This squatters’ paradise is on the site of the former WWII Marine Training Camp Dunlap. When the base was decommissioned and the remaining buildings razed, the empty concrete slabs were left behind and later became the “homesites” for various groups of people, hence the name.

Now, it’s the place where hundreds if not thousands of alternative-lifestyle people have tuned in and dropped out, the modern-day version of a hippie commune, where one can find out if “Off The Grid” is all it’s cracked up to be.

Via my possibly uniformed viewpoint, I’ve never seen so much crap laying around everywhere, with every site dumpier and trashier than the last, but then what do I know about squatting? These bohemians have constructed individual or group compounds and live here without electricity, running water, or any modern-day amenities.

Slab City (or, at least, a highly romanticized version of it) is also featured in the Sean Penn-directed Hollywood movie, Into The Wild, further exacerbating the number of nomads who turn up here on a regular basis.

There are a lot of characters … and a lot of personalities … a lot to look at … and a lot to make you glad to get outta there and go home. It was definitely fascinating, but also slightly scary. If I didn’t have a big and strong burly fella along to protect me, I would not have felt comfortable at all.

But I do admire their resourcefulness … and their honesty!

And let’s be real, there is someplace for everyone. And if this is your kind of place, I suppose The Slabs could be your paradise! It’s all in your attitude!

There are a number of different camps in Slab City, where like-minded or like-interested people live together. “East Jesus” is one of the camps, and their schtick is providing an “experimental, habitable art compound,” complete with an art walk (though not the kind they have in own hometown of Scottsdale, AZ, where violin music softly plays and you are handed an excellent glass of crisp white wine while you stroll amongst expensive paintings).

The elderly hippie, smoking a curved 9″ pipe of predictable contents, who greeted us as we entered, assured us that East Jesus is the place where those with an “impaired work ethic” came to hang out.

Their website (because of course they have a website … how else could you make a tax-deductible CashApp donation to them?) states, “Together, the inhabitants of East Jesus and offsite members provide a refuge for artists, musicians, survivalists, writers, scientists, laymen and other wandering geniuses.”

Despite the name, there is no religious connection but, rather, connotes “the middle of nowhere beyond the edge of services.” Lest their cleverness be outdone or go unrecognized, there is another nearby encampment called West Satan.

You could definitely wander here as long as you wish, and a little cognitive impairment (of the legal sort, of course) couldn’t hurt your appreciation or enlightenment as you contemplate the art.

East Jesus also has quite a few “art cars,” all very humorous and in remarkably decent shape, for being left outside in 120 degree weather year after year.

If you like Art Cars like these, you’ll want to plan a visit to Art Cartopia in Trinidad, Colorado, a nonprofit museum of cars that have been turned into art! Read more about it (and see some crazy photos) here!

Near the entry point to The Slabs, Salvation Mountain is a literal man-made mountain, covered in half a million gallons (and counting) of latex paint.

Salvation Mountain was started by a guy who built a sand and cement monument to God in the late 80’s. He apparently did a really poor job, because a few years later, the mountain caved in. Undeterred, he rebuilt, this time using clay, hay bales and anything else he could get his hands on.

He passed away in 2014, but his legacy continues, with the entire mountain covered in bright paint and biblical quotes to remind us that “God is Love.”

In case you missed the message on the enormous mountain, even abandoned cars and various shacks on the property drive the point home.

Little nooks and crannies are fun to explore.

Of course, paint poured onto raw dirt and hay bales doesn’t last long in this harsh desert atmosphere, so the patchwork of stripes and color blocks must be continually refreshed by volunteers, using whatever paint in whatever colors was donated that week.

Although this area has been on our bucket list of weirdness for some time, our travel plans had to circumvent a wonderful event, our daughter Kelsey’s wedding to our new son-in-law, Cameron, on March 5; and a surprise appointment 4 days before the wedding on March 1 … an unplanned surgery to remove my gallbladder. Booo!

Truth be told, I may try to have a major surgery before every RV trip, because that means the burden of packing and loading the RV falls squarely onto Philip. 😉 But we made it out of town, just a few days late, and there is no better place to recuperate and heal, than in Elsie the RV, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life! We will now spend 2 weeks in Southern California and 1 week in Southern Arizona. Up next, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park!

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *