I was born and raised in California and didn’t visit any of the unique places in this article until I started RVing full-time. Now that I’ve finally visited them, I want to encourage you to add to your California travel list, Anza Borrego State Park, The Salton Sea, Salvation Mountain, and Slab City.
Anza Borrego, Salton Sea, Salvation Mountain and Slab City
Southern California’s inland low desert is an interesting region that offers activities ranging from hiking, camping, sightseeing, culture, and history.
You can visit all of the areas in this article in 2-4 days, depending on how much time you want to spend in each place.
Free and paid camping is available in Anza Borrego State Park and surrounding areas. Click here to see more information. We boondocked with some friends, in this area over New Year’s Eve. Check out this article by Scott Sichler from Away We Winnebago.
Daytime temperatures can range from warm and pleasant to blazing hot, so plan your trip for October through May. Overnight temperatures in winter are usually chilly. The park is known for its amazing spring wildflower bloom. The timing of the bloom varies each year, so check the park’s website for updates.
Anza Borrego State Park
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is located on the eastern side of San Diego County with portions extending east into Imperial County and north into Riverside County. It’s the largest state park in California and the largest desert park in the U.S.
It’s home to a diverse range of plants and animals, including wildflowers, palm trees, and various cacti. You might catch a glimpse of a roadrunner, foxes, or eagles. Borrego is the Spanish name for bighorn sheep, and one day I hope to see one.
Borrego Springs is nearby. You can go to the park visitor center for information, and eat lunch at one of the local restaurants. One of our favorites is The Red Ocotillo, which has breakfast, lunch and dinner, and includes traditional Mexican and American options.
Another site to behold in this area are the more than 100 metal structures strewn about the desert. The Mexican artist Ricardo Breceda, formed these massive animal structures, including a Dragon! These are a must see if you are in the area. Take a drive around Borrego Valley and marvel at the beauty of the sculptures against the backdrop of the vast desert and bright blue sky.
There is so much to see and do here that this area alone could take days to explore. But if you’re there for a weekend, then move on to the next places.
The Salton Sea
If you Google Salton Sea, you’ll probably see articles with scary words like, “Toxic Wasteland”.
The ecology of the Salton Sea is complicated, and it probably seems like an odd recommendation. But I like to go off the beaten path, and I believe the history and strange beauty of the area makes it worth seeing.
You can also take some really great photos there, especially at sunrise or sunset. Here’s a photo that I took of my friend and travel photographer, William Trinkle, when he took me out for a photography lesson.
The nearby community of Bombay Beach feels quite sleepy, except for the one main restaurant in town. The Ski Inn is totally worth checking out. They make a mean ortega burger! Sadly, however, the area is desolate, pungent, and downtrodden. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go though–it’s a real adventure, which I believe are the ones worth taking.
Salvation Mountain and Slab City
If you’re into strange places, art, and seeing what it’s like to live off the grid, then check out Salvation Mountain and Slab City, near Niland.
The visionary and artist, Leonard Night, created Salvation Mountain because of a childhood dream and a spiritual awakening.
Salvation Mountain is made mostly of “junk” and latex paint, which sounds weird, but is something to experience. It’s not easy to describe in writing, so check out the site above.
Not far from there is a community called Slab City. If you are traveling with kids and used to places like Disneyland, this place might be a stretch for you. It’s a small world after all, but not in a theme park kind of way.
The community is built on the former World War II Marine Corp Barracks of Camp Dunlap. The slabs of concrete were left behind–thus how “Slab City” got its name.
There you will find the last of truly free, off-the-grid living in the United States. There is no charge for camping, but there are also no services. I read that people come here to “winter” because it’s warm. I didn’t see those people.
I saw permanent residents who live there due to financial hardships. Some of the RVs have been there for years, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between an old and abandoned RV.
But look beyond the surface, because what you’ll also find is creative genius. The people who live in Slab City have created unique sites out of very little. An area within the community called “East Jesus” is known for its fantastic display of found object and junk art that rivals famous artworks (in my opinion). I’m also a lover of found object art, so I might be a little biased.
After a day of checking out the sights, you can settle in for a meal at a few restaurants in the area. We ate at Archie’s Place, a Mexican restaurant in nearby Calipatria. I’m a sucker for a good chile relleno, and they did not disappoint!
It might be hard to consider using your time and money to explore the places in this article. Consider this though–the trip will be cost effective, unique, and truly memorable. It will also make you think differently about the state of California–it’s not all Hollywood and light parades.
If you visit this area of California, you’ll have a truly unique experience that few people have on their bucket list. And isn’t that the best Hollywood ending?
Want more travel related articles like this? Check out this series on Ansel Adams.
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What cool places! Isn’t it crazy how easy it is for us to overlook the awesome destinations in our own backyard? I guess we think of the place we’re from as “boring” compared to everywhere else! The grass is always greener and all that!
Yes it is. It’s funny how when you live somewhere for a long time, you take some of the surrounding areas for granted. Glad I discovered these gems!
I want to see Slab City so bad!!
You would so love it. It’s very interesting and strange, but I think you’d be into it. Maybe we can plan a trip there together.
I would like to go to all of those places. The list keeps getting longer…
Oh totally I hear ya! My list is long too. This area is so unique though, it might have to move up a few places on your list 😉
Oh I love this!! Really want to explore Salvation Mountain and Slab City. I think the kids would be really curious about it all and would spark some fantastic conversations. Thanks for sharing this Camille!!
Yeah your kids probably would love it. Hopefully you can get out to the west soon and explore all kinds of cool areas.