Day-Trippin’ To Salvation Mountain – Slab City, CA
I had 2 reasons for going on my day-trip that day. The first was a “bucket list” item to see iconic Salvation Mountain, and the second was to meet-up with RV travelers Live.Work.Dream. Both were something that had been on my “list” for a while and it just so happened that both were at The Slabs. A two-in-one deal! Leaving Paul and the pets behind I loaded up the toad and got on the road for a day of meet and adventure.
It lies~ 3 miles east of Niland, CA on Beal Road and locals call it “the last free place on earth”. A place where people from all tracts of life can make their own statement, where the land is free, access is open and creativity has no bounds. That’s the theory anyway. Ironically it’s an old military installation, the Camp Dunlap Marine Training Facility. It was abandoned in 1946 and completely dismantled by 1961 leaving only the original cement foundations == “the slabs”.
Somehow the absence created a draw and pulled in a whole new crowd with a whole new agenda. Initially it was mostly an RVers destination, at one point hosting over 5,000 snowbird rigs each winter, but then it changed. The artists moved in, then the free-wheelers, and then a vision of God that (literally) changed the landscape. It became a mish-mash of culture with literally every sort on one spot and for that reason alone it’s a fascinating place. This is “Slab City” and, no matter what you might think of the place, it’s like nowhere else on earth.
I’d scheduled to meet Jim & René at their boondocking site in the Slabs sometime that noon. The trip from Borrego Springs is ~75 miles, the first 30 of which is a pretty drive through badlands, followed by a decent and drive around the great wide, flat and (often) odiferous Salton Sea. It was a hazy, but sunny day and I was in fine spirits as I approached the run-down town of Niland. Taking the bumpy road east out of town I got my first glimpse of color and my first taste of the Slabs. Salvation Mountain was shining like a rainbow beacon several miles ahead it expanded and glowed to fill my vision as I drove closer.
This was a moment I wanted for myself so I stopped the car at the sculpture and got out to admire the view.
Salvation Mountain was the inspiration of Leonard Knight. In 1967 he had a powerful vision from God. The vision took over his life and travels until his trip to The Slabs in 1984 where he planned to stay for “just a week” to build a small monument with a bag of cement. Weeks turned into months and 25 years later he had created a towering mountain with a core message of LOVE for the inspiration of anyone who wanted to visit. It’s a monumental structure -> at over 50 feet tall and 150-feet wide you can literally drive your car to the top, and the bottom sections are tunneled with life-size rooms, tunnels, branches and a chapel. Everywhere you look there are interesting visual details from minute carvings to large, bold paintings.
The outside section also has several interesting decorated cars and a massive selection of paint-buckets which welcome you to add your own touch. Leonard himself tended this structure daily and greeted visitors for most of his life, but sadly entered a nursing home just last year, leaving the future of his creation in question (I heard a volunteer group is gathering to take over care of the mountain). No matter what your background you can’t help but be impressed. I spent a good 20 minutes climbing around and through the structure enjoying the moment and taking a slew of interesting angle shots.
Having satisfied my bucket item I took the drive on through the main heart of the slabs to meet Jim & René. They’re a techno-travelling young couple that I first discovered through their wonderful website Tripawds, dedicated to 3-legged doggies. They also maintain an RV travel blog and a business site. And of course they have their own 3-legged wonder, Wyatt, a rumbunctous, smart and endearingly cute German Shephard. We spent the first hour bonding and chatting about life on the road, dogs, family and business before they took me off on a whirlwind “local” tour of the Slabs.
So HOW can I sum it all up? WHAT are the slabs? WHO is there? It’s almost impossible to put into words and even more difficult to squeeze into a single blog post. The slabs are everything and every facet of society all-in-one. They are normal people, creative people and weird people all tucked together. They are the ultimate ratatouille of the desert and we tasted just about every aspect of it within a few hours of walking around:
- There are the snowbirders who boondock peacefully on the flats -> everything from young travelers to old-timers, colorful campers to high-end rigs and seasoned regulars. We met the Travel n’Pals, a Slab City RV group of old-timers who’ve been coming to the place for years and boast a flush toilet, small library, mail service and weekly meals. The most experienced of the lot had come to the slabs for over 29 years and could tell ALL the stories of how the place has changed over the years. We also met young travelers, friends of Jim & Rene’s who just enjoy the ability to camp for free and absorb the spirit of the place.
- Then there are the artists -> a mish-mash of spontaneous and semi-organized collaborators who’ve staked their spot in the Slabs. The largest installation is at East Jesus and we were given a personal tour by one of the local artists explaining the origin of each of the sculptures as well as the free-spirited community they live in. The sculptures are all fabulous creations from junk and are lit-up to a gorgeous show at night. There are several other spots around the place that showcase art, as well as music venues that host free entertainment on a semi-regular basis.
- Then there’s the locals -> many of which have created semi-permanent homes and a mini-section of which actually stay at the Slabs all year
- And finally the trash and the homeless -> people living outside of the arms of regular society, sometimes in ramshackle old trailers and surrounded by years of accumulated junk.
It’s ALL there, every aspect of it and ALL together in one. If you’re open to the experience it’s an interesting and incredibly varied spot, and most folks you meet are friendly and chatty. If you let the wierdities of the place get to you, you probably won’t enjoy it at all. Me? I LOVED it! It’s life experience all wrapped up in one, and beyond the run-down bits there are TONS of fascinating stories which could easily take many blog posts to fill up.
But the place is changing. From the time the film Into the Wild featured the place in 2007 it’s attracted more and more media interest. René told me there’s been several film crews in the area, and more news stories are cropping up on the place (mostly focused on the seedier side). In a way it’s probably a natural evolution of change in a place that was really never there to begin with, but it’s also attracting more “day lookers”, tourists and even real money. Who know what the future of this place will be?
In any case I was incredibly happy with my experience and take with me the impressions of a spot that is truely like nowhere else on earth.
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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Jim Sathe says
Fascinating. I really want to check it out, but my wife is somewhat reluctant. I will keep working on her. Maybe someday.
I think it’s definitely worth the visit, even if you just go on a day-trip. Personally, I felt very comfortable while there.
I now know why you would want this on your bucket list….hope to see it one day! And hoping it can continue in its glory just the way it is today!
Me too!! I really hope they manage to preserve all the art exactly the way it is.
Amazing! And nobody seems to be abusing the place and the idea of it.
It’s definitely evolved and changed some over the year, but it’s true that the “spirit” of the place has remained intact. I certainly hope it continues to be so, even with the new tourism and money coming in.
Jerry B. says
We got near it on a trip a few years ago but never quite made it to Niland. For sure it’s on my list too, and being born and raised in SF, I’m sure nothing there is too unusual for me. I’m sure you’ll also do a blog on the Salton Sea area, a photo paradise for sure-maybe you didn’t have time on this trip but you’ll get back there, I’m sure. We were going to camp there one night but the wind changed and we couldn’t take the odors for long. We thought at firs the shore was gravel but on closer look, it was a million fish bones. The pooch sure was interested, though. That whole Imperial Valley is a place we Northerners rarely get too but it’s really interesting.
Yup…being ex-San Fran people ourselves I’m totally with you!
Unfortunately I didn’t manage to do much else around the Salton Sea this visit, but I know there is a TON more to see there. THe odors certainly keep the riff-raff away 🙂
So amazing to read your post today. I’M AT THE SLABS right now. Just got here today. My first impression you might ask ? I LOVE IT HERE !! WOW what a place !!
Certainly not a place someone should be afraid to visit or stay awhile.
Getting solar panels installed tomorrow so I’m very excited about that !
Oh HOW FUN!!! Thanks so much for the shout-out on your blog (for some reason I can’t seem to comment over there!), and CONGRATS on the solar. That will be VERY exciting!
Alan Roberts says
Hello – how many miles to you put on your toad a year ?
Alan & Cec
We’ve been averaging ~8,000/year…not including towing.
Debby & Bill says
So glad you got to see the place! The pictures and description I read about before I went could not even touch what we saw and experienced in person. We spent 10 days there in January and loved it (only expected to spend about 5). Looking forward to a month there next winter and hope the media attention doesn’t change it too much.
I’m with you! The place is almost impossible to put into words. Glad you guys enjoyed it as much as I did.
Great photos. We actually got to meet Leonard Knight. We were there in Feb. 2010. He gave us a tour of his mountain, took a picture with me, and gave us a jigsaw puzzle of the Mountain. If you want to check it out, here is the link
Great tour of the area.
GREAT blog post Marsha. Love the fact that you managed to meet & get some shots of Leaonard Knight. Thanks for sharing that!
Helltopay Harmon says
I enjoyed your description of Slab City, wanted to visit myself until I read a few alarming articles about the crystal meth addicts in residence there. Nothing more dangerous than a paranoid meth freak coming down and looking for more drugs…I’m just sayin.’
You know I’ve read some of those media articles and my personal feeling is that they totally over-dramatasize the situation. My own experience (and that of most people who’ve visited) is very different. Lots of people at the Slabs, many of which are just ordinary snowbirders, and I felt safe the whole time I was there. I’m sure there are people I wouldn’t want to hang out with there, but all the venues we went to were fine, and most of the folks we met were chatty and friendly. I tend not to read too much into those stories.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone say it better, you really summed up the Slabs perfectly!
Great post Nina!
Glad you liked the post! It was great visiting with you guys and totally enjoyed my day there!
yep this one is on my bucketlist as well… should be able to check it off next year…
Awesome! Worth the trip for sure. Nina
Susie C. says
I never had much interest in checking out The Slabs, but between your post and LiveWorkDreams’ posts, maybe I’ll have to change my mind! 🙂
I DO think it’s worth a trip, especially because it’s just so different.
Paint Your Landscape says
You did a great job capturing the personality of The Slabs. Ever since I saw the movie Into the Wild, I have been fascinated by this unique place. Hopefully we will have the opportunity to experience it as well.
Thanks! I tried to bring in all the aspects of it as I saw it. Of course everyone experiences the place differently. Hope you guys get to do the trip out there.
jil mohr says
ok ok ok…will add it to the bucket list but not telling tom yet…I was always nervous but frankly you paint a different picture from what I have heard…it was the first tv special we saw while living in NYC that made me think wow what a life….
There’s a definitely a bit of everything there, but I personally feel the media over-dramatisizes the seedier side. I think you two would love the art installations.
Good old Slab City! Love the pictures, cannot wait until I have a chance to experience it first hand, it’s on my bucket list too. Thanks for all the vivid description, good luck on your journey!
Brett and Cheri says
Nina, what a wonderful treasure trove of reviews. Regarding The Slabs, you mentioned the founder of Salvation Mountain, Leonard Knight, had to leave his home there of over 45 years for assisted living and that a group was forming to continue his work. Have you been back since you posted this, and have you an update on Mr. Knight and of Salvation Mountain? – Brett and Cheri
We have not been back since, but I’ve been keeping somewhat up to date on the situation via the Salvation Mountain Facebook page. Leonard Knight is still around, but his health is very poor. He actually went back to the mountain for a visit last Nov (on his birthday), but remains in the nursing home. I think crews of volunteers are still working to save the mountain (not sure of exact status). It’s an amazing place! Here’s the Facebook link if you want it:
Hey there–do you know if it’s open/visible at night??
Slab City is open 24/7. It’s a community open to all. They often have live music at the make-shift stage (The Range) in the evening too.