Travel Southern California: Salvation Mountain, Salton Sea, and the Imperial Valley Dunes

In my last travel post, I talked a bit about our drive out west to Phoenix and the never ending day of travel. On our second day, we finally headed out to really start our vacation time. We left our friends' house early to head out on the I-10 to Los Angeles to visit a dear friend I hadn't seen in ages. Our plan had been to go straight to LA to do some sightseeing while we waited for her to get in. When I checked the weather forecast and saw a rainy Friday for our Salvation Mountain day, we decided it would be better to skip the LA day and travel around the Niland area of SoCal. After a brief stop at Cracker Barrel for breakfast (what American roadtrip can be complete without a Cracker Barrel stop?) we were off. 

California is immediately breathtaking. Desert mountains, palm trees, and green crop fields greeted us as we passed the border. However, the further you travel into the remote areas of Southern California, the stronger your conviction that some The Hills Have Eyes shit has happened around here. Things get pretty bleak. There are beautiful mountains and desert landscapes, but there are also towns that have been decimated by drought, people moving to bigger cities, and god knows what else. The landscape surrounding the drive from I-10 to Salvation left us constantly gasping at each turn at the beauty of it all, but it was tempered by the evident poverty everywhere. 

Our biggest surprise turned out to be my favorite part of the day. As we kept going up and down the small hills (seriously Highway 78 is hilly. if you get motion sickness, this road will be your enemy) there were these huge pink mountains in the distance. I kept wondering what they were because I'd never seen mountains that color or that shape before. Turns out what we had been seeing were the largest dunes in the US. I had no idea the Imperial Sand Dunes existed before driving right through them and we quickly turned around to find a parking lot because who would have passed those up? In late December weather, it was a bit chilly, but I was fine with just my flimsy shirt and jeans. There was beautiful pink sand for as far as I could see. We wanted to stay longer, but we needed to get going if we were going to make it to LA by dinner. 

When we finally reached Niland, we were driving on fumes. A pro-tip for this area of California, even if you think you don't need gas, if there is a gas station get gas anyway. On the way from I-10 to Niland, we saw like 2 gas stations and one of them was 2 dollars more a gallon than anywhere else we stopped in California. Niland had like one or two gas stations and the rest were all shut down. Which seemed to be what had happened to most of Niland. It was just all shut down. I couldn't believe that a town that housed the famous Salvation Mountain could be so desolate. Maybe this is me projecting, but it seemed like such a hopeless and forgotten town. Nothing was new and so little kept up.

We made it out to Salvation Mountain a few hours later than we had planned, but we made it all the same. We really thought Google Maps was leading us to the middle of nowhere, and it was, but Slab City and Salvation Mountain are in the middle of nowhere so we were fine. If in doubt, look for the constant stream of cars going in and out of a dirt road that has no business being that busy. I enjoyed Salvation Mountain, but I think I had really overhyped it in my head. It was pretty small, and we couldn't climb up on it because rain the day before had made it too delicate. It was extremely crowded and there were waaaayy too many girl squads out there taking selfies, group shots, and in general hogging the entire area. Like entire groups of girls all dressed alike with similar hair and makeup with expensive DSLRs and the only things they were taking photos of was them jumping up and down in front of Love is Universal. Man, Instagram culture is real, guys. Josh and I aren't Christians so most of the religious messages weren't inspiring, but the overall concept of Salvation Mountain and the story of Leonard Knight was. This man just wanted an evident physical reminder of God's love and that love in general is a wanted, needed thing in our lives. Love belongs to everyone. Including those instagram girls that drove me insane. 

We started making our way back to Interstate 10 to finish our journey to LA. We just had one more brief stop to make, the Salton Sea. I got a little obsessed with this area when I started reading about the general decay of the area. This might sound very privileged white girl, but in general I find various states of urban decay beautiful. I love abandoned buildings and rusted exteriors. I thought that the Salton Sea would be a dream to explore and in a way it was but more like a bad dream. I couldn't find a good resource on where to actually stop to get out to explore the Salton Sea though, so I gave up on that idea. As we were driving alongside of it, it seemed like there really was no way to get close to the water. I assumed all the old resorts and beaches had been demolished. We actually tried to just drive straight across the dried out lake bed to get to the water, but had to turn around because the car wasn't capable of going over that kind of terrain. I would actually recommend everyone to drive out as far as your car is able and turn off the engine and just be still. It was so quiet. It seemed like no noises had ever been made or would ever be made out there on the ruin of lake, but if I kept so still I could hear the barest edges of sound coming from the highway.

We weren't disappointed for long because we saw a cute sign for an area called Bombay Beach. Whatever Bombay Beach used to be, it's a disaster now. There's a trailer park that seems mostly abandoned or filled with squaters. Trailers have sides torn off and the leftovers of the occupants are exposed to everyone. I peered inside one and saw a half eaten jar of salsa, a teddy bear, and an old Christmas wreath. It looked like it hadn't been touched in years.

The lake was surprisingly crowded. We weren't the only ones who held a fascination for this once booming resort area that had been killed by humans. One of the first things that hit us was the smell. I can't actually describe how bad it was. Then we noticed that the sand squished under our feet and was green with mold. And then we noticed the fish. Thousands of dried out fish bodies littered the beach. There were a few dead seagulls scattered around too. These fish were dried out to a bone white and each scale stood out in sharp relief. I'm terrified of fish and dead fish are actually one of my most irrational fears so this place was not pleasant to walk around. When we started gagging, we decided it was time go back.

I mentioned it earlier, but I want to stress how important it is that you stop off for gas when you can. There are almost no amenities in this area. It would also be wise to pack snacks/lunch if you plan on exploring because there were little in the way of restaurants either. I've never encountered this anywhere else in the country, but there were two different check points, one entering California and one by Bombay Beach that I think are probably drug stops. We were just waved through at the border check point, but we were stopped at Bombay and the guy talked to us for a bit which gave the drug dog a chance to sniff around the car. I can't remember if they asked for Josh's license or not. If you plan on visiting Salvation Mountain, try to avoid days after it rains since the climbing and going inside the structure will be prohibited. 

We entered California full of excitement and expectation and left the Niland area feeling disillusioned and a bit shocked. There are a lot of essays about what's happened to that area, but it's pretty much universally agreed on that humans destroyed that once beautiful lake. The people left living in the area are there due to poverty or because they want that extreme isolation. Because that's what's left in this part of SoCal, nothing. 

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