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Bizarre California: A Post-Apocalytic Day Trip To Salton Sea, Salvation Mountain, Slab City, and the Mudpots

Ahhh, it is so hard to go back to work after a long weekend, but at least it’s Wednesday so we are already halfway through the work week! This past Memorial Day weekend was the first long weekend we opted to stay home.  There has just been so much going on this year that making any exotic travel plans has taken a bit of a backseat.  For starters, not only do we have an impending move coming up (ugh, I dread moving!) we are also expecting yet another traveler to join the family.  Traveler #4 will be making a debut in a few months so not only have I barely mastered how to travel with Traveler #3, we will have to quickly figure out how to do it with Traveler #3 and #4 in tow.  Or, maybe Traveler #4 (whose nursery I fully plan to deck out in a “world traveler” theme) will not get to travel anywhere because his parents will be too poor from the move and exhausted from parenthood – oh, the irony!

Anyway, despite all that, a restful weekend at home was nice.  Of course, Mr. T and I did manage to sneak away for a day and go on a post-apocalyptic roadtrip this weekend.

What is a post-apocalyptic roadtrip, you ask?  I’ve suddenly taken interest in bizarre sites in California – one of which is the Salton Sea in Southern California.  The Salton Sea is one of the largest lakes in California, created when flooding occurred from the Colorado River in the early 1900’s. In the 1950’s there was a plan to turn this area into the “French Rivera of California” with resort towns and water activities for all visitors.  Unfortunately, that plan never succeeded. The salinity of the sea increased over time (it still does) and combined with the pollutants in the water, it wasn’t and isn’t uncommon to see dead fish (sometimes in the millions!) scattered about. As a result, the tourism industry there failed and what remains is a deserted beach with abandoned structures and dead fish on the sand.  Visitors to the sea say it’s surreal and channels post-apocalytic times where everything around you is dead and all the structures abandoned — as if people just took off without even gathering their belongings.  So, naturally, I was intrigued and wanted to experience this for myself.

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We arrived at the Salton Sea around 11:30am and our first stop was the Visitors Center area.

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The visitor center had some helpful ladies working there who were all too happy to share information about the sea, recommend nearby attractions, talk about the animals in the area (mostly birds), and spread the message that the sea is shrinking (water is from Salton Sea is also proposed to be diverted to San Diego on top of the naturally shrinking sea). There’s also a short video you can watch about the sea but we opted to check out the beach itself.

The beach itself is wide but sparse.  I didn’t expect anyone else to be there but amazingly enough, there were quite a few visitors – mostly people who were as equally curious about the sea as we were.  There were some, however, who came to fish.

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Apparently, tilapia have figured out how to survive in its increasingly saline waters. I fully expected to see nothing but dead fish on the sand, but instead, we saw some scattered about (per the visitor’s center, we learned these dead fish have only been there five months).

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The most surprising thing, however, is the picnic tables lining the beach and parking lot.  Who comes here to picnic?!

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The second most surprising thing is the “sand” on the beach.  It wasn’t sand at all… nor was it dead fish, which is what a lot of posts online have you believe it to be.  Nope, it’s tons and tons of barnacles!

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They should have called this place Barnacle Beach.  I couldn’t escape them.  At one point, Mr. T had to carry me just so I could get through the masses of barnacles without stabbing the bottom on my feet (flip flops are not a good idea).

I wanted to see more dead fish so the ladies in the visitors center recommended we head to Salt Creek, a few stops away to see if we could find any there.  We did not.  Instead, we found way more barnacles than we could imagine, a few dead fish, some random wet spots, and not a single person around us.

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We stayed just long enough to take some photos before heading to Bombay Beach, a former resort town along the Salton Sea.

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Today, Bombay Beach is super run down and has a population of less than 300 inhabitants, but we didn’t see a single resident there.  Driving through, it looks like a wasteland: abandoned trailers, broken windows, trash next to houses.  It’s hard to believe anyone actually lives there.

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The beach, however, is known for having ruins from the resort days.

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We spotted old dilapidated tires, crushed framing for what must have been the houses in the area, and even an old boat.

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I wondered why no one has bothered to clean any of this up since it looks like it’s prime for a beach “clean up day”.

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The coolest thing about Bombay Beach was this row of salt-encrusted tree trunks.

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The most disturbing thing about Bombay Beach is this design of dead fish someone made.  Someone literally went and touched every single one of those fish skeletons and laid it in concentric circles – seriously?  Why?

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Having seen enough of the Salton Sea by now, we headed to our next stop just a short 20 minutes away – Salvation Mountain.  Literally, out in the heat of the California desert, on the outskirts of an anarchist settlement, rises this colorful ode to God.

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The artist, Leonard Knight, found salvation through God and decided to spread his message by painting this mountain. As word got out, more and more visitors drive to what feels like the middle of no where to check out Salvation Mountain.  In person, Salvation Mountain looks like an acid trip especially with all the colors and wavy lines, but it’s oddly intriguing… and admittedly imparts a sense of wonder for its visitors (and if not that, I imagine it’s a good Instagram opportunity given the number of people I saw happily snapping photos on their cell phones).  I enjoyed climbing the mountain and checking out its nooks and crannies.

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From some angles it feels like you’re in a magical candyland of sorts and from others it feels like you’ve been transported inside the dreams of a hippy.

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Driving out of Salvation Mountain, a right turn brought us to Slab City.  This place isn’t really an official city.  In fact, it’s where people go who don’t want to live the conventional life.  The squatters gather in Slab City to design a life for themselves, building houses and art out of trash.  There’s no running water, no trash collection, no toilets, no electricity – basically, the government doesn’t control Slab City and from the looks of it, has likely just turned an eye to its existence given that this squatters’ town is in the middle of no where and on desert land that wouldn’t otherwise be used anyway.  This place reminded me of Christiania by Copenhagen – minus the “green district”, but in the desert and with a whole lot less inhabitants… but equally unkempt.

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Within Slab City, we headed to East Jesus, which was the “must see” attraction and definitely qualifies as a weird attraction in California. This place has such an eclectic mix of art which was all created out of trash (talk about upcycling!).

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East Jesus isn’t huge. In fact, we were probably there for only 15 minutes, but I could have lingered longer to examine all the art pieces. Here are just a few of the interesting exhibits on display:

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By this point, it was already 3:30pm and Mr. T and I were beyond thirsty.  We made the mistake of forgetting to bring a bottle of water with us on the trip so we headed to the nearby town of Niland, 5 miles away, to pick up a bottle of water.

Our last stop of the day was 10 minutes south of Niland, at the “mud pots” or the Davis-Schrimpf Seep Field, as they are known in Google Maps.  I couldn’t really tell if this place is an official attraction or not since there are no signs indicating we’d arrived, but the mud pots are literally mud mounds that gurgle carbon dioxide gases to the surface – like a mud volcano. The ladies in the Salton Sea Visitors Center told us we’d know we found them when we spotted steam rising from the land, but there was no steam when we were there.  Instead, we just saw little mounds and a couple of other cars parked on the dirt road and assumed we’d found the place.

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As we walked up to the little volcanoes, we could hear the gurgling of the mud.

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When we looked closer, we spotted the bubbles.

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It looked like a cauldron that was heated from the geothermal energy beneath the Earth’s surface. It was interesting to see the bubbles in action (I had no idea we had this kind of natural phenomena in California) but honestly, somewhat anti-climatic at the same time.  We examined all the mounds, took a few videos, and left after about 15 minutes. By then it was already 4:30pm and dinner was calling!

Is the post-apocalypic road trip worth doing?

I recommend this road trip if you’re an adventure seeker and the love off the beaten path (and occasionally) weird sight. I can see how parts of it could feel post-apocalypic especially if you’re the only person on the long stretch of barnacle-laiden beach surrounded by fish carcasses and no other indicators of life except for the random pelican. That said, I went on a long weekend and there were fellow roadtrippers at all the stops except for at Salt Creek, which truthfully, is the one stop not worth stopping at… so I didn’t get the full effect.

If you’re just curious about the road trip, I recommend going if you’re already in the Southern California area and have a day to kill.

Here are some tips, if you’re planning to go:

  • Bring bottled water.  There aren’t any stores to pick up water once you reach Salton Sea.
  • Make sure you have a full tank of gas. Do not get to Salton Sea with an empty tank because you won’t find a gas station until Niland.
  • Wear covered shoes when you explore the Salton Sea.  Heck, if you can wear boots, do it. Mr. T had covered shoes on and some barnacles still managed to hitch hike in his sneakers.
  • Don’t forget the sunscreen!
  • There’s a $5 fee to park in the Visitors Center at Salton Sea.
  • Sometimes Salton Sea smells pretty awful, but usually only when there’s a lot of wind, it’s really cold, or the water conditions in the sea are out of balance.  Be prepared in case this happens, but don’t be surprised if you don’t smell anything out of the ordinary at all (we didn’t!).
  • If you like to camp, the Salton Sea Recreational Area is set up for you and your RV.
  • Don’t touch the mud in the mud pots.  A family was there when we were who kept putting all that mud on themselves… and then they moved to another pot and realized that the mud in that pot was really hot.  Uhhh… yeah, they probably shouldn’t have been touching mud that was bubbling as a result of underground magma in the first place!

 

 

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