Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Slab City is America's Most Colorful Desert Community

Slab City, famously known as "The Last Free Place in America," is a 640-acre off-grid, lawless community located on an abandoned military base in California's Sonoran Desert, just east of The Salton Sea. In recent years, Slab City has seen an influx of visitors due to media attention. Still, most of those visitors never venture into the self-constructed city. In fact, most only go for a quick glance at the photo-worthy Salvation Mountain.

However, suppose you want to fully experience and learn about Slab City. In that case, you must drive aimlessly down the unmarked gravel roads searching for nothing and everything. You have to interact with the people who choose to spend their time in The Slabs and drink a beer in a structure you initially thought was a library when you walked in. At least, that's what I did.

What Is Slab City?

View of the desert landscape in Slab City, California

Jon Bilous via Getty Images

First, let's go back and ask, what was Slab City? Before the government allowed citizens to do whatever they wanted on this piece of desert land in southern California, this was home to the U.S. Marine Corps' very own Camp Dunlap. It was a large military installation with many buildings and a pool, but it didn't last too long. They abandoned the property in 1956 and demolished the buildings, leaving only the concrete slabs that supported the infrastructure. The land was and still is property of the state of California. Still, due to the area's remote location and lack of resources, California doesn't seem to bother itself with "The Slabs."

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As the story goes, a few guys working at a nearby chemical plant thought it would make the perfect location to camp during the work season. The trailers they brought started what we now call Slab City. Over the years, many snowbirds and squatters have decided to call this self-constructed community home. In the winter months, the population can reach 4,000 people! It is similar to the wild-west in that the residents technically own no property. Let's say you go to Slab City and decide to stay through the winter. All you need to do is find an open piece of land and stake your claim. You will see that most people have constructed fences or barriers out of scavenged desert materials.

How I Made It To "The Last Free Place In America"

aerial view of slab city

Thomas De Wever via Getty Images

It was a last-minute decision. I had been in Los Angeles for a few weeks and wanted to take a break from the city, so I looked up interesting locations within a few hours. Slab City stood out to me as it is one of those places that is constantly changing. Even though I had visited it a few years prior, I decided to make the trip again to see what had changed.

The drive to Slab City is approximately three hours from L.A. Two hours are just basically spent escaping the concrete jungle. As you make your way east, the never-ending, cookie-cutter homes and tall buildings begin transitioning into endless views of the desert. Palm Springs is one of the first desert towns you pass through. It's a bit of an eclectic town, filled with fancy trinket stores and beautiful homes that meet the mountain's base. Palm Springs is a nice place to stop for lunch, but for time's sake, let's keep this adventure moving.

The Puzzle of the Dried Salton Sea

Alone in Slab City Salton Sea

Byung_J_Roe via Getty Images.

Next, you'll see signs for the Salton Sea, one of California's largest lakes at 30 miles long and 15 miles wide. It's technically not a natural lake-it was formed through an engineering mistake that caused levees to overflow from the Colorado River early in the 1900s. The water found its way down into the Sonoran Desert at 200 feet below sea level. And thus, the Salton Sea.

Throughout the '50s and '60s, the Salton Sea was a massive tourist destination boasting high-class hotels, restaurants, and even marinas with yacht clubs. Some years, the number of visitors to the Salton Sea surpassed the number in Yosemite. Oh yes, it thrived as a true oasis destination, especially when the upper-class stars of Hollywood found out about its warm shoreline and water sports.

So what happened to the Salton Sea? To sum it up, climate change drastically evaporated the water levels. The water's salinity skyrocketed because it's an endorheic body of water (aka, it has no outflow to another body, like a river or ocean). Years of farming, pesticide abuse, and heavy winds full of toxins created an almost unlivable and forgotten environment.

Spookly Shipwreck on Bombay Beach of the Salton Sea California

tobkatrina via Getty Images

The salt levels became so high local fish and wildlife began dying off and washing ashore. The smell was so terrible that vacationers almost instantly stopped going to the Salton Sea. Restaurants and bars closed, and soon after that, communities built around the lakeshore became ghost towns. You can still find remnants of what used to be a vibrant community around the lake. There is also a banana museum there, for some reason.

Continue a few miles south of the Salton Sea, and you will find yourself in a small town called Niland, 4 miles outside of Slab City. Suppose you plan on spending more than a few hours in Slab City. In that case, I recommend purchasing a few gallons of water, snacks, and anything else you want in Niland because there is no store in Slab City.

Chances are, you may enjoy yourself and stay longer than anticipated. You may even find salvation.

My Arrival at Slab City Salvation

Colorful Salvation Mountain under a cloudy sky in California desert

Attila Adam via Getty Images

The road is rough and washboard, and I am driving a 33-year-old, 22' long R.V. with semi-functional shocks. To avoid everything in my R.V. getting thrown around, I have to go incredibly slow for the four miles leading up to the first sign of Slab City, Salvation Mountain. A lot of folks come to Slab City strictly for this funky, hand-crafted colorful mountain, a living work of art created from the consistency and devotion of Leonard Knight. This was my third time here, but it was the first time I had seen the caretaker restricting access to the inside of the mountain due to the sun degrading the structure.

"It's dangerous," a weathered gentleman yells to me as I stare at the entrance wondering why it's closed. He is currently caretaking the property, collecting donations, and educating curious travelers about Leonard and the mountain's past. He has been around for a while, so if you talk for a few minutes and get to know him, you may hear some crazy stories that highlight the wild side of Slab City. The caretaker walks barefoot, leading me around the art installation, explaining how the mountain needs to be reinforced while he points out the fractures.

We chatted for an hour before I asked once more to sneak inside; the answer was still no, unfortunately. Nonetheless, a trip to Slab City isn't complete without a stroll through Salvation Mountain.

The Eclectic & Wildly Interesting Slab City

slab city welcome sign

tuchodi, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

"Welcome to the last free place in America, Slab City" is painted on a small wooden shed. You immediately begin seeing the "infrastructure" that makes up the desert community. Abandoned vehicles and old trailers are scattered along the side of the roads, and hand-painted signs lead you through the streets to attractions like East Jesus, The Range, or the Skatepark. These attractions, by the way, and most of the roads in Slab City can be found on Google Maps now. So getting lost or not being able to find anything is no longer an excuse to not visit Slab City

Slab City has no water or power, so people purchase water from the town of Niland and utilize solar panels for power. One man was taking apart old laptops to use the batteries as a power bank. The area has a hot spring, and according to most locals, it is used as a bathtub. The extremely uninviting oil and debris on the surface of the water reassure me that it is not a leisurely spring and should be avoided. Bartering is the main form of currency here, as most locals live off of social security. I gave a whiskey bottle to a man who said he could get a few rides to town in exchange for the bottle.

Before anything, I always venture to the ever-changing DIY Skatepark to see what has been added or removed. The skatepark is constructed in what used to be Camp Dunlap's Olympic-sized pool. Over the years, skaters have built concrete quarter pipes along the pool's deep end and placed large ramps in the shallow end. The first time I visited the skatepark, people were lighting cars on fire and jumping over them while a man played the drums on top of a bus. Basically, just be prepared for anything because the skatepark seems to be where people go to push the limits of recklessness that would otherwise get you arrested anywhere else.

East Jesus is an experimental, habitable, extensible artwork in progress since 2006. Slab City, California

Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The next stop was East Jesus, an interactive and experimental gallery of sculptures and structures created from desert debris. An impossible bowling alley with a sandy lane, a 12' dangerously tempting teeter-totter, a wall of old painted televisions, and a gallery of suitcases explaining how dolphin farts are causing global warming. These are some of the exhibits that lure visitors. And, now, they'll draw you.

Honestly, this place is creepy, especially when wandering alone. Still, it is also one of the coolest and most unique displays of "I can do whatever I want" I have ever seen. My favorite part is the "wizard" that welcomes every guest with a hilarious speech explaining how he doesn't care what you do or if you like it or not, just appreciate it while you're here.

Slab City - The Range Free Stock Photos, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Oh, you like live music? Well, you are in luck because you can catch live performances at The Range on the weekends! Stop by and have a beer while being serenaded by the locals of Slab City. Or, if you are lucky enough, you may catch a surprise performance from a famous band on their way to L.A.

The first time I went to The Slabs, we went to the Library, a semi-solid structure built around a common area and bar top that also served as the front desk. A decent selection of books was left behind by fellow nomads over the years. We sat there and talked with the owners for a few minutes before they revealed the library we were seated in also happened to be a bar. For $2, I could buy myself a semi-cold beer, they said. I happily accepted because only a fool would turn down a $2 beer in the middle of the desert.

Visit this Weird Desert Community

Slab City is one of the most unique communities in the United States. Suppose you are looking to glimpse an alternative lifestyle and see what happens when the government gives up a piece of land for an experimental exercise of freedom in the California Desert. In that case, you must visit Slab City and see it yourself!

Slab City is actually a safe place to be. Just follow the exact same rules you follow elsewhere. Know your surroundings, don't keep valuables in plain sight, lock your car, and if you venture alone, make sure someone knows you're out there.

It's easy to navigate around Slab City because there are plenty of signs, and almost the entire town is mapped out on Google Maps.

Suppose you have questions or want more information while you're there. In that case, I recommend going to East Jesus or Salvation Mountain and asking the caretakers. Enjoy your time there, keep an open mind, respect the people who live there, and remember that there are many ways to spend our time here on earth. The fact that we can all do it our own way is pretty freaking rad.


Raised in Butte, Montana, Josh Monthei is a nomadic photographer, skateboarder, and an over-caffeinated writer. He has been traveling North America for over seven years. His travels have spanned over 100,000 miles, including a 3000-mile skateboard trip from Los Angeles to New York City. Instagram: @josh.monthei

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