Desert trip—day 3: Salton Sea

Day 3 was spent on and around the Salton Sea. The issues involving the Salton Sea are complex to say the least, so instead of trying to summarize them here, I’ll simply refer you to this site. From there you can click through to a number of other sites if you’re interested.

This is the desert distilled to its essential elements: earth, sky, and water. However, unlike elsewhere in the desert, there is plenty of water, except that it’s saltier than the Pacific Ocean and hence of no use to humans. This bizarre and hostile environment offers little for tourists looking for National Park-type beauty—in fact, its fetid odor drives them away in a hurry. It’s not until you spend a little time here and try to understand the land and the people living here that you start to appreciate this unique place.

North Shore, mid-afternoon
A dream that never materialized—failed subdivision
Motel in Niland

Salvation Mountain has been called a masterpiece of folk art by some, a toxic dump by others. It is a monument to the universal love of God created by Leonard Knight, now 79, who arrived here 25 years ago and began to carve his message into the side of a hill 3 miles east of Niland on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea. Wikipedia has a good article about Salvation Mountain; the official website of Salvation Mountain, maintained by a friend of Leonard Knight’s, has a detailed biography.

While the message of Salvation Mountain is religious in nature and I’m not, I was completely overwhelmed by what Leonard Knight has created in 25 years of back-breaking labor. Salvation Mountain is a testament to what one person can achieve with dedication and perseverance, constantly defying the odds and the obstacles life places in their way. I can’t think of a better teaching moment for our daughters, and I’m so happy they were here to experience this with us.

Leonard Knight still lives at the base of his mountain in the back of a 1939 fire truck—with no electricity, running water, heating, air conditioning, or any of the other modern convenience we take for granted. We had the honor of getting a personal tour from him this morning (we initially were the only visitors) and ended up talking to him for a good hour. He told us that although his body is getting weaker and he cannot do the heavy work anymore, he’s still as committed to his mountain as ever.

In fact, what’s foremost on his mind these days is to preserve what he’s built. In 2002, California senator Barbara Boxer read an entry into the Congressional Record proclaiming Salvation Mountain as a national treasure. Word about Salvation Mountain has spread and he often has more than 100 visitors a day from all over the world. Yet in spite of the growing recognition for what Knight has built, there’s great uncertainty as to what will happen after he passes away. Salvation Mountain is built on public land, and without some sort of official protection, bureaucrats could just as easily have it destroyed.

Welcome to the capital of Joy and Love
Salvation Mountain
One of several intricately painted cars
Salvation Mountain—close-up
Yellow Brick Road
View of the “Museum” from on top Salvation Mountain. The Museum is a complex of domed grottoes supported by “trees” built from truck tires, tree branches, and other materials scavenged from the surrounding desert—as well as adobe (straw and clay) and lots of donated paint.
The Museum—detail
The Museum—exterior
Inside the Museum
Inside the Museum
Inside the Museum
According to Leonard, this photo was sent to him by National Geographic. He was very proud of it and said that it was being turned into a jigsaw puzzle that he would give to visiting kids.
Only some of the many cans and buckets of paint donated to Leonard Knight. This morning, a couple arriving in an RV dropped off at least a dozen cans of paint. I have a feeling he gets more paint these days than he can use.
Leonard Knight talking about the need to preserve Salvation Mountain
Leonard was very happy to have his photo taken

Just beyond Salvation Mountain lies Slab City. It takes its name from the concrete slabs that remain from a World War II-era military base called Camp Dunlap. Slab City could best be described as a haphazard yet intentional community of desert dwellers living outside the mainstream of society, many of them subsisting on small government checks or even less. There is no water, no electricity, and no public services of any kind. In fact, officially, Slab City doesn’t even exist. Yet in spite of that, there are hundreds of permanent residents who have put down roots here in spite of the adverse conditions, especially in the summer. In the winter, their numbers swell to several thousand as snowbirds arrive in their RVs from northern latitudes.

Slab City played a role in the non-fiction book (and Sean Penn-directed movie) Into The Wild; protagonist Chris McCandless spent time here before setting out for Alaska.

This used to be the guardhouse for WWII-era
Camp Dunlap Marine base
Slab City Community Bulletin Board—with cacti and aloe plantings
Slab City Christian Center

Bombay Beach is located about 15 miles north of Niland on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea. This tiny town of a few hundred was founded in 1929 as a private development and quickly became a popular destination for retirees and weekenders wanting to enjoy the desert climate. In 1976 and 1977 tropical storms caused catastrophic flooding that inundated over 500 lots and destroyed a mobile home park. Bombay Beach never recovered. Over the last 30 years, the damaged structures in the flooded areas have been slowly decaying. What is left today looks like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. I’m only posting a few photos because this is not everybody’s cup of tea, but as is so often the case, even this apocalyptic nightmare has its own unique, terrible beauty.


Our last stop of the day was the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge located on the southeastern tip of the Salton Sea halfway between Niland and Calipatria. Founded in 1930 and renamed in 1998 in honor of then congressman Sonny Bono (of Sonny & Cher fame), it is situated along the Pacific Flyway and provides a sanctuary for migratory birds. We took a leisurely walk to Rock Hill, a volcanic promontory providing panoramic views of the Salton Sea, looking at the many birds along the shoreline and collecting pieces of obsidian that is abundant here.

Nesting birds

The Rock Hill area is a hotbed of geothermal activity and several power plants harness the power of the earth to produce electricity. It was a strange sight seeing these steam plumes rise out of nowhere and hearing noise that sounded very much like traffic from a busy freeway.

One of several geothermal plants

That concluded our third day in the desert. One more day left—tomorrow we’re heading to Palm Desert to visit The Living Desert, a botanical garden/zoo dedicated to preserving desert flora and fauna, not only from the Colorado Desert but also from other desert ecosystems.

Road to Nowhere and Everywhere

All posts about our trip:

Day 1  •   Day 2  •   Day 3  •   Day 4  •   Day 5


  1. This is one crazy vacation.

    It's not work, it's gardening!

  2. What a fantastic photologue you've got here Gerhard. Very interesting to say the least!

    Wacky, eerie, surreal, fascinating, are the words that come to mind.....

  3. Kilometers are shorter than miles. Save gas, take your next trip in kilometers.

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