Artsy Adventures Around the Salton Sea
Looking for an offbeat day trip? Head down to the banks of the disappearing Salton Sea and spend a few hours taking in some of California’s weirdest landscapes and trippiest outsider art installations. Explore the dystopian ruins of Bombay Beach, follow the yellow brick road to the top of Salvation Mountain, and tour the Art Garden at East Jesus, an experimental, off-the-grid community of artists and homesteaders on the edge of Slab City. It’s gonna be hot, so pack plenty of water, a hat, sunscreen, and an open mind. Start early and you’ll be back to civilization and in the pool at Descanso Resort by happy hour.
A Bit of History
Your adventure will be a lot more interesting if you know a smidge about the area’s history. The Salton Sea was formed by a cataclysmic irrigation breach on the Colorado River around 1905. For several years water flooded into the hottest and driest part of the Sonoran Desert, forming a beautiful 45-mile-long inland lake at the southern terminus of the San Andreas Fault. Property developers arrived, and starting in the 1940s and 50s the Salton Sea became a popular weekend destination from San Diego and LA for celebrities, fishermen, and water skiers. But alas, every year the unnatural lake gets smaller, saltier, and more toxic to wildlife. By the late 1980s, the tourists were long gone and businesses were abandoned. Small communities of homesteaders, outlaws, seasonal retirees, and artists moved in, living mostly off the grid, on the cheap, and absolutely on their own terms.
First Stop: Bombay Beach
Spearheaded by an annual winter gathering called the Bombay Beach Biennale, the graffiti-covered buildings and decomposing structures of this former resort town have turned out to be the perfect canvas for immersive post-apocalyptic art installations. Located 75 minutes south of Palm Springs off CA-111, many unusual permanent installations are now sprinkled throughout the town’s small footprint. Look for the 50-foot metal tower built from a 1942 military jet, stop by the faux Sotheby’s International Realty office, pose for pics with the psychedelic #BombayBeachTVs, and don’t miss the haunting installations along the shores of the smelly, dying lake. If you get thirsty, do like Anthony Bourdain did and grab a cold one at the Ski Inn, “The Lowest Bar In The Western Hemisphere, 237 feet Below Sea Level.”
Next Up: Salvation Mountain
Continuing 20 minutes further south on CA-111, when you hit Niland turn east onto Main Street. You’re on the edge of Slab City, the alternative off-grid community made famous by the films Nomadland and Into The Wild. But you’re here to experience Salvation Mountain. Recognized as a national treasure and an important international folk art site, Leonard Knight dedicated his life to building this 50-foot high by 150-foot wide mountain out of adobe, straw, and thousands of gallons of paint to spread the word that “God is Love.” The stunning candy-colored mountain is covered in prayers, Bible verses, and tons of trippy depictions of waterfalls, flowers, and birds. Walk the yellow brick road to the top of the mountain for amazing views, tour the semi-domed interior of Leonard’s Navajo-inspired hogan (a ceremonial living space), and soak up all the eccentricity and passion that went into creating this truly unforgettable place. Entrance is free, but electronic donations are requested to help maintain the site. There are no services, so make sure to stop at a bathroom or for food and water in Niland.
The Last Stop: East Jesus
Just half a mile from Salvation Mountain, the only religion you’ll find in East Jesus is the Church of the Chocolate Martini. This renegade art community on the edge of Slab City is a collection of the best and weirdest the desert art aesthetic has to offer. Creepy doll heads glued to old cars, Burning Man contraptions, structures made from old bottles, more assemblages of old TVs and computer monitors, dolphin conspiracy theories … you’ll find all this and much, much more in the Art Garden at East Jesus. The 10-acre off-grid camp is open daily, and donations are requested. To get there, continue past Salvation Mountain to the end of Beal Road, then follow the signs.
Once you’ve explored all the sites, head back home the same way you came. Time for a cocktail and a dip in the pool!