Man in the mirror at Salvation Mountain.
  • Man in the mirror at Salvation Mountain.
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Crunching fish bones. Foul-smelling water. Skin-scorching sun.

Salton Sea sunset in Niland.

Salton Sea sunset in Niland.

It may not sound like an enticing adventure, but in fact one of the most interesting and unexpected getaways to be found in Southern California is a day trip exploring the serene beauty of the Salton Sea. Whether or not you're already familiar with this area, peculiar adventures await.

Up first: Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge

Get an early start on the day and head east on the 8 for the fastest route to the south end of the Salton Sea. Roughly 115 miles later, near El Centro, head north on 111 through Brawley. 

The Sonny Bono Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge, northwest of Calipatria at the junction of Sinclair and Gentry Roads, is the first stop of the day. Aim to get there in the morning (they open at 7 a.m. M-F and 8 a.m. on the weekends) before the day gets too hot. Take the two-mile round trip self-guided trail through the desert and wetland ecosystems and out to the Sea. 

The Sea is home to an outstanding number of local and migratory bird populations, so don't forget binoculars and a zoom lens for your camera. There's little shade here, so also bring water, hat and sunscreen. Check out the overlook tower and the visitor’s center for more information about the local animal populations.

Leonard Knight built his 50-foot-tall Salvation Mountain using strawbales, trash, and lots and lots of paint.

Leonard Knight built his 50-foot-tall Salvation Mountain using strawbales, trash, and lots and lots of paint.

Salvation Mountain pit stop

After getting in touch with nature, it’s time to tap into your creative side. Head east and then north on the 111 to Niland, taking a left on Main Street away from the Salton Sea. About three miles down the road you'll see your next destination: Salvation Mountain

Featured in the 2007 film Into the Wild, Salvation Mountain is a colorful, peculiar engineering feat in the middle of the desert. This artsy tribute to God was created and maintained for nearly 30 years by one man, Leonard Knight, and draws a wide range of curious people into the bleak desert. Climb the 50-foot constructed mountain to the top or explore the many caverns underneath. 

You don't have to be religious or familiar with the movie to visit this place; curiosity and artistic appreciation are all you need. Again, make sure you've got a hat and plenty of sunscreen to avoid scorching your skin; there is little shade.

The Slabs

Continue east down the road from Salvation Mountain to check out Slab City, a popular, fee-free RV oasis in the middle of the desert, home to squatters and snowbirds.

A highlight of the Slab City community is East Jesus, an experimental art community that eagerly welcomes visitors for free, guided tours. To get there, follow the road and the left fork (look for the sign). A curiosity shop of sorts, this strange, fantastical oasis will find you remarking at the creative reuse of non-traditional art materials. 

The sun glares above Salton Sea's Bombay Beach.

The sun glares above Salton Sea's Bombay Beach.

Bombay Beach: post-apocalypse

Next, head north up on 111 to Bombay Beach for a post-apocalyptic community visit. Fish-skeleton beaches and disintegrating homes at the shore juxtapose the large bird populations wading and flying around and make for a creepily serene – if that's possible – experience. Photographers, bird lovers and curiosity-goers will all marvel at this place. 

Be prepared, though: the smell of rot here is strong! Park your car on the packed gravel drive and venture out by foot to avoid getting your vehicle stuck.

Niland sunset and Brawley

Just before sunset, make your way back south on 111 to the Niland Marina County Park. The smell is a bit softer here and makes for a beautiful place to witness a stunning sunset (top) over the Salton Sea and the mountains. Eerily peaceful and quietly beautiful, this place offers a moment of stillness among more fish bones and a disintegrating building.

Finally, finish your trip by heading south on 111 to Brawley. For dinner, hit up Inferno’s on Main Street for delicious pizza, burgers and salads in a venue too trendy for the desert. This place is so good, it will almost have you contemplating a move to this desert town. Wash down deep-fried ice cream with a couple of local beers while you contemplate the strange sights you've seen. 

Thought there was nothing interesting out this way? Think again.

Salvation Mountain, CA

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dwbat April 27, 2015 @ 8:01 p.m.

Some years ago I took the drive to Palm Springs via El Centro. I stayed on Hwy. 86 on the west side of Salton Sea. That awful smell experienced from the highway was enough for me. I didn't bother to stop until I arrived via 111 to Palm Springs. I refuse to go to stinky destinations; I don't find it enjoyable.


danfogel April 28, 2015 @ 7:51 a.m.

The last time I took that route was just about 2 yrs ago. I was returning to OC from Arizona and was going to stop off in PS for a few days. I don't remember the smell, which I have experienced many, many times over the years. Perhaps the reason is that I was stuck behind a line of trucks hauling onions from Brawley and even after I got by them, I couldn't smell anything else for a while. Blessing in disguise, I guess.


dwbat April 28, 2015 @ 8:43 a.m.

Those onions probably smelled like roses, by comparison!


swell May 5, 2015 @ 4:53 p.m.

My visits there were mostly on the west side of the Sea; prevailing winds blew any odor away. A friendly, eccentric community tries to save the Sea, preserve what little value their land has, and survive the harsh summers. I knew Mr. Knight (recently deceased) and met some of the Loners On Wheels (a singles RV group for seniors) at Slab City. I grew up elsewhere and the desert is strange to me- I'm trying to learn to appreciate it.


dwbat March 26, 2017 @ 10:44 a.m.

One can appreciate the desert in Palm Springs and surrounding towns. The Salton Sea was never meant to be there in the first place, and needs to be drained. It's not worth saving.


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