Salton Sea, Slab City and Salvation Mountain

Ever since I first visited the Salton Sea, Slab City and Salvation Mountain about five years ago, I have been fascinated by the area and a few weeks ago, had the opportunity to go back there again.

The Salton Sea is in the desert in Southern California not far from the Mexico border, and as one gets close, it is facinating to see all the orchards and agriculture, as it is a desert. Where does the water come from?

Well, it turns out they have rights to water being diverted from the Colorado River, and despite the fact that California is in a terrible drought for many years now, they have had no cuts to their water allowance and in fact have used more water in this year than in prior years for irrigation.

The Salton Sea has gone from an area with water in it to a dry lake bed for millions of years, sometimes fresh water, sometimes saline. It was a dry, salty lake bed once again until 1905, when engineers made a mistake, and water from the Colorado river that was being set up to provide irrigation to the area through channels, overflowed into this area. A large saline lake came into existence. The engineers resolved the overflow problem, and there has been no new source of water for the lake ever since. In the 1950’s this was a booming resort area with hotels, camp sites, and people using the lake for recreational purposes.

Today, the sea is receding fast and the ever expanding “beach” becomes more and more visible. The shoreline is covered with the carcases of millions of dead fish. The smell is overwhelming, and up close, one is not even remotely tempted to go for a swim. Birds still flock to the area, and the first time I was there, saw thousands of white pelicans gathered at the edge of the water. The once booming resort towns are now decaying buildings and are almost fully abandoned. It looks like a place that people live who have dropped out of society. Hot, decaying, uninviting and one’s imagine runs overtime trying to figure out what the people do that live here. The area is appropriately called the California Badlands.

Just a few miles from the Salton Sea and the town of Niland, is an area called Slab City that takes its name from the concrete slabs that were abandoned by the Marine Corp after WWII. “Slabbers” live off the grid here. There are no utility and other services provided here – no electricity, water, trash collection. The approximate 150 people who live here year round stay in old RV’s or shacks, create their own form of art, have a library that they maintain. Power is often provided using solar panels.

Just before you get to Slab City, you see Salvation Mountain, my favorite part of this area. This was created by Leonard Knight, and I was lucky enough to meet him at my first visit to Salvation Mountain just before he was institutionalized and eventually passed away in February, 2014 at the age of 82. He covered a mountain of soil with many, many coats of paint and biblical verses, mostly to do with love. He kept adding more and more paint, and was always looking for donations of paint. He built another area with adobe, concrete, dead tree branches and coated them with paint, too. He covered abandoned vehicles with paint and verses. I was glad to see that since he has passed away, the place still looks the same, and volunteers continue to keep the place up, adding more paint as it begins to crack or fade in the desert heat.

Leonard Knight 2011
Shoreline of Salton sea in 2011
Yes, this is love
Fish carcases along the Salton Sea this month


Salvation Mountain artwork
Fish carcas 2011
2011 Salton Sea
Theatre in Slab City 2011


Resident of Slab City 2011
Salvation Mountain 2011
Salvation Mountain


Pelicans along the Salton Sea