A Weekend Trip to Palm Springs, Salvation Mountain, Slab City and the Salton Sea

My husband and I recently set out for a weekend in Palm Springs so I could check off some interesting desert spots that have been on my bucket list for a while. A common misconception about the desert is that there is not much to see, but each time I go, I find a new fascinating corner to explore. Palm Springs is the mecca for mid-century modern design, with a laid-back and chic vibe. It’s got a pace and atmosphere that I feel completely relaxed in, and I always feel renewed when I come home. We stayed at a beautiful boutique hotel called The Andreas Hotel & Spa which is right in the center of town. There are so many great places to eat and wander about in Palm Springs. We had a delicious brunch at The Farm and hit the road for a day of adventure.

Palm Springs Architecture

I had heard about Salvation Mountain some time ago and had been curious about it ever since.

It’s a colorful 150 foot wide by 50 foot high sculpture about an hour and a half south of Palm Springs, built by Leonard Knight over 2 decades as a dedication to God. The intricate structure is made out of old junk, adobe clay and sand, and painted with every color imaginable to keep it in place. 

When you eventually happen upon it, it seems to appear out of nowhere and nothing, and is a beautiful psychedelic sight to behold, a testament to what we can create when we are dedicated to something. Leonard Knight passed away in 2014, so the mountain is maintained by volunteers, and non-toxic paint can be donated by visitors, as it needs constant repainting and maintenance. It is hot though, so make sure you bring a hat and sunscreen while you capture the magic!

Salvation Mountain - Slab City, California

Beside Salvation Mountain is a small squatters' city known as Slab City, that locals call “the last free place” due to its open, anarchic set up. Formerly a World War II military camp, all that remains are the slabs from the buildings, hence the name. Squatters, veterans and snowbirds looking for warmer conditions in the winter have taken up residence there, and are pretty much left to their own devices. There are about 150 permanent residents, and many hundreds more come and go, staying for various lengths of time. There is no running water or electricity, and locals get by off the grid, under very basic conditions, with some using solar panels and generators. There is a strong sense of community there, and residents have open mic nights and parties every weekend! There is also a lot of art on display, with installations fashioned from old tires and glass bottles and various materials. One of my favorite movies, Into the Wild, with Kristen Stewart and Emile Hirsch featured Salvation Mountain and Slab City. Here’s a clip of the really moving scene featuring Leonard Knight at his mountain.

The next stop was the Salton Sea. Wow. Where to begin. It was an accidental lake that was created when the Colorado River overflowed due to a drainage error in 1905. The water settled into a huge dry lake bed, right above the San Andreas fault line, and became the largest lake in California. In its heyday in the 50’s and 60’s, it turned into a thriving resort, with celebrities like Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys visiting and enjoying all the pleasures on the lake; fishing, yachting, water skiing, with fancy hotels and casinos on Bombay Beach.

But because the lake had no outflow point it got increasingly salty and toxic due to agricultural run off. It got so toxic that even the fish couldn’t tolerate it, and millions of them began to die and wash up on the shore to decay in the hot sun. The smell was so off-putting that the once vibrant, glamorous resort became a ghost town. These days, what’s left of the resort is the dream of what once was: partly preserved billboards of water skiing girls, abandoned boats and buildings, fish bones, and yes, that stench.

Last but not least, on the way out of Palm Springs, I love to visit Moorten Botanical Gardens and pick up some reasonably priced cacti and succulents. It is the world’s first known Cactarium and has over 3000 varieties of plants from miniature to giant size. A must-see for any cactus lover!