Last weekend, Alex and I found ourselves with an open Sunday. We had zero plans, the neighbors were out of town, and Al was coming off of a long week at work. So we decided to get out of town for the day to see two places that have both been on our Long-List for awhile: The Salton Sea and Salvation Mountain.
We loaded up our cooler with sandwiches and snacks, put the pups in the back seat of the Prius, and were out the door by 9am. We didn’t have a real plan, exactly, but we knew we had until sundown, and we were just really happy to be spending the day together. So happy, that we didn’t even feel the need to turn the radio on during the entire 3 hour car ride there.
We made a pit stop in Cabazon to fill up the gas tank and check out the famous roadside giant dinosaurs: a T-Rex and Brachiosaurus. If you’ve ever seen PeeWee’s Big Adventure then you’d recognize these Dinos immediately. This is a cool stop if you have kids because there’s a whole dinosaur exhibit that you can walk through with them, with interactive exhibits like fossil digging and actually climbing inside the dinosaurs. The roadside attraction has been around since 1975 and is one of California’s best!
We could tell the minute we made it to The Salton Sea by the odorous stench in the air. For those not familiar with the Salton Sea, it really is a fascinating story and I encourage you to read into it sometime, but I’ll fill you in briefly on its history!
The Salton Sea — the largest lake in the state of California — was actually created on accident in 1905, when engineers of the California Development Company dug irrigation canals from the Colorado River into the valley to increase water flow into the area for farming. The canals, however, suffered silt buildup, so the engineers made a cut in the bank of the Colorado River…which actually overflowed the canal and flowed into the Salton Basin instead for two full years, thus creating the Salton Sea! Repairs were then finally made. It also sits directly on top of the San Andreas Fault which is crazy in itself, and it salinity levels are higher than even the Pacific Ocean…hence the smell 😉
During the 1950s the Salton Sea area experienced immense popularity, drawing in more visitors per year than even Yosemite National Park! It ran itself as a resort for people all over the world, and many high profile celebrities found themselves coming back year after year to enjoy areas such as Bombay Beach. We actually ran into an older gentleman on our visit who had grown up in the area, and he pointed out where docks and fancy restaurants used to be, how high the water level was, and told us stories about fishing on boats and hanging out in hot springs with his friends.
Today, however, the area is almost completely abandoned, with only a few hundred people remaining. Because the salinity and pollution levels rose (due to agricultural run off…you know, pesticides and such) at such a quick rate, much of the fish population in the lake started dying off. The smell, in addition to all the dead fish washing ashore were sure-fire ways to stop people from vacationing in the area any longer. The town quickly began to disintegrate, and most of the tourism the area receives today is from people who want to check out all the abandoned buildings and funky art installations.
Nonetheless, it’s a really unique place and, strangely enough, it’s home to the most diverse bird populations in the continental US. We stopped by a Nature Preserve on our trip and couldn’t believe the number of different bird species we saw in just a matter of minutes. We put it on our list to come back. Weird, right?
Because of the large bird population and other wildlife species dependent on this unique ecosystem, there are many people today who are fighting to save and restore the Salton Sea. There have been a number of proposals written that include building a dam to save small parts of the sea, but overall, no real progress has been made. San Diego had obtained some ownership of the sea, but discontinued much of the agricultural runoff that it needed in order to replenish itself, and when their 17 year deal expired, they pretty much just stopped the required replenishing of the water that they originally took away. Activists warn that water flow into the sea must be increased in order to avoid dust-borne toxins and a rotten-egg smell that could reach the coastal cities. It’s amazing to see just how much of the Sea has already been depleted, and it’s sad to think that such a place could just cease to exist in just a few years. It seems like we still have so much to learn from an area as uncommon as this one.
We spent a good bit of our morning walking along the weird coast of the Salton Sea. It’s pretty much a big, muddy, smelly surface that’s hard in some areas and then you’ll find yourself sinking or slipping in others. I’ve never really experienced anything like it before! It’s also quite the place to find fish heads, if you’re into that sort of thing 😉 It was a little extra-special for us because the Salton Sea is actually Banjo’s birthplace! His litter was found there with their mom and so the whole group was rescued and adopted out. Lucky for Banj, his humans scooped him right up and he’s been living the good life ever since…but it sure was fun to see his Official Homecoming. He sprinted immediately to the water’s edge and made sure to roll his entire body around in the muddy rotten-egg smelling mud! It was really fun riding in the car with him for the remainder of the day 😉 Ha! But for as gross as the smell may have been, it was worth it to see him so freakin’ happy out there, in his element.
After The Salton Sea, we drove just a short distance to Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain in Niland, California. The current Salvation Mountain is actually the second to inhabit the site. Knight began construction on the first mountain in 1984 but it soon after collapsed. Today, the mountain is made from adobe, straw, and thousands of gallons of lead-free paint. It’s basically a giant mountain covered in murals and bible verses that you can walk through. It sits smack-dab in the middle of the desert near Slab City, and a huge hippie commune lives behind it in their RVs and tents. If you’ve ever seen the movie, Into The Wild, this area plays a big role in it.
Leonard Knight was originally known for his attempts at building a giant balloon that would fly overhead for everyone to see with the words “GOD IS LOVE” on it. But after failing, he incorporated the idea into the mountain instead. He created a “museum” in the mountain that’s held up by adobe, straw, car parts, and a large twisted tree where he put on display different items that were given to him by friends. Today, people visit the mountain and museum to pray and leave an item as symbolism of giving themselves to God.
Due to the harsh weather conditions of the area, there’s a lot of concern about the future of the mountain’s site and the upkeep. Knight passed away in 2014, and so a group of volunteers live there now and are constantly maintaining the site. A public charity was also started in 2012 for the effort. Many people who visit the site often bring paint to donate to the project.
What we loved most about the mountain was that we were able to walk about it freely and appreciate the art. There is a “yellow brick road” painted throughout the different murals that you’re asked to stay on, and it brings you right up to the top of the mountain. The bright colors are such an incredible contrast to the browns and tans of the surrounding desert; it really is a sight to see. Whether you are a religious person or not, it’s quite an experience to see such a huge art installation out in nature and witness the coming together of such different people for a common cause. This was my favorite stop of the day!
After some time spent at Salvation Mountain, we had plans to check out The Imperial Sand Dunes but instead our attention was grabbed by Mud Volcanoes. These aren’t true volcanoes in the sense of the word, and they took a little searching to find since we weren’t exactly sure what we were looking for, but when we started getting closer to them we just start hearing a bubbling sound. Think: a witch’s green gooey brew…but brown. What’s crazy about these bubbling brews in the ground, is that they’re smoking too. The water underground is heated and blends with subterranean mineral deposits, and then is shot up through a geological fault or fissure. Which makes sense in this area because of the San Andreas Fault. Much of the gas released in these volcanoes is methane. The area we found these mud volcanoes in was near a Geothermal Electricity Generation Plant, and we probably, technically weren’t supposed to be on the land (although it’s a pretty popular tourist stop, nonetheless) so we didn’t stick around too long. But I hope I’ve peaked your interest in the topic!
And that ended our Sunday Day Trip to the Salton Sea! We hopped on the freeway and were treated to one of the most gorgeous sunsets I have ever seen in my entire life. We just drove in silence, our mouths gaping as the colors in the sky shifted. It was just such a beautiful and perfect day spent with my husband. I love our little adventures, especially when they’re as spontaneous and unplanned as this one was. It’s fun going out to new places and learning a little more about where you live and how things came to be…and yes, it was completely worth having to clean out my car of dead fish smell the entire next morning! 😉 I can’t wait to see where our next big adventure takes us!
And I hope this little post leads you to educating yourself a little more on The Salton Sea and restoration efforts, Salvation Mountain and ways to contribute to local art in your area, and weird geothermal mud volcanoes! 😉
Happy exploring, friends!