Are you looking to spice up a road trip in California with some absolutely strange attractions? California is known for a lot of things, and one of those is for its embrace of all things strange, weird, whacky, and wonderful.
Hit the west coast of California and you’ll find hippies stuck in the 70’s in San Francisco, superheroes wannabes running amok in Hollywood, and the “locals” of Venice Beach that you just have to see for yourself.
Out in the deserts of California, attractions get even weirder. With millions of acres of open land sparsely populated, it seems that some people just need to put objects or oddities out there to take up space. Or to get whatever crazy ideas they have bouncing around in their brain out to build an obscure monument.
As you leave the big cities of the coast, small towns dotting the expanse of California highways seem to all take on their own personality — some being alien themed with their own jerky, others claiming the “World’s Biggest Thermometer” record. That’s just a taste of the strange.
On a recent road trip through the west, we came across a handful of these interesting attractions or unique places, and many of them deserve a visit. Some are art projects in the desert, others remote communities living off the grid. And some are simply failed attempts at tourist destinations lost to time.
Here are the 5 offbeat and odd attractions I found in the California desert that you shouldn’t miss.
You may have seen this one grace parts of Into the Wild movie. Salvation Mountain is a trippy and psychedelic walk down the yellow brick road and an art project dedicated to love and God. Whether or not you’re religious (I’m not) it is still a fascinating monument out in the desert constructed as a passion project by Leonard Knight.
Leonard had tried once before to construct a mountain out of sand and cement, which collapsed after 4 years. The second time around, he used Native American methods and built it with adobe clay, and covered each section with whatever paint he could find. He estimated that the mountain has over 100,000 gallons of paint slathered on it, non-toxic lead-free paint of course.
Labeled the happiest man with nothing, he lived near the mountain in a truck with no electricity, gas, internet, and other things most take for granted.
In 2011, Leonard Knight was hospitalized and eventually passed in 2014. But his project of love and dedication to spreading the message of God he believed is still maintained today by volunteers. Thousands of people flock each year to this holy place to leave paint or mementos or to simply visit an odd yet inspirational place in an otherwise barren land.
For myself, it was the movie that made me want to visit, but it was also a special place to leave a memento to my parents who passed away.
How to get there: Salvation Mountain is just outside of the small town of Niland, down a dirt road and past a power plant. From Los Angeles, it is 180 miles southeast and about a 5-hour drive. From San Diego, it is 120 miles north-east and only a 2.5-hour drive.
Slab City, just a short drive up the road from Salvation Mountain, is an enclave of “slabbers” or people living off the grid in the remnants of an old WWII military base. Another feature from Into the Wild, here was where Christopher McCandless spent some time with the desert community who spend winters in this collection of nomads, hippies, and escapists.
Driving through, you can spot assortments of odd and unique art sculptures and projects, some just colorful constructs from old car parts, others touting anarchy and the desire to be free from society and government rule.
Slab city has about 1,500 occupants during the year, but around 150 permanent residents that have set up more elaborate homes from old RVs, buses, and trailers powered by solar and have water filtration systems. Otherwise, don’t think you’ll find your typical amenities here. And that’s the point. The unofficial town has its own library, museum, theater, and hostel. It’s worth a poke around for an afternoon at least.
When I was there, we only drove through so I couldn’t snap many photos, but people who have spent a few nights in the hostel say it’s a phenomenal experience. I’d love to return.
How to get there: Slab City is located just minutes past Salvation Mountain. Keep driving past the Salvation Mountain sign for about 5 minutes and you’ll be in the heart of Slab City. Find parking and wander around.
SALTON SEA & BOMBAY BEACH
Bombay Beach and the Salton Sea was once a bustling resort town for the rich and famous in the 1950’s and 60’s. Imagine swanky and posh bungalows along the mineral-rich lake with a pinã colada in your hand and Elvis Presley softly playing from the radio. That was the idea at least.
Now, Bombay Beach and the Salton Sea resort is just a collection of skeletons of buildings and houses in a barren and abandoned landscape completely covered in salt. When you arrive, the smell of salt and sea and fish hit your nose. While you wander around, you’re feet crunch on thick layers of dried salt that has covered every inch of the resort. Piles of fish bones lay around, and the distant squawks of hungry birds hovering the lake is the only noise besides the lapping waves of the gray sea.
It’s a real look at a post-apocalyptic world, and if you’ve ever played Fallout, you’ll feel right at home.
So what happened?
At one point, engineers trying to bring more nutrient rich water from the Colorado River through irrigation canals messed up and flooded the entire lake and surroundings with water that was filled with waste and agriculture runoff — polluting the waters and killing off life in the lake. This pretty much ended the Bombay Beach dream.
In the small town just outside of the beach, you’ll find some residents still calling the area home. Some houses are abandoned but have been set up with props to mimic the era. I don’t know any reason why people would live out here, but it’s an interesting place nonetheless.
If you’re headed out east from San Diego, you’d most likely blow right by this unique and odd destination after passing through Julian. Galleta Meadows in Borrego Springs is a sculpture garden like you’ve never seen, with over 130 metal sculptures dotting the arid desert landscape.
Some guy named Dennis Avery had this massive swath of land out in the desert and decided he wanted to fill it with various sculptures and art. That’s when artist Ricardo Breceda was tasked to create all of these incredibly detailed and massive metal works to spruce up his big property.
And apparently, it hasn’t stopped.
The art ranges from scorpions to horses, dinosaurs to elephants, prospectors to monster trucks, and even a 350-foot long serpent. You could spend an entire day tracking down all of these sculptures that are hidden amongst the sand and cacti of Borrego Springs. Gotta’ catch em’ all, amiright?
How to get there: Borrego Springs and Galleta Meadows is located about an hour from Julian, a town worth a stop through as well just for the apple pies its famous for. From San Diego, you’re looking at a 100 mile and 2.5 hour drive northeast. After leaving Julian, follow route 78 to Borrego Springs. Once you arrive, hit the visitors center for information about where to look. Offroad capable vehicles are best, and it’s impossible to walk to all of them.
ABANDONED LAKE DELORES WATERPARK
A water park in the desert sounds like it’d be a great idea! At least if I was stuck in the searing 120º heat I’d want to do a little splish-splashing daily. I guess there wasn’t much enthusiasm for it though from others.
Lake Delores water park is a sprawling abandoned amusement park in the middle of nowhere California. And when I saw the middle of nowhere, it’s not an exaggeration. The closest semi-large towns are about an hour away, and those are basically only fuel stops unless you are really itching to have some alien jerky in Baker or see the world’s tallest thermometer.
No wonder it was a failure.
Now out in the flat desert, the remains of the waterpark sit, graffiti covered and vandalized. For abandoned explorers, it’s an awesome find. Most of the rides and the massive waterslide have been sold off to other amusement parks, but you can still wander the lazy river and buildings and imagine what it would have been like.
It all began as a dream by a man named Bob Byers, and was built near the Mojave aquifers discovered nearby. At first, it was a small campground near the lake for desert motocross riders, and over the years expanded to the size it is now. At its peak in the 70’s and 80’s, Lake Delores Water Park had all sorts of rides and attractions including 8 150-foot long waterslides, a lazy river, log rides, and more.
After the original park closure, it changed hands often betwen other investors looking to revive it, but all failed. The park officially closed down in 2004, and has been left to ruin since.