From Anza-Borrego to Salton Sea: meet the desert and its inhabitants

In Southern California, there’s an area overlooked by most of the tourists but that would thrill the interest of a lot of people: whether you’d like to explore an arid desert, visit a famous movie set or hear about a tragic ecological and economical story, there’s something for you in the area! In this article I’ll take you to the canyons and oasis of Anza-Borrego, to the bright colours of Salvation Mountain, towards the community of Slab City and to the benches of Salton Sea, where human activity lead to a real disaster. Let’s go!

📷 For more pictures have a look at my gallery of photos of Southern California.

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Located 2 hours East of San Diego, close to the Mexican border (“borrego” actually means “bighorn sheep” in Spanish and Anza is the name of a Spanish explorer, Juan Bautista de Anza), the desert of Anza-Borrego is a State Park (actually the biggest of California) that many tourists ignore although it’s worth a visit. If you’re coming from San Diego, take roads 78 and 79 to the North until you eventually turn right in the direction of Borrego Springs (the only village inside the State Park) on mountain roads S-2 and S-22 providing a great view over the desert, with Salton Sea (see below) also visible in the distance.

Like in every other State or National Park in the United States, I found the people of the Visitor Centre extremely friendly and helpful. I had no particular plans when I arrived at Anza-Borrego and they helped me a lot figuring out what to do during the day. I first went to Palm Canyon, close to the Visitor Centre, for a 5.2km/3.2mile trail in a very dry canyon until an extraordinary oasis of palm trees! Their shade is appreciated on a hot and sunny day, but remember to carry plenty of water anyway. Keep your eyes wide open and if you’re lucky you might see some of the desert’s inhabitants: bighorn sheep, mountain lions or rattle snakes (not sure if meeting a rattle snake in the middle of the desert can be considered as being “lucky” though!).

The second highlight of the park can be found South-East of Borrego Springs: a slot canyon in which you can hike freely. You might have already heard or seen pictures of Antelope Canyon, a very famous slot canyon with its red rocks looking like waves: this one is quite similar, although way less impressive to be honest, but at least you don’t need to book a guided tour to explore it. Be careful when climbing down!

Finally, take road S-2 to the South-East in the direction of Ocotillo to exit the park, and stop at the Carizzo Badlands overlook: the view is gorgeous, especially around sunset time.

If your time in the US is limited, you might decide to skip Anza-Borrego compared to other natural wonders of California, Utah or Arizona, but I found it a very good introduction to the desert and I particularly enjoyed taking pictures of these long empty roads.

Anza-Borrego, road

Good to know: the entrance to the park costs 10$ and as it’s a State Park, the pass “America the Beautiful” can’t be used. There are a few camping spots in the park, and the price ranges from 15 to 30$ depending on the site and the type of vehicle.

Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain

If Into The Wild is one of your favourite movies, as it is for me, you have to stop at Salvation Mountain. Remember that scene where Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) and Tracy (Kristen Stewart) meet a very endearing old man who welcomes them at a mountain that he built and painted himself, in the name of God and love? That mountain is called Salvation Mountain, and the old man in the movie is the real person, Leonard Knight, who started building it in the 80’s and kept working on it until he was placed in a long-term care facility in 2011 where he died a couple of years later. For me it was quite emotional to walk around this place, in the middle of this unfinished and very strange monument. There’s also a portrait of Chris McCandless in one of the rooms, in the memory of his visit.

Actually, Leonard Knight and the people who helped didn’t only paint the mountain itself, but also all the vehicles around it; it’s a very weird sight to see these trucks and cars abandoned in the middle of the desert and covered with paintings and inscriptions to the glory of God.

Good to know: Salvation Mountain also appeared in music videos of many bands and artists, including Coldplay or Kesha.

Slab City

Slab City is a community of people who decided to live in the desert, on the fringe of society, and described by its inhabitants as “the last free place in America”. It is located directly next to Salvation Mountain. It can also be seen in Into The Wild; that’s where Chris meets Tracy while he lives with the couple of hippies Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker). The open-air stage where Tracy and Chris sing together still exists and is called “The Range”; talent shows are held there every Saturday, just like in the movie.

The Range, Slab City

Most of the people who come to Slab City stay only during winter, as temperatures often rise above 40°C/100°F during summer, but some live there permanently. I spoke to a few of them which was very interesting. Their motivations include the will of being away from modernity and a society of consumerism, enjoying the liberty of a completely different and alternative lifestyle or appreciating living in a community where people help each other. They survive by selling modest items to tourists coming to visit the place.

There’s a vast art installation called “East Jesus” in Slab City. It’s quite impossible to describe this place where anyone can create pretty much anything they want, using recycled and discarded material. The impression left is very strange, it feels quite like being in a dream or a nightmare without any real coherence. The most interesting and most famous feature is the “TV wall”, where dozens of TV’s are piled up on each other, with messages written on their screens such as “Fake News”, “Crap is entertainment” or “Don’t be yourself”.

Good to know: if you want to experience living off the grid yourself, there’s a hostel in Slab City that you can book through Airbnb.

Salton Sea

The story of Salton Sea is the story of a huge mistake leading to terrible ecological and economical consequences. In the beginning of the 20th century, work was done on the Colorado River to increase irrigation for farming lands in the area. Canals were created to divert the water flow but the whole thing eventually got out of control and the water spread into the Salton Sea Basin, which lies 72m below sea level. It took 2 years before repairs were completed, long enough for a vast lake to develop. As there’s no river flowing into Salton Sea, it slowly dried out over the years, and the levels of salinity and pollution increased rapidly. The shores of the lake are now covered with carcass of dead fish, and the water has a horrible smell.

Before these problems were acknowledged, promoters tried to use this brand-new lake for entertainment purposes and new cities and resorts were built around Salton Sea, including Bombay Beach on its East Side. But it wasn’t popular for a very long time and the tourist industry quickly declined. Nowadays, the ruins of these once prosper villages can be seen next to the lake. It’s a spine-chilling visit to drive around these abandoned streets, where only a few people still live nowadays. I found very interesting to see how terrible the consequences of human activity can be within only a century, but I also have to admit that I was happy to leave this desolate area and drive towards the stunning Joshua Tree National Park further North!

Ski Inn, bar, Bombay BeachGood to know: the Ski Inn in Bombay Beach, which describes itself as “the lowest bar in the Western Hemisphere” (it lies 68m/223 feet below sea level) is still open today. Here’s a link to its facebook page.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article and that you learned some stuff about this area of South California! Let me know in the comments if you had the opportunity to go there yourself.

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