I was headed north from El Centro to Slab City, a thriving, alternative, "metropolis" in the California desert. To get to "The Slabs" I had to pass through the small town of Niland, which lay 5-miles east of the Salton Sea, in the southern California desert. Once in Niland, I headed east across two railroad tracks, passed in front of thousands of solar panels, bounced through several road dips caused by the San Andreas Fault, and stopped in front of Salvation Mountain.
Salvation Mountain is a small hill (approximately three stories high) which is entirely covered in donated, discarded house paint, homemade adobe, and festooned with Bible verses.
It is an ongoing folk art project of over two decades by permanent resident Leonard Knight. Just to the right of the mountain stands a 30-foot tall dome Leonard built out of bales of hay, dead trees, windows from old cars and more paint. I had seen Leonard's mountain dozens of times yet still had to stop, amazed at the time and effort he had invested there.
Just after passing Salvation Mountain the road flattened out and I passed the guard tower ... the official entrance to Slab City. Immediately to the right I spotted the three giant concrete water tanks, colorfully decorated with graffiti.
As I passed the guard tower I couldn't help but notice dozens of cement slabs, and campers sprawled out in every direction. With more investigation I came across the remnants of an Olympic sized swimming pool. Slab City is what is left of the barracks and other structures of Camp Dunlap, a World War II Marine Base.
I drove on until I reached our camp, a circle of motorhomes and trailers on the eastern edge of The Slabs. As usual, we are instantly greeted by my mother and father, who have unlocked our motorhome and trailer, and already have a campfire started for the evening. So went the beginning of another fun weekend at the Slabs.
My parents have been camping at Slab City for 20+ years. They camp in their motorhome from November 1st to April 1st. They love the desert and they love their Canadian "Snowbird" friends. Snowbirds are what we call people who travel to warmer climates to live during the winter. Many drive motorhomes or tow trailers and camp. In addition to the seasonal Snowbirds, Slab City has experienced a huge population growth lately due to the number of people losing their homes related to the recent economy problems. Ours camp is just one of hundreds in the area.
The map below shows you locations for the attractions I have visited. To get driving directions to each attraction, click the icon you want and select "Directions."
Do you know of any other attractions in the Slab City area? Please tell us about those attractions so all of our visitors to learn from.
A few years ago I brought my mountain bike to Slab City and discovered a totally new type of biking ... riding down washes. You might say, "aren't washes just dry, sandy, river beds?" And, "Don't you know mountain bikes are horrible in sand?" I would then say, "Yes ... both these observations are true." Yet what I discovered was ... the washes in the Slab City area acquire a thin clay crust on top when it rains. This crust stays hard until either 1) someone drives over it, or 2) it rains again. If the rain has recently come then the crust will be soft, but possibly still rideable.
The wheels of off-road vehicles totally collapse this inch-thick layer of mud and turn their tracks into powder ... totally un-ride-able.
If I lower my air pressure (to get the tires to spread out) and ride fast, I can glide down these washes, staying just on top of the crust, as if riding on glass. However, if I start to brake or turn hard, the tires smash through the crust and I am now riding in soft sand, which causes me to slow drastically.
Since the water rushes faster (or slower) from storm to storm, the currents cut the edges of a wash to various depths. The sides of these washes sometimes stand 10-feet straight-up and sometimes they rise gradually like the levels of a pyramid. These varying levels are great for jumping. I can barrel down the wash, veer to climb a couple levels, then drop off the edge ... right back to the bottom of the wash.
The washes I ride start in the Chocolate Mountains (on the east) and stretch westward to the Salton Sea. Beal Well lies to the east of our camp ... in the center of the Chocolate Mountains. Although I have ridden from our camp, to the well, and back in a single ride, I prefer to have Cindy drive me there to start.
If I ride to the north along the Coachella Canal (on Canal Road) I have my pick of several washes heading west. Every wash I have tried has been somewhat different.
All these washes flatten out about a half-mile to the west. From their west end I have found numerous ways to return to camp. I can either ride up one of the other washes or follow the pole-line road back to Salvation Mountain ... and then ride back up the pavement to camp. Canal Loop describes my adventures on a couple of these washes.
Slab City ... an interesting place of refuge. Give it a try. I think you will find the area addictive, and the riding a whole lot of fun.
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Andy Hannibal ... Hollister, California
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That's me, Joe Unden, your guide on this site. Since 2005 my favorite activity has been mountain biking. In 2011 I decided I wanted to share my biking experiences with others online, to make it easier for people to learn about the trails I love.
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