There are moments when southern California’s desert landscape can feel a little surreal. Maybe it’s all that flatness, or the spiny trees that look like they sprung up on another planet. But if you can tear yourself away from the cocktails and poolside parties in Palm Springs, there’s a string of eerily beautiful, almost otherworldly sights southeast of the city that make for a rewarding road trip. Make sure you have a full tank of gas, pack snacks and plenty of water, turn up some tunes by The Eagles, and head southeast on Route 111 to find the following totally strange — and totally fascinating — sights.
The Salton Sea: Crowned with blue-white mountains and surveyed from above by a diverse population of birds, this saltwater lake is the second largest in the United States after Utah’s Great Salt Lake. More water flows out of the lake each year than in, so water levels are dropping and the lake’s salt content is rising — a phenomenon that’s seriously discouraging tourism. Years of pollution from nearby farm runoff is also helping to kill the lake’s fish. You’ll see, and occasionally smell, the unpleasant fallout of this, all along the shores of the Salton Sea. But this carnage is more fascinating than stomach-turning, and we recommend stopping into the Salton Sea Recreation Area, where you’ll find a camping site and boat launch, as well as guides who are passionate advocates for the health of the sea and its wildlife. Remember that when you visit, you’re seeing a symbol of one of California’s most critical political and environmental issues — water, or lack thereof.
The Bombay Beach Ruins: Before the Salton Sea started shrinking, it was a fashionable vacation spot. That’s definitely not the case today, but you can still see the decaying remains of what was. The town of Bombay Beach, along the lake’s Eastern shore, used to be situated directly on the water line. Now that the lake has periodically flooded and the waters have receded, the town has moved back hundreds of feet, and all you’ll find by the shore is salt-caked sand, the blackened frames of boats and buildings, and lots of dead fish. Take a moment to look around and try to imagine what once was.
Salton Sea Mud Pots: The area around the Salton Sea is an active geothermal landscape. While they’re neither easy to reach, nor in a particularly well-trod spot, the bubbling mud pots in the Davis Schrimpf Seep Field are a wonder, and totally worth the bumpy, dirt-road drive. Situated on top of an ultra-hot lava field below the earth’s surface, these mud pots gurgle and bubble away. At first glance, they look like nothing but mountains of dirt, but a closer look will reveal them. In fact, you might hear them sloshing before you see them. A tip for newbies: remember to leave the area as untouched as you found it, and don’t wear your nice shoes. You’ll need to walk across a field of gloopy, hard-to-remove mud to reach the mud pots.
Slab City: More a higgledy piggledy collection of trailers and tents than a town, Slab City has been a respite for free spirits, nonconformists, and people who simply want to go off the grid for decades. Residents who are here to stay — or are simply passing through — have no running water, and no electricity. A drive or walk around its dusty streets will reveal quirky art projects, political slogans, and a fully coherent sense of place and identity. If you visit, remember that you’re the outsider, and that gawking and photos are not always appreciated. If you’re looking for a place that will make you rethink your definition of freedom, however, Slab City is the place.
Salvation Mountain: If you’re headed out to Slab City from the town of Niland, you can’t miss it. A tower of paint, straw, and whatever elements that folk artist Leonard Knight could get his hands on, Salvation Mountain is the enormous symbol of his religious devotion. Take a few minutes to climb to the top of the pile via a carefully planned “Yellow Brick Road,” take in the expansive views of the desert, and ponder Knight’s outsized artistic vision. Knight passed away in 2014, but visitors still leave donations of paint when they pass through, so you may see ongoing work on the mountain. For photos and some additional detail, see our complete writeup of Salvation Mountain.
The International Banana Museum: Looking for a stapler in the shape of a banana? How about a cookie jar or an ashtray? This hilariously thorough — and specific — roadside museum is a fun and inexpensive diversion. Look for it on 111 on the way out to the Salton Sea right near the small town of North Shore.
The Trains: As you drive southeast on 111, you’ll see the constantly rumbling trains making their way toward Mexico with goods. They make for a lonesome sight as they travel across the desert, and may occasionally be your only company as you make your way across this barren expanse of America.