Day Twenty: Salvation Mountain and Joshua Tree

The morning started off a little slower as the air outside was lovely and the temperature was in the low 70’s. Will took his morning office hours outside by the pool and I wrote yesterday’s post outside as well, only moving locations twice as the sun was rising and I could not see my computer screen. We wanted to be on the road exploring by 9:00 am; however, we didn’t pull out of the driveway till 10:00 am. Our first stop was Salvation Mountain.

One of my favorite things about Betsie is how she loves to explore and find places off the beaten path. The first part of today was simply because Betsie saw a picture of Salvation Mountain on VSCO and put it on her own personal bucket list of places she would like to visit. When she heard both about our last minute cross country RV trip and the fact we were going to California she asked, if it was close could we go.

Salvation Mountain was around an hour and a half drive with the last 40 miles on a two lane road in the middle of nowhere. I honestly think we passed 30 cars total in the 80 miles (up and back) that we were on this road. As we were driving on this road we kept seeing signs for the Salton Sea. Not knowing anything about the Salton Sea, we Googled it (actually Will did as I was driving). This is what we found: The Salton Sea is a shallow, saline, endorheic rift lake located directly on the San Andreas Fault, predominantly in the U.S. state of California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys. The lake occupies the lowest elevations of the Salton Sink in the Colorado Desert of Imperial and Riverside counties in Southern California. Its surface is 236.0 ft (71.9 m) below sea level as of January 2018. The deepest point of the sea is 5 ft (1.5 m) higher than the lowest point of Death Valley. The sea is fed by the New, Whitewater, and Alamo rivers, as well as agricultural runoff, drainage systems, and creeks. Over millions of years, the Colorado River has flowed into the Imperial Valley and deposited soil (creating fertile farmland), building up the terrain and constantly changing the course of the river. For thousands of years, the river has alternately flowed into and out of the valley, alternately creating a freshwater lake, an increasingly saline lake, and a dry desert basin, depending on river flows and the balance between inflow and evaporative loss. The cycle of filling has been about every 400–500 years and has repeated many times.

Around 700 AD, a major shift in the river’s course caused a flow of water into the basin, creating Lake Cahuilla, which at its peak was 115 miles (185 km) long, as much as 35 miles (56 km) wide, and 314 feet (96 m) deep, making it one of the largest lakes in North America. The sudden existence of a lake in the arid Salton basin, during a time of an extended severe drought, was serendipitous for the hunter-gatherers who lived there: although the water was too saline to drink, its presence attracted fish and waterfowl to the area. The lake existed for over 600 years, until silt blocked the entry channel, creating a closed basin that dried up in around 50 years. The latest natural cycle occurred around 1600–1700 AD, according to Native Americans who spoke with the first European settlers. Fish traps still exist at many locations, and the Native Americans evidently moved the traps depending upon the cycle.

The inflow of water from the now heavily controlled Colorado River was accidentally created by the engineers of the California Development Company in 1905. In an effort to provide water into the Imperial Valley for farming, beginning in 1900, an irrigation canal was dug from the Colorado River to the old Alamo River channel, directing the water west and then north near Mexicali. The headgates and canals suffered silt buildup, so a series of cuts were made in the bank of the Colorado River to further increase the water flow. The resulting outflow overwhelmed the third intake, “Mexican Cut”, near Yuma, Arizona, and the river flowed into the Salton Basin for two years, filling what was then a dry lake bed and creating the modern sea, before repairs were completed.

While it varies in dimensions and area with fluctuations in agricultural runoff and rainfall, the Salton Sea is about 15 by 35 miles (24 by 56 km). With an estimated surface area of 343 square miles (890 km2) or 350 square miles (910 km2), the Salton Sea is the largest lake in California by surface area. The average annual inflow is less than 1.2 million acre⋅ft (1.5 km3), which is enough to maintain a maximum depth of 43 feet (13 m) and a total volume of about 6 million acre⋅ft (7.4 km3). However, due to changes in water apportionments agreed upon for the Colorado River under the Quantification Settlement Agreement of 2003, the surface area of the sea is expected to decrease by 60% between 2013 and 2021. The Salton Sea had some success as a resort area, built on the eastern shore in the 1950s. However, many of the settlements substantially shrank in size, or have been abandoned, mostly due to the increasing salinity and pollution of the lake over the years from agricultural runoff and other sources. Many of the species of fish that lived in the sea have been killed off by the combination of pollutants, salt levels, and algal blooms. Dead fish have been known to wash up in mass quantities on the beaches. The smell of the lake, combined with the stench of the decaying fish, also contributed to the decline of the tourist industry around the Salton Sea. The US Geological Survey describes the smell as “objectionable”, “noxious”, “unique”, and “pervasive”.

It was sad to read how this area is no longer a resort community as the view was gorgeous! And it was beautiful to look at while driving down a road with literally nothing. What was equally as interesting, is seeing how we truly were in the middle of nowhere (or at least it seemed that way to us!) the cell coverage was amazing as well as the radio stations (clear as day!). Will was able to hold office hours all the way there and back, which has not been the case on many roads like these in the past.

The Salton Sea (you can see the white beach too!)

As we were continuing down the road, we passed by a Border Control Check Point, only having you stop as you were headed back into town. Apparently where we were going was only 40 miles from the Mexico Border.

Before we realized it we were turning down Main Street in Niland, California and it truly felt like we were in another country. The level of poverty was unbelievable and Main Street consisted of one food market, a post office and maybe one more store front. At this point, you are wondering if you made a wrong turn, but trust Google Maps you are headed for your destination. Soon off in the distance, we saw Salvation Mountain and knew we were in the right place.

Niland, CA
To live in this RV park with all utilities it’s $365 a month!

Once we turned onto the road to take us to our final destination, I realized we were actually hitting two places at the same time. Not only Salvation Mountain, but also Slab City. I can not begin to explain this area to you and I hope the pictures do it justice. I also want to share what I found online about Slab City.

Salvation Mountain in the distance
Welcome to Slab City

Prior to the United States’ official entry into World War II, the United States Marine Corps made the decision to site a training ground for field and anti-aircraft artillery units in an area accessible by aircraft taking off from carriers near San Diego. To create the training base, 631.345 acres (255.496 ha) were obtained. The camp had fully functioning buildings, water, roads, and sewage collections. The base was used for three years during the war. By 1949, military operations at Camp Dunlap had been greatly reduced, but a skeleton crew continued on until the base was dismantled. By 1956, all buildings had been dismantled, but the slabs remained.

Slab City, also called The Slabs, is a largely snowbird community in the Sonoran Desert located in Imperial County, California. It is 100 miles (161 km) northeast of San Diego and 169 miles (272 km) southeast of Los Angeles within the California Badlands. Slab City is used by recreational vehicle owners and squatters from across North America. It took its name from concrete slabs that remained from the abandoned World War II Marine Corps barracks of Camp Dunlap. Several thousand campers, many of them retired, use the site during the winter months. The “snowbirds” stay only for the winter before migrating north in spring to cooler climates. The temperatures during summer are as high as 120 °F (49 °C); nonetheless, there is a group of around 150 permanent residents who live in “The Slabs” year round. Some of these “Slabbers” derive their living from government programs and have been driven to “The Slabs” by poverty. Others have moved to “The Slabs” to learn how to live off the grid and be left alone. Still others have moved there to stretch their retirement income. The site is both decommissioned and uncontrolled, and there is no charge for parking. The site has no official electricity, running water, sewers, toilets or trash pickup service. Many residents use generators or solar panels to generate electricity. The closest body of civilization with proper law enforcement is approximately four miles (6.4 km) southwest of Slab City in Niland where the residents often go to do basic shopping.

Slab City
Slab City
Slab City
Going further into Slab City (like the main town)
Slab City
Slab City
Slab City
Slab City
Shoe tree in Slab City

It truly was wild to see the number of people who are living in Slab City. I said to Will “there is something incredibly freeing about living out here and not caring or worrying about a thing”. I could see getting ‘off the grid’ for a little bit, but living here full time is a different story. And speaking of stories, due to covid (a mask was even required on Salvation Mountain), the only people out were other tourists. I wanted to talk to some residents to learn about them and how they came to call Slab City ‘home’. The only person who lived here in which we had any contact was one worker (and I assume site manager) at Salvation Mountain, who thanked us for visiting.

Salvation Mountain was very refreshing to see, both with the message of love and the bright colors. This area came to be strictly because of one man named Leonard Knight. Here is his story: A literal man-made mountain 28 years in the making, covered in half a million gallons of latex paint, Salvation Mountain is the life’s work of Leonard Knight, a local resident with an unwavering passion and intense dedication to spread one simple message – “God is Love” – to anyone who would listen. What started as a small monument made of dirt and painted cement became, over time, a sprawling adobe and hay-bale mountain complex, with peripheral structures made of telephone poles, tires, and car windows, as well as art cars and sculptures. Painted in a patchwork of stripes and color blocks of whatever paint was donated that week, it stands as an eclectic vision in a desolate wilderness. Born in Vermont in 1931, Leonard Knight was a drifter until a religious epiphany struck in 1967 while visiting his sister in San Diego. She would always talk about the Lord and it sort of bothered Leonard who has never been a man of faith. In an attempt to escape her sermonizing, he went out of the house to sit in his van when he, all of a sudden, began repeating the Sinner Prayer from the Bible. As he recalled, this was the moment he accepted Jesus into his heart and he hasn’t been the same ever since.

Returning to Vermont with a sense of love, vision and purpose, he wanted to share his unbridled enthusiasm with the world. This vision came into shape when he decided to build a hot air balloon to get people to see the Sinner’s prayer and spread the love of Jesus. For years, he sewed relentlessly, buying fabric when he could, raising money by cutting cord-wood, picking apples, or whatever odd jobs he could get. After 14 years of unsuccessful attempts to get his balloon in the air, he had to admit defeat. However, Knight was no quitter. He came up with a new idea of building an eight-foot balloon out of cement in Niland, California. He only intended to stay for a week to finish this new project, but he never left. While the cement balloon was another failure, he came to an idea that would end up being his life’s work and the pinnacle of his life’s purpose – to build a mountain. With no running water or electricity at the site, it took a lot of devotion and determination to make his vision a reality. Starting with a bucket, some adobe clay and water, his monument grew taller and taller, as he packed old junk found at the dump onto its sides, filling it with sand and covering it with cement and paint. After four years of work, the mountain fell down due to the instability of its sandy surface. Thanking the Lord for showing him his mountain was not safe, he started once again, but “with more smarts”. Over the next several years, he rebuilt his mountain using adobe mixed with straw to hold it all together, creating a colorful spectacle and a living prayer in a desolate wilderness.

Salvation Mountain is the labor of love and an artistic testimony to one man’s faith. With a simple mission to share his religious fervor with the world, Leonard spelled it out in paint on his mountain. The result is a five-story high, 150-foot-wide ingenious labyrinth of crannies and caves, complete with Technicolor biblical messages decorating the walls and accompanied by an exuberantly painted folk-art jumble of flowers, trees, waterfalls, suns, bluebirds, and many other fascinating and colorful objects. Even the surrounding vehicles were absorbed by his creation. Visitors can take a vibrant yellow brick road to get to the top of the mountain for the most epic views of the desert badlands. Bright and vibrant, this living piece of art is a true spectacle. It’s also a national treasure in a county that doesn’t have a whole lot in the way of positive tourism.

Salvation Mountain was Leonard’s passion which consumed him until his death in 2014. Leonard may be gone, but his powerful message of love still lives on. People from all around continue to make a pilgrimage to the site. Since the mountain requires almost daily maintenance, a nonprofit group called Salvation Mountain Inc. has taken over the task of preserving the mountain for future generations to enjoy.

Salvation Mountain
Left Side
Middle and some of the right side
Right side (and we could not walk behind there as it was closed)
Paint buckets that were used
More paint buckets
God truly IS love!
Anna Cate and Betsie (no they didn’t purposely match today!)
Truck A
More Truck Art
Scooter Art
More Truck Art
Other side of the truck
Back of truck
Trailer Art
Wagoneer Art
Back of the Wagoneer
Sign about the Salvation Mountain Foundation
Donation box
Plaque dedicated to Leonard Knight. Please read! (You may be able to click picture to zoom in and make bigger if viewing from a mobile device).

We loved it! The colors were so bright and vibrant! There was certainly a feeling in the air of peace and calmness. And the number of tourists who were also visiting this area confirmed its popularity. We even met a guy from Richmond, Virginia who recently moved to California but his parents and brother still live in Bon Air!

On the way out
Loved this….as we left it read, Caution Reality Ahead!

From here we went back through the town of Niland to the two lane road taking us back to a main highway for our next adventure to Joshua Tree. Now, we could have driven on a portion of CA-62, but remember this was also the ‘death trap’ road, which I was not willing to go on again, especially since I was driving. By going back on CA-111, we were also able see the Saltan Sea a second time, providing more beautiful views. Yes, we did have to stop at Border Control too. Upon arriving we noticed in the opposite direction where we had previously driven through there were over twenty cameras, which I am sure took pictures of our car the first time we drove by. On the side where you stop for inspection, there must have been another twenty to thirty cameras as you drive into the checkpoint area. I know they actually ‘check’ cars because we saw them checking one on our way to Salvation Mountain. However, for us there was only one guy waiting for us. I rolled down my window and he asked me one question, “Ma’am are there any other passengers in your car in the back?”, to which I replied, “Yes, my three children.” With a wave, we were on our way.

Salton Sea in the other direction
We even found the Fountain of Youth out here!!!!
Approaching Border Control

The five second encounter at Border Control started a conversation in the car. Questions such a what if I had more than three kids in my car; why didn’t our car get a walk around search; what if we were not white would things have been different; did the cameras catch our time passing by and then picked us up coming back through tipping them off we probably went to Salvation Mountain/Slab City as Mexico was too far for the time we passed by…..the thoughts were endless. Given the times we are also living currently, it was an example for our kids to see how one situation for us only took literally five seconds, where as if our skin color was different it could have taken much longer.

Once we hit the main highway, we were forty minutes from the Cottonwood entrance to Joshua Tree. We have learned you can ”plan” to have departure and arrival times, as well as, how long you spend sightseeing, but most of the time plans are altered. Thirty minutes was the time we were giving ourselves in Joshua Tree as we had things we wanted to take care of before leaving California in the morning. It took us over thirty minutes to drive before you saw anything after passing the Joshua Tree National Park entrance sign! The drive through was pretty between the rolling hills, the mountains and vegetation. Overall we spent roughly an hour and a half in Joshua Tree.

Drive into Joshua Tree
Made it to the park sign!

From the Cottonwood Visitor Center, we continued down Pinto Basin Road to the Cholla Cactus Garden. These cactus were deceiving, as they looked soft from a distance, but up close were very prickly! And it truly was a garden full of them. We continued on until we hit Park Boulevard and made a left turn to head towards Jumbo Rocks Once we made the turn you were able to see the Joshua Trees. Yucca brevifolia is a plant species belonging to the genus Yucca. Since it is a tree- like in habit, it also has been given the common names such as Joshua tree, yucca palm, tree yucca and palm tree yucca.

Drive to Cholla Cactus Garden
Cholla Cactus Garden
Trail through the Garden
Aren’t they cute!
Look at those spikes!
Betsie trying to get AC to smile
It worked! (Eli didn’t want to get out of the car, lol)!

Here are some facts about Joshua Tree: The park is approximately 800,000 acres, making Joshua Tree a tree desert wilderness just a few hours outside Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas and Phoenix. There are three park entrances. The Cholla Cactus Garden is one of Joshua Tree National Park’s one-of-a-kind features. Perhaps the cutest cactus on the planet, the cholla has been nicknamed teddy bear cactus, but this is one teddy bear you do not want to hug! The cactus is covered in spines that will latch in to your skin on the slightest touch. This defense mechanism is effective for desert survival but can create an unpleasant experience for those who don’t stick to the trail. Teddy bear cholla reproduces vegetatively, meaning that new plants start from fallen stem-joints. It is possible that this entire ‘garden’ consists of only one individual! The stem-joints can easily detach and hitch a ride due to the miniscule barbs on the spines, giving it the nickname ‘jumping cholla”. Once they’ve latched on, the spines are very painful to remove.

Joshua Tree National Park is actual two deserts in one park. The Mojave is a higher, cooler desert more attractive to Joshua trees, Mojave yuccas, even pinyon pines, scrub oaks and junipers. When you drive through the northern part of the park (we entered the southern entrance closest to the Cholla Cactus Garden) you will see an abundance of Joshua Trees. The Colorado Desert, a fragment of the much larger Sonoran Desert, is below 3,000 feet in elevation and is hotter than Mojave. This setting is more favorable for cholla, ocotillo, and creosote bush.

I also found this: the name ‘Joshua tree’ is commonly said to have been given by a group of Mormon settlers crossing the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century. The tree’s role in guiding them through the desert combined with its unique shape reminded them of a biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer.

Driving to see the Joshua trees
Jumbo Rocks
Joshua trees
Joshua tree

As we were driving through the park, Betsie asked if she could drive. Right before we left for the trip she got her learner’s permit and hasn’t been able to drive since. Since there was hardly anyone around us on the National Park road, we let her drive us back to the Cottonwood Visitor Center on our way out.

Betsie driving

On our forty minute drive back ‘home’ we decided to have an early, easy dinner back at the house allowing Anna Cate swim time. We got takeout from Del Taco as this place is an inside joke from last summer and since we have never been to one we went. It was not a highlight, but it was fast! After dinner Betsie and I went to Trader Joe’s and Target to load up for our next week on the road. I can’t tell you the last time I was in a Target and I think they missed me! After our shopping trip we headed to the RV to restock the pantry and refrigerator and put the clean sheets on the beds, as well as, put clothes away. She was a really big help as I was tired and getting cranky! We pulled back into our Airbnb around 9:00 pm for Will and Eli to leave to take care of the ‘boy’ stuff (you know emptying tanks and such) so we simply had to unplug power and pull out in the morning. It was a late night but made the morning go much smoother.

Del Taco
Anna Cate looking like she is in Greece!
Anna Cate enjoying her last evening swimming!
Apparently they are planning something!

As I type this, we are on the road again! After Will closed five deals before 9:00 am (PST), with one more layer in our drive, we packed up our remaining bags and headed to the RV park to get the RV. Will and the girls followed me and Eli to the airport to drop off the rental car. By 10:00 am we were on our way to our next stop!

Palm Springs was a great stopping point and we all loved it. The views from our Airbnb were beautiful and one you would never get tired of enjoying. While it was over 110 the first two days, the last two were in the low 90’s and breezy. Cali, it has been fun!

The morning view we are going to miss!

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