Summertime is road trip season, and if you are looking for some sights off the beaten path I’d suggests heading out to the Salton Sea in Southern California. There are amazing works of art out in the desert that you wouldn’t find anywhere else.
On our way to San Diego from Coachella we decided to take the long way around heading east farther into the desert rather than the usual south western route. I’ve always found the desert to be a wonderfully magical place and the Salton Sea definitely falls into the the weird and wonderful category.
A little back story on the Salton Sea, it’s actually man made, but by accident, sort of. Millions of years ago the Colorado River would overflow into the desert basin every so often creating a lake. That lake would eventually evaporate without any inflows or outflows. And this cycle would happen every few hundred years. Then in the early 1900’s during a dry period, farmers moved out there to take advantage of all that fertile soil. But it being the desert they needed water and began diverting water from the Colorado River. However too much water began to divert from the river and it ended up filling the basin before the canals could be fixed creating the inland sea we have today.
Then in the 50’s it became a sort of resort oasis with hotels and marinas all around it. The rich and famous would come from all over Southern California to boat, fish, and beach around the lake. But as it did in the past, the water began to evaporate and all those salts and minerals from the soil began to concentrate. The high salinity started killing off the fish and wildlife around the lake and by the late 60’s the oasis was abandoned.
If you want to know more you should definitely listen to the 99% Invisible Podcast – Episode 224 all about the Salton Sea, it’s really good.
Awesome California destinations!
The first stop on our adventure was Bombay Beach on the eastern side of the Salton Sea.
Bombay Beach was the premier resort town back in the 50’s during the Salton Sea’s hayday. Back in the day upscale resorts and marinas dotted the coast line, however all that remain from that time are bits of foundation here and there.
We drove up onto the levee between the lake and the town, and when we got out of the car the scene looked like a cross between Mad Max and Burning Man. Somehow both abandoned and apocalyptic, yet still full of life and color. There were sculptures of all sizes all over the beach. As someone who loves everything from street art to museum galleries, I was fascinated.
It was until later that we found out it was not just random or guerilla works of art, but actually part of a larger show.
The Bombay Beach Biennale (Italian for “every other year”, usually refers to art related events) is a “renegade” arts, music, and philosophy festival, with most of the festivities taking place over a weekend in early March. It turns the whole town into an immersive art project over three days with both locals and visitors participating and appreciating its majesty. While the festival is only three days many of the sculptures and installations are permanent for all to come and enjoy year round.
What to pack for SoCal
The next stop on our tour was Salvation Mountain, a work of art, religion, and philosophy just southeast of the Salton Sea. The artist Leonard Knight built this environment which includes a 50 foot mountain and a maze of tunnel like passage ways out of adobe, straw, and lead free paint. Since Knight’s death in 2014 volunteers have been helping to maintain the work, and preserve it as a Folk Art Site. All the paint is donated so if you plan to go out there consider bringing some lead free paint to donate to the cause.
Walking around the mountain and through the passage ways felt a little like a dream. I love all the colors and positive messages painted everywhere. The bright colors and organic design make it an awesome sight to behold.
We were chatting with one of the volunteers at Salvation Mountain and he told us about the East Jesus sculpture garden right up the road. That sounded like something we definitely wanted to check out so we hopped in the car drove up the dusty dirt road a ways.
East Jesus is an artists community and exhibition space southeast of the Salton Sea and out past Salvation Mountain and Slab City. The art garden is constantly being developed and updated with new works by resident artists.
This art garden might be one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. I loved all the pieces, and just found the whole vibe of the place awesome. My favorite piece was the TV wall, the idea of constant bombardment of messages on screens was fascinating and hit a little close to home for me.
I think the desert breeds this amazing type of creativity that you don’t see anywhere else. The artwork that we saw out there was just so unique and interesting and you won’t find it anywhere else.
Like this post? Pin it!