The Salton Sea feels out of place in sunny SoCal.
It’s an ecological disaster and a shockingly smelly lake surrounded by sad towns and barren desert.
Don’t let the smell push you away: the Salton Sea is a genuinely cool place to visit. If you’re in Palm Springs and looking for something to do, then a road trip around the Salton Sea is a great option.
Top sights to see around the Salton Sea include:
- Slab City
- Salvation Mountain
- Salton Sea State Park
- Bombay Beach
- Ski Inn
I’m no expert, but I’ve driven around the Salton Sea numerous times. You can easily cover the main sights in a day trip from Palm Springs. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could even do it in a day trip from San Diego or Los Angeles.
Want to visit the infamous Salton Sea? Here’s a perfect itinerary.
Stop #1) Painted Canyon
Want to hike through narrow, twisting canyons? Want to climb ladders and feel like a real desert explorer? The Painted Canyon in Mecca Hills is worth a visit.
It’s one of the most popular hiking spots in the area for a reason. Located just off the road before you hit the Salton Sea, Painted Canyon can be completed in a morning before you visit the rest of the Salton Sea.
Stop #2) Salton Sea State Park
Salton Sea State Park has a small museum explaining the bizarre history of the area. You can also walk to the shore of the hideous sea and look at the monstrosity for yourself.
In 1900, a wiseass engineer decided to turn the desert into a fertile oasis by diverting local rivers.
He messed up. The irrigation canals flooded in a rainstorm, sending water pouring into the Salton Basin, a depression with no natural drainage home to indigenous territory and the town of Salton.
The Salton Sea was nice for a few decades. It was a vacation hotspot with boaters, Hollywood celebrities, and thriving beach communities.
Unfortunately, the lack of drainage caught up to the Salton Sea. The water quality degraded. The water dried up. People left. Today, it’s a literal backwater in the middle of the desert – but it’s still pretty cool to visit.
Stop #2) Bombay Beach
Bombay Beach was one of those thriving beach communities I just mentioned.
Decades ago, Bombay Beach was the place to be on the Salton Sea. It had a marina, parties, and Hollywood celebrities visiting on weekends.
Today, Bombay Beach is equal parts artist community, dilapidated ghost town, trailer park, and Chernobyl – and it’s an absolute can’t miss on your Salton Sea road trip.
Drive into Bombay Beach towards the beach. You’ll see several dirt roads leading towards the seashore. You’ll know you’re close when you see weird metal sculptures overlooking the water.
Do a few loops around town. There are normal houses. There are rundown trailers. There are 40-foot modern art-style sculptures. There’s a church. There’s even a drive-in movie theater.
If you see one art piece in town, make sure it’s the inverted plane. Labeled as “Lodestar” on Google Maps, it’s a real plane that has been molded into some sort of lookout tower? I dunno. Apparently, you can go up to the top to get a view.
Stop #3) The Ski Inn
Bombay Beach feels like a place nobody would willingly visit. But it’s home to a bar called the Ski Innyou absolutely should visit.
The Ski Inn has been visited by a big name in the boozy traveler scene: Anthony Bourdain grabbed lunch at the Ski Inn for an early episode of “No Reservations” in 2008.
The Ski Inn has another claim to fame: it’s the lowest bar in the western hemisphere. You’re below sea level here. Have you ever drank a beer below sea level?
Anyways, Ski Inn is famous for its patty melt and its dollar bills on the wall. Like the thousands of other dive bars with money on the walls, Ski Inn has currency from all over the world.
The Ski Inn isn’t a tourist trap. There’s a nice blend of confused tourists and unique locals. Given you’re in the middle of nowhere, beer and food is reasonably priced.
Oh, and the Ski Inn is even open on Christmas.
Maybe grab an extra drink. You might want it before hitting Salvation Mountain and Slab City.
Stop #4) Salvation Mountain
Salvation Mountain has been featured in music videos (like Kesha’s “Praying”) and movies (like Into the Wild). It’s a highlight of any Salton Sea road trip itinerary.
Salvation Mountain was created over multiple decades by a local character named Leonard Knight. Leonard was on a hot air balloon ride when he saw a hill in the desert. He decided to cover that hill with paint. While living at Slab City for nearly 30 years, Leonard painted the hill and continued to build it up, turning it into the colorful and unique creation we see today.
Today, anyone can drive to Salvation Mountain to see the creation in person. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
Park at Salvation Mountain, walk in and around the monument, and take lots of photos.
Stop #5) Drive Through Slab City
Slab City is an off-the-grid community located just behind Salvation Mountain. Inhabited by hundreds (some even say thousands) of people from all walks of life, Slab City is worth driving through.
Some see Slab City as a homeless camp. Others see it as an art commune.
In 1942, the United States military acquired the land around Slab City for use as an artillery training range. By the 1960s, the military had stopped using the training ground.
Over the years, snowbirds started to spend their winters at Slab City. They would drive RVs, park in the desert, and enjoy an off-the-grid lifestyle free of the oppression of the United States government.
Slab City has been called one of the last free places in America. It’s also been called a squatters’ paradise. Without debate, it’s a place to go if you don’t want to be found. It’s one of the most unique places in southern California, and you need to drive through it on your Salton Sea road trip.
Stop #6) East Jesus
East Jesus and Slab City don’t get along.
They’re from the same anti-establishment family. But Slab City is the rebel stepchild who left home at 18 and hitchhiked to Alaska, while East Jesus is the trust fund kid that got a fine arts degree at NYU. At least, that’s the vibe you get from talking to Slab city people.
Pointless local rivalries aside, East Jesus is a must-visit spot if you’re at Salvation Mountain or Slab City. It’s an outdoor art exhibit filled with statements on modern society. Expect lots of heavy-handed references to media influence and government control.
All of the exhibits in East Jesus are made from junk and waste. Although it feels a bit silly and over-the-top, East Jesus means well and there are plenty of cool things to see.
Stop #7) Other Salton See Sights and Things to Do
After leaving East Jesus, you’ve seen the top sights of the Salton Sea – or at least everything I recommend seeing in and around the Salton Sea.
If you want to keep exploring, consider adding the following sights and must see things to do to your Salton Sea itinerary:
Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge: See birds and explore the shore of the Salton Sea.
Niland: Niland is the one real town on the east side of the Salton Sea. If you need groceries, gas, a restaurant stop, or anything else, then Niland is your best bet.
Salton City: Located on the other side of the Salton Sea from most of the attractions, Salton City has casinos, gas stations, and a bar.
Final Word: The Salton Sea is Worth a Visit
The Salton Sea is a forgotten part of Southern California.
Some see it as a testament to man’s arrogance over nature. Others see it as one of the last free places in the United States (whatever that means).
However you see it, the Salton Sea is worth a road trip from Palm Springs, Los Angeles, or San Diego.