Visiting the Slabs: Slab City California
Magical America: Slab City California
Slab City, California is a mystic spot that seems to exist in some other place and time. Only four miles east of Niland, California, Slab City is part artistic commune, part snowbird getaway, and part refuge for druggies and squatters. Many of its residents call it “the last free place.” However, technically the city is owned by the California State Teachers Retirement System.
The Slabs, as this place is also known, do not have any laws per se. The people who live here abide by a code of leaving each other alone. No property taxes, no other utilities or other normal civic dues exist here. This doesn’t mean that crime doesn’t exist—it does—but there is no regular police force or other civil services here.
Where Are the Slabs?
The Slabs are located four miles east of Niland, California. It is in the Sonoran Desert in Imperial County about 156 miles northeast of San Diego.
To drive to Slab City:
Starting from Niland, CA and heading off Highway 111
Head east on Main Street
Continue on Beal Road for 3 miles
The first big stop will be Salvation Mountain
Continue past Salvation Mountain
Slab City (where the people live) is about another 1/2 mile down the road
History of the Slabs
The site used to be a U.S. Marine Corps installation called Camp Dunlap. In 1961, the military determined it no longer needed the base and it was mostly broken down into a bunch of slabs and other pieces of concrete left piled in the desert. Employees from a chemical factory nearby found the Slabs and decided they would be great to use as a place for temporary housing using small trailers and other set ups.
Later on, the land was sold to the California State Teachers Retirement Association who owns it to this day but does not regulate the people who choose to live on the property.
What Does Slab City Look Like?
Slab City has a look that is unique to itself. Part Burning Man, part RV gathering, part Artist’s Colony, part homeless city, the Slabs look different everywhere you go. Around one corner you can find an RV with a giant tire and chair full of stuffed animals with a giant “Welcome Visitors” sprayed on it. Around the next corner, you might find teepees and homemade shacks with growling dogs pegged to stakes.
Going farther in you might see an entire wind chime sculpture made of found materials and a woman willing to share her homemade bread with you. The next corner could bring an offer to buy drugs. Oh, and you will see a lot of garbage, a whole lot of garbage. When you don’t have sewer and garbage utilities, that’s what you get.
Slab City is not a place for someone looking for the steady and sure in a vacation spot. But if you want to go somewhere different than any other place in this country, the Slabs might be for you.
Art and Attractions of the Slabs
Slab City is really an attraction in and of itself. The people who live and visit here are a unique brood. Some are very antisocial, but others are the salt of the earth and they can really be fascinating to visit with. However, the Slabs have other attractions to see as well.
This is the imposing series of starkly painted slabs and rocks you see before you enter Slab City proper. This brightly painted hill is about three stories tall. It is covered in paint, adobe, and concrete. There are many bible verses covering it. The whole space is riddled with a maze of walkways where every corner reveals a new piece of art.
When we arrived at the mountain of slabs it was truly staggering. Three stories of brilliant art surrounded by desert and radiating heat. Heading inside, you feel as if you've entered another world, one where magic might actually be real. You never know what might be around the next corner, but it's sure to be fascinating.
The Salvation Mountain project was started by Leonard Knight over 20 years ago.
This is a sustainable, habitable, constantly changing art exhibit in Slab City. The name has no religious connotations. It simply refers to a place that is outside the bounds of service, where there are no utilities, no ties to modern life. Some of the work here is truly fascinating and is made from many different and unusual materials.
My favorite piece of art is the work below, full of expressions about modern society, the world, and just nothing.
The library in Slab City may be one of the more unique in the world. It is a fantastical place built from a variety of found and scavenged materials. Built from chicken coops, discarded trailers, and old dog runs, among other things, the library is something you’d expect to see in some dystopian future.
Everywhere in the library is full of art and there are books organized into all sorts of genres. There’s even a bar in the library where you can get a libation for a small donation. The librarian, in relaxed pants and no shirt, is very helpful with showing visitors books. It's an enchanting and unique place to experience.
I found an old copy of one of my favorite books there, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. The parallels between Slab City, a place different from anywhere else in this country, and Narnia, a place different from the world Lucy and her siblings know, was very apt.
This open-air nightclub has a complete setup, including lights, amplifiers, speakers, and a stage. Beaten up chairs and couches are scattered around for seating. On Saturday nights around dusk visitors and locals alike can enjoy the talent show that includes permanent resident musicians as well as whoever else wants to show off their talents.
The Range is run by a long-timer known as Builder Bill. His real name is William Ammon and his wife, Robin, collects old prom dresses for people to wear to the concerts. She does this because many people never had a chance to go to their proms.
Many residents of Slab City have very reverent feelings about their pets. The residents have built a pet cemetery for them that has an artistic resonance and emotional depth that is worth experiencing.
Slab City Hot Springs
The Imperial Hot Springs just outside Slab City are definitely worth a soak if you don’t mind bathing in hot water in the middle of a heat wave. Some people feel they are soaking out contaminants.
The springs are outside of the Slabs, near Niland, California. To get there:
Take 10 S to 86 S.
Turn Right on Avenue 50.
Turn Left on Leoco then Right on CA-11S.
Go 5.1 miles to Main Street in Niland.
Turn Left on Main Street for 2 miles.
Turn Right between the blue and gray power cylinders near the power lines.
This should take you to the hot springs.
What Can I Expect When I Visit the Slabs?
Staying in Slab City is different from what almost all Americans are used to doing. Here are a few things you can expect when you go to the Slabs.
Amenities Are Very Limited
There aren’t any public amenities in Slab City. The nearest ones are in Niland, California about four miles away. There is not even a reliable supply of drinking water. Food, water, healthcare, law enforcement is not here. You are really off the grid. There is one communal shower that all residents share—and remember, that could be up to 4,000 people in the Winter.
If you’re looking for electricity you’ll have to set up some solar panels, generators, and batteries. There is a man in town named “Solar Mike” who has been selling solar panels to others for decades.
There is an internet cafe jury-rigged for the Slabs. So if you have a way to charge up your devices you can reach the world through this.
There are no sewage, garbage or other waste disposal systems. Residents have to make due on their own. This leads to a very large amount of garbage and filth in Slab City. As a heads up, the Slabs are not the nicest smelling place to be, but you do get used to it.
Where to Stay?
There are a few different ways to visit (or stay) at Slab City. There are actually some Airbnb options. A Slab City Hostel is open and a good introduction to the city. The cost to stay at present is $30 per night. There are also other places in Slab City on Airbnb.
You can also bring an RV to stay in. Remember, though. There will be no place to plug in, place your sewage line, or otherwise do what you are used to doing at a regular RV park.
Those who want to camp out will find ample room in the area to set up tents, teepees, lean-tos, or other forms of temporary shelter. You can also go to Niland, California and stay there if you want to keep your trip to Slab City a day trip.
What to Bring
For your own safety, be sure to bring the following:
Plenty of Water
- Basic First Aid Kit
If you are only staying a night or so, you probably don’t have to bring any gifts to give the native Slab City residents, but if you plan on staying longer, you should definitely add this to your list.
What Not to Do
- Do NOT drive off into the desert. Desert roads can very rapidly become sand traps and getting trapped in a remote part of the desert is very dangerous.
- Despite the amount of trash in Slab City do NOT leave your own trash behind. You are a visitor and you should be respectful.
- Do not come empty-handed. Bring beer, trinkets, books, or anything else you think might be good to give or trade with the locals. You will fit in much better and get a much warmer welcome.
What Are the Best Times of Year to Visit the Slabs?
The population of Slab City swells in the Winter months to as many as 4,000 people as the weather cools and life becomes much more pleasant in the desert. People come from as far north as Canada to take advantage of the cheap living prices and warm air.
During the hottest summer months, the desert population of Slab City drops drastically. During the peak of the Summer months when the sun is at its most savage, the Slabs population drops to as little as 150 people.
It’s up to you when you want to visit the Slabs, but if you choose to try to visit this otherworldly town during the more brutal summer months, you will have to be especially prepared for the devastating heat and the fact that the city does not have electricity, sewage, or any other public utilities.
In general, plans to visit Slab City are best made for the autumn, winter, and early spring months.
Into the Wild
Did you know Slab City appeared in the 2007 film "Into the Wild" by Sean Penn? The film was a biographical survival film based on a book by Jon Krakauer of the same name.
Should Children Visit the Slabs?
This is a question only parents can answer. There are children who live in Slab City at least part of the year. However, there is a strong drug scene in the city and visitors are regularly approached with offers to buy drugs. In addition, children have occasionally been wounded by one of the residents' guard dogs.
On the plus side, taking your children to this unique marvel of artistic expression that shows a way of life that really doesn’t exist anywhere else in our country could be a real learning experience. So, again, this is definitely a parental choice.
Life in Slab City
What Kind of People Live in the Slabs?
There is a wide variety of people living in the Slabs. Only a small number live year round in this blistering environment. Snowbirds, older retirees looking for an inexpensive place to live, make up part of the community. There is a contingent of squatters who would be homeless in most cities in our country. Druggies and drug dealers also make their home here. Hippies and free thinkers also seek out this community. There is also a very strong artistic commune that produces wonderful works in the city.
In general, the populace respects other residents and leave each other alone. Since there are no official laws in Slab City this attitude is very important to helping the community survive. Still, there is a lot of crime here, particularly related to drugs.
Are the Slabs Dangerous?
There are no laws officially enforced in the Slabs, meaning there is some inherent danger to going here. Sometimes a police cruiser will come by and check on the town, but there are no actual city services to turn to in times of crisis. Drug crimes are definitely a concern here. However, the amount of violent crime here is not particularly high, and much of the populace is very open to visitors.
Visiting the Slabs
Visiting the Slabs is an experience like no other in the United States, perhaps the world. The mixture of residents, art, desert landscape, and the lack of law and order in this town turn it into a wild artland, a visit down the rabbit’s hole, a chance to live for a moment like it is the dystopian future or the Wild West past, but it’s really an experience all its own.
Going to the Slabs
Would You Ever Go To Slab City?
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Teeuwynn Woodruff