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Visiting the Slabs: Slab City California

Teeuwynn has a fascination for Magical Tourism, and loves seeing quirky parts of the world that are truly like no other.

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.

Two Residents of Slab City. Dave and Lizzie have been living full time in Slab City for more than ten years.

Two Residents of Slab City. Dave and Lizzie have been living full time in Slab City for more than ten years.

Where Are the Slabs?

The Slabs are located four miles east of Niland, California. The Slabs are 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 a great place to use as for temporary housing utilizing 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.

One of the many sculptures found at Slab City.  This one is in East Jesus.

One of the many sculptures found at Slab City. This one is in East Jesus.

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.

Salvation Mountain

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.

Salvation Mountain. This dominating structure is a fantastic painted, adobe, and mixed media three story work of art in Slab City.

Salvation Mountain. This dominating structure is a fantastic painted, adobe, and mixed media three story work of art in Slab City.

East Jesus

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 the freedom of nothing.

These talking blocks decorate part of East Jesus in the Slabs

These talking blocks decorate part of East Jesus in the Slabs

The Library

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.

There are many magazines and books at the Slab City Library.

There are many magazines and books at the Slab City Library.

Entrance to the Slab City Library

Entrance to the Slab City Library

The Range

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.

Pet Cemetery

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.
Imperial Hot Springs outside Slab City.

Imperial Hot Springs outside Slab City.

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.

Slab City's Internet Cafe

Slab City's Internet Cafe

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
  • Food
  • Shade
  • Water Shelter
  • Transport
  • Basic First Aid Kit
  • Sunscreen
  • Medicines

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.
The road to Slab City.

The road to Slab City.

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.

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

A couple with their 10-month-old daughter outside their trailer in Slab City.

A couple with their 10-month-old daughter outside their trailer 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.

One of the Slabs residents.

One of the Slabs residents.

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

Welcome to Slab City

Welcome to Slab City

© 2018 Teeuwynn Woodruff

Comments

Ann Sterzinger on August 19, 2020:

Sounds like this is a potentially wonderful place filled with painfully annoying and self-righteous people. If it were actually possible to keep to yourself it might be heaven, but I seriously doubt that.

Teeuwynn Woodruff (author) from Washington State on August 05, 2020:

Thank you for your interesting and useful comments. I will incorporate some of your information when I update the article.

Alona Whalen on July 28, 2020:

As a going on 4 year resident and a obsessive fan prior to these years thank you for writing a different view of Slab city. This community has suffered because people put in a search criteria and believe they are coming to a place where they will be accepted for being horrible and dishonest. The views I am listing are purely mine.

1. As with any unincorporated portion of the United States we have full access to emergency services. Being next to the border, a federal bombing range, we have access to possibly more emergancy services, let's not forget my fave... the Navy Seal team training facility. At one time I've seen sweeps through here consisting of: Homeland Security Border patrol, FBI, County Sheriff's, U.S. Marshal's, County Probation and State Patrol. This consisted of 2 helicopters (a 3rd on standby over the Navy Seals base) every road blocked, A main staging In between Niland and the Slabs, 5 sub stages within the Slabs, 4 armed sweep teams set at each corner sweeping toward the center. My favorite thing is to recruit a clueless newbie for police patrol. They need to get horribly drunk on their own booze, stand at the guard shack and stop every officer entering, tell the officer he is trespassing and turn around, call someone from jail for bail money. We are not going to bail your dumb a** out, and pray your belongings are still here when you return. 2. The cold shower is a filtered run off of the hot springs. The hot springs is our bath tub. We like to bathe with as many of our neighbors as we can fit in there so don't be offended. The cold shower is a summer shower and freezing in the winter. 3. Although the Government loves to promote drug crime in my view point based on the extreme failure of the drug war and the need to profit off of what should be treated medically You are absolutely incorrect on drug crime being the problem here. Theft is the #1 crime here. Primary stolen Item? Food. People love to say druggies and stealing for drug money. I totally wish there was a.web site that showed different drug costs in the U.S. This leads to bring trinkets for the natives.... the most fun our thieves have is seeing how much they can steal with you watching. So pleas trade with every stranger here. Your funny. 4. Bring toilet paper and a sturdy bucket for your a**. Children... Here's one you didn't list, the family safe Ponderosa. Complete with trampoline and animal farm. The owners of this camp have kids and are extremely watchful. I dare anyone to mess with their kids. Other camps that aren't listed on air bnb also have camping. Ask at large more established/ experienced camps you visit and see if they will allow camping or their recommendation. Most do because having you there provides your safety and their access to a rental fee that helps fund the camp. I have more but I'm prob. Over character limit.

PRESENTLY KNOWN AS: "HILLBILLY MIKE" KINKEAD -(FORMLY KNOWN AS)- "THE RED BARON" on April 07, 2020:

HELLO - "HILLBILLY MIKE" HERE - YES, I WAS IN SLAB CITY IN: 1992,1993,1994,1995,1996&1997! & EVERY ONE OF THOSE YEARS I LOVED IT THERE & THE FIRST CHANCE I GET TO GO AGAIN, YOU BET I WILL !

Shorty on December 18, 2019:

I liked ur article I'd love go there but not in the hot months lol I'd go in the winter though for sure

Therese on September 08, 2019:

It IS possible to Know il m'y brother live there

Julie Cox on May 19, 2019:

2001 I was in Slab City and Niland. I wont ever forget

Isaac on February 19, 2019:

I think slab city is a good place to live because you can be you and you are set free

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on November 05, 2018:

Amazing! and you have made a very comprehensive collection of information. If our society crumbles, these residents may be the survivors.

Cecil Kenmill from Osaka, Japan on October 09, 2018:

I've heard of Slab City. It seems like a fascinating place. Let's hope it doesn't turn into a tourist trap.

Ellison Hartley from Maryland, USA on October 09, 2018:

This is a super interesting article. I think I would be scared to stop there though!

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on October 09, 2018:

Slab City sounds really interesting. I'd love to visit here. Your article was really interesting to read.