Things to Do in Slab City

by Erica

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Today I want to talk about Slab City! On my Instagram, I recently started sharing some of the backlog of photos from our 6 months on the road. I started with a series from our time in Slab City, California… and what I learned is that people have A LOT of questions about this place!

Most ask about the safety and if we felt like we were in danger. Others asked about the people. And the ones who’ve been, shout their praise from the rooftops. It’s one of those places that everyone seems to be interested in for one reason or another… so I decided it was about time I shed some light on our experience with visiting Slab City!

Slab City Folklore

Slab City is legendary for being a wild, lawless community in the desert of California. After seeing countless posts on social media, followed by a short (and damning) documentary by Vice… I knew that we needed to check it out for ourselves while we were out in California.

After traveling down the entire western coast, we finally reached San Diego. Our next, and last destination planned in California was Joshua Tree. This is when I decided to inform Tim of my non-negotiable secret plan to visit Slab City. Lets just say he was not as interested in visiting as I was. You see, when Vice covered the desert community – they painted it in a very negative light. It was made out to be a lawless community of dangerous drug addicts and other rejects from mainstream society. He was a little nervous (rightfully so) about what we might encounter once we made it there.

Old, painted vehicle spreading the message that GOD IS LOVE, found at Salvation Mountain in Slab City, CA
GOD IS LOVE! This is one of the many vehicles boasting the same message as Salvation Mountain.

When we arrived – any fears that may have been festering died down very quickly. We were greeted by colorful, strange art installations and the friendly residents of the makeshift desert town. After talking to a few of the locals, we found out that the area is actually an abandoned marine corps base that was decommissioned and demolished except for the cement slabs that gave the city it’s name.

While there is no electricity, running water, laws, or anyone to enforce them… this small city of anywhere between a few hundred to a couple thousand residents (depending on season) surprisingly had a lot to offer!

Colorful mailbox with a message to Jesus in the foreground, and Salvation Mountain in the background. Salvation Mountain is one of the most interesting things to do in Slab City, California
The great and powerful Salvation Mountain – one of the most interesting things to do in Slab City, California

Things to Do in Slab City: Salvation Mountain

Upon entering Slab City – we were greeted by a HUGE man made rainbow structure known as Salvation Mountain. In 1984, a Jesus loving man by the name of Leonard Knight started to erect this massive monument to spread the message that “God is Love”. Initially, it was made of junk from the nearby dump, filled in with sand, and then covered in cement. Soon after, it collapsed due to a light rain.

Colorful interior of Salvation Mountain in Slab City. It's rainbow and whimsical and reminds me of "Oh the Places You'll Go!" by Dr. Suess
The colorful interior of Salvation Mountain is reminiscent of a Dr. Suess book. I could have spent all day taking photos in here. This was one of my favorite things to do in Slab City!

Determined to spread the word of Jesus, he started building it again – but instead of trash, he used adobe clay and straw. God must have been on his side this time, because the colorful monument still stands today.

The coolest thing about Salvation Mountain is that you can actually climb on it and walk inside of it. To climb, you just “follow the yellow brick road” up to the top of the structure. On the right side of the mountain, there is a labyrinth of colorful rooms covered in messages of God’s love.

Entrance to East Jesus, Slab City - made out of old bicycles and other pieces of trash forming an interesting archway.
The main entrance to East Jesus, Slab City. This garden of art installations made out of trash was definitely one of the most interesting things to do in Slab City.

East Jesus, Slab City

When considering things to do in Slab City… East Jesus is the first thing that comes to mind. East Jesus, Slab City is an art gallery like no other. If you consider the Slabs to be a city like San Francisco, this would be the the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, covered in colorful, weird, interesting art.

A colorful dilapidated house installation with legs coming out of it - similar to a scene in The Wizard of Oz. We're not in Kansas anymore... this is Slab City!
A dilapitated house art installation in East Jesus, Slab City. Notice striped stocking legs coming out of the bottom right window – a tribute to The Wizard of Oz and not being in Kansas anymore!

East Jesus art installations range from nitrous canister adorned art cars to a massive wall of painted TVs. The most common trait between all of the masterpieces is that they’re almost all made out of trash! We spent a looong time walking around and taking in all of the sights… and if it wasn’t for Tim rushing me along – I could have spent many hours capturing photos of the unique masterpieces in this garden of improvised art.

An art installation with a face stating "nothing ever happens"
Another interesting installation in East Jesus, Slab City

If you want to know more about East Jesus, or to make a donation to their organization that’s trying to purchase the land the gallery sits on… check out their website here!

Colorful Slab City Library sign
Another surprising thing to do in Slab City – visit the Slab City Library and check out a book!

Borrow a Book from the Slab City Library

Would you expect a community of squatters to have a library? I bet you’re thinking “definitely not”… but the Slab City Library is pretty impressive and stuffed full of books. We visited in the morning and were hoping to add to the collection with some of our recently read titles – but signs stated that they weren’t accepting any new donations.. so we quietly made our way through the makeshift building, taking nothing but photos.

Inside the Slab City Library.
A shot from inside the Slab City Library, which was VERY well stocked. They had so many books that there were multiple signs requesting no additional book donations at this time!

Slab City Skatepark

Another pretty cool part of this desert town is the Slab City Skatepark! Once we made it to the west coast of the United States, Tim was on a mission to skate in all the possible places. When we heard about the Slab City Skatepark – he had to check it out! Unfortunately, when we got there, the park wasn’t in optimal shape for skating… but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go explore it for yourself.

A sign boasting "Slab City, where freedom lives!" in red, white, and blue.
The photo that I got scolded for taking. An angry Slab City resident was not impressed with my desire to capture his interesting fence. I learned a big lesson on respecting people’s space – even if they may not own it!

Slab City’s Very Own Nightclub: The Range

Another thing that Slab City is equipped with is it’s very own open-air nightclub called The Range! Apparently, every Saturday night they hold a talent show including Slab City residents that are regulars. Unfortunately, we visited on a weekday so there wasn’t too much action going on.

Also, I wanted to snap a photo of this cool spot on our way out of town… but unfortunately I hopped out of the RV too soon and decided to take a photo of an interesting fence next door to the club. While I was doing this (from the middle of the road)… one of the residents started yelling at me for taking pictures of his “house” and invading his privacy. At first I apologized and told him he had a nice fence… and when he kept screaming about how “all you tourists are the same” – I got mad and started yelling back. I might have thrown a “fuck you” in there too (not my finest hour, obviously).

Stacks of TVs with messages about today's society - "Better living through sedentary obedience" and "you need more stuff" are two of the messages.
Another interesting art installation found in East Jesus. The TVs tell you a lot about society today and we found it to be a very poignant message!

Meet Some Slab City Residents

While I have no photo of the nightclub after all that yelling.. I did learn something important about Slab City’s residents in this moment. While many of them were SO kind and inviting to us… a lot of people live this way because they want to remove themselves from society. So when someone (or MANY someones, I’m guessing based on his reaction) is disrespecting their space (even though it’s not technically “their land”) – they feel justified in telling them off.

It’s also worth noting, that in the past few years – Slab City has gotten more exposure than ever. When the movie Into the Wild came out, as well as the Vice documentary… this place went from being relatively under the radar, to a quintessential stop on the way to Coachella. There’s no doubt in my mind that hoards of people, far less respectful than us, have come to see the spectacle and caused more harm than good.

Conversely, everyone else we met was very nice. On our way in, we got a lot of waves and compliments on our rolling home. We spoke with a few older men that had been living in the community for a long time, and even ran into some young, dread headed hippies living in a cool little compound with their dogs. There was never a time where we felt unsafe, and I can’t stress that enough. If you are kind and respectful to the residents of Slab City, you will more than likely be fine.. and maybe gain a friend (Or at the very least… some perspective!)

Beautiful free camping spot in the desert of slab city, california.
Out beautiful free camping spot in Slab City. It is always free to stay and you may stay as long as you’d like.

Slab City Camping

What most people don’t know, is that Slab City camping is free! For as long as you want! That freeness is the thread that holds this community together. In the summer months, temperatures can rise to around 120°F and only a couple hundred people stick around. But during the winter, this city is made up of thousands of snowbirds. Whether it be a beautiful RV, or broken down bus, or a house made out of palettes, everyone in Slab City has the right to pick the land they want to live on.

Some of the dwellings people built were incredible and obviously took a lot of care to build. Other living spaces were covered in trash, broken down cars, and half collapsed tents. It was obvious that, just like in our “normal” society – some people took pride in their living space, and others were like those hoarders down the street with a swimming pool full of trash. Either way, Slab City affords them the freedom to do whatever the hell they want with their space.

We only stayed for one night, but took care in finding the right space to park our RV. The sand was soft so we were very careful not to get stuck anywhere questionable. The sunset was beautiful and the night was incredibly quiet. If we didn’t have a plan to get to Joshua Tree – I would have loved to stay longer! Slab City camping is something I will definitely be back for someday.

Another one of the welcome booths on the way into Slab City - sharing one of my favorite messages "Not all who wander are lost"
Another one of the welcome booths on the way into Slab City – sharing one of my favorite messages “Not all who wander are lost”

Your #1 Slab City Question Answered!

Is Slab City safe?

The most common question I get about Slab City is whether it’s safe. As previously mentioned, the Vice documentary covering “The Last Free Place” painted a grim picture of the Slabs, making it seem like the lawlessness means anything goes. But in our experience, everyone was very nice and we never felt unsafe at all.

After talking to one long-time resident, he explained that the cops don’t come unless someone calls them. During this conversation, we got the feeling that while there were technically no “laws” or “law enforcement”… there was definitely an order to the place, a form of community policing, if you will. Live and let live, but if you cause trouble… I’m sure trouble will find you right back.

Even though we felt safe, we still were very careful – as we are in every unfamiliar travel situation. We were always within distance of our belongings unless they were locked in the vehicle, and we rarely ever carry valuables other than our phones and camera.

Tim walking along the top of Salvation Mountain in Slab City. If you look very closely, you can see our little Toyota Camper way out in the distance.
Tim walking along the top of Salvation Mountain in Slab City. If you look very closely, you can see our little Toyota Camper way out in the distance.

Final Impression of Slab City: The Last Free Place.

There were so many things to do in Slab City, that there’s no way we experienced it all. In the future we plan to go back, and would love to interact with more people and hear their stories. I’d love to spend more time camping out in the desert, pretending to be living in a apocalyptic world. Most of all, I’d love to build myself a fort/home out of palettes, bottles and string lights. Something about this weird place in the middle of nowhere really enchanted me in a way I had not previously expected.

If you’re in Southern California and up for an off the beaten path adventure – this is definitely your stop. Visit with your eyes and heart wide open and interact as much as you can while being as respectful and kind as possible. I promise, you will enjoy it. And if you don’t – then move along to any of the other beautiful places in the area!

Have you been to Slab City? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

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