Is The Iconic Slab City In California Really The Last Lawless Destination In The US?

Deep within the Sonoran Desert near the Salton Sea and hours away from the bustling metropolitan areas of Southern California, awaits a notorious community known as Slab City. It's a place full of misfits who all have one thing in common — they've made the decision to leave society behind in favor of something different. Slab City is often criticized as a dangerous place, but some view it as a hub for misunderstood creatives. Residents include artists, anarchists, and unhoused individuals along with drug addicts and people who are rumored to be running from the law.

Slab City has no standard electricity, no running water, and no sewage system. Residents live entirely off the grid in tents and trailers. Many make do without electricity, while others rely on power generated from solar panels. Some have created elaborate complexes with RVs, fire pits, and fenced yards. It's essentially a large-scale seasonal squatter camp meets artists village, often referred to as "America's Last Free Place." Technically, the area still falls under California State laws, but it seems as though, aside from the occasional patrol, law enforcement typically leaves the sprawling city of squatters alone. Despite frequent crimes like theft and arson, and the occasional murder, the people who call Slab City home prefer to deal with most legal matters themselves. Calling the cops would be a last resort. If you're looking for a budget-friendly day trip from Southern California and you enjoy art, unusual places, or extreme desert vacations – plan a visit to Slab City. 

The making of Slab City

Slab City, which is located on 640 acres of public land, used to be a military complex and training facility, but it was abandoned after WWII and all that was left were some concrete slabs, which gave the city its name. It's close to the Salton Sea, a massive lake created when the Colorado River flooded an irrigation canal. The lake used to attract RV travelers and snowbirds in the 60's, but excessive pollution from agricultural runoff has made it unsafe for swimming. It's one of the most chilling abandoned places in America. Soon after the military facility (called Camp Dunlap) shut down, the first squatters began to arrive and over the following decades, the community grew.

During the summer, Slab City becomes almost uninhabitable due to the intense summer heat in the desert landscape. Some residents even die of exposure when the conditions become extreme. The population shrinks to a couple hundred people during the warmer months, but it climbs as high as 4,000 in the winter. Some people, known as snowbirds, keep other accommodations in the summer and head to the Slabs each winter. Slab City is one of those places you just have to see to believe. There are distinct neighborhoods with names. East Jesus, for example, is known for its art installations created from repurposed materials like televisions and cars.

Visiting The Slabs

Despite its notorious reputation, Slab City is a fascinating place to explore, and visitors are welcome. Salvation Mountain is one of the most famous art installations in the area and is featured in the movie "Into the Wild." It was created by a deeply spiritual artist named Leonard Knight who wished to share a single message: God is love. The colorful mound is made from compacted dirt and many gallons of paint. The project took nearly 30 years to complete and is an iconic example of American folk art.

Salvation Mountain attracts lots of adventurous tourists, many of whom stick around to explore the rest of Slab City. Not all residents are welcoming of tourists, but many appreciate showing off the community's art and unique culture. Just make sure you are respectful and alert. There are restaurants where you can order a hamburger, an expansive skate park, and even a music venue called The Range where live performances by residents are held every Saturday night. There's an anarchist library where you can check out a book for free without any expectation of returning it.

According to residents, anyone can show up and stay the night — tourists can feel free to park wherever. You can also book a "hostel" stay or campsites on Airbnb. For around $30 a night, you can stay in a bed in an RV right in the heart of the Slabs. Bombay Beach is located about 30 minutes away on the shores of the Salton Sea, offering further accommodation options.