Thanks to Atlas Obscura, we found a treasure trove of desert oddities in the Californian desert that you shouldn’t miss on your trip.
Our California Desert vacation didn’t start as a total desert immersion. We certainly did not intend to seek out these desert oddities, but we are glad we did. We had planned to visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon, but wildfires necessitated a change in plans. Looking on the map for an alternative led us south, as we eventually needed to get back to San Diego to fly home. When I saw Joshua Tree, the Palm Springs area came to mind.
While I love hiking, I wasn’t quite sure if we’d have enough variety to fill a week in the Mojave and Colorado deserts. I wondered, “Well, we could just sit by the pool and drink beer.” A good option for a day, but I know I’m too restless to park my butt for too long. A Google search for things to do near Palm Springs brought me to an old forgotten favorite, Atlas Obscura.
While a couple of desert oddities, such as the Salton Sea and Salvation Mountain, were on my radar, Atlas Obscura opened up a host of unique places to explore. We had a week with La Quinta as our home, so we opted to sprinkle these gems throughout our stay.
The Salton Sea
My first experience with the Salton Sea came via the crime thriller of the same name starring Val Kilmer. I remember thinking the landscape looked intriguing and that the movie wasn’t too bad. I don’t remember it well, so perhaps it is time to revisit it.
The in-person experience with the Salton Sea included its own level of thrill. Thrill, as in, will we need gas masks and eye protection given the high levels of pollution? A common theme on this vacation is that my traveling companions sometimes wondered why in the hell we were visiting a given place. The Salton Sea is no exception.
The history of this place is quite interesting. Over thousands of years, the basin would alternatively fill with Colorado river water and then dry up. All due to the various courses of the river’s flow. In 1905, a canal was built to divert water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley. Flooding over the course of a few years created the current Salton Sea. The toxicity has increased since the 1950s due to farm runoff and rising salinity caused by evaporation. Large volumes of bird and fish deaths also contributed to the present toxic site.
While it may be quite a toxic desert oddity, it is also beautiful. You could say it is deadly beautiful. We stopped at the state park to get up close to the water and explore the visitors center. It is here that you’ll find the many stories behind the Salton Sea.
If you’ve watched Into The Wild, you may remember a scene where Chris and Tracy visit a place called Salvation Mountain. While planning our visit to the Salton Sea, I realized that Salvation Mountain was right next door, making a visit possible.
Driving up to Salvation Mountain, you get a sense of being off the grid. I’m not sure how many homes out this way are truly “off the grid,” but the isolation is apparent. There is a sensation of being “out there.” While civilization is not far away, the land feels open, free, and a touch wild.
Salvation Mountain, while remote, is easy to find. Google maps took us right to the entrance. The signs on the road also point the way. The entrance is free, but there is a station to provide a donation to help with maintenance. The caretakers are friendly and happy to share a story or just say hello.
We can thank Leonard Knight for Salvation Mountain. He started construction of the mountain in 1984 using adobe brick and other materials such as tires. Mr. Knight also used a lot of paint. The messages on Salvation Mountain are of love, in particular, God’s love. It is a space of wonder and reflection. If you are exploring this part of California, I would recommend visiting this desert oddity.
One of the first gems I found on Atlas Obscura was the Cabazon Dinosaurs. The gigantic brontosaurus and tyrannosaurus rex live just off I-10. You can’t miss them as they come roaring up to you while on the highway.
Claude K. Bell built these concrete dinosaurs as a roadside attraction for his Wheel Inn Restaurant. The restaurant is no more. Instead, there is a gift shop/exhibit that charges a fee to see more dinosaurs. We figured, “What the hell” and paid the fee to tour the rest of the exhibit.
Inside, you find a ton of dinosaurs of various sizes, shapes, and colors. We wandered along, snapping photos under the beautiful California sun. This is a fun little stop that is worth a visit.
While pursuing Atlas Obscura, I noticed quite a few art exhibits in the desert. These are not your typical art museum or gallery. Each is unique and slightly off-center. In a way, you may consider them a bit of a desert oddity.
Our first stop was Love Signs out past Twentynine Palms. Once you get past Twentynine Palms, it gets desolate. All of us are looking along the road for the love signs when Google maps chimes in that we have arrived. We are in the middle of nowhere with a few sketchy “homes” and no love signs visible. I spin the tank of a rental vehicle around after we spot some boards on the other side of the road. Sadly, someone had knocked all the love signs into the dirt. Hopefully, one day the desert will welcome back the signs of love.
After the bummer at the Love Signs, we found sunshine and smiles at Sunvale. At first, we weren’t sure if this would be another bust. Google maps took us just outside the driveway to a home. Unsure, we exited the car. Looking on the north side of the road to the east of the house fence, we saw the tiny village creations.
This exhibit must surely qualify as a desert oddity as Sunvale sits in a vacant patch of land in what feels like the middle of nowhere. We browsed around until the neighbor’s dog started barking and making a fuss.
Glass Outhouse Art Gallery
Our next destination was the Glass Outhouse Art Gallery. This one is easy to find and well-marked—no need to scan the horizon wondering where the hell is the art. Sadly we arrived before the gallery opened, but we did take a short tour of the grounds. Each exhibit is fun and whimsical. I could have spent hours checking out all the details.
Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum
The last stop on our desert art tour was the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum. This museum located near the town of Joshua Tree is also easy to find. A gentle sandy road leads to ample parking outside the museum.
Spread across 10 acres is the assemblage sculptures and installation art of Noah Purifoy. If you are like me and wondering what assemblage sculpture is, you can think of it as a 3-dimensional collage. The museum is home to over 100 pieces of art that Mr. Purifoy created between 1989 and his death in 2004.
As we entered the museum, a roadrunner burned a path by the installation called “Carousel.” I ventured inside and immediately wondered how many rattlesnakes would find a fine home here. The inside is surreal. Old computer terminals, lost musical instruments, dominos, and ghostly manikins create the sensation of a lost world, a lost time.
Under a brilliant blue sky, the sun intensified the power of these sculptures. Each one is composed of items we discard. Instead of junk in a yard, these relics live forever under the California sun as a source of infinite exploration.
Wandering through the sculptures taking pictures, questions and thoughts filled my mind. Can I really understand what this means? Do I need to understand, or can I simply witness the art in this moment of time? I wondered about the aspect of re-use. Is hope to be found in the metamorphosis of these items into a thoughtful construction that may cause us to search for meaning? I didn’t answer any of these questions, but the time spent thinking and reflecting, both now and then, is rewarding.
We have a whole gallery of images from our Desert Oddities adventures. Please explore and let us know what you think. If you have suggestions for a return visit, we are all ears. Leave us a comment or drop us an email.
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