You don’t need to venture off to some exotic lands to see some true wonders. Los Angeles is filled with quirky curiosities to keep you enthralled and make you feel like you’ve left the planet to nevermind the city. Why not take a short drive to one of these desert towns and wander through outlandish scenes with tiny populations that seem to thrive off reimagining discarded items and transforming them into unthinkable artworks? You’ll find everything from the absurd to the downright mindbending pieces nestled in the arid landscapes. Some will make you question whether it’s all a mirage, but we assure you, it’s not.
Pack a water bottle, your camera and explore these reinvented destinations for desert art.
1. Bombay Beach
Set at 223 feet below sea level along the eastern coast of Salton Sea, this little town with a population of about 200 people, has flecks of faded charm from its former life as the 40s and 50s seaside resort that attracted the wealthy. Over time the decline of this holiday town has been reinvented into a beautiful wasteland that balances the harsh white desert wasteland with the rolling waves of the salty lake. Once you enter the gates to the estate there’ll be plenty of beautiful oddities for you to discover including an abandoned drive-in theatre and this curved airplane that’s both a feat of engineering and art. The resurgence has been spurred on by the Bombay Beach Biennale which “a renegade celebration of art, music, and philosophy,” according to their website.
Look out for: The surreal swing self-isolating in the middle of the sea and the marooned train.
2. Slab City
The Slabs have become known as “the last free place on earth” and an “anarchist RV town.” There are no rules at the Slabs nor is there running water, electricity or sewage services which makes the colorful artworks rising out of the dusty post-apocalyptic landscape all the more fascinating. Like many of these desert gems, this abandoned military base has attracted musicians, filmmakers, photographers and, of course, influencers. This is largely thanks to the iconic Salvation Mountain that’s located here. In case you don’t know, Salvation Mountain is the manmade mound built by Leonard Knight using haystacks and support beams plastered with smooth adobe clay covered in vivid images and bible scriptures. It’s a beacon that beckons pilgrims to ascend it and contemplate this crazy world.
Those that have taken up residency in the scorcher of a city are known as “snowbirds” that live inhabit RVs, old school buses, tanks and shacks made out of driftwood. So remember to be respectful of that when you’re roaming through it.
Look out for: The Range, the city’s very own nightclub.
Where: Slab City, CA 92233
3. East Jesus
You know you’re in for a ride when you’re journeying to an off-the-grid artist community at the far corner of Slab City. It’s home to slightly less sophisticated reclamation sculptures a mile away from Salvation Mountain. This little community was started by Charlie Russel in 2007 when he took inspiration from Knight and left his tech job and moved into a shipping container, in search of something more—nothing new here. While people often refer to these installations as places where Burning Man works go to die, in this case, Russel’s two art cars came to find new life. You’ll now find a labyrinthine of quirky installations that can accommodate performances (which is equipped with a grand piano) and even guests.
Look out for: The fork in the road (literally) and the Cinnabar Charm by Charles Russell
4. Goldwell Openaire Museum
These haunting figures are appropriately located around the corner from the ghost town, Rhyolite. These twelve plastered figures make up Albert Szukalski’s Last Supper and have become a major feature drawing crowds to the Goldwell Openaire Museum, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Along with this brilliant piece, you’ll find the colorful pink shades of the naked 8-bit woman built from cinder blocks and a mosaicked couch popping out of the barren landscape. While it’s a slightly longer drive from L.A., it’s also right next to the home of the hottest recorded temperature on earth, Death Valley, so you’ll get to feel like you’ve taken a trip to Mars too.
Look out for: Happy Burro Chili & Beer —you’ll want to reward yourself after a long day in the heat.
5. Anza Borrego Desert Park Sculptures
Find over one hundred metal sculptures of Ricardo Breceda’s fantastical creatures that appear to be roaming the desert. The intricate details of these large scale rust-red pieces are mesmerizing. While the 350-foot-long serpent may just be a beautiful fantasy beast, you’ll find anything from rams locking horns to ancient camels that you would ordinarily find wandering around this harsh environment. There are 130 or so sculptures to find (you can pick up Sky Art Map to help you locate them) to keep you busy on this exciting treasure trail. Armed with torches you could even turn it into a night adventure under the canopy of stars.
Look out for: The mammoths.