Slab City – Calipatria, California - Atlas Obscura

Slab City

This abandoned Navy base was transformed into an off-grid alternative living community for thousands of people. 

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Slab City, or the Slabs, is a free campsite and alternative living community located near an active bombing range in the desert city of Niland, California. Previously a WWII base, Marine barracks Camp Dunlap, the campsite earns its name for the concrete slabs that remained long after the military base had been bulldozed and abandoned.

During the winter months, as many as several thousand campers—mostly elderly retirees—flock to this site for the warmer desert weather and lack of fees. These seasonal residents, known as “snowbirds,” live in a variety of housing formats. Though most come to the area in RVs, many set up in abandoned structures, such as old, inoperative buses or driftwood shacks. A small population of people also lives there year-round, braving the harsh summer months when temperatures can reach above 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

The permanent residents, also known as “slabbers,” most often end up in Slab City due to poverty (many are said to subsist off government checks), though some also stay for the feeling of freedom that comes with living in an uncontrolled, off-grid area in the middle of the desert. With limited access to electricity, fresh water, or sewage treatment, residents are forced to rely on solar panels and their own waste management systems. The residents share one communal shower, a concrete cistern that is fed by a hot spring 100 yards away.

The lack of government is also what drives many people to Slab City, which is often called “the last free place on Earth. Away from the hustle and bustle of city living, the campsite features its own community library, golf course, sculpture garden, two live music stages, and several social clubs. There are more than a dozen individual neighborhoods within the limits of Slab City. Each has its own rules and culture.

One of those neighborhoods is called East Jesus. Located on the northern edge of Slab City, this area has an outdoor art museum that welcomes visitors. The artwork on display includes a wall built from old television sets, a house that appears to be sinking into the ground, and a collectively-built archway that stands at the entrance.  Behind the museum, residents’ trailers surround a communal living space.

Perhaps the community’s most popular slabber was Leonard Knight, the creator of nearby Salvation Mountain. For over 20 years, Knight lived out of his truck and worked continually on his colorful art mountain, which marks the entrance to Slab City. He was finally forced to leave the mountain due to failing health, but still enjoyed local legend status, and received many letters from well-wishers. Leonard has since died, but you can still visit and donate paint.

Slab City has been featured in the non-fiction book and film Into the Wild and in the documentary West of Babylonia.

Know Before You Go

Drive towards Niland on Highway 111, turn east on the street by United Grocery. Travel for 3.5 miles to the city. Salvation Mountain marks the entrance.

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