Salton Sea & Anza-Borrego State Park | California

Boondocking (adj): dispersed camping on public land


I recently converted my Honda Fit (Ferdinand) into a camper. It fits two people, has storage, and allows for boondocking wherever I can find parking. My first trip with my newly-minted camping car was to the Salton Sea and Anza-Borrego State Parks in August 2022.

My plan was very vague. I wanted to boondock because I had converted my car, so I didn’t plan to get a hotel and I didn’t really plan to be at a campsite. I did try to use Reserve California to register a campsite, but the site always says every campsite is full.

If you’re unfamiliar with Southern California, the Salton Sea and Anza-Borrego State Parks are located in the Colorado Desert in the Southern most part of the state. The hottest day on record for the Salton Sea was 120° F and 122° F in Anza-Borrego. “Lucky” for me it was only 104-106° F while I was there. I say “lucky” because I am incredibly sensitive to the heat, but more on that in a minute.

The first night I wanted to stay at the Salton Sea. I tried the Salton Sea Recreation Area but by time I got to the campground, it was dark and I couldn’t tell if there were any open spot. I moved to the next site at Bombay Beach, but the campground was closed. Finally, I ended up at Corvina Beach which was in between the two I had previously tried. The campground had vault toilets and each space had its own picnic table and fire pit. Since I had assumed I would be boondocking rather than staying at a campground I didn’t plan to use the fire pit.

It didn’t matter anyway. Once I started moving stuff around and setting up my photography equipment the 90°+ heat I started to feel woozy and faint. I figured resting would solve the problem, but the more I sat trying to regulate my body temperature the worse I felt. At around 1:30am I called it. I looked up a hotel, packed the car up, and went and cranked that AC as low as it would go.

Although I felt like I had failed, in hindsight it was the right call. I have had heat stroke before and am incredibly susceptible to it. I wasn’t able to take any photos the first night, but did explore around the Salton Sea the following day.

Bombay Beach | Salton Sea, California
Bombay Beach | Salton Sea, California

Salton Sea / Salton City used to be a bustling area. The “Sea” itself was created by accident. The 400-square-mile body of water deep in California’s desert land occurred due to an accident. An irrigation company had done shoddy work on one of their systems and for two-years water poured into the area. Alas, the Salton Sea was born in 1905.

By the 1950s and 1960s, the Salton Sea was a tourist hot-spot. The water was warm and people flocked to the Sea’s shores. However, since the Salton Sea is not a real sea it has no outlet. Once the water flow to the sea was stopped in 1905, the salt level has been steadily increasing. This combined with runoff from local farmland and rising bacteria levels means the Sea is toxic.

In the 1970s, the salt level became so high that the fish started dying off, then the birds, and the people abandoned the area. While some people still live near the Salton Sea – I even met several of them at Bombay Beach while I was there – the whole area is a retro-ghost town.

Bombay Beach Art | Salton Sea, California
Knight (left) and Electric Lounge (Right) | Salton Sea, California
Me at the Bombay Beach Museum | Salton Sea, California

I am a sucker for a polaroid frame. Any time I see one I have to take a photo. If you look closely at my left leg you can see how dirty and sweaty it was. Being outside was like being in the sun level of Super Mario Brothers 3 whether the sun tries to attack you.

Art | Salton Sea, California

I adore this mural. From the T-Rex wanting hugs to the boobs on the sea witch it’s a feast for the eyes.

Graffiti | Salton Sea, California

Graffiti, art installations, and sculptures abound in Bombay Beach. Since it’s mostly abandoned people use the decaying buildings for art. It’s a wild place. My favorites are the top right where someone scrawled “YETI TITS” across a house and the bottom right which had a massive slingshot. The house with the slingshot is inhabited so I couldn’t use it, but it was a real struggle.

Bombay Beach Specimen Museum | Salton Sea, California

The art isn’t the only thing to see. There’s two museums in Bombay Beach, the one above – which you could only view from outside the glass, and the official museum which was closed. This one had all different types of bones and soil samples. It was well maintained and really cool.

House | Salton Sea, California

This was by far my favorite house. It was a walk-through poem mixed with existential reverie. My heart will always remain a philosopher at heart, so when inanimate objects ask me deep questions I am one happy camper.

The Outhouse (left) and The Nest (Right) | Salton Sea, California
Chris Farley Portrait | Salton Sea, California
Bombay Beach TVs | Salton Sea, California
Bombay Beach Drive In | Salton Sea, California

The Drive-In is also a really cool art installation. It’s a bunch of junk cars, amusement parks pieces, and go karts pointed at a white screen. It gives off a real post-apocalyptic vibes. The cars themselves are works of art and the whole installation is itself a work of art. It’s definitely worth spending some time looking at if you visit the area.

I forget I am a memory | Salton Sea, California

We’re reeling through an endless fall
We are the ever-living ghost of what once was

No One’s Gonna Love You | Band of Horses
Art Installations | Salton Sea, California

In the bottom right photo you’ll see the dike. You can drive over it and out onto the beach. I didn’t know that the night before, but you can basically camp right on the beach. I wouldn’t recommend it, though, because the Sea itself smells. It looks beautiful and peaceful from afar, but once you’re near it you’re struck the putrid smell of death.

Art Installations | Salton Sea, California

This is probably the most famous part of the beach. Below is a photo of the “The Only Other Thing is Nothing” sign which is popular on social media. The sign is cool, but I suggest spending time looking at the hollowed out boats and various other artwork that line the drive to the beach.

Salton Sea House | Salton Sea, California
Bus Stop (Top) and Shipwreck (Bottom) | Salton Sea, California

The bus stop was my favorite. As someone that used to take the public bus in California to and from school, I can tell you there were several times where I felt “ETA: NEVER!!” was accurate.

The Only Other Thing Is Nothing (Left) and Swing (Right) | Salton Sea, California

Over a decade ago I took a photo of a bench surrounded by water. My sister, mom, and I were racing back to the car as the marina we were visiting began to flood. I saw this bench, alone, water rising and stopped to snap a photo using my point-and-shoot. It is the pinnacle of art according to my Aunt. Every picture I have taken since has been compared to “The Bench.” Every time I show my Aunt a photo she says “It’s nice, but my favorite is still ‘The Bench.'” Sometimes I think I take photos just to see if I can out-do “The Bench” photo.

I specifically took my time with this swing set hoping to final usurp “The Bench,” but when I showed my Aunt her reaction was “Close, but there’s just something about ‘The Bench.'” Someday I will take a better photo than the damn bench photo.

Swing | Salton Sea, California

After exploring Bombay Beach, I headed to Salvation Mountain. I have always wanted to visit the Mountain, but never made the drive south.

Another man-made location, Salvation Mountain was built in the 1970s by Leonard Knight. Leonard wanted to fly a hot air balloon around with the Sinner’s Prayer on it, but he had made the balloon too big and couldn’t get it to fly. He didn’t want to leave the area without making some kind of statement, so he started building a monument. It took two tries, but he was able to create a small “mountain” (more of a hill) that shared God’s message with the world.

The Mountain itself isn’t very tall, but it is impressive. Throughout the area there’s intricately designed patterns that makes it feel like you’ve stepped into a Dr. Seuss novel. Not being religious myself, I wouldn’t say it was a revelatory visit, but it was definitely interesting.

Salvation Mountain | Niland, California
Mountain Detail | Niland, California

It’s weird to think that someday the Mountain won’t exist. That is, unless someone devotes time and money to its upkeep. There’s parts of it that you’re not allowed near because it’s too fragile. The area in the above photo is one such area. The flowers and letters are too delicate that any weight will crush them.

Cars | Niland, California
Truck | Niland, California

The truck was my favorite. Something about it made me happy. I imagined someone driving it through the desert trying to spread the gospel.

Boat | Niland, California

The melting boat was also really cool. I really wanted to climb into it, but I don’t think it was allowed.

Salvation Mountain | Niland, California

While not religious myself, I do admire someone having such singular devotion in their life. Whatever you think about religion, Leonard Knight was committed. He devoted his life to getting the word out and spent his time building this monument to that purpose. I can respect that – especially since it’s insanely hot in the desert.

After Salvation Mountain I went to East Jesus and Slab City. Slab City isn’t a real city. It’s an unincorporated area that is a libertarian’s dreamland. There’s no public services, no roads, no running water, sewage system, or trash pick up. It is truly “free.”

Slab City | Niland, California

Slab City started when a the military dismantled the base, leaving behind concrete slabs. Drifters and artists moved in and set up an alternative lifestyle area. I am glad I went during the daytime. I am sure the area is safe – I doubt the residents want to draw attention to their community – but I got a very Mad Max Wasteland vibe. I give mad props to anyone living in Slab City. The heat without electricity for fans or AC is brutal. Several people were walking around in big t-shirts and nothing else and I don’t blame them.

Slab City was the last area I checked out while near the Salton Sea. It was time to make my way to Anza-Borrego. I had already started feeling dizzy and weird due to the heat and didn’t want to risk staying out all night again.

Before I left the hotel in the morning I had booked another room for the night in Borrego Springs. I am so happy that I did. I was so exhausted from wandering around the Salton Sea that I could barely keep my eyes open. Once at the hotel, I slept for a few hours before heading out into the Anza-Borrego desert.

Font’s Peak | Anza-Borrego State Park, California

Anza-Borrego is California’s largest state park at 585,930 acres. It’s an internationally recognized Dark Sky Park which makes it ideal for astrophotography. The Park was established in 1933 and there’s a small town in the middle, Borrego Springs, which reminds me of Radiator Springs in Cars. There’s an dual-lane round-a-bout in the middle of town that’s big enough to fit multiple houses in the center. Driving it is a trip, but it’s not very busy. There’s several shops and restaurants that line the main street. I stopped at Carlee’s for breakfast on Sunday. Carlee’s doesn’t actually serve breakfast, though. It’s best for lunch and dinner.

Stanlunds Inn (Left) & Ferdinand (Right) | Anza-Borrego State Park, California

I headed out to the desert around 9:30pm. The goal was to set up a shot at Font’s Peak. I am fairly certain I drove past it on the way in. GPS took me on a road that led around a construction site at first. It was too rough to navigate in Ferdinand so I turned around and tried a different route. The “official” entrance to Font’s Peak is a dirt road turn off. According to the posted signs, it’s a 4 mile drive into the desert on an unpaved road before you reach the Peak.

Ferdinand made it approximately 3 miles before getting stuck in soft sand. The more I tried to escape, the more he dug himself in. During Ferdinand’s conversion into a camper, I made vinyl and cardboard window coverings. Ferdinand does not have tinted windows and I wanted some modicum of privacy. I managed to use the cardboard to gain enough traction to get out of the sand. Fearing I’d get stuck again, I decided to turn around and park off the road a little on firmer dirt.

Prior to the trip I had purchased a Skyguider Pro. It’s a star tracker that moves the camera in line with the rotation of the Earth. Essentially, it allows me to take longer exposures without star trails. At least, in theory that’s what it does. I had practiced putting it together, finding Polaris, and aligning the scope at home. I made sure to do it multiple times so that when I was in the desert, it would be no problem.

Best laid plans, my dudes. I’m not sure if it was the heat or the glow from Salton City in the distance, but I was having the hardest time finding Polaris. I ended up not using the SkyGuider and opted to get what I could get.

Milky Way | Anza-Borrego State Park, California

The shot on the left was created using dithering – a process where you take several shots and stack them in Photoshop or another image editor. This one was a stack of seven 30-second shots taken at 800 iso with an f-stop of 2.8. The one on the right was a single exposure 30-seconds, 800 ISO, f/2.8.

30 seconds, 800 ISO, f/2.8 | Anza-Borrego State Park

Up in the corners there’s some star trailing on this photo, but I still love it. I can’t wait to go back out when it’s cooler and when I install the auto-guider on my SkyGuider. The auto-guider attachment lets me use a laptop to move and align the mount. The goal is to eventually try and shoot deep space objects.

Anza-Borrego State Park

On the left is another shot compiled using dithering. The photo on the right is a stack of 101 30-second shots at f/2.8 and ISO 1250. The foreground was a single 30-second shot with the same settings. I did not get to the location early enough to get a better shot of Ferdinand in place. While shooting the photo on the right I fell asleep. I wanted to stay for 2 hours at least, but only lasted an hour. I packed up, drove back to the hotel room, and passed out in front of a fan with the AC cranked low.

Sky Sculptures | Anza-Borrego State Park

After checkout I roamed around Anza-Borrego trying to find all of the Sky Sculptures. These are pieces of metal shaped into various animals, people, and things. There’s more than 100 of them and they are not all easy to find. They have maps available in the visitor center, but it doesn’t help much. Plus, the dinosaurs are waaaaay out in the middle of nowhere.

Anza-/Borrego State Park
Anza-Borrego State Park

Some of the sculptures are hilarious like the t-rex (?) in the top right. I imagine him doing the Time Warp from Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Anza-Borrego State Park

There’s plenty of room around all of the sculptures where you can just drive up to them and get a good look. Some of the more popular ones, like the Serpent (below) have people walking around taking photos with them so it’s a courtesy thing rather than a practical thing.

Serpent | Anza-Borrego State Park
Anza-Borrego State Park
Anza-Borrego State Park
Mickey | Anza-Borrego State Park

There’s other random artwork in the desert, too. Like this one depicting Mickey behind bars. Disney has a reputation for being litigious over copyright so I’m pretty surprised they haven’t torn this installation down.

While my trip to the Salton Sea & Anza-Borrego State Park did not go as I had planned – in fact, everything that could have gone wrong, did – it was still a great time. I learned a lot about myself and what I can accomplish. I’m happy with the photos I took and hope to step up my astrophotography on the next trip.

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