Day 8: Niland to Indio, detour to Slab City - Joshua Tree, Anza-Borrego, Imperial Valley 2016 - CycleBlaze

November 7, 2016

Day 8: Niland to Indio, detour to Slab City

Today will be a long day with many interesting diversions. I got up with the sun at 6 and was at the restaurant at 6:30. The motel guy said they open at 6:30 but they didn't really open until 7.

This was an awesome touring day. Disaster tourism at its best. This is just a fraction of the interesting photos I took.

Today's first excursion is to pedal to Slab City. Through the mostly vacant town of Niland, then uphill on an extremely rough Imperial county road to Slab City.

The first stop was at the hot spring. Many visitors don't know about it even though it's only a couple hundred feet away from the road. The vegetation around the hot spring and its outflow channel is quite obvious in the otherwise barren desert. The pool is obviously excavated by man. The source is a hot well adjacent to the pool. This area of the San Andreas fault has a lot of geothermal activity.

Slab hot spring is an excavated pit fed by a hot well. 104.5F early in the morning.
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300 yards downstream from the pool is a "shower box" where the outflow comes out of a culvert into a big concrete box. Locally known as "the only shower in Slab City". The water temperature was only 61F early in the morning, though.

After a short soak at the hot spring I continued up the hill. I elected to pass Salvation Mountain now because the sun angle is poor. It will be better an hour later. Soon I entered Slab City. During World War 2 it was Camp Dunlap, a Marine Corps artillery training base. The base promptly closed after the war but many concrete slabs remain. Now the desert land is available for squatters. Slab City calls itself the "last free place in America". During winter it turns into a city of thousands of people living in ancient trailers, motor homes, tents, and various shanty structures. It's just ramping up now. Thousands of people with no water or sewer system. There was a steady stream of pickup trucks driving back and forth with big water tanks in the bed.

The Slab City hostel accepts donations but does not charge a fee.
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This fancy compound advertises an AirBNB room rental.
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My impression is that Slab City is a very large junkyard with a little bit of junk-art and a pervasive counterculture of both the liberal hippie variety and the conservative sovereign citizen variety. I didn't hang around long enough to get a truly informed opinion of the place, though.

If you want to learn more about Slab City, this 45 minute video is a good place to start:

On the way downhill I stopped at Salvation Mountain. It was built illegally by the late Leonard Knight on land he didn't own. Imperial County bureaucrats initially wanted to destroy it, but it has become a huge tourist attraction and has been informally recognized as a national folk art treasure. Salvation Mountain is now maintained by multiple "friends" organizations. At 9 AM there were no hosts and few visitors. I walked to the top of the yellow brick road, freshly painted by a work party 2 days earlier. The idea of decorating an alluvial fan is crazy but you would also be crazy to pass nearby without seeing it.

Salvation Mountain.
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Unfinished dome at Salvation Mountain.
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Then down the rough road, back to Niland where I took pictures of the business district. Most of the businesses are vacant and in ruins. About half of the houses are vacant. Farm jobs have been declining for decades.

Pride and joy of downtown Niland.
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Downtown Niland. Arson is common, mostly related to feuds over meth.
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In Niland I topped off the water bottles at a vending machine (35 cents for a gallon), then headed north on highway 111. For most of today highway 111 is very close to a busy railroad. Traffic is light and the road has a usable paved shoulder. It's a good route for bike touring.

Highway 111 stays close to a busy railroad track on the east shore of the Salton Sea.
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On the left for several miles is the Sonny Bono Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge. An important refuge for birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway. The shore is so far away that I can't see it.

Somewhere near here are some interesting boiling mud pots, but I didn't go there. I also didn't take the turnoff that goes up a hill to several commercial hot spring resorts. One of them is a giant trailer park that looks like a small forested city on the barren desert hillside. Watered by a big canal that runs across the hill above, delivering water to the Coachella valley.

Nostalgic wishful thinking.
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I stopped for lunch at Bombay Beach, the only services along today's route. The best lunch option seemed to be at the bar. Plus I couldn't resist visiting the self-proclaimed "lowest bar in the western hemisphere". 210 feet (64m) below sea level. 20 feet lower than Furnace Creek in Death Valley.

I had lunch at the "lowest bar in the western hemisphere".
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The proprietor told me the interesting things to see in Bombay Beach. She explained that the westernmost two blocks of town flooded in the late 70's. After that a big ugly sand dike was built along the shore, blocking the water view for most people in town.

Inside the Ski Inn. Money on the ceiling like a Nevada bar.
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I went over the dike on the road to the former Bombay Beach marina. I could vaguely imagine the layout of the marina. The water gets farther away every year. At the Ski Inn bar, the woman repeatedly talked about how Bombay Beach could have an awesome marina. "All we need to do is get the water up".

Bombay Beach marina.
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The Salton Sea was created by accident in 1905-1906 when a Colorado river flood washed away floodgates that controlled water diversion to the Imperial Valley. The river was diverted to the Imperial Valley for 18 months before the breach was finally plugged. For a century afterwards the accidental lake was kept full by wasteful farm irrigation practices. But now the rising price and shrinking supply of water has forced farmers to be less wasteful. Irrigation canals now dump far less excess water into the lake. And that's only part of the problem. Over time the supply of water to the farms is guaranteed to decrease because cities like San Diego can afford to pay a thousand times higher price for the water. The lake will dry up.

Bombay Beach marina. Just add water. I wonder when the last person water-skied at Bombay Beach?
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I went around the perimeter of town. The westernmost blocks are mostly ruins abandoned after the flood. At least half the town appears to be vacant houses and trailers. The woman at Ski Inn said the population is about 75 during summer and 300 during winter. The winter residents are only starting to return. There is a store, bar, and a very active American Legion post.

Bombay Beach ruins, an area that flooded in the 1970's.
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After the long stop at Bombay Beach I continued north to see more relics of a once thriving tourism industry.

Highway 111 closer to the shore of the Salton Sea.
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I stopped at Corvina Beach park. It has lake access and primitive camping. The water was once very close to the park road. Now the water is inconveniently far away. Hardly anybody stops there.

Former waterfront at Corvina Beach park. Don't dive into the...sand!
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Waterfront at Corvina Beach park.
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A few miles north I passed two beach parks that are still used. First is Mecca Beach state park. Second is the headquarters of Salton Sea State Recreation Area. They are close to the highway but I didn't stop at either park because I want to see North Shore before dark.

Mecca Beach state park is still used.
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The next major stop was the town of North Shore which was once promoted as the "Glamour Capital of the Salton Sea". In the early 1960's it was a trendy power boating location with a marina and yacht club designed by a famous architect. The building resembles a ship.

Cheap lots in North Shore, California. Note that the vertical letters previously said "Motel".
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North Shore Yacht Club is now a beautifully refurbished community center. It's helpful to be in wealthy Riverside county instead of poor Imperial county.
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The planned riviera town never materialized. The yacht club went bankrupt in the 1970's. The last motel closed in the 1990's. The ruins were a popular tourist attraction but by now most of the ruins have been torn down. The Yacht Club building has been beautifully restored as a community center.

Of all the failed resorts I visited along the Salton Sea, in North Shore it was easiest to imagine the year-round recreational paradise that once existed when the lake was young and relatively clean. I could visualize a busy marina, stylish yacht club, and a lake full of people fishing and water skiing. Maybe the beach was even decent.

Entrance to the North Shore marina. Santa Cruz mountains across the lake.
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The breakwater of the marina is still mostly intact. Once again this could be a functioning marina if the lake magically rose 6 feet. Declining water level and increasingly foul water have caused boats to totally disappear from the Salton Sea. I never saw a boat on the lake. I never saw a usable boat on the shore. I never saw anybody towing a boat.

The fishery collapsed a long time ago as the water became too salty for tilapia to thrive and the few remaining tilapia became too contaminated for people to safely eat.

The Salton Sea is predicted to shrink dramatically between 2017 and 2023 now that San Diego takes 40% of the water from the All-American canal. Assuming no big tropical storm, by 2023 the Salton Sea will shrink into two smaller lakes that are incredibly salty and polluted, surrounded by an immense toxic dust bowl. You need to come soon if you want to see the Salton Sea.

North Shore was the only place I crossed the toxic mud and dead fish to get close to the water. The beach is littered with fish bones.
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Abandoned businesses in North Shore, California. The palm tree isn't real. It's a wireless antenna.
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North Shore has a population of 3477 souls scattered around the desert. It failed as a resort town but is close to a major farming area and not terribly far from Mecca and Indio. Houses are surely very cheap.

Near Mecca I re-entered the irrigated plumbing system. I enjoyed the near-sunset views of the badlands to the northeast.

Back into the irrigation zone near Mecca, now north of the Salton Sea. Badlands of the Mecca hills in the distance.
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I passed mile after mile of date farms. This is the only major date producing area in the U.S.

Date farm near Mecca, California. I imagine this scene could be in North Africa or Saudi Arabia.
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I arrived in Mecca just before sunset. Mecca is the hub of my figure-eight tour route. If it had a motel I would have stayed there on day 2 and day 8. But it doesn't have a motel so I have to pedal 15 miles north to Indio. Highway 111 has a usable shoulder but traffic was heavy and getting heavier as I approached Indio, a big town of 84,000 in a valley with more than 500,000 people.

I arrived at Super 8 in Indio half an hour after dark. $74 room, plus a $100 deposit. I don't remember ever having to pay a big deposit. The large motel is surrounded by a tall metal fence so that the only entrance is in front of the office. I've never seen such a security-minded motel before. Maybe I've never stayed at a place where extreme wealth and poverty coexist so close together.

Today was sunny all day with a high of 89F. A gentle south wind made the cycling fairly easy. I'm now slightly above sea level in the Coachella Valley. The remainder of the tour will be above sea level and nearly all of it will be uphill.

Distance: 73.0 mi. (117 km)
Climbing: 726 ft. (220 m)
Average Speed: 11.0 mph (17.6 km/h)

Today's ride: 73 miles (117 km)
Total: 447 miles (719 km)

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