Stuck between the desert of Arizona and the beach of San Diego, Imperial County is unlike any other county in California.
Thousands of acres of farmland have transformed the desert into one of the most productive farming regions in California. Imperial County brings in an annual crop production of over $1 billion and employs nearly 50%of all county citizens. Farming relies heavily on irrigation, given the area only gets around 3 inches of rainfall per year. As you drive throughout the county you’ll see the water distribution system, which includes over 1,400 miles of canal and 1,100 miles of pipeline.
You’ve actually probably seen Imperial County already….in some of your favorite movies. Because of the county’s desert environment and proximity to Los Angeles, movies are sometimes filmed in the sand dunes outside the agricultural portions of the county. These have included Return of the Jedi, Stargate, The Scorpion King, Jarhead, Resident Evil: Extinction, Borat, Top Gun, Independence Day, American Sniper, and Into the Wild.
A truly unique California experience, Imperial County offers an eerie, deserted, vibrant, spiritual, and beautiful travel experience.
The Salton Sea
The Salton Sea is one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever been to.
You’ll know you are approaching once you start to smell dead fish. If you open your car doors or windows, there’s no escaping the stench. The smell was so strong that I couldn’t stay for more than 10 minutes at the beach. Such a shame since it really was beautiful in a sort of eerie way. As you look out across the lake, the horizon is not clear as the blue sky and reflective waters blend together. Clouds circle around the lake, but none ever ventured over the waters. The beaches lining the shore are completely deserted, some even littered with abandoned boats, chairs, and other odd objects. Really quite a funky place, but it makes for some excellent photos.
If you decided to go, visit Bombay Beach. With a population of 295, run down buildings, and trailers lining the streets, this town looks straight out of a post-apocalyptic movie. They even have a drive-in theater filled with old classic cars for you to sit in (if you aren’t afraid of tetanus)!
Best Time: Sunrise. I went midday and thought the lighting was just a little harsh. The soft light in the morning would be really quite beautiful as it glistens over the water. Also, the smell of dead fish during the day was strong, so I’m thinking it wouldn’t be as bad in the mornings when it’s cooler.
Address: Bombay Beach, 9500 Ave E, Niland, CA 92257
Another unique place to visit in Imperial County is Salvation Mountain.
Salvation Mountain was built by a Korean War veteran and Slab City resident named Leonard Knight as a tribute to God with its recurring message of “God is Love”. The “mountain” is 50 feet tall and 150 foot wide made primarily with adobe clay, straw, and donated latex paint. Over the course of 30 years, he constructed this rainbow colored hill with bible verses, flowers, positive messages, and topped it with a white cross. In 2014, Leonard passed away, yet his message that “God is love” continues to live on. It is truly a monument of love.
The technicolor mountain and positive messages make for some beautiful photos so be sure not to miss it.
Best Time: Midday. While the lighting is harsh midday, the colors were so vivid and bright – perfect for photos.
Address: Salvation Mountain, Beal Rd, Niland, CA 92257
Imperial Sand Dunes
For such a long time I’ve driven by sand dunes on my way to San Diego, but thought it was just for ATV’s and dune buggies. However, after much research, I discovered the Hugh T. Osborne Lookout Park, where you can wander around and enjoy these 50-foot dunes.
If you only visit Imperial County for these sand dunes alone, the trip is 100% worth the effort. Known as the Imperial or Glamis Sand Dunes, they are part of the Algodones Dunes, the largest sand dunes in the U.S. They are a large, active dune field created by prevailing northwesterly and westerly winds.
Standing on top of one, all you can see for miles are more dunes. It’s almost like being teleported straight to the Sahara Desert. That is exactly why these dunes were used by General Patton for training his troops for battle in the North African campaign in WWII! The climate and similar terrain made for the perfect training location. And for all you Star Wars fans, this is where the famous Sarlacc pit scene from Return of the Jedi was filmed.
Best Time: Sunset. The golden light is so perfect as it sets over the sand dunes. If you’re lucky, a little breeze will blow the sand to create a little haze and ripples in the dunes. However, if you go midday, make sure to bring thick socks. They will protect your feet from burning in the hot sand.
Address: Hugh T. Osborne Lookout Park, Osborne Park Rd, Brawley, CA 92227
Dress: Willow Blue Floral Maxi Dress from Love Verity (Shop HERE)
Have any of you been to these bizarre and beautiful places?? Let me know in the comments below!