Slab City – Calipatria, California - Atlas Obscura
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Slab City

During winter months, this abandoned navy base becomes an off-grid home and alternative living community for thousands of retirees. 


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 an old 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 the site for the warmer desert weather and lack of fees. These seasonal residents, known as “snow-birds,” live in a variety of housing formats. Though most come to the area in their RVs, many also squat 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 no electricity, fresh water, or sewage treatment, residents are forced to rely on solar panels and their own waste system. 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 the free land of Slab City. With no rules or laws, it is said that some squabbles have resulted in RVs set in flames, and even shootouts. Though instances of this vigilante style have been reported, most residents and visitors to The Slabs know it foremost as an alternative living community. 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.

Perhaps the community’s most popular slabber was Leonard Knight, the creator of nearby Salvation Mountain. For over twenty 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 referred to as “the last free place on Earth” and an “anarchist RV town,” and was recently 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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