After breakfast, I might go by the library to check out a book or take a walk by the church on the way to see the golf course. On the way back I might drop in at one of the social clubs or pay my respects at the cemetery. Finally, I could stop by the theater to see if any entertainment is scheduled tonight.
This place has everything you would expect in a typical residential neighborhood. But that’s where the normalcy ends. There are no houses or permanent buildings here. Homes yes, houses no. You see, everyone here lives in an RV. Welcome to Slab City, California—a unique place where RVers can enjoy the freedom of an RV in the freest country in the world.
The Slab City story begins in February 1942, when the U. S. Navy obtained nearly 640 acres of desert land east of Niland, near the Salton Sea, for use as Camp Dunlap Naval Reservation. A military post was constructed, and the improvements included nearly 30 structures, a water system, sewage collection and treatment system, paved streets on a block grid system, a large 75-foot by 165-foot swimming pool, ammo bunkers and concrete tanks. Evidence of these improvements can still be seen today.
The Marine Corps used Camp Dunlap as a training center and more than 180,000 troops were field trained here for artillery. When World War II ended, field training ended, although some say the post remained active until 1949. Eventually, the site was abandoned by the Navy and demolished in 1956. The buildings were removed, leaving only their concrete features and the slabs.
In the early 1960s, the site was given back to the State of California, and the network of crumbling roads and scattered concrete slabs, guard stations, water tanks and ammo bunkers were slowly reclaimed by the California desert.
Camp Dunlap was reborn as Slab City when RVing snowbirds stumbled across the remaining slabs and found them to be perfect places to roost for the winter. The winters were warm, and the slabs made great sites on which to park RVs. As years passed, more nomadic RVers arrived and a hardy few even began to stay through the summer in 120-degree heat. Today, winter visitors number in the thousands and an estimated 150 people, known as “Slabbers,” remain through the summer.
Slab City Highlights
Let’s take a quick tour of Slab City, from its social clubs to its cemetery and golf course.
We start with Salvation Mountain. Located on Beal Road, it is Leonard Knight’s colorful tribute to God and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, sprawling over the face of a bluff. Leonard has spent decades building the monument, which is primarily made out of adobe and more than 40,000 gallons of paint. It shows what one man’s faith and devotion can achieve.
The most permanent “building” (three modular trailers) in town is the Slab City Christian Center. You will find it on the main drag in town. It provides outreach to everyone in need of food or salvation. Church services, with music, are held on Sunday and there are other activities most every night. My wife and I met the couple in charge of the church, and they filled us in on city culture and the local “must see” points of interest.
Just east of the church, you will find The Sun Works. If you plan on staying in town for a while, this business enterprise can fix you up with everything you will need to become self-sufficient in the solar electric department. Across the street is an open-air theater called The Range. The Range sports a stage sandwiched between two decrepit hippie busses parked on one of the city’s namesake slabs. The facility boasts a bar, several rows of salvaged sun-rotted airliner seats and a trash-barrel fire to keep you warm at night. Inverted five-gallon buckets hang above the stage, forming lampshades for the stage lights. Shiny car bumpers provide a railing, with hubcaps decorating the risers. This is a classic stage venue you will never forget!
Socializing is available through several clubs in town. The Slab City Oasis Club is geared toward retirees, with community meetings, morning coffee, visits around the campfire, movies and more. Travel’n Pals get together everyday at 3 p.m. to talk about the comings and goings in the city. Since the city is nomadic, someone is always coming or going, so there is no shortage of conversation. Friday is dinner night, and for around five bucks you can get a full meal. Slab City Singles congregate for happy hour each day at 3 p.m. These are snowbirds; the crowd tends to be on the older side, and not everyone is necessarily single.
Golfers will be happy to know their sport is alive and well at Slab City. Gopher Flats Country Club is home to an 18-hole course in the open desert northeast of town. No reservations are needed. Plus, there are no green fees provided you agree to the rules written on the scorecard, “Players MUST replace divots and smooth the greens before playing through.” Bring your own golf clubs and grass!
If fishing is more your sport, pack your fishing pole. The Coachnella Canal runs along the east side of town. Water diverted from the Colorado River flows in the canal and contains many of the same species of fish found in the river.
Back in town you will find the Pet Cemetery at the west end of Tank Road. Dogs, cats and other beloved pets are commemorated by headstones and memorials.
Lizard Tree Library is on the southeast outskirts of town near the canal. It is a peaceful place to read and reflect, away from the hustle and bustle of town. Slabbers and visitors have donated hundreds of books through the years. Since the library has no door, it is available to everyone 24/7, 365 days a year! Needless to say, the library is run on the honor system and is self-checkout.
The rest of the town is residential, with every size and type of RV you can think of. Just as you would find everything from tiny cottages to mansions in any American city, you will find everything from old truck campers to luxury diesel pushers at Slab City.
I was fascinated with the self-sufficiency of this place. It made me think of what the West must have been like when it was settled more than a century ago—free spirited people, self-governed, working together to make a community out of whatever resources were available. No wonder I witnessed so many American flags being proudly displayed by the residents. Freedom and the American spirit is alive and well in Slab City!
Dave Helgeson and his wife promote RV and manufactured home shows in western Washington. They spend their free time traveling and enjoying the RV lifestyle.