Looking to explore more of California and hit the open road for the day? A road trip to the desert east of San Diego has a contrasting landscape from the coast of Southern California. Keep reading to find out the best ways to see California’s Imperial County!
The attractions listed below can all be done in one day coming from San Diego but expect to get an early start to maximize your time. Due to the hot temperatures in the summer months (over 100F!), I would suggest this road trip from the months of October to May only.
Note: If you are flying into San Diego, then book your flight into San Diego International Airport (SAN) to prep for your trip!
And since you will need a car to complete this road trip, find the best deals on a car rental today so that you are ready!
1. Desert View Tower
About 1-2 hours east of San Diego area, off Interstate 8 is a stone tower that was built back in the 1920’s. The five-story Desert View Tower has an observation deck up on top. It was originally built as a way station for those traveling from Arizona to California’s Pacific Coast as the trek was long and difficult.
As you climb the tower take in the various artifacts of the “museum”. After enjoying the beautiful views of the desert, climb back down and check out Boulder Park across from the tower. The boulders are painted and carved into interesting animals and faces that are especially popular with kids.
Note: Open daily from 8:30am to dusk, $6.50 to climb the tower
2. Imperial Sand Dunes
The Imperial Sand Dunes, also referred to as Algodones Dunes is located in Glamis, CA a little east of Brawley off the 78 Highway. The Imperial Sand Dunes are the largest sand dunes in California and in the U.S. for off-highway vehicle (OHV) recreation area.
In the months from October to May, these dunes are covered with various dune buggies and ATV’s on the golden sand. You do not want to visit during the summer months as the temperature is well over 100F!
The dunes can easily be mistaken for those in other countries such as Morocco! The dunes have been featured in plenty of movies such as Star Wars, Scorpion King and more.
Note: A good place to park and view the dunes is at the Hugh T. Osborne Lookout. It is located off the 78 Highway on Osborne Park Rd in Brawley, CA. The dunes might also be referred to as the Glamis Sand Dunes.
3. Salton Sea Mud Volcanoes (Pots)
A few miles before you enter the town of Niland, turn left (west) onto W Schrimpf Rd. Drive a few miles until you reach Davis Rd. The mud volcanoes are on the corner of Schrimpf and Davis and you will have no problem seeing the mounds of mud from the street (will see a geothermal power plant off in the distance).
At first glance, the mud volcanoes look like something out of an alien space movie! As you walk up close to the mounds, the sound is not only odd but very cool to listen to!
The mud pots are part of a geothermal field that has acidic mud and minimal water present creating a bubbling mud environment that microorganisms love. From some of the mounds or pots, you can see mud spitting or what sounds like “burping”.
I’ve been told that this is private property but when I went, I didn’t see any signs and there were a few other people enjoying the oddity of the mud pots. During your visit make sure to respect the area by not leaving trash or damaging the mud pots.
Although the mud is not harmful, it is wise not to get too close or try climbing the mounds. For more interesting info on the area, check out this article from National Geographic.
Note: At the time I visited a good portion of the road was not paved, so have patience taking it slow to get there. When leaving, take Davis Rd to McDonald Rd and take McDonald back to the main highway which is paved.
4. Salvation Mountain & Slab City
Salvation Mountain is by far an unusual and odd sight to visit but this desert community is a must to see in Imperial County! Located near Niland, CA, is a hillside of colorful artwork created 30 years ago by Leonard Knight. He thought that all religions were too complicated, so he set out to create his own simplified version of “God is Love” and it’s everywhere.
The “mountain” is not a natural hillside but several bales of hay covered in adobe and then painted with an assortment of bright colors. It is uplifting and fun to walk around/in Leonard’s creation. When walking around, I felt like I had stepped into the pages of a Dr. Seuss book!
Driving past Salvation Mountain is the community of Slab City and is an interesting combination of a trailer park, campers, and squatters that appear to enjoy living off the grid in the sweltering hot desert. Further ahead is East Jesus, an outdoor assortment of art from discarded and recycled materials.
Tip: When walking up on the hill, make sure you stay on the yellow path. Otherwise, you will get yelled at by someone below!
5. Bombay Beach
Located out on the shores of the Salton Sea is Bombay Beach. Bombay Beach used to be the recreation paradise in Imperial County during the 1950s and 60s. People used to flock to Bombay Beach to take part in boating, sunbathing, and get away from the city life of Los Angeles and San Diego.
Sadly, it is now a deserted ghost town with not much of a lake present. With a lack of rain, the lake dried up creating a high salt content.
Sadly, fish were unable to survive, leaving behind fish carcasses all across the beach shores. Among the relics of a recreation paradise are stranded boats and a salty lake bed that is seen today. Interestingly, Bombay Beach is the lowest elevation community in the entire U.S., 223ft below sea level!
There are long stretches with no gas stations so fill up your tank before starting the trek to Imperial County.
Pack plenty of snacks and an ice chest with plenty of water! There isn’t a whole lot of places to stop while driving through Imperial County.
If you are looking to get out of the heat and grab a bite to eat, head to the Buckshot Deli & Diner. It’s right off the 111 highway in Niland that has great food. Buckshot’s address is: 8120 US Highway 111, Niland, CA.
Where To Stay
The best place to stay and plan your day trips from San Diego is in downtown San Diego. That way you can be near all the sights and attractions San Diego offers! Hotels that I recommend are:
When flying into San Diego, you will fly into San Diego International Airport (SAN) which is just minutes from downtown San Diego. To book airfare for your trip to San Diego, go to Skyscanner to get best flight deals available!
If you are flying into San Diego, then you will need to rent a car for this fun road trip through Imperial Valley.
Got Travel Insurance?
Don’t leave home without travel insurance as you never know what might happen on a trip! It is always when you least expect it that something can go wrong like getting sick, in an accident or cancellation of some sort. Get a no-obligation quote from two trusted travel insurance companies for peace of mind on your next trip!
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