Imperial Sand Dunes

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5 Ways To See California’s Imperial Valley

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.

Many ways to see California's Imperial County and Sand Dunes
Imperial Sand Dunes

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!

Imperial Sand Dunes
Looks like I’m in Morocco instead of California!

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.

The beauty of the desert sand dunes…

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).

Salton Sea Mud Pot oozing mud
Salton Sea Mud Pot oozing mud

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”.

Salton Sea Pot, bubbling
Salton Sea Pot, bubbling…

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.

Salton Sea mud pot
Salton Sea mud pot

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 colorful painted Salvation Mountain with "God is Love" message.
The colorful painted Salvation Mountain with “God is Love” message

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!

Salvation Mountain colorful artwork.
Salvation Mountain

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.

Brightly colored truck at Salvation Mountain.
Brightly colored truck at Salvation Mountain

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.

Abandoned painted boat at Bombay Beach.
An abandoned painted boat at Bombay Beach

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.

Colorful artwork on an old abandoned boat
Colorful artwork on an old abandoned boat

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!

One of many fish skeleton's along Bombay Beach.
One of many fish skeleton’s scattered along Bombay Beach

Trip Suggestions

There are long stretches with no gas stations so fill up your tank before starting the trek to Imperial County.

The shores of Salton Sea at Bombay Beach.
The shores of Salton Sea at Bombay Beach

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:

Hilton San Diego Bayfront

Pendry San Diego

Hotel Republic San Diego

Airport Info

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!

World Nomads Travel Insurance

SafetyWing Travel Insurance

Looking For More California Travel Inspiration?

15 Best Things To Do In San Diego

Exploring the Best of La Jolla, California

15 Most Popular Beaches In San Diego

10 Ways to Explore Catalina Island

The Flower Fields In Carlsbad: The Ultimate Guide

How To Spend The Best Day Apple Picking In Julian

Disclaimer: My post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission if you click a link and purchase through that link. It won’t cost anything to you to use these links but is very much appreciated. Thank you!

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  1. Great Post! I’ve been to Salvation Mountain, but I’ve been wanting to visit the Algodones Dunes. I drove by them coming from Arizona but didn’t have time to stop.

    1. Oh you will have to go back, the dunes are really quite beautiful! That is, just not in the summer as it gets so hot! 🙂

    1. Haha yes, they do look a little out of a sci-fi! 🙂 I hope you get the chance to do a road trip to Imperial County. So many unique and odd things to see that are well worth the drive!

    1. It is a really interesting part of CA that gets overlooked but is such a great place to visit. Yes, the mud volcanoes are quite entertaining with the noises they make!

    2. Here’s some tips from someone who live in imperial county. There are other local eateries a few miles from salvation mountian in the town of Brawley, as well as farther down toward the 8 freeway in El Centro. Try places like Johnny’s Burrito, Celia’s, Brownies, Sobes, Burgers and Beer and D Polys. All great food across the valley.

  2. I have seen photos of Salvation Mountain (it looks sooo fun) a few times, but I did not know about these other places! Those sand dunes look great fun to explore, as do the mud pots. But goodness, just looking at your photos makes me feel warm – it must be roasting if you visit in the summer! It’s goof that you mention to avoid the area before October!

    1. Salvation Mountain is a fun and unique place to visit! It makes a great day trip in combination with the other sights too. Haha yes, summer would not be enjoyable as the temps would be too hot! 🙂

    1. Yay! You are welcome. 🙂 So glad that you plan to go, Salvation Mountain is so random and interesting. I’m sure you will have a great time!

  3. We’ve never been as far south as San Diego from San Francisco on our road trips. But it’s on my bucket list at least and I’d love to visit Imperial County while we’re out there. It’s just so different to every other landscape we’ve seen in California!

    1. Oh definitely make it to San Diego next trip! I’m biased as I live in San Diego but we do offer so many amazing activities and diverse landscape for sure. The Imperial County is so different and unique that it is a fun road trip. 🙂

  4. Love this post! it’s a place we haven’t been before and this has perked our interest. Mud volcanoes and sand dunes…. so cool! And would love to visit Salvation Mountain.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it and find it inspiring to visit! Yes, it is such a diverse area and so many great photo opportunities! 🙂

  5. Thanks for these great tips, Vanessa. We are always looking for fun road trips when we are in Southern California. Appreciate the heads up on gas and snacks as well. Thanks for inspiring us with new places to explore!

    1. Thank you Marielena! It was a fun road trip as it is so close yet such a diverse landscape. I’m glad you find it helpful for when you make the trip! 🙂

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