Slab City is tucked away in the southeastern corner of California’s Sonoran Desert, a mere 45 miles from the Mexican border. Named for the concrete slabs left behind from a forgone WWII military base (Camp Dunlap), it is not technically recognized as a town.
However, it can be found on a map and is most definitely a community, albeit not an official one. Slab City is roughly 100 miles northeast of San Diego with the nearest town being Niland, California, about four miles away.
Slab City FAQ’s
For a few quick FAQ’s click here. But to really gain insight into this unique community, we encourage you to take in the words and images we’ve shared here with you. Although, for your own understanding of how Slab City functions, you should experience if first hand to see it through your lens, not ours.
Is Slab City the Last Free Place on Earth?
Home to about 150 residents year-round and roughly 4,000 in the winter months, Slab City has been called the Last Free Place on Earth as well as the Last Lawless Place.
Contrary to those names, the four days we spent here beg to differ. School buses came by in the morning and the afternoon on weekdays transporting the few kids that live here to school elsewhere in the region. Police cars have a presence almost daily, and there are even UPS and FedEx delivery stations throughout the community.
While Slab City has package delivery and there is no charge to live here, there is no running water, sewage, plumbing or electricity, unless you are creative and savvy enough to create your own, which some have done.
Though police seem to turn a blind eye to some lawbreaking, they are regularly present and addressing more serious infractions.
What to Expect When Visiting Slab City
With our first visit to the infamous Slab City, we weren’t sure what to expect, what we would see, or who we would meet, if anyone. If you make the effort to meet people here, you will. Some quite wonderful and inviting, some quite weird and off-their-rockers. But isn’t that any community?
Intertwining ourselves here for only four days was both exhilarating and exhausting. When it was time to move on, we were ready. For many here, though, this lifestyle is more of a necessity than a choice, and moving on is hard to fathom.
The Dichotomy of Slab City
In the words of a friend who also paid a visit Slab City.
“While one might be hella free here compared to most any other place, this is hardly the bastion of anarchy one might assume without having visited. Most of the people that live here receive some kind of government assistance. In the 2 days we’ve been here, emergency services have been out 3x. Freedom can be messy, for sure. When you mix it with lessened responsibility (i.e., monthly government checks, near zero housing costs), it’s even messier.”Fellow traveler and friend, Teresa Rosche Ott
This place is not meant to be understood. It’s not a defined town, but it definitely has community. It’s not economically wealthy, but some residents find wealth in ways the majority of society can not comprehend. It’s trashy, yet has an artistic allure. It could push you away, yet still may draw you in. It’s tumultuous and pastoral at the same time.
Hidden Meanings in Slab City
Formulating the correct words to give Slab City a descriptive that matches its uniqueness was important to me. Creating more of a symbolic tone for a place overflowing with it, took no effort. These are my words. What words will you come up with?
Concrete leads to freedom
Trash leads to art
Tires, doll heads, old chairs
Some thrown about
Others glued to anything that will hold the truth
The truth is in the stars here
Secrets held up above
Maybe more buried under the slabs
Secrets within the songs so nonchalantly strummed
Fire is the true therapist
Hidden amongst the drugs passed around
The spoons unbeknownst to nutrition
Art portrayed in hidden emotions naked for the world to see
If only someone would notice
The pain, the hatred, the love, the community
The carpets beckoning some to sit
Others to wonder what could be hidden within and underneath
Like the moon and stars above
Seeing everything, knowing nothing
Scorched freedom leads to concrete
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
These images are through our lenses. While we hope we are portraying Slab City with a true portrait of its dichotomous virtues, your lens will offer you a different perspective. I encourage you to pay Slab City a visit but do so without immediate judgment. And, please, say hi to the residents there. You are visiting their space.
Photos of Slab City “The Last Free Place on Earth”
Slab City FAQ’s
There are roughly 150 year-round residents of Slab City. In the winter months, that number rises quite significantly to a community of about 4,000 people.
You can absolutely visit Slab City. Slab City has seen an increase in visitors in recent years, but it should be known that many residents of Slab City do live in this libertarian community out of necessity. The community, though, is full of creative and artistic residents that fill it with a unique presence of free art, music, and life that is outside of the confines of average city dweller life.
Most visitors will stop by Slab City to pay a visit to the nonprofit compound called Salvation Mountain and not wander much further into Slab City than that. If you really want to experience this community, though, find a spot just past Salvation Mountain and set up camp for a night or two. You can go further into the community, but without knowledge of where residents have set up their personal space, you risk camping on someone’s property (even if it is self-assigned and not legally belonging to anyone in particular).
Slab City is a community. It has two officially registered nonprofits – Salvation Mountain and East Jesus, both art compounds that welcome visitors during their open hours), a hostel, a coffee place, restaurants, a pet cemetery, a library, churches, and more.
While the libertarian focus of Slab City keeps it much less under the watchful eye of law enforcement, federal and state laws do still apply within the bounds of the community. As we noted, police do still patrol through the community daily.
While many residents of Slab City rely on government assistance or charity to some degree, the people of Slab City very commonly survive on bartering and trading to sustain their lifestyle in the community. As well, some residents sell souvenirs and artwork to visitors to make a small income.
As for running water, electric, sewage, and any other amenities most of society considers a requirement for living, some people have all of the above and more, but many do not. Generators are often running. Solar is big. There are plenty of makeshift outhouses and shower houses, but we’ve also seen fully plumbed restrooms and kitchens.
People do what they can to survive here, and that often means going without modern conveniences. But others have the skills to craft luxury items such as solar powered pizza ovens and even hot tubs.
Slab City inherited its name from the remnants of the World War II Marine artillery training base, Camp Dunlap. The remnants of the camp are mainly concrete slabs that once served as the foundations for the Marine training camp from 1942 to 1946. Many residents now use said slabs to help define their property.
How Stuff Works
Recently, we were contacted by Dave Roos, author at How Stuff Works. Writing a story about how Slab City works, he came across our post and wanted to know more. We were honored to be a part of his article on Slab City. Click here to read more.
While this article didn’t include beer talk, we did talk beer while there. Chatting with new people about our story around several campfires, many thought it would be a good idea to open up a brewery there. That would definitely be an interesting endeavor, but it’s not a place we see ourselves settling down for the long haul.
At any rate, if you pay a visit to Slab City, but need to know where to visit some breweries (and maybe some MTB trails along the way), be sure to check out our Craft Brewery and Mountain Bike Trail Finder Map.
And if you like the travel component here at Living a Stout Life, be sure to check out all of our travel resources, including the Craft Beer Travel and Adventure podcast. And keep coming back; we are always adding new content.