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There’s something about the stark beauty of the desert that summons artists and eccentrics. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is Las Vegas, the largest quirky desert town of all, which has museums dedicated to mobsters and neon and burlesque, colossal statues of cowboys and Marilyn Monroe and drive-through wedding chapels. Vegas sets the weirdness bar high, but fear not: These lesser-known Southwestern desert towns can hold their own. Take a detour off the highway on your next road trip and find out what makes these unique destinations worth a visit.
When a small town opts to make its darkest era into a money-making industry, you know you’ve found a weird place. And then you find out it’s named Tombstone. The notorious Arizona burg undoubtedly played a part in earning the West’s “Wild” moniker. True to the term “boom town,” Tombstone arose quickly from the surrounding desert, thanks to precious proceeds dug out of a local silver lode. Within two years of its 1877 founding, it was home to 110 saloons and four churches, becoming a magnet for gamblers, cattle rustlers, and sex workers.
All this tension and sudden wealth came to a head at the famous Shootout at the OK Corral, and the subsequent overcrowding of the town graveyard, Boot Hill. After the silver ran out, the town’s population shrank. However, a clever marketing concept led to a second boom, this time by attracting tourists with live actor-cowboy reenactors, as well as saloon, cemetery, and brothel tours. The town even invested in robot gunfighters to entertain tourists who arrive outside of business hours. Mosey by if you’re anywhere near Tombstone and experience a romanticized, though still violent, version of the Old West.
Before New York artist Donald Judd visited Marfa in 1971 and began buying up land (including a former military base), it was just another tiny, fly-specked ranching town along the highway in West Texas. Its main street and town square had seen better days, with just a few stores and cafés left to serve a dwindling population. Judd, who’d tired of how money dominated the New York art scene, found the vast sky and massive empty buildings of Marfa a refreshing inspiration for his large-scale minimal works. Not only did he fill the desert spaces with his own sculptures, but Judd also created gallery and studio spaces for other artists.
Today, his Chinati Foundation and the Judd Foundation draw international artists, collectors, and art-curious visitors to the desert town, as do other artworks, like the much-photographed conceptual Prada store. Other local attractions include the natural (or supernatural, according to some) phenomena of the Marfa Mystery Lights, lots of tasty food trucks, coffee shops, and hip accommodations. Not bad for a town that’s more than three hours from the nearest airport.
This urban utopia first began to emerge from the Sonoran desert about 70 miles north of Phoenix in 1970. The futuristic planned community was the brainchild of Italian artist Paolo Soleri, who enlisted followers to join him in his quest to build a more environmentally sustainable city. Though the project is still ongoing in fits and starts — only 13 structures have been completed to date — the 25-acre site is ultimately meant to be a home to 5,000 citizens. Currently, around 70 people live and work there full-time, with additional people participating in seasonal workshops.
The construction is funded through visitor tours of the town and through the sale of resident-made products, including bronze wind bells originally designed by Soleri and made in the on-site forge. The vibe in Arcosanti is less that of a hippy commune and more of a like-minded collective of hard workers and believers in a way of life that is less taxing on the environment. Visit to see architecture that somehow feels both earthy and space-age modern.
Roswell, New Mexico
It might be difficult to get onboard with a fringe branch of science called ufology, but if you’re on the fence, a trip to Roswell, New Mexico, will take you to the white-hot center of the study of aliens and UFOs. Today, enthusiasts come from around the world to visit, making up the better part of Roswell’s economy.
It all started with an incident in 1947, when parts of a U.S. Air Force weather balloon were found on a nearby ranch, and a military press release about the incident referred to one piece of debris as a “flying disc.” That term set off some rumbling speculation of flying saucers at the time, but interest peaked decades later with the 1980 publication of a book called The Roswell Incident, which alleged that the weather balloon had actually been an alien spaceship that crashed — and the government had covered up the incident. Thus, the town’s reputation as the destination for the UFO-curious was sealed.
If you visit today, you’ll find an International UFO Museum and Research Center (neon-green footprints painted on the sidewalk in town lead to it), a Spacewalk attraction (a black-light art installation), many shops selling alien-themed souvenirs and, on Main Street, a McDonald’s built to look like a flying saucer.
Only one place in Calipatria, California, can claim to be at sea level — the very top of the town’s 184-foot flagpole — but the rest of the small desert city sprawls well below sea level. Besides the remarkably tall flagpole and the state prison, the town’s weirdness stems from its location on the banks of the Salton Sea, the state’s largest lake and a highly acidic body of water formed by a 1905 irrigation accident. The lake, which has no outlet, was once a destination for vacationers, but eventually became overwhelmed with chemicals from fertilizer and insecticide runoff used in agriculture, making it unsuitable for fishing and recreation.
Before the lake went from good to bad, snowbird-retirees arrived in the area, some taking up winter residence at Slab City, a desert community on 640 acres of land north of town. The land was left behind when the Marine Corps withdrew from a WWII base, leaving only concrete foundation slabs. Even after fishing and boating possibilities dried up, the attraction of living rent-free has continued to appeal to a quirky mix of off-the-grid homesteaders and seasonal RV nomads. (Expect repurposed school buses and ramshackle shanties topped with solar panels.)
One year-round resident, Leonard Knight, created Slab City’s most notable feature, Salvation Mountain, a colorful and extravagant folk art installation made of hay bales, house paint, and trash built up over 20 years. And if you’re interested in birdwatching, save time to swing by Calipatria’s Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, too. (Yep, that Sonny Bono.)