Imperial County California

After agriculture, tourism is Imperial County’s mainstay. With less than 180 000 inhabitants, SoCal County is the least populated but economically diverse, even eccentrically!

The County’s dune complex draws thousands of off-roaders and dirt bikers. There’s a town that’s thought to be the center of the world, and an evangelist built a mountain for humanity’s salvation.

Imperial County’s biota is as varied as the people are. Remote dune landscapes attract. A fanciful town with a pyramid certifies you are at the center of the world. A man-built mountain spells salvation. There are aqueducts and farmlands, and Salton Lake is California’s largest artificial Lake.

Anza Borrego State Park
Anza Borrego State Park

What Is Imperial County California Known For?

Agriculture thrives in this desert County with irrigation via the All-American Canal from the Colorado River. Flooding a century ago led to the formation of the Salton Sea. The allure of openness attracts dune-bashing enthusiasts. The County has curious attractions.

  • Agriculture
  • Colorado River And The All-American Canal
  • Salton Sea
  • Algodones Dunes
  • Felicity
  • Salvation Mountain
  • Slab City

Imperial County surprises from the State’s largest inland lake to off-road dune aficionados, an investment banker’s town, and the fanciful man-made mountain.


Imperial County’s agriculture history is about turning a desert scape into fertile land. With high temperatures and an average of 3 inches of rain annually, the arability of the County’s farmland depends on irrigation from the Colorado River via the 82mi long All-American Canal.

In the early 20th century, the southern portion of the Colorado Desert was used for agriculture and commercial crop farming. In the 1920s, farming was prosperous, migrants came from Oklahoma (the ‘Okies’) and settled here, and in the 50s, with the All-American Canal built, Imperial County’s farming was lucrative.

Annual crops net over $1 billion, and agriculture accounts for 48% of all employment. The County seat El Centro was hit hard by the 2008 – 11 Great Recession. El Centro had the County’s highest unemployment figures, above 30–34% in the U.S.

Colorado River And The All-American Canal

The 1,450-mile-long Colorado River is the source of 500 000 acres of agricultural land in the Imperial Valley. The system of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts diverts almost its entire flow for agricultural irrigation and urban water supply.

The Imperial Valley is a primary source of winter fruits and vegetables, cotton, and grain for U.S. and international markets. The All-American Canal drains into the Salton Sea.

Salton Lake

The shallow, saline and landlocked Salton Sea is between SoCal’s Imperial and Riverside Counties. The Sea – an artificial lake – is on the San Andreas Fault. As the Imperial Valley is low-lying, the Colorado River has deposited alluvium (soil) for millennia to make this area fertile farmland.

The Salton Sea was formed after the Colorado River was flooded in 1905. The Lake, a dump-out point for the river, is California’s largest inland. The Lake became a popular resort in the 1950 and 60s.

See also  Santa Cruz County California

In the 70s and 80s, contaminants from farm runoff affected the water, birdlife, and aquatic life. Also, agriculture usage is diminishing the Lake’s size. The Salton Sea Management Program aims to maintain the Lake and expand its touristic value with the construction of a $206.5 million project with ponds and wetlands.

Algodones Dunes

Imperial Sand Dunes, the Glamis Dunes, are California’s most prominent. For generations, the allure of sand tracks and open skies has made sand-dune bashing near-cult! Imperial County’s dunes are awash with ORV (off-road vehicle) aficionados. There are luxury campers, dune buggies, and bikes – some drive 300miles for a weekend to be at California’s giant sandbox.  

Glamis Dunes (26 000 acres) have camping grounds – Gecko Road, the Flats, and the Washes. It is the largest off-highway vehicle (OHV) recreation area for sand dunes in the United States! The dunes were formed by windblown sands from ancient Lake Cahuilla. The highest dunes are about 300 feet above the desert floor.

Glamis is famous and 100,000 or more revelers meet at Glamis, sit beside fires, and sip homebrew, party-in-a-jar flavored moonshine each New Year! Camps have swings and volleyball courts on the dunes! Environmentalists, however, warn that there’s the destruction of the biota, like that of the federally threatened desert plant, the Peirson’s milk-vetch.      

There are many stories of the Imperial Dunes associated with early transportation. In 1918, a wood plank road crossed the Dunes to commercial hubs, Holtville and El Centro. The automobile route across the desert dunes was treacherous and used till 1928. Today only fragments of the Plank Road remain as a historic relic.


Felicity is a town that means happiness. It is advertised as a spot to recalibrate! This unique Socal location is marketed as the center of the world. The manifestation of an investment banker’s vision is a 21-foot-tall, hollow, mirror-lined, pink granite pyramid in this hottest and driest place in Imperial County. The town is dedicated to remembrance.

Banker Jacques-Andre Istel sold his parachuting business to develop the town in the 1980s and named it after his wife. He built the pyramid and the Museum of History. You can go there, put your toe on a bronze plaque, make a wish, and get a certificate to say you’ve been to the Center of the World!  

Istel calls Felicity ‘The Spot’. He built a Museum of History there as a tourist attraction. There are over 900 Missouri Red Granite slabs, 100 feet long (and weighing about 500 pounds), that commemorate historical events. There’s ‘The Wall for the Ages’ too. Istel likens these slabs to that of the Rosetta Stone – a future message to last for millennia and chronicled by him.

Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain is an artificial mountain just north of Calipatria and near Salton Lake. The hill was made of adobe, hay bales, tractor tires, and telephone poles and took over 30 years to build.

See also  Calaveras County California

It is painted in acrylic paint. The initiator of this eccentric idea is Leonard King – his message to the world with this manifestation is: God Loves Everyone!

Many tourists regard the Mountain as an art installation!

Slab City

Not far from Salvation Mountain is The Slabs. The Slab community is unincorporated and known for its off-the-grid and alternative lifestyles. The location was originally the World War II Marine Corps Camp Dunlap training camp.

When this closed down, Slab City was established and attracted people who didn’t conform to mainstream society.

In fact, Leonard Knight, who built Salvation Mountain, was an early settler in Slab City.

Imperial Sand Dunes
Imperial Sand Dunes

What’s In Imperial County?

Tourists come to the Algodones Dunes and Salton Lake and even see the Naval Air Base’s annual Blue Angels flight stunts. Imperial County’s second economy is tourism – from Salvation Mountain to the Salton Sea mud volcanoes.

Salton Sea Mud Volcanoes

Known as The Salton Buttes, the group of five lava domes is in a 4.3 mi-long row. The domes are thought to be from the current Holocene period, and future eruptions here are possible. The volcanoes are some of the largest and hottest on earth – 680 °F! This spot is known for bubbling mud and geothermal springs.

Jacumba Tower and Hot Springs

Not far from Ocotillo, the stone tower at Jacumba is noted for its desert views, and the area has hot springs. A San Diego estate agent, Bert Vaughn, built the five-story Tower in 1922. Today it’s a roadside attraction with a restaurant, a bar, and a lookout deck on the upper level.

Salton Sea Mud Volcanoes
Salton Sea Mud Volcanoes

Things To Do In Imperial County

Imperial County is rich in biodiversity. Hiking, camping, and bird watching are popular outdoor activities. Tourists go to historic sites. There’s golf, horse riding, and off-road traveling too.  

● El Centro

● Imperial Sand Dunes

● Anza-Borrego State Park

● Fossil Canyon and Painted Gorge

● Fort Yuma

El Centro

El Cento, the County seat, lies 50 feet below sea level. And is the largest city in the U.S. below sea level. El Centro was founded in 1906 and is a retail and transportation hub that serves the agricultural industries. El Centro has a population of 42,598 – a quarter of the County’s population. The City has two golf courses.

Imperial Sand Dunes

There’s the allure of the dunes for off-roaders, and hiking and horseback riding is popular in the Glamis Dunes.  

See also  Amador County California

Anza-Borrego State Park

As the largest state park, the Anza-Borrego covers 500 miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas, and hiking trails. Hikes are through palm groves, and there are wildflowers and cacti. You can also see golden eagles in flight, foxes, iguanas, and red diamond rattlesnakes! You can see Palm Canyon’s Borrego, the big horn sheep.

Fossil Canyon and Painted Gorge

Located not far from Ocotillo in the Coyote Mountains, the scenic location fascinates visitors for rock-hounding and fossil hunting! There are ancient shells, coral, and oysters from the Miocene period when this area was underwater.

The famous Painted Gorge is on the eastern side of the Coyote Mountains. The sedimentary and igneous rocks reveal geological shapes and a palette of orange, red, purple, and mauve mixed with brown and black in the sun!

Fort Yuma

On the Colorado River’s bank, Fort Yuma was built in 1849 to restrict Yuma Indian movements.

Salvation Mountain
Salvation Mountain

Famous People From Imperial County  

Many notable people come from Imperial County. There are musicians and songwriters, football players, authors, and three times world record track athletes Roscoe Cooke was born in El Centro.

Walter Beasley

Walter Beasley, the saxophonist, and professor of music known for his smooth jazz, a mix between R&B and jazz, grew up in El Centro. He is one of the world’s best-selling African American saxophonists!


The Goddess of Pop, Cher or Cherilyn Sarkisian, was born in El Centro. Her father, John Sarkisian, was an Armenian-American truck driver, and her mother, Georgia Holt, a model and actress. Cher is known for her contralto voice and has a six-decade-long career in show business.

Emmy Lou Packard

Emmy Lou Packard, known as ‘Betty,’ was born in El Centro in 1914. Her father, Walter Packard, was an internationally known agronomist. He was a founder of an agricultural cooperative community in the Imperial Valley. Betty was well-known in San Francisco’s Mission District as a printmaker and mural artist.

Imperial County FAQ

Interesting Facts About Imperial County?

Can you fish in the canals? The fertile farmlands depend on the Colorado River’s canals, which carry fish. Warnings of high levels of mercury and selenium in the water prohibit fishing.  

Is Imperial County A Good Place To Live?  

Imperial County has some of the world’s most extreme temperatures – below 17 degrees Fahrenheit and as hot as 120 degrees F! Agriculture is a crucial anchor for the economy but is climate-dependent. Tourism is an attractive form of employment for entrepreneurs.  

Is It Expensive In Imperial County?

County seat El Centro was hard hit by the 2008 to 2011 Great Recession. The city has Imperial County’s highest unemployment – 30 to 34 percent higher than anywhere in the U.S. Imperial County is one of California’s poorest.


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