Salvation Mountain: Light, Love, and Positivity in the California Desert
by Trina Hendry
I made the 3-hour trek from Los Angeles to California's most colorful destination—Salvation Mountain—not really knowing what to expect. Yes, I knew it was an enormous, brightly painted man-made hill deep in Sonoran Desert, and yes, I knew it was an intentional monument to God and love, complete with bible verses boldly written all over it. But, I secretly wondered what the fuss was about, and why droves of saints and sinners would make the pilgrimage to the middle of nowhere, literally, just to see it.
Did it live up to my expectations? It sure did. In fact, it was one of the most unique, uplifting and inspirational experiences I have had thus far in California, irrespective of my personal thoughts about God and religion. I mostly found this place magical because the overall message is about love, and if nothing else, it's a super cool art installation in the barren desert!
HOW DID SALVATION MOUNTAIN COME TO BE?
This one-of-a-kind masterpiece is the labor of love of one man, Leonard Knight, whose mission was to spread one simple message—"God is Love"—to anyone who would listen. He arrived in this remote area, which is northeast of Niland, California several miles from the Salton Sea, in 1986. The installation took 28 years to build and was constructed using hundreds of bales of straw, mounds upon mounds of adobe clay, and thousands of gallons of lead-free paint. Its primitive construction reminded me of the papier mache I used to make in elementary school, except on a much, much grander scale.
The site actually consists of three unique structures—the Mountain, the Hogan and the Museum. Upon completion of the Mountain, Knight continued his mission by constructing the Hogan, which was inspired by the pueblitos built by the Navajo tribes in the areas surrounding Salvation Mountain. Insulated from the heat, he intended to live in the dome-like structure, but in the end preferred to reside in his truck onsite until the day he died in 2014.
Knight also began building what he called "The Musuem," which is modelled after a hot-air balloon, and contains small gifts given to him by friends and visitors.. Like the other structures, it is held up with straw, adobe clay and paint, but also with car parts and a tangle of trees that twist throughout the installation.
WHAT TO SEE
In addition to the bible verses and messages of love, which are boldly written all over the mountain, there are so many cool pieces of art to admire—from the yellow brick road, which leads you to top of the mountain for the most epic views of the desert badlands, to the flowers, trees, waterfalls and other rainbow-colored paintings that cover the monstrous mound, not to mention the trucks, cars and other objects positioned throughout the property, each one painstakingly hand-painted with messages of love, light and positivity.
WHAT'S THIS ABOUT SLAB CITY?
Since you're already in the California Badlands, venture to Slab City (a.k.a. the "Last Free Place in America"), which is located just a few minutes down the same road as the mountain. Few people go beyond Salvation Mountain but I pinkie swear Slab City is something you have to see.
Named after the concrete slabs that remain from the abandoned World War II Marine Corps barracks of Camp Dunlap, it is largely a snowbird community where thousands of campers, many of who are retired, use the site during the winter months. There are also approximately 150 "permanent' residents. What makes this place so interesting is that it is completely off-the-grid—the site has no official electricity, running water, sewers, toilets or trash pickup service and many residents use generators or solar power to generate electricity.
Within Slab City is an artistic community known as East Jesus. Enamored by the notion of "The Last Free Place in America," East Jesus is the vision of the late Charles Stephen Russell. It is an experimental, habitable community that provides refuge for artists, musicians, survivalists, writers, scientists, laymen and other wandering geniuses. It is completely solar powered, its inhabitants are committed to use and recycle every bit of consumable trash, and they have a Human Manure compositing system that is meant to reduce impact on the delicate desert environment.
Visitors are welcome to explore Salvation Mountain and East Jesus for free although donations are welcome and appreciated. At Salvation Mountain, visitors have also been known to donate old paint cans, which get used for the maintenance of the art installation.
HOW TO GET THERE
Salvation Mountain can easily be done as a day trip from Los Angeles, San Diego and Palm Springs, as it is only a two-to-three hour drive from any of these locations. We chose to make a weekend of it, driving from Los Angeles to Salvation Mountain, and then spending the night and following day exploring Palm Springs.
If you're coming from LA or Palm Springs, you will likely pass by the Salton Sea, a shallow salt-water lake—in fact, the largest lake in California—located directly on the San Andreas Fault. I found this place fascinating (and sad) because its salinity is greater than that of the Pacific Ocean, which means very few fish species can tolerate living there, and the beach is literally littered with rotting fish carcasses. Bombay Beach, the lowest community in America, located 223 feet (68 m) below sea level, is located on the shores of the dying Salton Sea. A resort town in the 1950's and 1960's, it now looks like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and the ruins of this community attract many photographers and visitors.
If you're looking for a fun, interesting and uplifting way to spend a day in Southern California, Salvation Mountain certainly a place you'll enjoy exploring.