Leonard Knight and his live-in truck at Salvation Mountain.
The late Leonard Knight (1931-2014) and his live-in truck at Salvation Mountain.

Salvation Mountain

Field review by the editors.

Niland, California

Appearing unexpectedly on the flat, dun-colored horizon of the Sonoran Desert, Salvation Mountain glows with radioactive intensity, an improbable sunlit mound lettered with the Lord's Word in wild hues of latex paint.

Leonard Knight.
Leonard Knight.

Leonard Knight, a fifty-something free spirit and believer in Jesus, arrived at this blistered patch of the Imperial Valley in 1984, looking for a place to launch his "God is Love" hot air balloon. When it failed to float, he decided to stick around for a few days to cement a religious message onto the side of an eroded mesa.

Days turned into weeks, then months. Leonard christened the hill Salvation Mountain as it grew in scale and became part of the landscape -- as did Leonard. Convinced that he'd finally found his purpose in life, he rarely strayed far from the five-acre property for the next 27 years.

Obstacles occasionally blocked Leonard's path. The original mountain collapsed in 1988 when Leonard used too much sand in the concrete. He took it as a sign that God wanted a safer mountain, so he rebuilt it -- this time using adobe mud glued into place with countless layers of paint. Leonard later estimated that he'd dumped a half-million gallons of paint on Salvation Mountain, nearly all of it donated by well-wishers. He used the darker colors as binder, then covered them with the brightest reds, blues, greens, and yellows he could find. Painted invocations of Jesus are prominent, along with flowers, trees, waterfalls, a giant heart, suns, birds, and polka dots.

The Holy Bible.
The Holy Bible.

Not everyone appreciated Leonard's efforts. Some critics dismissed Salvation Mountain as just a painted hillside (which, in fact, is what it is); others bristled at Leonard's religious messages, or the fact that he was squatting on public land (also true), or argued that nature didn't need technicolor improvement. Imperial County's Board of Supervisors tried to evict Leonard in 1994, claiming that a toxic waste expert had found the land poisoned with lead from Leonard's paint. They planned to treat Salvation Mountain like nuclear waste, to be hauled away in trucks and buried in Nevada.

Leonard Knight's model of Salvation Mountain.
Leonard Knight's model of Salvation Mountain.

But Leonard's friends and neighbors raised money and hired their own expert -- who found no lead. The Mountain stayed -- and became famous. The Folk Art Society of America judged it a "site worthy of preservation and protection." California Senator Barbara Boxer called Salvation Mountain, "a national treasure." Leonard and his Mountain even appeared as themselves in the 2007 film Into the Wild.

Leonard was delighted with the attention, but never sought it himself. Lean and leathery, with snow white hair and bright blue eyes, he was a classic lone dreamer, laser-focused on his vision. He was also friendly, welcoming visitors with a smile and often an improvised tour, even though Salvation Mountain had to be repainted continuously to keep it from fading, peeling, and cracking in the bleaching sun and sandblasting wind. Summer days could reach 120 degrees, winter nights dipped below freezing, but Leonard lived in a shack on the back of his truck -- for 27 years, remember -- with no electricity, gas, heat, air conditioning, phone, or running water.

Age and injury ended Leonard's work on Salvation Mountain in December 2011. He came back for one last look on his 82nd birthday, then died on February 10, 2014. He told us on one visit that, "the only way to preserve this thing in a hundred years is to have Congress protect it nationally." Congress hasn't done that yet, but Salvation Mountain remains in decent shape, maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers, art lovers, and kindred spirits.

Jesus I'm a Sinner mailbox, Salvation Mountain in background.
Jesus I'm a Sinner mailbox, Salvation Mountain in background.

The Mountain still stands 50 feet high and 150 feet wide, its blue "Sea of Galilee" spilling out front across the desert floor. Leonard painted a "Yellow Brick Road" path up the face of the Mountain so that visitors could safely ascend to the upper terraces. Parts of the surface are firm as concrete, while other patches are soft and gooey like hot tar. This may owe to the uncatalogued variety of donated paint.

The property remains littered with vehicles, scraps, and half-completed projects that were here when Leonard was alive, part of a Master Plan that was clear only to himself. "That old satellite dish will have six whirligigs attached to it," he told us once. "I need about a hundred more car windows for the museum."

Signs now caution visitors to stay off of Salvation Mountain's more delicate features, but you can still pretty much climb anywhere you like for a photo opportunity. The sky is usually cloudless, and the Mountain's colors gleam in bright sunlight. One of Leonard Knight's many gifts to posterity is a place where nearly everyone's snapshots turn out excellent.

Salvation Mountain

Address:
Beal Rd, Niland, CA
Directions:
From CA-111 in Niland, turn east at the liquor store onto Main St./Beal Rd. Cross the train tracks and drive another three miles. You'll see the painted hill in the distance.
Hours:
Sunrise to Sunset Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
The Best
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Slab CitySlab City, Niland, CA - < 1 mi.
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Mud PotsMud Pots, Niland, CA - 7 mi.
In the region:
International Banana Museum, Mecca, CA - 33 mi.

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