What do you think of when you think of a mountain? Large snow capped peaks perhaps? A lush dense forest? Maybe you see various wildlife scurrying around on both air and land? When I think of mountains I imagine grand, awe inspiring landscapes that paint pictures in my imagination.
But what if I told you about a mountain that was vastly different than any National Geographic magazine cover you have laid eyes on? This mountain is made of Adobe bricks and plaster mortar. This mountain is a collection of discarded automobiles and gallons of paint. This mountain is a bright landscape of classic Bible verses nestled in the vast emptiness of a dry desert.
What mountain am I referring to?
Located about 3 hours east of Orange County, past Palm Springs and Joshua Tree and right by the fish bone shores of the Salton Sea is the location of this folk art site. This is Salvation Mountain.
History of Salvation Mountain
How did this place come into existence? Back in 1970, Vermont born Army veteran Leonard Knight had a self proclaimed vision to somehow spread the message of the Sinner’s Prayer. The Sinner’s Prayer is the Christian term for a prayer one prays when they hope to repent of their sins, ask God for forgiveness, and start their belief in Jesus as their Savior. Leonard wanted to somehow make a grand gesture to all who was near and wrote the words GOD IS LOVE in bright red on a white fabric hot air balloon. Knight knitted together his balloon with fabric patchwork materials and installed a stove. Unfortunately he could never get his balloon to fly to show his message.
In 1984 Leonard Knight first discovered the community of dwellers in the California Desert area of Imperial County which resides north of the town Calipatria and northeast of Niland. This empty and somewhat lawless area seemed like the perfect place to begin his construction of the ultimate image of love and forgiveness. Unfortunately his construction of the mountain was similar to his hot air balloon and in 1989 the structure began to collapse. Knight was far from discouraged and began his second Salvation Mountain utilizing straw mixed Adobe.
Leonard Knight never truly finished his project. Up until December 2011 when Knight was the age of 80 years old and brought to live in a long-term care facility, he lived and worked on his beloved Salvation Mountain. Often visitors were treated to personal tours given by Leonard Knight himself explaining his vision of the masterpiece. Leonard Knight passed away on February 10th, 2014 in El Cajon leaving Salvation Mountain as his greatest legacy.
In February 2011, a public charity, Salvation Mountain, Inc., was established to protect the artwork that was beginning to fall into disrepair. In 2013, the Annenberg Foundation donated $32,000 to Salvation Mountain, Inc. for materials and equipment to “improve security and strengthen operations”. Present day the charity is still active, preserving this spot of historic importance.
When you visit Salvation Mountain you can not miss the community of makeshift homes, vans, and RVs, and signs to WiFi cafes strewn about. This population of nomads, self proclaimed hippies and interesting folks are the self appointed caretakers of Salvation Mountain. They dwell on the free land they named Slab City. This unincorporated, off the grid, disconnected from any city utilities such as power and water “city,” is a squatter community made mostly of snow birds.
Back in 1942 the United States Marine Corps built Camp Dunlap as a training facility during World War II. Here soldiers trained on artillery and anti-aircraft units of the Fleet Marine Force. In 1951 the Marine Corps ended up selling the land to its sister in the armed forces – the Navy, for $1.20 an acre. This was a somewhat ironic sell since the land is a waterless desert in the middle of California wasteland with the only large body of water miles and miles away. The Navy must have quickly realized this fact and abandoned the land. In 1961 the United States Defense finally conveyed the 11,342 acres back to the state of California.
The only remaining evidence of Camp Dunlap are the concrete slabs of long gone buildings. Hence the origin of the name Slab City, or The Slabs to it’s more permanent residents.
Currently more than 2000 trailers line the not city-city. But this was not always so and back in March of 1988 the San Diego Reader did an article on the ‘Squatters Paradise’ which surged the population up from a mere 600-700 RVs and campers. Another infamous resident of Slab City was Christopher McCandless, aka “Alexander Supertramp” who reached notoriety after his death. His story was published in the book Into the Wild in 1996 and eventually made into a biographical adventure drama written by Sean Penn in 2007.
In present day it is an interesting mix of artists and people who seem to want to disappear from society. Their love for the mountain is evident so please respect their wishes on preservation.
Where to Stay
Although you could pull up your RV, home on wheels, or camper and stay in the commune of Slab City, I understand if that is not really a place you would prefer to rest your head. Here are some not too far places to stay when visiting Salvation Mountain:
- Glamis North Hot Springs Resort: This family owned RV resort which also has cabins for rent is located just 30 minutes from Salvation Mountain. While staying there you can partake in some of the exciting local adventures they offer. ATV over sand dunes, soak in some mineral rich hot springs or take a tour through bat caves. Glamis North is not your typical hotel that is for sure. Address: 10595 Hot Mineral Spa Rd, Niland, CA 92257.
- Hotel Paseo: This luxury boutique hotel is a bit of a drive away from Salvation Mountain. But it does have close proximity to upscale shopping, art galleries, restaurants, and nightlife on El Paseo, known as “The Rodeo Drive of the Desert.” Also, it lies between Palm Springs and the beautiful Coachella Valley. As well as the truly one-of-a-kind experience by staying in a 1950 Airstream Trailer – you will not mind the hour and thirty minute drive. Address: 45-400 Larkspur Lane, Palm Desert, CA.
- Calipatria Inn & Suites: This not fancy, run of the mill hotel is located a mere 15 minutes from Salvation Mountain in the desert city of Calipatria. The rooms are standard with microwaves, fridges, and coffee makers. And the rates are affordable. What the Inn lacks in charm makes up for with its budget friendly options and close location without the bells and whistles of resorts located in Palm Desert. Address: 700 North Sorensen Ave, Calipatria, CA 92233.
Salvation Mountain is unlike anything else. It is a folklore, a master art piece, a fringe of society experience and a nod to America’s less polished history. When visiting, be a part of the protection and continue to be respectful of those who call Slab City home. As always leave nothing, take only pictures, and happy adventures!
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Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would not be a forever home for all of them, they adopted their daughter buckets and are legal guardians to their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus