Salvation Mountain: a Detour-Worthy Destination

Salvation Mountain in southern California is an exuberant patchwork quilt of hope and love.

It was day thirteen of a thirty-one day road trip, and I realized that if this adventure would teach me nothing else, it taught me how little I know about my country.

I already know how little I knew about its history, but that’s understandable. You could live multiple lifetimes and not know all the stories.

What amazed me was how ignorant I was of the land itself. Every day was a new environment.

As we left Felicity, California, that environment was sand.

We were driving through the Algodones Dunes, a 45-mile swath of desert that could be mistaken for the Sahara. I half-expected to see a line of camels; instead, dune buggies bounced over the surface.

A canal of aqua loosely paralleled the highway, its water siphoned from the Colorado River and used to irrigate one of the driest patches of the country.

Algodones Dunes along I-8 in Imperial County, California
Algodones Dunes along I-8 in Imperial County, California

I’d never seen anything like this. For a girl who grew up around corn fields and creeks, followed by suburbs and shopping malls, Imperial County was a whole new country.

We could have taken I-8 all the way to San Diego and been in Oceanside, our ultimate destination, by mid-afternoon, but what fun would that have been?

Our original plan was to visit the Ski Inn in Bombay Beach because it’s the lowest bar in the western hemisphere. At dinner in Yuma the night before, however, we’d learned from some locals about a bizarre place called Salvation Mountain.

This unique destination was kind of sort of on the way to the elevation-challenged bar, and the Yumans assured us it would definitely be worth visiting.

Heeding their words of wisdom, we turned right in Niland and drove through a depressed area of washed out houses and empty lots. It was a stark contrast to what we were about to see.

RVs started popping up here and there. A mother breastfed a child on the side of the road. A group sat in a circle in front of a bright red camper, next to a sign offering “Free crystals.” A road sign warned “Roaming Dogs – Please Slow Down,” and informed us that the Slab City Library was 1.2 miles ahead.

Then, a mound of pastels and primaries topped with a big white cross popped out of the desert, proclaiming GOD IS LOVE.

Related: things to do in Yuma Arizona

Sign right before Salvation Mountain near the Salton Sea in Imperial County, California

Welcome to Salvation Mountain.

It’s an exuberant patchwork quilt of paint and hope. Leonard Knight, the artist responsible for this unusual attraction, originally tried to spread love via hot air balloon. When that didn’t work, he built a mountain out of junk and concrete.

Salvation Mountain

That mountain collapsed, so he built the current one out of adobe and clay. Knight passed away in 2014, but his legacy is carried on by devotees of his message of peace and harmony.

In 2000, Folk Art Society of America declared Salvation Mountain “a folk art site worthy of preservation and protection” and a charity was established to continue his work.

Information about Salvation Mountain
Donation request at Salvation Mountain with photo of Leonard Knight

In addition to the mountain itself, which is covered with about a thousand layers of paint, there’s a hogan, which was a home he never inhabited, and the museum, whose large domes are meant to replicate that hot air balloon.

Salvation Mountain

The paint used is lead-free to keep from damaging the environment, although the desert doesn’t afford Knight’s legacy the same consideration. The artwork is in constant need of touch-up, and visitors will bring cans of paint to keep Salvation Mountain vibrant.

Statue inside alcove at Salvation Mountain

As we meandered through the colorful complex, a steady stream of people filtered through the site, including two sets of young women and a band of brawny men speaking both French and English, dressed in camouflage and toting handguns.

Men wearing camouflage at Salvation Mountain
Salvation Mountain

Through it all, a trio sprawled on the painted base of the mountain. When they weren’t swigging from a bottle of wine, they were taking selfie after interminable selfie. There were also, I wrote in my notes, “a few normal people.”

My guess? This is a typical day at Salvation Mountain.

Salvation Mountain, photo credit Jim Goodrich
Photo credit Jim Goodrich
Young women taking photos at Salvation Mountain
Metal stencil of JESUS on back of truck
God is Love sign at Salvation Mountain

By the time we finished exploring and people watching, it was nearly two o’clock and we still needed to get to Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea. Out detour to Salvation Mountain meant that evening we’d get stuck navigating roads closed due to rock slides in the dark.

It was worth it.

Visiting Salvation Mountain

Does Salvation Mountain cost money to visit?

Nope! It’s free.

What’s near Salvation Mountain?

Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea is about 25 minutes to the northwest. Anzo Borrego State Park and Ocotillo Wells are both a little over an hour drive. The Museum of History in Granite and the Center of the World are about an hour and a half away.

Where is Salvation Mountain?

Beal Rd, Calipatria, CA 92233

Directions to Salvation Mountain

From Interstate 8 eastbound or westbound to the El Centro area:

  • Exit at Highway 111 (Exit 118B)
  • Continue on Highway 111 north thru Brawley for approximately 16.8 miles.
  • Turn right on Main Street in Niland.
  • Main Street becomes Beal Road. Continue on Beal Road for ~3.21 miles until you see Salvation Mountain on the right.

From Highway 78 eastbound via Banner Grade:

  • Follow Highway east 78 to Highway 111
  • Turn left (north) onto Highway 111 and follow it north to Niland.
  • Turn right on Main Street in Niland.
  • Main Street becomes Beal Road. Continue on Beal Road for ~3.21 miles until you see Salvation Mountain on the right.
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