Salvation Mountain and the Strangest Desert in the US

Given that we’re living on the only green planet in the known universe, there’s something patently ridiculous about visiting a desert, so why do it? Because there are miracles there, miracles like Salvation Mountain, the man-made shrine of the Colorado Desert.

Desert of Miracles

In this desert, there is a sea full of fish drowning in water saltier than the ocean, whose rot repelled midcentury hopes of constructing an oasis two hours west of Los Angeles. The Salton Sea is no mirage; accidentally created by a monumental engineering error, it is the largest lake in California, and once upon a time, it was to be the next Palm Springs for urban-jaded Los Angelenos to travel to on holiday. But the sea of salt began to dry, leaving behind sulphorous pools, shores of bleached white fishbone, and the crumbling ruins of abandoned resorts.

In this desert, there is a city of concrete called Slab City, a campground for off-the-grid vagrants and renegade artists. Its residents dream of a society that produces no waste, and in honor of this dream, raise coke-bottle monuments and sculptures made of refuse to stand in the sands, in defiance of the desert’s pensive emptiness.

Salvation Mountain Reigns

The desert in history and myth is a holy place, where strangers wander and wanderers find the strange. The sea of salt isn’t the oddest thing in the Colorado Desert, nor is Slab City. Crowning these and other miracles is a man-made mountain, girdled in coral, sculpture, glistening paint, and verses of holy love, called Salvation Mountain.

Like the Salton Sea, Salvation Mountain is a man-made wonder mimicking the form of nature: its creator, Leonard Knight, built his mountain of adobe and straw, after a Navajo architectural style. The mountain stands three stories tall, plastered with layers upon layers of vibrant paint, and festooned with Bible verses and hieroglyphic prayers.

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At its base, the sands are completely smoothened by fields of sheer paint, crisscrossed with lovingly garish white and blue stripes, fields of neon yellow, bordered by coral-like false flowers that glitter with glaze in the sun. Driving up to the mountain, through ruinous towns, across anonymous train tracks, and on winding dirt roads, the mountain first greets you with massive words emblazoned upon its face, the words “GOD IS LOVE.”

travel salvation mountain carDon’t mistake the mountain for a strictly Christian monument–the site oozes with spirituality and miracle heedless of denomination or creed. Don’t ascribe to it the frailty of a typical art installation–the mountain is meant to be climbed, thanks to a yellow brick road leading from its base to the very top.

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It’s meant to be explored, with caverns cut into its side where pilgrims leave love letters and keepsakes to those without address. At its ragged backside, its structural logs and planks are visible through the paint, and form a psychedelic pueblo fort incorporating metal knickknacks, car doors, and dreamcatchers. I remember the archway crowned again with the word ‘Love’, painted with figures of small white children dancing hand-in-hand on a sky-blue backdrop.

travel salvation mountain treestravel salvation mountain keepsakestravel salvation mountain pillarsAnd finally, don’t mistake Salvation Mountain for a forgotten ruin. I’ve been here twice now, and each time the site is full of visitors who travel in from all over the globe, all awestruck and filled with a childish glee that they’d mostly forgotten. It’s been kept alive over the years by volunteers bringing donations of paint, and touching up its facade that it might far outlive its visionary maker. Even in this age, more modern-feeling than probably any age before it, we crave miracles, and miracles are still to be found, even so close to civilization. travel salvation mountain trailertravel salvation mountain donations