Who Will Save Salvation Mountain?

Candy Land meets Vacation Bible School.

That’s what I had expected to find.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

I had been dying to see Salvation Mountain and the rest of the weird and wonderful remnants of the virtually abandoned Salton Sea area for years now (especially after watching a compelling short film called The Accidental Sea).

Truck welcoming one and all to Salvation Mountain, Niland, CA.

So I drove about an hour southeast from Palm Springs to the shores of the infamous “sea,” and through the post-apocalyptic-looking towns that had been built in 1920s during the heyday of the “Salton Riviera.”

As I approached Salvation Mountain, the dull tans, browns, and grays of the desert ghost towns seemed to run screaming at the sight of the shockingly bright colors.

I climbed to the summit, about 50 feet from the ground. I felt like Princess Lolly atop Gum Drop Mountain as I stood next to the giant red adobe “S” in the GOD IS LOVE message surveying the 30 years of inspired handiwork below.

That’s how long Leonard Knight, the man behind the mountain, had lived in the back of his truck without electricity or running water as he labored day after day to build this somewhat psychedelic monument.

Knight built a hogan to protect himself from the summer heat but never moved in, continuing to live in his truck instead.

I was hoping to meet the visionary who used straw, mud, and thousands of gallons of paint to share his message of love to the world. But I seemed to be the only person around.

At first glance, the painted adobe looked smooth, but as I climbed down, I noticed a few cracks where dirt was breaking through. When I started looking more closely, I noticed more spots like this, and larger in size.

When I reached the bottom of the mountain, I started walking to my car to get some cash to stuff in the donation box I’d spotted earlier. That’s when I heart a car pulling up.

“Don’t bother,” a male voice said. “He doesn’t live here anymore.”

I looked up to see a twenty-something guy with curly brown hair approaching.


“Yeah, he got carted off to a nursing home — couldn’t survive out here anymore,” the guy went on. “He’s like 80 years old.”

“Well, someone’s got to be maintaining it, right?” I reasoned, squinting into the sun.

“Dunno. I hope so,” he said. “This place is rad, but who else is gonna be crazy enough to stay out here in this heat all day long?”

With that I continued wandering, soaking up the many details and personal touches Leonard had added over the years — to the mountain, and to other adobe structures around it.

Turns out, the curly-haired kid was right.

A photo of Leonard Knight plastered into the wall of the "museum" he was working on when he was moved to a nursing home in January.

After leaving the mountain and doing some research, I discovered that nobody knows who owns the land where Salvation Mountain sits.

Locals who live just a mile up the road in Slab City (dubbed the “Last Free Place,” because the residents are technically squatters surviving completely off the grid), are concerned about the fate of Leonard’s masterpiece. It has become a beloved part of their community.

So much so, that there’s even talk of hiring an intern to live at the mountain and maintain it.

I entertained the idea for a minute. Well, 30 seconds.

It would be a tragedy for this unique place to crumble into oblivion, along with most everything else near the Salton Sea.

Someone has to rise to the challenge.

But who will it be?

Follow Shannon’s adventures on Twitter @CuriousTraveler and on Instagram @ShannonSwitzer

Shannon is photographing with an Olympus PEN E-PM1 and an Olympus Tough TG-820.


  1. Bob Levesque
    April 30, 2013, 9:17 pm

    Leonard will be back at the mountain on May 19, 2013, with NEW EYES

  2. Alexis
    August 26, 2012, 5:08 pm

    I went out to see it on my birthday. Had a great time at a little bar in town. Got stuck on a train track in the desert, not on the road. Called 911, got a dui and I left that smelly but loveable town forever, never to return. Never saw the mountain, but things are sure shaking there today.

  3. Shannon Switzer
    July 17, 2012, 3:25 pm

    Wynnsome- I forgot it was in that movie, thanks for the reminder!

  4. Imari Kariotis
    Salvation Mountain
    July 16, 2012, 2:11 pm

    There is a facebook group to get updates. There is a 501c3 in place to preserve the Mountain. There are onsite managers living at the Mountain There is a number to call in the about section of facebook and an email of salvationmountaininc@gmail.com and also a twitter account of https://twitter.com/SalvationMnt

    • Shannon Switzer
      July 17, 2012, 2:29 pm

      So glad to learn about all of this, Imari. Thank you very much! I will definitely do what I can to help!

  5. Michael
    July 12, 2012, 2:07 pm

    Love your touches of humor. Amazing that this place still exists. Your picture makes me want to visit, but not for too long.
    From the looks of the place I think Leonard made a wise decision to relocate.

  6. Ben
    July 12, 2012, 2:06 am

    Pretty amazing that he built all of that out in the middle of that sweatbox of a desert!

  7. wynnsome
    United States
    July 11, 2012, 10:20 pm

    I’ve wanted to visit Salvation Mountain ever since I saw it in Into the Wild a few years ago. It’s sad to hear that Leonard Knight isn’t there anymore. He’s a big part of what makes it so fascinating.
    Love reading your stories! Keep ’em coming!