Planning a trip from Palm Springs to Salvation Mountain? Head to the SoCal desert to visit the quirkiest technicolor mountain you’ve ever seen! There’s really nowhere else like it in the world! Here’s exactly what to expect when you get there — it’s a super eccentric place!
Beautiful. Bizarre. And completely unforgettable. Salvation Mountain is a true candy-colored fantasy world in the middle of the desert. And I couldn’t get enough of it. I’m sure you’ve seen it all over social media — it’s a super instagrammable spot a bit south of Palm Springs!
I’d been wanting to visit this eclectic masterpiece for as long as I can remember, but since it’s so far outta the way (from just about everywhere), it took me a few years to get here! When I was planning our SoCal desert road from Palm Springs to Borrego Springs, I just knew I had to include it.
Artistic landscape. Off-beat religious roadside attraction. Vibrant folk art. Whatever you call it, I promise you won’t forget it once you visit. It’s probably the strangest road-side attraction you’ll ever see (way more so than the Jolly Green Giant we saw in Blue Earth, MN on our road trip from NYC to SF.)
And best of all, it’s completely free to visit. We did see volunteers at the site to prevent destruction, so please follow the rules and stay outta trouble. It’s currently 100% donation funded (so ya know, feel free to make a donation to support the art!).
Sure, it’s somewhat religious, but it’s more about love and the act of a simple life than anything else. Lots more info below.
What is Salvation Mountain
Possibly the wackiest thing you’ve ever seen before! Salvation Mountain is a literal man-made mountain — all covered in half a million gallons of latex paint. In the middle of the Southern California desert. Just WHOA. To try to put it in perspective, it’s kinda impossible to fit into one photograph — the mountain is 50 feet high and ~150 feet wide!
It was built and created by a man named Leonard Knight, who spent almost 30 years perfecting the colorful mountain himself. He used discarded tires, windows, automobile parts, and whatever else he could get his hands on. Including tons of local adobe clay. It was basically his life project.
Looking at the mountain, you’ll notice it’s covered with messages of God’s love, with the most direct being “God is Love”. Yes, his message is Christian but it’s simple and non-denominational. I’m not religious at all and still loved it! Biblical and religious scriptures/verses are painted all over the mountain, but the one main verse, the Sinner’s Prayer, is all over.
You’ll see the recurring theme of LOVE with the big red heart <3 , but you’ll also see flowers, trees, waterfalls, suns, bluebirds, and other natural elements painted all over the mountain. If you look closely, you’ll also notice the Sea of Galilee at the bottom and the cross at the very top.
The whole piece is oh so colorful, vibrant, folky, and overwhelmingly astounding. Kinda hard to put into words. Just go see it for yourself. 😉 And even better, it’s super fun to photograph!
The Man Behind the Mountain
As mentioned before, Leonard Knight built Salvation Mountain with his bare hands. But what prompted him to do so? I did a whole lot of research when I got home and found his story to be exceptionally interesting, so I knew I needed to share a bit here! A little info on the American folk artist himself:
Leonard was born in the early 1930’s just outside of Burlington, Vermont. He was drafted into the United States Army at the age of 20, and served in the Korean War.
When Leonard was 36, he experienced a spiritual awakening. He had never been particularly religious before, but something spoke to him. And ever since that moment, his passion had been unwavering, and his dedication intense. He needed to share this newfound epiphany with the world.
So, Leonard started by painting cars, and then sewing a hot air balloon with big red letters proclaiming “God Is Love” in Slab City. But the balloon refused to fly!
Before he left the area, he wanted to make a “small statement” so he made a small mound with some cement (and let’s face it, lots of sand, because cement was hard to come by). This began in 1984, and he kept adding and adding to it, until it eventually became 30, then 40, then 50 feet high. But then the whole thing collapsed! He felt God was giving him a sign to make it even stronger, so off he went.
Over the next several years, he rebuilt the mountain using native adobe clay mixed with straw to hold it all together. And that’s what we see today! But he didn’t stop there — he worked on it all day for 28 years, constantly — whoa (!!!). He even slept at the base of the mountain in the back of a pick-up truck; that’s how dedicated he was. I heard he even gave free tours to every visitor of the mountain! What a man he must’ve been.
Leonard Knight passed away in early 2014 after being admitted to a long term facility a few years prior. Rest in peace, Leonard, your gift to the world will never be forgotten.
Logistics for Visiting Salvation Mountain
Where is Salvation Mountain?
Salvation Mountain is located in a small area of Southern California called Slab City, a transient & retiree commune; known as the last free place in America. It’s right outside of Niland in the Colorado Desert in Imperial County, California. Yeah…. I had never heard of any of these spots before either. Maybe you’ve heard of the Salton Sea? It’s only a few miles east from there!
Most people visit Salvation Mountain as a day trip from Palm Springs, or on a longer road trip through the SoCal desert. We were headed to Borrego Springs from Palm Springs and took the long way — through the Salton Sea, Slab City, and some sand dunes.
How to Get to Salvation Mountain
You’ll need to drive deep into the desert in order to get to Salvation Mountain, as I’m pretty sure there isn’t much public transportation around here. When you get here, you’ll see what I mean. It’s about five miles east of Hwy 111 at Niland, not far from Bombay Beach at the Salton Sea.
- Exact address: Beal Rd, Calipatria, CA 92233, USA (or you can just input Salvation Mountain into your GPS and it’ll take you right there)
Thankfully, despite its off-the-beaten-track location, it’s not terribly far from a bunch of popular spots in Southern California, including:
- From Palm Springs: 84 miles / 1.5 hours
- From Joshua Tree: 115 miles / 2 hours
- From San Diego: 150 miles / 2.5 hours
- From Orange County: 175 miles / 3 hours
- From Los Angeles: 188 miles / 3 hours
The mountain’s right on the side of the road — you really can’t miss it once you get closer (trust me)! We parked on Beal Road and made the 3 minute walk to Salvation Mountain.
When to Visit
Although Salvation Mountain’s open year round (sunrise to sunset), I highly recommend visiting from October to April. The other times of year are just waayyyy too hot! Think between 105° and 120° in the summer months! Sounds absolutely disgusting to me! Just remember — it’s the desert, it’ll be brutally hot.
No matter the time of year, visit in the early morning before the desert sun becomes too strong. Also, keep in mind the day of the week. We visited on a random Wednesday in March and it was pretty quiet — but I bet it’s a lot more crowded on weekends and holidays.
FYI, if you do decide to visit during the summer, bring extra water! You’ll need it!
Where to Stay Near Salvation Mountain
If you’ve got Salvation Mountain on your California bucket list, I highly recommend heading here as a day trip from Palm Springs. We loved staying at The Ace Hotel & Pool Club, but the Parker Palm Springs (we had an awesome brunch here) and Korakia Pensione look awesome, too!
If you’re up for it, you can camp right near Salvation Mountain in Slab City. It’s definitely not your typical camping experience, so just have that in mind and come with everything you need. There’s minimal facilities nearby.
Visiting Salvation Mountain
And now the fun part — visiting this colorful oddity itself! When you first arrive, you’ll quickly notice the yellow path on the mountain. And go ahead — follow the yellow brick road! From the top of the mountain, you can see for miles and miles. Unfortunately, we were unable to do so because this part of the mountain was closed when we visited. Boo!
Do note that you aren’t allowed to casually climb the mountain though — you need to stick to the Yellow Brick Road. Safety and such; makes sense.
There’s also “museums” and hogans to check out. I swear, every single inch of Salvation Mountain is super unique. We loved just wandering around and exploring all it’s little nooks and crannies. It’s really like nowhere else I’d ever been before.
Do note that you may not be able to go inside the mountain — it was only partially open when we visited (March 2021) because part of the structure caved in last year due to heavy rains and repairs are still being made.
Take note of all the small details, the hundreds of paint cans scattered about, the inscriptions and religious verses, the trash sculptures, and painted, abandoned cars. It’s all so profoundly unique — in the best possible way ever. I swear, every corner of the mountain has a new surprise! Stripes, flowers, a decked out mailbox, painted tires, etc.
We spent about 30 minutes there just wandering around taking photos, but I have a feeling I could have stayed for at least an hour or so if the yellow brick road and little museum was open.
Safety and Rules at Salvation Mountain
A few ways to ensure a safe and fun visit:
- Bring your own water. And lots of it. There’s no water at Salvation Mountain, so you’ll wanna come prepared. I left my liquids in the car and chugged the whole bottle as soon as I got back!
- On that note, facilities are limited in nearby towns. Fill up your gas tank before visiting the Salton Sea/Slab City area. We didn’t see many gas stations, and what we did see (if I remember correctly), was ridiculously expensive.
- Bring along your own food — there’s not a lot out here. You’ll find a few small markets in Niland, but honestly, the selection is super slim. I’d pack a bunch of snacks and something nonperishable for lunch. PB and J anyone?!
- Pets are allowed to visit, but they must remain on a leash. Of course clean up after them.
- Protect yourself from the hot blazing desert sun — sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat are 100% necessary!
- There are no alcohol or drugs allowed on site.
- Climb the yellow brick road at your own risk — the entire monument is fragile (rains can cause damage and parts of the mountain to close)
- There’s no camping on/in any part of the mountain, but you’re allowed to set up camp elsewhere in Slab City! It’s a free place, so find a spot (just be respectful of others and anything that looks like a campsite).
And of course, this goes without saying, but PLEASE be respectful of the art — Salvation Mountain is one man’s work of art. And he worked on it for his entire adult life. Let’s keep it open for everyone to enjoy! ZERO graffiti, climbing, skating, etc. Use your judgement — if you have to think twice about it, you probably shouldn’t do it.
The Future of the Mountain
As you can imagine, preserving the mountain is no easy feat. It requires constant maintenance — I mean, the desert is a pretty harsh environment! The blazing year-round sun causes the paint to fade, the wind and sand take its toll on the structure, rain causes parts of the mountain to crumble. It continually evolves and will never look exactly the same as before.
Leonard Knight dedicated most of his life to building and caring for Salvation Mountain. Now that he’s gone, a public charity named Salvation Mountain, Inc. was established in 2011 to support the project. And it’s still active today! Friends of Leonard also watch over the mountain.
And it’s now even considered a national treasure! Thanks Senator Barbara Boxer!
Psst: they used to accept paint donations, but not anymore. If you’d like to give a monetary donation, drop it in the donation box or send it electronically. Never hand cash over to anyone at the site. Make a donation to help preserve the mountain here.
Things to do Near Salvation Mountain
Since you’re all the way out here, why not make a whole day of it? Head on over to nearby East Jesus (it’s only a mile down the road), Bombay Beach (don’t miss the Drive-In and beach ruins), smelly Salton Sea, the super impressive Glamis Sand Dunes, and my favorite — Borrego Springs!
I’ve got a whole road trip guide from Palm Springs to Borrego Springs with tons more info on all these places. If you’ve got a few extra days, you can even hang out in Palm Springs and take a day trip to Joshua Tree!
Hope this helps you plan your visit to Salvation Mountain! Have you seen anything like it before?!