Salvation Mountain

Spreading love since 1986

Niland, California

About Salvation Mountain

A Testament to the Determination of many and the tenacity of one

Leonard Knight at Salvation Mountain. Photo by Aaron Huey

After arriving in Niland, CA, Leonard finally gave up on his dream of a hot air balloon, but not the dream of spreading his message. In one last attempt to promote his message, Knight began erecting a small 8’ monument of his balloon. After completing it and realizing it wasn’t big enough, he got a bigger idea!  Armed with only a bucket, a shovel, and a half a bag of cement, Knight began to create what would become Salvation Mountain along that same ledge.

As time went on, Knight added more cement, sand, and junk that he collected from the dump. After the cement, clay and debris were added, Knight would then decorate the mountain with painted artwork. The mountain featured his famous “God Is Love” and his version of the Sinner’s Prayer.

Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. Each day, Leonard would put a little more cement and a little more paint on the side of a forgotten riverbank. As his monument grew taller and taller, he would pack old junk he found at the dump onto the side of his “mountain,” fill it with sand and cover it with cement and paint. Cement was hard to come by, so he would mix a lot of sand into it. Leonard’s mountain soon grew to 50 feet and higher.

“I used to spend half a day at the dump to find half a gallon of paint of which only half was usable.” recalled Leonard.

After three years, Knight had added so much sand to the mountain that it collapsed in a huge pile of rubble creating a huge cloud of dust. Instead of accepting defeat, Knight’s optimism once again prevailed as he took the collapse as a positive message from God. Knight reportedly said, “Thank you, God, for taking the mountain down before someone got hurt”. He vowed to begin the monument again, but this time it would be done the “right way”.

The first monument by Leonard Knight. Photo by Larry Yust
The fallen flrst monument. Photo by Larry Yust

The second mountain

In late 1989, Knight began to build his second mountain. He had been experimenting with the native adobe clay and had been using it on other parts of the mountain. So, this time he built it solely with adobe clay and straw, which made the mountain stronger and completely solid. This second effort resulted in the current Salvation Mountain, which stands approximately three stories high.

The decorative folk art is the product of a generous layer of paint, estimated at more than ten coats, that acts as an additional hardener, protecting the mountain from cracking. Knight only accepts donations in the form of paint, and the site probably contains over 100,000 gallons of paint that have been donated by visitors and supporters. The mountain is decorated in colorful flowers, waterfalls, birds, and numerous Bible verses and spiritual messages.

The second mountain by Leonard Knight.

Toxicity Nightmare

After ten years of relentless toil, Leonard and his mountain began to gain some notoriety. It was especially noticed by the Imperial County Supervisors. Salvation Mountain, as it had come to be known, was at the entrance of Slab City (the Slabs), a community of *snowbirds and local squatters occupying the old dismantled and abandoned Fort Dunlap World War II Marine training base. Only the concrete slabs of the buildings remained, thus the name “Slab City”.

The land is owned by the State of California. A great many people came to be squatters at the Slabs where there was an impromptu flea market. The County wanted to start collecting a user fee, and also thought that there might be a conflict with a “religious monument” at the entrance to a possible County campground.

In July of 1994, the County’s solution was to hire a toxic waste specialist to come out and take samples of the dirt around Leonard’s Mountain to test for contaminants. Even before the test results were back, they cordoned off the area and labeled it a toxic nightmare. The tests predictably came back claiming high amounts of lead in the soil. The County petitioned the State of California for funds to tear down the mountain and haul it away to a toxic waste disposal dumpsite in Nevada.

Local residents, snowbirds and members of the art community, including the Art Car community, did not want to see that happen to the mountain and their friend Leonard. Hundreds and hundreds of signatures were collected on circulated petitions. Thanks to the help of many old and new friends, Leonard dug soil samples and submitted them to an independent lab in San Diego for testing.

The new tests revealed that there weren’t high levels of any contaminants, especially lead, at Salvation Mountain. The mountain stands today as a reward to the determination of many and the tenacity of one. 

The Hogan

In 1998, Leonard began experimenting with bales of straw and adobe. He got an idea to build a *Hogan” using these materials to insulate him from the 115+°F (46°C) heat of the desert summers. He stacked the bales up to form a 10-foot high domed room. He covered the whole thing with adobe and painted and adorned it in his typical style. He never, however, moved into it, still preferring to live in his truck.

The Hogan at Salvation Mountain

The Museum

Leonard kept adding onto the mountain, then creating “The Museum.” It was an incredibly ambitious project. It is modeled after his original semi-inflated hot-air balloon. It includes several large domed areas supported by “trees” that Leonard builds from old tires, wood scavenged from the surrounding desert, and adobe.

The Museum at Salvation Mountain

Written by David G. Bromley & Stephanie Urlass for WRSP, 2013.

Sources: Bob “Doc” Sims, 2004 & Salvation Mountain: The Art of Leonard Knight, Yust 1998

Non Profit Organization

Salvation Mountain demands a tremendous amount of upkeep for its preservation, and many people have stepped forward to assist Knight in taking care of the mountain. Among Salvation Mountain supporters, Kevin Eubank has been credited as being Knight’s main assistant. Eubank devoted his time to Knight and Salvation Mountain in order to spread the message and protect the mountain from harm. Eubank’s goal was to continue to protect the mountain and have it legally preserved. Unfortunately he passed away in 2011, the same year Knight was moved into a care facility.

Today, Salvation Mountain is a 501(c) run by volunteers headed up by president Bob Levesque.

The monument is in danger of being bulldozed by the State of California unless we can purchase the land that it sits on. Please read about our fundraiser and land purchase plan.

$40,000 Goal: Land Purchase Fund


Tour from Leonard

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The dedication of Leonard and his visionary artwork has been recognized nationally by countless media outlets and arts and culture organizations. Salvation Mountain was recognized in 2001 by the Folk Art Society of America and in 2002 by Congress with National Treasure Status.

United States Congress: National Treasure Status, 2002

Folk Art Society of America: National Folk Art Site, 2001

National Geographic: Aaron Huey, 2014 / Shannon Switzer, 2012

PBS: Nebraska Stories, 2023 / Truly CA, 2015

LA Times: Chris Iovenko, 2017 / Don Bartletti, 2014

CNN Travel: Roadside Attractions, 2016

Time: Andrew Katz, 2014

Daily Mail: Katie Amey, 2015 / Daily Mail Reporter, 2012

ABC10: John Bartell, 2020 /, 2020

Desert Sun: Desert Sun editorial board, 2014 / Lynn Lieu, 2014 / Crystal Chatham, 2014 / Omar Ornelas, 2014

ELLE: Alyssa Bailey, 2017

San Diego Reader: Ruth Newell, 2012 / Bonnie Maffei, 2009 / Stephen Dobyns, 2005

SF Gate: Olivia Harden, 2023

Today: Robin Kawakami, 2017

Artsy: Alexxa Gotthardt, 2018

Vice: documentary, 2013

The Artist

Leonard Knight, A Visionary Artist

“He created something with no parallel of influence.”

Aaron Huey / National Geographic, 2014

Created by a dedicated man so enamored with spreading the idea that “God is Love”. Read about the visionary artist who dedicated 28 years of his life to build a mountain in the middle of the desert.

Help save Salvation Mountain and Slab City!

Salvation Mountain and the surrounding Slab City are at risk of being demolished to make way for industrial development. We need your help to save the mountain!

Visit Salvation Mountain

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