I just got back from my second-ever trip to California, and while I'm still perplexed that anyone would willingly live in LA, I was completely charmed by the desert. We pretty much left LA as soon as I arrived—which I think is the best way to "visit" LA—and took a four-day road trip into southeastern California. I was very intrigued by the Salton Sea, but unfortunately a few of the spots I had wanted to stop at were kind of a bust.
We took a brief loop around Bombay Beach, but were put off by the fact that despite looking abandoned, it's very much still a town inhabited by real people, most of whom looked like they weren't too keen on welcoming sightseers. The International Banana Museum was closed (due to an unexpected death) but luckily, the Salton Sea was on our way to Salvation Mountain, a must-see on my itinerary.
Located in Niland, California, about an hour-and-a-half south of Palm Springs, Salvation Mountain is a large-scale art installation by self-taught artist Leonard Knight. Salvation Mountain isn't a real mountain, but is constructed of hay bales covered in brightly painted stucco. It's fragile and sun-bleached and despite being Instagram-famous, it's definitely something that needs to be seen and experienced in person.
Knight arrived in Slab City in 1984, a neighboring community of off-the-grid nomads, and was compelled to create Salvation Mountain as an expression of his religious faith over the years from found materials. Knight didn't own the land, and built the mountain without permission from the state. He died in 2014 at the age of 82, and the site is currently maintained by a nonprofit group, although the land is still technically owned by the state.
I'm not at all religious, but I do appreciate people with passion and creativity, and Leonard Knight clearly had both qualities in spades. There's something about the desert that seems to attract people with singular visions to just create, and although we saw a few other installations by similarly moved men, Salvation Mountain is the most ambitious (and impressive) of them all.
Salvation Mountain's popularity has only grown exponentially since Knight's death, and in the last year-and-a-half the number of visitors to the site has doubled. The tour buses and crowds pose a threat to the already-fragile structure—one you're encouraged to climb on, within reason—and the extreme desert climate imposes additional maintenance issues. I definitely recommend visiting in the winter, when temperatures are in the '70s and please, please be respectful of the work, stay on the yellow brick road and for the love of Jesus if you must take a selfie, make it quick.
Niland CA, 92257
Open 6:30am-7pm daily