Salvation Mountain – A Potential Environmental Nightmare Lying in Wait?


For many years I have been asked, “Jim, have you been to Salvation Mountain?” Which I’ve quickly answered, “No, but it looks interesting. It just isn’t very high on my list of places that I want to see.” Followed by, “I’ll get around to it someday.”

Well, that “someday” has come. But it probably never should have.

I can’t find a positive word to say…and I should probably leave it at that. But I simply can’t, and I’m sorry in advance if I offend anyone in the audience.

When I pulled up to Salvation Mountain, my mouth dropped, and a horribly uncomfortable feeling came over me. A feeling of disgust, and of overall disdain. The feeling that everything that I love about the desert had been tarnished in one quick instance.

The mountain of colorful paint, with sayings such as “Jesus Fire,” “God is Love,” along with The Lord’s Prayer, and various Bible verses, made my stomach churn.

Now I’m not a religious person, but I do consider myself a spiritual person. I find myself more in tune with the spirit of nature, and a natural surrounding.  The Christian slogans, and the cross on top of the hill, I do not find offensive – I’m not one of those that are intolerant of other people’s beliefs. I also take no issue with the public display of religious symbology. This is America, and one has the right to religious freedom, and in my opinion, the right to express that.


Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain


Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain


Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain


As someone who is vehemently against the destruction of our desert by solar and wind energy corporations, I certainly can’t overlook the fact that this “art” is the destruction of a natural environment, and has the potential to over time create further environmental problems for an area that is already plagued with the nightmare issues that the Salton Sea has caused, and will continue to cause for an undetermined period of time.

In 1994, the Imperial County Supervisors had a series of tests performed on the soil around Salvation Mountain. Those tests returned a high contamination of lead, and the county deemed the mountain, a “toxic nightmare”. Leonard Knight, the artist responsible for the creation of the mountain of “art”, had his own independent tests performed, utilizing the same test holes as the county, and those tests came back negative for lead contamination.  The county left Knight, and the mountain alone after the results of the independent testing. But should they have?

I’ve heard the argument that the paint used by Knight was latex, and that is the type of paint that is continued to be used today. The latex argument is still not valid in regard to environmental hazard. The Pollution Prevention Regional Information Center cites latex paint as, “Highly toxic to the environment. It harms fish and wildlife, and contaminates the food chain if poured down a storm drain. It can also pollute groundwater if dumped on the ground.”


Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain


Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain


Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain


This is a frightening fact, considering the southern end of the Salton Sea is largely an agricultural area – as well the home of Salvation Mountain. There is also the possible impact of paint run-off making its way to the Salton Sea, itself. The Salton Sea is along a major bird migratory flyway – every year thousands of birds make a pit-stop along this accidental water mass. It is very likely that a toxic pollutant could produce a mass kill off. Will these things happen tomorrow? Probably not, but in the long-term – it is probable.

This is by no means an attack on Leonard Knight, despite having never met the gentleman he is portrayed as a kind soul. Because of this, I in no way believe that this gentleman would have created Salvation Mountain, if he was aware of the possible long-term effects.

Leonard Knight spent three decades of his life building and maintaining his mountain, also spreading a message of love, and peace. For that he will always remembered. Knight passed away at the age of 82, on February 10th 2014. 

Today, Salvation Mountain is looked after by the nonprofit group, Salvation Mountain Inc.. They continue to do upkeep on the mountain, including adding fresh coats of paint, and patching adobe. Visitation is permitted, with a full-time caretaker on site.

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.


  • I agree with you. This article could have easily been a lot more negative (and justified). At the end of the day latex paint is made of chemicals that should not be readily introduced into the ecosystem. Every time it rains, it washes it down towards the Salton Sea. Whenever the rain comes down, the mud mounds collapse (which they always do) and paint chips wash away, those chips will be found throughout the desert for many, many decades… and even longer. Some latex paints contain mercury (generally exterior paint has it). Bathroom paints with KILZ is TOXIC. Did Leonard really investigate if the gallons and gallons paint he was gifted was exterior latex with mercury or bathroom paint with KILZ or a KILZ-like additive, and so on?

    • do you think there might be as much mercury in his paint as all the gold miners used and spilled back on the ground where it originally came from? creosote bushes contain creosote which is dangerous to humans we should kill them all.

      • The difference in the mining days of the old, and today – we know better today. We didn’t know the impacts 75+ years ago.

        Creosote is used in medicines, and has been used by Native people from years.

        I love the way you are commenting on everything, grasping for a something to defend the Environmental wasteland.

        • creosote is a carcinogenic and is listed on the banned chemicals list sorry to hear about the poor indians the epa will probably ban them as they are infected with creosote now. i am sorry to hear you think the desert is an environmental wasteland maybe you should dig up all the natural lead in the ground and all the creosote plants and destroy your polluting jeep also. you cannot live without creating pollution. i do however find your articles about the desert most informative.

          • You are right – can’t live without creating pollution. However, actions that create an unnecessary disturbance with ecosystems, nature, ecology, creates pollution, et al, can’t be justified. Living creates pollution. Living is necessary for life (duh). Slabbing 57 layers of paint of questionable origin, so it can break off and wash away, is not necessary.

      • There’s no doubt that we did destructive, and continue to do destructive things. Just because something has been done, doesn’t make it right to continue to do so. It’s hard to justify pollution, by saying “we have already polluted”. A line has to be drawn, and progress has to be made.

  • Up until I just read this, I never thought about the environmental impact this place might have on the surrounding area. Although I do think it’s a giant piece of art, I also think it’s kind of sad. When it comes to unhealthy and senseless obsessions, Leonard Knight is right up there with Burro Schmidt.

    • what is unhealthy about Burro Schmidt he loved the desert and wanted to dig a tunnel. his tunnel is level to 1/2 inch all the way through and a cool and wonderful place to spend a summer day. it is a shame what people have done to his cabin and all his stuff has been stolen you should have seen it in the 60,s.

      • Burro Schmidt was obsessed with his tunnel. It is called an illness. He didn’t have a need to finish it, by the time he was half way through the mountain, roads had been built into the area.

        Once he completed the tunnel, he never used it. He sold it off.

        The tunnel is interesting however, and it would have been wonderful to have had the opportunity to look into this man’s psyche.

        • after the turn in the tunnel he was looking for gold or any
          other mineral to help pay for his tunnel. he and bickel were friends and did some gold mining together.we all have our obsessions you love the desert so do i.

        • The wiki story on how BLM took over the tunnel is saddening. The guy had to leave because he couldn’t stay there full time and had to find work.

    • now do you have the guts to retract your negative statements against a work of art that is obliviously offensive to you? i’m not holding my breath

    • art is beauty to some and hideous to others. a giant soup can on canvas is worth millions to some and nothing to others. while this may not be as stimulating as a giant soup can it is definitely a work of art. building your house on the desert is destructive also. tear down palm springs more open space for all of us.

  • I believe that is has been estimated that over 100,000 gallons of paint have been used on this project. That is WAY more paint than what anyone has ever put on their home. The impact of such a thing is yet to be known.

    Paint chips from Salvation Mountain have been found in the desert, a good distance from the mountain itself. An example of a “Salvation Mountain paint-chip” can be seen in the photo that I’ve attached. That is not your ordinary paint-chip. Again, the impact of such a thing is unknown. I’m sure than animals getting a hold of such a thing, and eating it, it would NOT be good for them.

  • Jim, et al, this is Folk Art. If you find fault with Salvation Mountain, and I’m not saying there aren’t serious issues, what are you going to do with Slab City and East Jesus? The only difference is that Slab City covers a whole lot more ground, and Knight is dead, whereas East Jesus is populated.

  • just because you don’t like his subject matter, Christian, doesn’t make your comments any less ridiculous.almost all paint contains something that is environmentally people need to stop painting the outsides of their houses???rain water leaches the paint from your house and birds could die from your paint also. as to Burro Schmidt people will know who he was 1000 years from now but they won’t know you.

      • that part of the comment was posted in reply to the other commentators not your article. however the environmental issue comments are to everyone. most dangerous chemicals in paint came right out of the ground. as to no single home used over 100,000 gallons of paint an average home will use more than 10 gallons on the outside of the home that means 10,000 homes have that much paint tear down barstow and ridgecrest as they pose as much of an environmental issue.

    • Also in regard to painting houses, no single home utilized over 100,000 gallons of paint. Somewhere in the comments here, I have included a photograph of a paint chip from Salvation Mountain. It is massive, and thick. These paint chips spread around the localized area of Salvation Mountain, could eventually have an untelling effect on the environment of the area, and specifically the animals, if they eat it.

  • love the burro picture. most pollution issues are the product of an over active mind.a fart is a green house gas so we should ban people.

      • look it up dried latex paint is not hazardous period. a very small amount of old latex paints had lead it it but your article states it was tested and came up negative for lead so there is no environmental reason to be upset with salvation mountain. which reply is ridiculous i can support all of my posts with science and or government regulations. there is no difference with paint in a landfill or paint on the ground if it is dry and no lead in it is safe. stating a different opinion is not harassing that is how you learn. is your opinion supported by the facts or is my opinion supported by the facts. google it let me know what you find. (i posted one wast disposal site as an example below)

      • fellow liberal barbara boxer seems to like the art. One of his favorites is a plaque that he received from Senator Barbara Boxer of California documenting a May 15, 2002 entry into the Congressional Record of the United States proclaiming Salvation Mountain as a national treasure.

      • Leonard dug soil samples from the very same holes as the “expert” had used and submitted them to an independent lab in San Diego. No one was surprised when the new tests reveled that there were no unacceptable levels of any contaminants — especially lead — at Salvation Mountain.

      • as to your estimate of 100,000 gallons of paint used did a few calculations. salvation mountain is listed as covering 50 by 150 ft that equals 7500 sq ft.paint covers an average of 200 sf per gallon.100,000 gallons of paint would cover 20,000.000 sf so that means there would be 2666 coats of paint on salvation mountain. even your amount of paint is incorrect so what do you really have against salvation mountain????.

  • How much is still in the can? How to handle your old paint

    depends on how much is in the can. If the can has just a thin

    film (less than 1/32 of an inch) on the sides, you can simply

    throw out the can. If it is a metal can, you can even recycle it.

    If there is just an inch or so of paint in the can, simply pop

    the lid open a crack and leave the open can in a well ventilated

    area (where children & animals won’t get to it). Within

    a few weeks, the paint will dry out and harden. Then you can

    put the whole can out with your regular garbage. When you

    put latex paint out with your trash, put the can where the

    garbage hauler can see it & leave the lid off so they can see

    that the paint has hardened. Haulers can not pick up paint

    unless they know it is thoroughly dried latex paint. very interesting dried latex paint is not hazardous just throw it out to go in the landfill. the entire argument about this art being an environmental hazard is a crock of shit….

  • The adobe is crude, and the adobe itself washes away continuously. And people need to stop comparing SM to the sea! Just because the Salton Sea has its problems doesn’t automatically give SM a reprieve because the sea has many more problems.
    And how can a paint chip not wash away? Please explain that. if a heavy rock can wash 10 miles down a wash, why can’t a paint chip? Any time there is intense rain, flash floods, etc, SM falls apart and where does all of it go? You are saying that it is impossible for rain to break apart SM, and wash it downhill, down the roads, into a ditch, down a wash? A paint chip is much more buoyant than a rock!

  • Wow! Some people sure get pissed off easily these days.
    I don’t think you said anything at all that was untrue of insulting.
    Great post Jim, both words and photos!

  • Jims criticism of Salvation mountain is as substantial as his criticism of solar power and wind farms. He needs to get a job as a park ranger or something.

  • If the Rockies, once taller than the Himalayas become shorter due to basalt from near constant volcanicc eruption about 250 million yrs. ago, where do you suppose all the water went, along with rock and sand!?….It INDEED DOES WASH AWAY LIKE SAND, CLAY, ETC., and thousands od species HAVE died during the emergence of this planet…..Jim, I will meet you someday, and if that mass of rock cannot be cleaned, well, it will be an interesting case study to walk thtough it…I will more than likely get sick!

  • I’ve been following Death Valley Jim for a couple of years and he has become one of my favorite “Desert Rats”. In my opinion his comments are right on the mark concerning Salvation Mountain. Those who are of the opinion that Salvation Mountain is somehow resistant to the elements should realize if the elements are able to move granite, paint doesn’t stand a chance of staying in place.

  • I don’t qualify as either religious or spiritual, but I have grudging respect for Mr. Knight and his insanely sacred edifice.

    I judge it differently than other environmental scourges.

    Mining, solar, wind, and grazing, are all businesses that make money for corporations and shareholders.

    The misguided monumental mess called Salvation Mountain is one mans life, his vision, and his most profound statement.

    It represents a life dedicated to- or squandered by- a higher purpose.

    It deserves some respect… at least a smidgen.

  • DV Jim,

    How come you are the only person to mention this? I dislike the entire idea of this “monument”.

    Where are the Country regulators? I doubt they want to deal with the nearby Slab City either.

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