Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Injustice

Leonard Knight, Creator of Salvation Mountain, Dies At 82

Salvation Mountain, created by Leonard Knight, is in the Imperial Valley Dese...

Photo by Angela Carone

Above: Salvation Mountain, created by Leonard Knight, is in the Imperial Valley Desert east of San Diego.

Photo by Angela Carone

Leonard Knight in 2008, when he was still living at Salvation Mountain.

Leonard Knight devoted his life to painting a desert mountain that carried the message 'God is Love.' He died Monday in El Cajon.

Leonard Knight, creator of the desert artwork known as Salvation Mountain has died. He was 82.

Knight died in his sleep on Monday at 1:40 p.m. in the Eldorado Care Center in El Cajon, where he'd been living for two years. Dan Westfall, Knight's friend and president of Salvation Mountain Inc., said Knight stopped eating more than two weeks ago.

"He realized he was never going to live at his mountain again and started to let go," Westfall said.

Knight's eyesight and hearing had deteriorated. He had to have his leg amputated. Physical therapy to use a prosthetic limb didn't take, and his body kept getting weaker.

On the Salvation Mountain Facebook page, hundreds have shared their remembrances of Knight and of visiting Salvation Mountain.

Knight spent almost 30 years building the colorful mountain in the Imperial Valley desert, just outside of Niland, Calif. Built out of adobe and donated paint, Knight worked on the mountain all day, every day. He even slept at the mountain's base in the back of a pick-up truck, with no electricity or running water. He bathed in the nearby natural hot springs. Westfall told KPBS in 2012 that Knight's resilience always amazed him.

"The ability to live out here (in the desert) with zero creature comforts through the summer when it was 118 degrees. He had so little consideration for himself. His priorities were the message, the mountain, and he came in a distant third," Westfall said.

Knight's message was painted across the face of the mountain: "God is Love." The rest of the mountain and the outcroppings Knight built over the years were all covered in Bible verses. Like some other outsider artists, (Rev. Howard Finster comes to mind), Knight had a conversion experience. After that, his zeal and a singular focus drove him to create an artwork with evangelical purpose. Leonard had no training as an artist. He learned to make adobe and visitors gave him buckets of paint.

When he first arrived in the desert in 1986, he tried to launch a hot air balloon to send his message of God's love to the world. When that didn't work, he stayed in the same spot and began building the mountain. Today, it's the size of a football field and three stories high.

Westfall said Knight recently told him: "All of my dreams have come true. More than I can possibly ask for."

Thousands of tourists visit Salvation Mountain from all over the world. Visitors run the gamut from hippies to the devout, snowbirds to photographers, and a lot of the just plain curious.

Knight and Salvation Mountain were featured in the film "Into the Wild," directed by Sean Penn, as well as in art books, on CNN, the BBC, and in one of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone mysteries, "G Is for Gumshoe." Sen. Barbara Boxer declared Salvation Mountain a national treasure and entered it into the Congressional record. It has been honored by the American Folk Art Society.

Part of Knight’s ashes will be interred at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma (he was a Korean War veteran) and part will be spread at Salvation Mountain. Services have not yet been scheduled.

Last year, Leonard Knight was able to leave the nursing home for a day and visit Salvation Mountain. KPBS videographer Katie Schoolov and I went with him. Here is the video from that day.

Knight Returns To Salvation Mountain

In 2013, a KPBS reporter and videographer accompanied Leonard Knight on a return visit to his mountain.


San Diego News Now podcast branding

San Diego news; when you want it, where you want it. Get local stories on politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings. Hosted by Anica Colbert and produced by KPBS, San Diego and the Imperial County's NPR and PBS station.

  • Your curated weekly guide to local arts and culture in San Diego, from Arts Calendar Editor Julia Dixon Evans, delivered to your inbox every Thursday afternoon.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Curious San Diego banner

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.