Salvation Mountain is just one of the unique desert attractions near the site of the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
April is the month when little Indio, Calif., becomes the “in” city of Southern California. Thousands flock there for the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals. But what else is there to do in this desert town when the music is over or when you just need to give your ears a rest? Sure, you can explore Joshua Tree or do the Palm Springs tourist thing, but the desert holds many marvelous, unusual attractions that are worth a trip off the beaten path.
Desert Christ Park
A secluded place to seek out spiritual tranquility, the Desert Christ Park —situated on the outskirts of Yucca Valley — looks like something you might find in rural Italy, not in the Southern California desert. Dotting a rather desolate patch of land are more than 40 concrete statues, all painted stark white. Some statues stand in solitude and some are arranged in biblical scenes, like the Sermon on the Mount, while a large tableau depicts the Last Supper. Open daily from dawn to dusk, the park has free admission although donations are welcome to help repair the statues damaged by time or vandalism.
Backstory: The Desert Christ Park is the result of the devoted efforts of two men: Rev. Eddie Garver and Frank Antone Martin. Garver, known as the “Desert Parson,” harbored an idea for a Christian-themed park to promote world peace. He found a kindred spirit in Martin, a Los Angeles-based aerospace engineer-turned-sculptor looking for a public home for his 10-foot-high, 5-ton statue of Jesus Christ. In 1951, they got the statue erected just in time to open the park on Easter. Martin continued creating statues for the park until he passed away in 1961.
56200 Sunnyslope Drive, Yucca Valley, Calif., 92284
Those seeking rejuvenation should look no further than the tiny town of Landers, Calif., home to the Integratron. Despite its ominous name, the Integratron is where you can enjoy a calming “sound bath,” a one-of-a-kind contemplative experience where you lie on mats and meditate while listening to music created from crystal singing bowls.
It may sound very New Age-y but even the most hardened skeptic will experience a sense of peaceful tranquility. Reservations can be made for private sound baths as well as regularly scheduled public sessions.
Backstory: The Integratron sounds, and looks, like something out of a 1950s sci-fi movie, and it sort of is. In 1954, an aeronautical engineer (and one-time Howard Hughes test pilot) named George Van Tassel began building this large wooden circular structure (38 feet high and 55 feet in diameter) as an electrostatic generator that would rejuvenate living cell tissue — a formula he said that aliens from Venus gave him. Yes, Van Tassel was a strong believer in extraterrestrials.
2477 Belfield Blvd., Landers, Calif., 92285
International Banana Museum
Unassumingly located next to Skip’s Liquor store outside of Mecca, this little yellow oasis is ripe with all things bananas — whether it’s a vintage portable record player, a golf putter, a slot machine or soda. With more than 20,000 items, this museum holds the Guinness World Record for the largest collection dedicated to one fruit. While owner Fred Garbutt is serious about his treasure trove of banana-ness, he also wants the museum (which currently is open Fri.-Mon. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.) to be a fun place to visit, like roadside attractions used to be.
Backstory: The museum’s origins began in the early 1970s, when Ken Bannister started collecting banana memorabilia. After showcasing for many years at a couple Southern California locations, he sold his collection to Garbutt in 2010. Garbutt transformed his family-owned pub into a permanent site for the museum. Since then, he has continued to build up the collection and has attracted media coverage from around the globe.
98775 Hwy 111, Mecca, Calif., 92254
Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture
With its odd assortment of discarded items — such as bowling balls, televisions and tires — Noah Purifoy’s artwork initially looks like a field of junk and not a museum. But as you stroll the grounds, you’ll see how Purifoy took found objects and constructed them into impressive, large-scale works of assemblage art. There is a playful, if somewhat dark, quality to a piece entitled “From The Point of View of the Little People” (where a row of mannequin legs stand on a gallows-like structure), while “Shelter” (which resembles a bombed-out hoarder’s bunker) feels creepy, yet captivating as you walk through it. Part of the museum’s charm is how you can explore the art in this isolated environment.
Backstory: Purifoy, who helped launch the Los Angeles’ Watts Towers Arts Center in the 1960s, moved out to the Joshua Tree area in 1989. Over a course of 15 years, he created approximately 100 pieces of art and transformed a bare patch of desert into a 7.5-acre open-air museum. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art plans to do a retrospective on Purifoy (who died in 2004) in 2015.
63030 Blair Lane, Joshua Tree, Calif., 92252
A Technicolor behemoth set against the barren lmperial Valley desert landscape, Salvation Mountain is not an actual mountain but a huge abode-like structure (around 50 feet high and 150 feet in breadth) vibrantly covered with religious sayings and imagery. Created by Leonard Knight as a spiritual place, Salvation Mountain also stands as monumental work of “outsider art.” In fact, in 2000, the Folk Art Society of America designated Salvation Mountain as an art creation worthy of protection. Despite Knight’s death in February of 2014, the non-profit overseeing Salvation Mountain plans to keep it open daily to the public for free.
Backstory: After experiencing a spiritual awakening in the late 1960s, Knight wanted to spread his message that “God Is Love.” His first idea — to build the world’s largest air balloon — proved unsuccessful. In the mid-1980s, Knight traveled out to this remote area near the Salton Sea and began building what became Salvation Mountain. After his first handmade monument collapsed, he built a second sturdier one, which attracts hundreds of visitors each week.
601 East Beal Road, Niland, Calif., 92257