YUCCA VALLEY, Calif. — California is famous for its theme parks — Disneyland, LegoLand, Knott's Berry Farm. However, the Golden State also boasts a different kind of theme park, too, one that's off the beaten path.
The Desert Christ Park on the mountain slopes above Yucca Valley is an obscure religious destination of sorts.
Located about 20 miles north of Palm Springs in the Mojave Desert, this collection of more than 40 snow-white statues that depict Jesus Christ's life and teachings is some 55 miles away from I-15 in California. A peaceful atmosphere prevails at the Desert Christ Park. There are few visitors here, and admission is free.
Serious visitors may have some sort of religious experience while doing a walking tour around the park. The depictions are mainstream Christian. The statues range from life-size to 12 feet tall.
The park was created in the 1950s by Frank Antone Martin, a sculptor who moved to the area and spent about a decade creating dozens of statues. This was a herculean task for him, since he did most of the concrete work alone. A written history on the park, prepared by its current caretakers — the nonprofit Desert Christ Park Foundation — believes it was his devotion to the park's creation, coupled with his own frailties, that resulted in a life-ending illness. He died on Dec. 23, 1961, at age 74.
"Certainly there is the obvious value of contemplation and meditation here," said the Rev. Bill Wilcox of Yucca Valley's Evangelical Free Church, which sits at the southwest corner of the Christ Park. "There's also a great view of the valley from here."
He said his church has considered putting together a video about the park that will answer visitors' questions.
The Evangelical Church located on the hillside first in 1950, and Martin began creating his statues on the adjacent property a few years later. The scene depicting Christ's empty tomb is on the church's property, as well as part of the Last Supper creation.
In fact, the Last Supper is the most offbeat of Martin's depictions. That's because there's a special window in the sculpture wall, and if you walk up behind it, you can put yourself in the Last Supper, whether that's considered sacrilege or not. This sculpture is estimated to weigh some 125 tons and is 30 feet wide.
The upper Garden of Gethsemane section is one of the park's gems. It is only accessible by a fairly steep climb up some eroding rocky steps. This area not only offers an overview of the park, but seems to show Christ in some of his most intimate poses, including kneeling in prayer. The 12 apostles are depicted in another scene, and little children are coming unto Christ in another.
A scattering of desert flora — Joshua trees and yucca plants — also complements the statues.
Besides some sculptures being damaged just over a decade ago by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, vandalism has also been a problem.
The Rev. Wilcox said the Christ Park and his church are located in the tougher section of town. He hopes that some new fencing around a portion of the park and a single entrance into it will reduce future vandalism.
Evangelical Church services were actually held among the Christ Park statues in the 1950s. But once Martin died, the park began to slip into disrepair. It's only been in recent years through the Christ Park Foundation that repairs and improvements have been made.
"There has been a groundswell of support to repair it," Wilcox said.
The foundation hopes to repair more of the statues this year, including one of the Christ depictions that lacks hands. Future hopes are also to pave the dirt-and-gravel road and parking lot into the park. There is a lone white cross on the hillside, and the foundation hopes to illuminate that in future years. An actual visitors center is another goal of the foundation.
"The foundation has done a great job," Wilcox said.
The foundation has dedicated the park to "Peace on Earth and the Brotherhood to Man." That concept was also probably Martin's intent.
"Desert Christ Park represents the hard work, imagination and faith of the artist-sculpture," the foundation's official brochure states. "The three-dimensional artwork fashioned here by the artist has no counterpart."
More information on the Desert Christ Park is available online at www.desertchristpark.org.
To reach the park from Utah, travel south on I-15 to Barstow, Calif. Then, head south 34 miles on California 247 to Lucerne Valley. Continue southeast another 35 miles on 247 to Yucca Valley. Before reaching Highway 62, look for Sunnyslope Drive on the right side as the town's outskirts appear. Go west about a quarter mile to Mohawk, where the park is visible on the hillside to the north (right side).