The desert has often played an important role in religions, spiritual enlightenment and artists seeking the esoteric. A half-mile past the turnoff to Pioneertown Road in Yucca Valley, 40 larger-than-life biblical statues from the mid-century rise from the rocky sandscape to offer a peaceful place for contemplation and renewal.
It all started when Reverend Eddie Garver, known as the Desert Parson, established the Yucca Valley Community Church, then located at Santa Fe and Apache Trail, and acquired the five acres on the southern facing slope of the valley in 1950. His vision was to establish a christian-themed park as a light for world peace.
Desert Christ Park began in 1951 with one 10-foot tall, 3-ton statue by sculptor Antone Martin from Inglewood, California. Martin started sculpting figures during the height of the Cold War atomic bomb scare of the mid-1940s, hoping that the sculptures would inspire global peace.
Martin also contributed two other statues to Yucca Valley; the bronze saber tooth tiger in Remembrance Park on Highway 62, and The Goddess of Flight bronze sculpture in the rose garden at Town Hall.
The Christ Park statues are steel enforced concrete. All the sculptures, except the tallest sculpture on the hill, were created on the grounds. Their individual weights vary from four to sixteen tons each.
The tallest statue on the hill was once known as “the unwanted Christ.” Martin originally wanted to erect the statue in the Grand Canyon, but was denied by government officials stating separation of church and state. Martin then looked for other suitable places when he met the desert parson, and the rest as they say, became history.
One week before Easter 1951, the “unwanted Christ” was brought up the desert highway from Los Angeles on the back of a truck. This event sparked national interest and was covered start to finish by Life Magazine for their April 23, 1951 issue.
In 1952, Martin was invited back to be the guest speaker at sunrise services and decided to move to the area permanently and create more statues for the Park. Martin lived in a trailer near the statue while he created more than 40 snow-white statues portraying Christ’s life and teachings.
The 3-stories tall Last Supper facade is estimated to weigh 125 tons and was created in bas relief, a type of art in which shapes are cut from the surrounding stone so that they stand out slightly against a flat surface.
Following a disagreement with Garver, allegedly over property ownership, the artist relocated most of the statues — those he was able to move — to an adjacent plot of land, and Garver moved out of state. Upon his death in 1961 at the age of 74, Martin willed his work to San Bernardino County.
Martin’s quest again became the Unwanted Christ. The park was neglected between 1988 and 1996, while the ACLU sued San Bernardino County for separation of church and state issues. Soon after that, the county changed the name to Antone Martin Memorial Park in honor of the sculptor who created the statues before a non-profit stepped up to the plate. The Hi-Desert Nature Museum oversaw the area prior to the Desert Christ Park Foundation’s formation in 1995.
A free tour pamphlet is available at a kiosk. There are ten different exhibits, beginning with the blessing of the children and culminating in Christ’s Ascension, for you to contemplate.
Although several of the statues are on church property next door, in fact the church does not actually own the park. You will also notice there are about 40 birdhouses on the 3.5 acre property among the native flora where rabbits, lizards and other desert species are commonly seen.
“I feel Oh, so tiny when out here alone. The sand and the brush, and the barren, grey stone. The vast rugged hills, so unmindful of time. In silence attuned to a grand cosmic rhyme.” ~Antone Martin, “A Desert Reverie”
Today the Park is operated and maintained by the Desert Christ Park Foundation and it’s governing board. Funding is solely through donations and grants and all members are volunteers.
Restoration of the statues began in 2016, an effort by volunteer Kate Kenney, who frequented the park as a child. Kate and other volunteers have done a fantastic job keeping up Desert Christ Park, despite challenging conditions.
“Antone Martin had a passion for sculpture. He bore within his heart a deep faith in Jesus Christ, and although his artistic talent can in no way compare to that of Michelangelo, he at least used his gifts to produce a work of art from the very depths of his soul. To ridicule an artist for his passion, his expression of his faith, and his legacy betrays hearts that are even more stone-cold than the white concrete structures that testify to a man’s beliefs.” ~Dennis H., Yelp Review 2008.
Desert Christ Park is open daily from sunrise to sunset. Admission is free. Please support the Desert Christ Park Foundation.
Citations and Additional Information:
Address: 56200 Sunnyslope Drive, Yucca Valley, CA 92284