Winter Solstice At the Sun Tunnels
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
In the Great Basin Desert in Northwestern Utah -literally in the middle of no where- you'll find the Sun Tunnels, a land art project created by Nancy Holt in the 1970s. The Sun Tunnels are 4 concrete cylinders arranged on the desert floor in an "x" pattern. During the summer and winter solstices, the four tunnels align with the angles of the rising and setting sun.
Getting to the Sun Tunnels from Salt Lake City is about a 3 hour adventure and requires a drive around the Great Salt Lake and clips into Nevada for just a few miles. You can Google map the route to the Sun Tunnels, but there is no cellular service as you get close to the Sun Tunnels, so write down directions before you head out, or follow these directions below.
Take I-80 west from Salt Lake through Wendover to Oasis, Nevada. You'll drive past the Salt Flats on your way to Wendover, so it may be worth a quick side trip to check out this natural wonder. At mile marker 26, about 95 miles from Salt Lake, you'll pass the Tree of Utah sculpture, which is an 87 foot tree with brightly colored orbs created by a Swedish sculptor Karl Momen. Made from 225 tons of cement, 2,000 ceramic tiles and five tons of welding rod along with tons of minerals and rocks native to Utah it is hard to miss. You can read more about the Tree of Utah here.
Continue past Wendover and at Oasis, take Nevada Highway 233 through Montello, Nevada which will put you back into Utah where the road becomes Utah Highway 30. I recommend filling up with gas in Wendover, as services beyond Wendover are not always available.
About 10 miles past the state line is a sign for Lucin, a ghost town with no remaining buildings. Take the first of two gravel roads on the right at 5 miles to Lucin. Cross the railroad tracks and continue on the same road for approximately 2 miles. Turn left and proceed about two miles and then right for 3/4 of a mile and you will arrive at the Sun Tunnels.
There is a makeshift parking area at the end of the road from which you will easily see the Sun Tunnels. The road is gravel and is passable by just about any vehicle if the weather is good. I took my Volkswagen GTI the first time, but having more clearance and suspension would make the drive down the gravel road a little faster and less bumpy.
The Sun Tunnels
The Sun Tunnels are four concrete cylinders 9 feet in diameter and 18 feet long placed in an "x" pattern on the desert floor and align perfectly with the sunrise and sunset during the summer and winter solstices. On the side of each tunnel is a different configuration of holes that correspond with stars in the constellations Capricorn, Columba, Draco and Perseus. At night the holes also act like a view finder to see the different starts within the constellations. During the day sun shining through these holes allow the sun to cast shadows inside the tunnels that trace the earth's rotation.
The Sun Tunnels were created by the artist Nancy Holt and were completed in 1976. Of the work she said, "The idea for Sun Tunnels became clear to me while I was in the desert watching the sun rising and setting, keeping the time of the earth. Sun Tunnels can exist only in that particular place - the work evolved out of its site." Holt considered various sites in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah and eventually selected the location in the Great Basin Desert because of its flat desert that was surrounded by low mountains.
Holt purchased the 40 Acres of land on which the Sun Tunnels sit and welcomed everyone to stop by and experience the Sun Tunnel and even camp out on her land, "But Please," she asked, "leave everything the way you found it." Interestingly Holt was married to another Land art artist, Robert Smithson, who created the Spiral Jetty, which you can read more about here. Together the two are responsible for the two most famous land art works in Utah. If you are interested in learning more about Holt or the Sun Tunnels you can find more information here at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) website.
The Sun Tunnels were made to experience, so take the opportunity to walk through and around the cylinders, using the openings to frame the landscape and see how the light, and if you are there at night, how the stars interact with the art. The Summer Solstice is perhaps the time you'll find the most people at the Sun Tunnels as this is when the tunnels come to life with the sun rising and setting in their aperture. I went the weekend before the Solstice and still got most of the effect of the setting sun in the tunnels, and only bumped into two other groups at the site.
If you decide to venture out to the Sun Tunnels keep in mind that the closest gas station and bathroom are 45 minutes from the tunnels in Montello, so take plenty of snacks and water with you. Given the remoteness of the location and lack of cellular service, it is also a good idea to be prepared for inclement weather. If you have any other questions or comments about the Sun Tunnels leave your comments below.
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