What are the Sun Tunnels? With Expedition Utah’s annual Freeze Your Tail Off event always using this as our camping spot, I thought that I might put together a quick over view of what they are.
The Sun Tunnels are a large art installation located in the far western desert of Utah, about 50 miles north of I-80. It consists of four large concrete tubes, each 18 feet long, laid out in an X pattern. Each set of tunnels align with either the winter or summer solstice. This means that on either solstice the sun will shine directly through the tunnels on sunrise and sunset. In addition to the sunrise and sunset, there are holes in each tunnel that line up with the constellations Draco, Perseus, Columba and Capricorn.
Nancy Holt, the creator of this piece of art, selected the area for its feeling of desolation, but also its relative ease of access. Holt, who is the widow of Robert Smithson the creator of the famous Spiral Jetty, started work on the Sun Tunnels in 1974 and completed the installation in 1976. Holt has said of the tunnels, “It’s an inversion of the sky/ground relationship-bringing the sky down to the earth.”
Over the years the tunnels have drawn visitors from all over the world, often for the summer solstice where there is a mini Burning Man type gathering every year. The winter solstice is usually much more subdued due to its proximity to various other solstice celebrations (Christmas, Hanukkah, ect.) and that its just plain cold out there at that time of year.
Personally, having been to the Sun Tunnel on both the winter and summer solstice, each is an entirely different experience. In the winter darkness they are large, imposing structures in the stark coldness of the desert floor. When the sun rises through them, it’s a striking and beautiful sight to see. In the summer they seem to blend in more with the desert. Yet another mammoth structure that one often finds when exploring the deserts of Utah. They offer respite from the sun and at sunrise and sunset they seem more like a telescope out onto the land.