Somewhere in the middle of absolute nowhere Western Utah, in the most remote and desolate landscape the artist could find, is a unique earthwork installation called the Sun Tunnels. Completed in 1976 by American artist Nancy Holt, the Sun Tunnels consist of four gigantic concrete tunnels arranged in an “X” that are positioned in a precise configuration to channel the sun’s rays during the summer and winter solstice.
The top of each tunnel is pierced with holes of varying size corresponding to the patterns of constellations with a tunnel for Draco, Perseus, Columba and Capricorn. The tunnels offer from the baking desert sun and once inside the tunnel the holes cast spots of sunlight into the dark tunnel in the form of the constellations and give the illusion of staring into the darkened night sky.
My First Visit: The 2009 Summer Solstice
A journey out to the Sun Tunnels for the 2009 summer solstice was definitely more of an adventure than we had anticipated. We had heard that the solstice brings quite a party to the Tunnels and definitely wanted to check it out, but long story short – the roads were washed out and we couldn’t reach the tunnels!
We hadn’t considered how one of the wettest springs in Utah history would have affected the unpaved roads leading to the Sun Tunnels. I mean it is the desert. We had planned to get to the Sun Tunnels from Lucin and just south of town the road was impassible due to a river now raging though the middle of the road.
Normally I would have attempted such river crossings in my little Subaru, but a huge Ford truck bailed and turned around right in front of us. The water was just too deep and the consistency of quick sand and it just wasn’t worth the risk since the nearest tow truck was at least a hundred miles away. A quick look at the map and I thought I had outwitted the wash and found a way around. Back into Nevada and several miles of rough dirt roads later we ran into the craziest washed out road ever (see photo above). With the sunset an hour away, we returned to Lucin defeated and in search of a camp spot.
With the sun about to set, I was disappointed and sad that we had traveled all this way and wound not get to see the sunset through the tunnels. Just chilling in the ghost town of Lucin wondering where to go from here when all of a sudden a knight in a shiny high-clearance Tacoma came rising out of the dust. “Want to see the Tunnels?” the knight says. “Hell yeah,” says us so we all packed into the Tacoma and plowed through the raging desert mud river and into the sunset to the smallest solstice gathering the Sun Tunnels has probably ever seen.
My Second Visit: November 2015
I had wanted to get back to the Sun Tunnels since my first visit and explore this unique earthwork during the daylight hours. Six and a half years and about a zillion life changes later, I returned.
The second visit came with much less drama. I had just purchased a new Subaru Outback and wanted to see how it handled on dirt roads (and test out the sleeping capabilities) to I took a left off of Interstate 80 right before the Nevada border and traveled over 45 miles of unpaved dirt, sand, and salt. Happy to say the new Subaru passed the test and reached the Tunnels without the slightest problem.
I hadn’t expected to have the place to myself. It was so quiet. And so I sat, all afternoon, watching the light change and illuminate the tunnels.
Little Roo had a blast leaping through the tunnels, digging for sand monsters, and chasing his frisbee. I love this dog so much! In the desert he is at his most happiest, just like me.
The sun set a little after 5pm and the temperature quickly dropped into the 20’s. I made a fire, cooked dinner, and then retired to the back of the Subaru where I was stoked to find so much room! I crawled into the sleeping bag and checked the time. It was 6:45 and way too cold to hold a book so I laid there tucked into my sleeping bag hoping I would fall asleep. Around 7:30 I though, “What am I doing?!?” It’s freezing, so I got up and drove home and was in my own warm bed by 10.
Directions to the Sun Tunnels
The Sun Tunnels are located in Utah’s Great Basin Desert west of the Great Salt Lake and not to far from the Nevada border. The best advice is to get a good map of Utah and get to the “town” of Lucin. Lucin appears on the Utah map giving it the illusion that it is a real town although Lucin is nothing more than an old railroad stopping point for steam engines. The last remaining residents of the area vacated in the early ‘90s leaving nothing but some old grain cellars, a phone booth, and some random nails and bolts.
Lucin can be reached from the north on Route 30 from Interstate 84 (near Snowville, UT) or from the south on Route 223 from Oasis, Nevada. From route 30 there is a sign to the Lucin cutoff. Travel south on the dirt road four miles to Lucin. From Lucin, continue south two and a half miles and then bear onto another dirt road traveling east for two more miles. At this point you should be able to see the Sun Tunnels. Take another right and then go one and half more miles to the Sun Tunnels.
If you are looking for some serious adventure, you can travel 45 miles or so on unpaved roads from Wendover (just get yourself a good map and an all-wheel drive vehicle). Just finding the Sun Tunnels is definitely an adventure in itself and make it an Earth Art tour by stopping by the Spiral Jetty on the way home.