Mixing Art with Nature in Utah at Spiral Jetty and Antelope Island State Park

About two hours from Salt Lake City, in Corinne, Utah, Spiral Jetty, a 1,500 feet-long by 15-feet-wide coiling path winds counterclockwise off Rozel Point on the northeastern shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

This monumental, meditative earthwork, created in 1970 by acclaimed land artist Robert Smithson, provides a fascinating on-foot approach to an otherworldly landscape—the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere.

Come to the Great Salt Lake to observe and contemplate the ever changing terrain around this giant work of art that lives at the juncture of nature and human creativity, then dig in to more active (and typical) outdoor offerings at nearby Antelope Island State Park.

History and Composition of Spiral Jetty

Smithson selected the site for his pioneering work on the basis of its desolate beauty and nearby industrial remains from Golden Spike National Historic Site. The artist found them intriguing.

He acquired land rights and then hired a contractor to work with him to form the jetty using 6,650 tons of black basalt rock, crystals and earth taken from the site and hauled into the lake by dump trucks, a tractor and a frontend loader. Over time, salt and other minerals in the lake water encrusted the jetty’s surfaces, adding visual components to the original work.

Amazingly, Spiral Jetty was built during a serious drought and, not long after, the waters started to rise, causing the whole structure to disappear for close to three decades. The water level didn’t recede again until 2004, when another drought struck; at this point the artwork reemerged from the depths.

This disappearance and reappearance cycle resulting from unpredictable natural elements is a potent fulfillment of Smithson’s vision of shaping a dynamic interchange between his manmade works and their natural surroundings. He’s said to have had a deep affinity for the erosive powers of nature and physical disorder.

His Spiral Jetty definitely bears striking testimony to the effects of time. As humans and climate change exact their heavy tolls, it’s possible to envision the work eventually coiling through a waterless lakebed, lapping sounds fading into memory.

The Effect of the Iconic Utah Landmark on Visitors

The 15.7-mile dirt road that leads to the site from the Golden Spike National Historic Site Visitor Center is rocky and bumpy—take it slowly, at no more than 25mph.

Antelope Island State Park.
Antelope Island State Park. Photo credit: @runpeachey.

Once you arrive and walk the jetty, you’ll experience what exquisite remoteness and tranquility feel like and you’ll see rosy-hued waters the likes of which you’ve probably never seen before—the rare color stems from the salt-tolerant algae that thrives in this part of the lake.

Expect to get wet and salty as you walk around. In summer, the water is warm, so you won’t need extra clothing. But bundle up at other times of year, and be sure to bring comfortable shoes or sandals suited to sand and water, a change of pants (just in case), some fresh water in a container to use for both drinking and rinsing off the salt, and a towel.

After walking the jetty, head up the hill about 300 feet to the official site plaque—the view is jaw-dropping and photos taken from that vantage point will be equally breathtaking!

All parts of the Spiral Jetty are visible and accessible now, so leave civilization behind and go experience its unique beauty while you can. Ambling along this earthwork might be the closest you ever get to walking on water.

Today, Spiral Jetty is stewarded by the Dia Art Foundation, which was gifted the work by Smithson’s wife, artist Nancy Holt, and his estate after his death in 1973.

A geospatial photographer has been documenting Spiral Jetty every May and October since 2012. See the images here.

Antelope Island State Park: Float, Bird Watch and Bike

The best place to experience other wonderful aspects of the Great Salt Lake is Antelope Island State Park, which is located a bit over three hours from Spiral Jetty.

Take the 7.2-mile causeway over the lake to the Island—the views from here are amazing. And if walking into the lake on the jetty has left you hungering for more ways to interact with the water, how about floating in it (the salinity of the water averages about 12%, which means its much saltier than the ocean and extremely buoyant). The beach at Bridger Bay, where the sands are clean and white, offers a perfect lounge-and-launch spot.

If birdwatching is your thing, the Antelope Island Causeway provides unparalleled views of the shorebirds that come to the Great Salt Lake in spring and fall (the lake is designated a National Audubon Important Bird Area—two-five million shorebirds visit annually).

One of the best ways to experience the island is to bike it—there are fabulous trails for pretty much any kind of bike—road, mountain and e-bike. The trails cut through a desert landscape where you can take in incredible sunsets and freely roaming wildlife (bison, antelope, deer, bobcats, coyotes, and elk roam).