The art of the Great Salt Lake: The Spiral Jetty

An earthwork sculpture in the Great Salt Lake, the Spiral Jetty created by Robert Smithson is an ever-changing piece of art. It was built from mud, salt, basalt rock and water in 1970 during a period of drought and then was covered for 30 years by a higher Great Salt Lake. Since then, the lake levels have changed back and forth more frequently, including from one season to the next, creating a piece of art always in flux.

I do not know how I first found out about the Spiral Jetty, but it was something my boyfriend and I discussed visiting for many months. The question of the lake level was what always kept us from making a two-and-a-half hour drive north, then west, and then south to Rozel Point. Of course, with the wealth of Internet knowledge, I found the measurement of the lake and that best viewing occurs when the water level is below 4, 195 feet.

We took a chance with a lake level of 4,195.7 feet. We did not know how much submersion there would be of the art, but we decided that even if it was entirely submerged, the lake water would be clear enough to view what it was covering.

I expected a barely visible coil white with salt. What we found was a somewhat submerged, grayish-black, counterclockwise spiral that was easily approachable.

Spiral Jetty at sunset

You could walk out a hundred yards without getting your toes wet.

Water flowing through the Spiral Jetty

From there, the hazy Great Salt Lake flowed in and out of the sculpture, leaving its calling card on the black stones. The stones showed lines from when the lake stayed at one level for an extended period of time. Others were covered in salt, which I expected to be crusty but was more like a sugary glaze on a cake.

We shared the Spiral Jetty with four other visitors from Washington for the first part of our visit and had it to ourselves the rest of the time. We passed no other cars on the dirt road portion of the drive. The Spiral Jetty is rather solitary. It is in a lake with such a high salt content that it does not support much life and the land around it is used for cattle ranches. And dedication is needed to get there since it is so far away from pretty much everything else.

But that just makes it more beautiful.

Some of the salty water was foamy even though there was hardly any water movement in and out of the sculpture.

Rocks, clouds and land reflections

Sun and cloud reflections

Jon and I at the center of the sculpture

What to know before you go

The driving directions from the Dia Art Foundation, which received the Spiral Jetty as a gift from the artist, provided good enough instructions. We came up to the turns a bit sooner than projected, but there are signs, first to the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Promontory and then to the art. Golden Spike is where the first trans-continental railroad was connected with a golden spike on May 10, 1869.

Roads are paved to the historic site. Grated dirt roads take you the rest of the way. The dirt roads were in great condition and we cruised along quite quickly in a Jeep Liberty. A high clearance vehicle is not needed, although had we driven the Saturn Ion, we definitely would have driven much slower.

There are no facilities at the end of the road. The last bathrooms are at Golden Spike. The last gas is in Corinne, just off Interstate 15.

Bring water, snacks (for instance, Epic Brewing Company’s Spiral Jetty IPA or Beehive Cheese Co.’s Promontory cheese because I love eating food in the location it was named after!) and appropriate footwear. I wore rain boots and did not have to jump from rock to rock. Sandals or water shoes would work too.

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