Atlas Obscura is organizing trips! Join us on an adventure »
Today Only: 50% off Atlas Obscura books and calendars at Barnes & Noble »

Flagstaff, Arizona

Roden Crater

The artist James Turrell is repurposing an extinct volcano crater as an observatory to experience the cosmos. 

Roden Crater is 400,000 years old, the blackened, geological husk of what was once a fiery giant on the rim of Arizona’s Painted Desert.

The 600-ft-tall cinder cone has been quiet for centuries, but artist James Turrell has given it a second life as naked-eye observatory and impressively grandiose visual art display. Its reincarnation as a land art project and celestial lookout began in 1975 and has been an ongoing endeavor ever since, the end game consisting of 20 underground rooms designed to alter your perception of the solar expanse.

“At Roden Crater I was interested in taking the cultural artifice of art out into the natural surround. I did not want the work to be a mark upon nature, but I wanted the work to be enfolded in nature in such a way that light from the sun, moon and stars empowered the spaces … I wanted an area where you had a sense of standing on the planet. I wanted an area of exposed geology like the Grand Canyon or the Painted Desert, where you could feel geologic time. Then in this stage set of geologic time, I wanted to make spaces that engaged celestial events in light so that the spaces performed a “music of the spheres” in light. The sequence of spaces, leading up to the final large space at the top of the crater, magnifies events. The work I do intensifies the experience of light by isolating it and occluding light from events not looked at. I have selected different portions of the sky and a limited number of events for each of the spaces. This is a reason for the large number of spaces.”

-James Turrell

Turrell’s magnum opus has so far entailed the redistribution of over 1.3 million cubic yards of dirt to shape the crater, and extensive engineering of tunnels and varying spaces from which to view the sky. Each space will offer a different perspective of the vastness above that we often take for granted. Celestial events as well as visual manipulation will be used to create a natural shift in the appearance of the desert sky, transforming Turrell’s vision into a wondrous experience for the viewer. 

Know Before You Go

Note that special permission from the artist is required to visit Roden Crater, as it is a work in progress.