The Lightning Field – Quemado, New Mexico - Atlas Obscura

The Lightning Field

Quemado, New Mexico

In the remote high desert of New Mexico, a strange array of poles beckon fury from above. 


Comprised of 400 polished stainless steel poles installed in a grid array one mile by one kilometer, “The Lightning Field” by sculptor Walter De Maria is recognized as one of the late-20th century’s most significant works of land art.

Located on a flat plain in the high desert of New Mexico, at an elevation of 7,200 feet above sea level, the poles—two inches in diameter and around 20 feet high—are spaced 220 feet apart and have solid pointed tips that define a horizontal plane. From the projects website:

“A sculpture to be walked in as well as viewed, The Lightning Field is intended to be experienced over an extended period of time. A full experience of The Lightning Field does not depend upon the occurrence of lightning, and visitors are encouraged to spend as much time as possible in the field, especially during sunset and sunrise.”

The exact location of the site is a well kept secret, but is definitely in the middle of nowhere. Signs of storms and lightning strikes are visible in the charred earth around the base of the poles and the terrain is rough, becoming even more difficult when muddy. Ironically when lightning does strike a pole it chars the pole which then needs to be replaced to keep the clean look of the piece. So despite being called the “Lightning Field”, lightning strikes are actually destructive to the work.

To stand in the center of the field and look outward to the distant mesas has been described as mind-altering. Each pole has been expertly machined and planted so that the tips create a perfect horizontal plane despite the gently changing landscape. At sunrise and sunset brilliant golden light reflects from the poles, and in an instant it is gone.

The Lightning Field was commissioned in 1977 by the Dia Art Foundation, who maintains the site to this day. Dia also maintains two other of De Maria’s projects, both located in New York City: The Broken Kilometer, 1979, and The New York Earth Room, 1977. 

To help make the full experience more accessible, the Dia also maintains a cabin adjacent to the Lightning Field which provides shelter and simple meals during your visit. Bring protective clothing, and boots or rugged shoes. No electronic devices are allowed, but you are provided with a short-wave radio to contact the Dia Office for emergencies.

No more than six visitors per night can be accommodated, and camping is unfortunately not permitted, so make reservations early. Reservations are accepted beginning March 1st for visits from May 1st until October 31. Day visits and visitors without reservations are not accommodated.

Know Before You Go

You are required to sign a waiver before visiting. Dia provides transportation to The Lightning Field from Quemado, New Mexico, which is about a 2½- to 3-hour drive from Albuquerque. Please arrange to arrive in Quemado no later than 2:30 p.m. on the day of your visit and check in at Dia's office in the white two-story building on the north side of the town's main street. It is a 45-minute drive in our vehicle from Quemado to The Lightning Field; you may not take your own vehicle. You will be returned to Quemado at approximately noon the following day.

It is important to arrange your travel plans to meet this schedule since other visitors may have reservations the same day and unscheduled trips cannot be accommodated. If you will be arriving from Arizona, please note that New Mexico time is one hour later than Arizona during the summer months.

To reach Quemado from the Albuquerque airport, take I-25 North to I-40 West and drive approximately 70 miles to Exit 89. Take Rte. 117 South and follow the signs to Quemado (approximately 78 miles). There is no public transportation available between Albuquerque and Quemado.

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