RVers traveling through northern California won’t want to miss this beautiful and functional work of art.
By Richard Bauman
California has more than 23,000 bridges. There are drawbridges, suspension bridges, arch bridges, and even truss bridges, but there’s only one Sundial Bridge. It’s located in the northern California city of Redding, and as the name suggests, it’s the odd combination of a bridge and a sundial.
It is literally a glass-bottom bridge. Its traffic surface is made from large rectangular blocks of translucent, aqua-colored glass. Thus, the 700-foot span is for pedestrian and bicycle traffic only “” not vehicles. Some claim the glass surface gives those walking on it a feeling akin to walking on the water of the Sacramento River, which flows beneath it. The bridge connects the north and south sections of Turtle Bay Exploration Park, and it is also the beginning of the 10-mile-long Sacramento River Trail System.
Except for the glass surface, nearly all of the bridge is covered in pure white mosaic tiles. On clear days it shimmers in the sunlight, and at night the bridge glows in the dark, because it’s illuminated by more than 200 lights on and beneath it.
The bridge was designed by Santiago Calatrava, a world-renowned Spanish architect and engineer who has built innovative bridges in other countries. This was his first freestanding bridge in the United States.
Every visitor probably has his or her opinion as to what the bridge looks like, or an image it evokes. A reporter for a local paper likened it to a giant fish with its huge, white fin protruding from blue water. Others see it as akin to a ship with a large sail, or an egret in flight. Some have described it as “harp-like.”
The bridge doesn’t just look good; it’s environmentally friendly, too. It is located in a sensitive salmon-spawning habitat, but no part of the 700-foot span touches the river, thus protecting the fish from intrusion by humans. That’s because it employs a suspension bridge design and is known as a cantilever spar cable-stayed bridge. The 217-foot-high pylon at the north end of the bridge supports the bridge through 14 steel cables connected at various points to the bridge’s platform. The huge pylon also serves as the sundial gnomon, or pointer.
For all of its attractiveness, the bridge didn’t come without controversy. In the mid-1990s residents of Redding wanted a bridge to connect the north and south parts of Turtle Bay Exploration Park. The city had only a few million dollars budgeted for the project, and a simple covered bridge was the structure of choice for many residents. Others, however, wanted the sundial design. They believed it would attract tourists to Redding, and thus generate income for the town’s businesses.
Undoubtedly, many of the bridge’s opponents were concerned about its projected multimillion-dollar cost and how the city (a.k.a. Redding residents) would pay for it. The supporters of Calatrava’s design won out. And as it turned out, about two-thirds of its cost was paid for by the McConnell Foundation, a philanthropic organization. Most of the balance came from federal and state grants.
The bridge did cost a staggering $23 million. And it took more than eight years to build. It even became the subject of a PBS special, “Santiago Calatrava’s Sundial Bridge: Angle of Inspiration.”
Despite the bridge’s name, the sundial doesn’t tell time perfectly. The gnomon on a sundial is usually set parallel to the earth’s axis, or in this case, in accordance with the North Star. The North Star at Redding’s latitude would be at an angle of 40.9 degrees. The bridge’s gnomon, however, is angled at 49 degrees, which was necessary to assure bridge integrity.
As the sun rises in the east and moves westward, the gnomon creates a huge shadow on the river and ground around the bridge. From 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. the tip of the shadow passes over a concrete arc a few inches high and about 240 feet long just north of the bridge. Imbedded on the arc are cast bronze disks with the approximate time embossed on them. The time is slightly off because the sundial is dead accurate only one day a year, on the summer solstice. But it’s close enough to be useful on other days of the year, too.
The gnomon’s shadow is huge in both length and width. You can easily stand within it. And if you stand still inside the shadow at its western edge, you can watch your own shadow emerge from the gnomon’s shadow. You also can see the gnomon’s shadow creep along the time arc, at about one foot per minute.
By the way, some have described the Sundial Bridge as being the world’s largest sundial, which is not really accurate, as it isn’t a true functioning sundial. The world’s biggest sundial, according to Guinness World Records, is in Pajala, Sweden. If the Sundial Bridge were a true sundial, and its disk were continuous, it would be significantly larger than the sundial in Sweden.
If You Go
The Sundial Bridge is open daily from 6:00 a.m. to midnight, and admission is free. You may wish to be there before dawn or near dusk, when the beautiful lights on it also can be enjoyed.
The bridge is off of Interstate 5 at State Route 44 (exit 678/Eureka to State Route 44 west). Go one mile west to exit 1/Park Marina Drive. Turn right at the top of the ramp to enter the Convention Center/Turtle Bay complex, then follow the signs to the bridge.
Local vendors rent bicycles and Segways, so you can go farther than your legs permit, if you wish. Ample, free parking is available near the bridge.
For more information about the bridge, contact Turtle Bay Exploration Park (see the accompanying sidebar), or the Redding Convention & Visitors Bureau (800-874-7562, 530-225-4100), or go to www.visitredding.com.
Turtle Bay Exploration Park
Turtle Bay Exploration Park, at the Sundial Bridge, is a separate destination in itself. It features a museum; an arboretum and botanical gardens; Paul Bunyan’s Forest Camp; and a cafe. The museum offers displays about natural history and the cultures that have inhabited the area. The camp is used for education, and the café overlooks the park complex. Outside, the garden complex represents various parts of the world: the Pacific Rim, Australia, Chile, and South Africa, for example, and also includes a butterfly garden, a children’s garden, and more.
Turtle Bay Exploration Park has winter hours until April 19, 2011, during which time the museum and camp are open Wednesday through Sunday. Summer hours, when they are open daily, are April 20 through September 11, 2011. You can buy full park admission or pay for admission to the gardens only at a reduced rate. For more information, visit www.turtlebay.org, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (800) 887-8532 or (530) 243-8850.