Wandering the West
June 1, 2010
Ask most Utahns where they go in the state and they’ll tell you north, east, or south. No one goes west to spend his or her leisure time. Beyond the Salt Lake Valley, what is there but desert wasteland? Well, granted, there is a lot of that, but desert and wasteland are in the eye of the beholder, and there are some interesting places to poke around out there.
Southwest of Grantsville, which is west of Tooele in the same valley, look for Deseret Peak. It is the tallest peak in the range forming the western side of the Tooele Valley, rising 11,033 feet. The terrain goes from Great Basin desert to high alpine in a 3 and a half mile trail to the summit, where you’ll find snow early, and cool aspens and pine, with scattered small lakes. The view from the top is one of Utah’s most stunning, with the Great Salt Lake and its islands to the north, the Salt Flats to the west, and the Wasatch and Oquirrh Ranges to the east.
Head further west and you can explore the world famous Bonneville Salt Flats. West of Knolls (which is west of Grantsville) on Interstate 80 you’ll cross a low rise and white salt will stretch out before you. Just before Wendover and its casinos, take the Bonneville Speedway exit and head for the salt, making sure you know what’s beneath you. The salt crust this time of year can mask tire-sucking mud, which acts a bit like quicksand. Still, if you’re sure of your underpinnings, the salt on a gleaming, sunny day is like nowhere else. Look out toward isolated mountains and the heat shimmer off the flats will cause optical illusions. It’s why one landmark out there is called "Floating Island." If you want to see cars racing, wait until August and September when the speed racers know the salt is dry and hard.
Aside from the salt flats, there’s no way to explore much north and south of I-80 as you head to Wendover. The north side of the road is reserved for Air Force bombing practice, and the south side is the super-secret Army Dugway Proving Ground. This is where secret weapons are tested, and biological warfare chemicals are studied. Not a place to be caught poking around.
But there’s good ground to explore south of Dugway, west of the west desert town of Delta. Out here, rock hounding is the sport. There’s Topaz Mountain, BLM ground where you’re welcome to hunt for the gems. Crystal Peak literally gleams in the sunlight from the crystallized minerals on it. Antelope Springs thirty miles west of Delta is a good spot to hunt for trilobites and other fossils, and the Dugway Mountains sixty miles south of Tooele are known for geodes rounded rocks which when cut open, reveal crystal insides.
If racing dirt bikes and dune buggies is your thing (and it’s not mine), have at it at either the Knolls Off Highway Vehicle Area, with its 37,000 acres of sand dunes and mud flats. The big dune buggy scene is also in the west desert Little Sahara Recreation Area near Delta, with a 60,000 acre sand pile to play in while burning fossil fuel.
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If you don’t find topaz, turquoise, crystals or geodes west of Delta, you’ll find a gem of another kind in Southwestern Utah. Head west from Cedar City, then south through the Dixie National Forest and follow the signs to Pine Valley. There’s no better high oasis in the west deserts of Utah.
Take a look at any map of Utah. You won’t find many towns west of Interstate 15. The fact that it’s largely no man’s land doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a look especially if you’re a photographer looking for some of the otherworldly landscapes found only in Utah.
Larry Warren is a writer and filmmaker who has made the West his beat the past 35 years. He is general manager of Park City’s KPCW-FM.