Wandering the West, January 28, 2009
The Great Salt Lake is one of the most famous places in Utah known around the nation, if not the world and still most Utahns neither love nor appreciate it. If you’re like most, you’ve probably driven there once, pulled in at the Saltair building and maybe dipped a finger in the water to taste it. And that’s about all. Been there, done that.
True, the lake in midsummer is hot, smelly and buggy and completely unfit for a real swim. But in the spring and fall, or on a mild winter day, it’s worth another look, especially if you take the time to drive across the causeway at Syracuse north of Salt Lake City, and start exploring Antelope Island.
The island used to be owned by a rich oilman (is there any other kind?) who grazed cattle on it. The state bought it in the late 1970s, seeing it as an untouched (except by cows) remnant of Utah existing as it had for thousands of Utah without the hand of man on it. Until the state took over, the only development was a tiny working ranch, the Fielding Garr ranch, on the southeast corner of the island.
One grand vision was to restock the island with all the animals that existed in Utah at the time the Mormon pioneers arrived. Today you’ll find coyotes, bison, deer, antelope, maybe a bobcat and lots of birds, including birds of prey and waterfowl using the marshes along the edges of the lake. What you won’t find are elk. The state tried, but when they opened the trailers to release some elk trapped elsewhere, they took one look at the island and bolted the other way right into the lake, where they drowned. As media events go, they don’t get much more disastrous.
The bison survived and thrived, though. And outside of Yellowstone and Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Antelope Island is about the best place to see large herds of the large beasts in a natural setting. If it’s bison you’re after, plan a trip to coincide with the annual bison roundup, held each November to cull the herd.
You’re free to bring your horse and ride, or bring a bike and hit the roads and single track. You can also hike, camp, and jump in the water when it gets warmer there are freshwater showers to wash the itchy salty brine off of you. It really is true you can float effortlessly in the water the one-quarter salt content holds you up.
There are other attractions around the lake. Take I-80 sixteen miles west of Salt Lake and you’ll get to Great Salt Lake State Park with its 300-slip marina for sailboats. There are few powerboats on the lake because of the salt content of the water. Those who drop their ski boat into the lake are in for trouble down the road because salt eats motors. You can check out the sailboats, walk out to the breakwater, smell the ocean breezes and pretend you’re on the Pacific shore, just like some early explorers thought until they realized the real ocean lay much further west.
If you head north, cut across Promontory Point and stop in at the Golden Spike National Monument. They can direct you to the Spiral Jetty, more famous outside of Utah than in it. Earth artist Robert Smithson had rocks piled up in a spiral shape on the edge of the lake, and ever since then people have traveled from afar to see and photograph it.
I’m thinking of the lake now because a new exhibit opens this weekend at the Kimball Art Center featuring photographs of the lake by New York photographer Diane Tuft. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see beauty in what we all drive by and hold our noses at. Tuft noticed the bizarre colors created by changing light, microorganisms like brine shrimp in the water, and industrial sites on the lake, which extract a witches brew of chemicals from magnesium to salt, of course. Their evaporation ponds hold brine at various states of evaporation, causing a checkerboard of different-colored waters.
Tuft noticed the change from blue-green to red of all colors where the water is cut in two by the Union Pacific Railroad causeway, which creates an imbalance in the water’s organic content. The northern, fresher water attracts algae, which turns the water red. Other shorelines have chemical evaporation ponds in multiple colors, and the colors seem to change with the sun angle and wave action.
The Great Salt Lake is largely unloved in this state. It’s not a place I go to very often, but it’s worth a day trip sometime when the snow’s not quite right and the valley beckons.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Park City to Antelope Island: 64 miles
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