Exploring The Great Salt Lake: Antelope Island & Bonneville Salt Flats

Last Updated on: 3rd February 2024, 11:00 pm

The Great Salt Lake is among the saltiest bodies of water in the world, while it’s also among the largest lakes in the western USA. It’s such a big deal that they even named a city after it! Accordingly, most visitors to Salt Lake City will want to experience the lake in one way or another, and for that you have a few different options.

The most scenic way to experience the Great Salt Lake is Antelope Island State Park to the north of the city. But while less scenic and interesting, the Great Salk Lake State Park is a much closer drive. 

Another popular destination, meanwhile, is the Bonneville Salt Flats. The salt pan was originally part of ancient Lake Bonneville, which could be thought of as the Great Salt Lake’s ancient ancestor.

The Bonneville Salt Flats and the Great Salt Lake State Park can easily be visited together on the same day, and you can learn more about how below. 

Antelope Island State Park, on the other hand, should be visited on a separate day – either by spending the whole day there or as a stop on the way to a destination further north.

For more information on the best places to stay in Salt Lake City, be sure to check the end of the article.

Antelope Island State Park

Bonneville Salt Flats

Located about 90 minutes west of Salt Lake City (see below for directions), the Bonneville Salt Flats aren’t actually part of the Great Salt Lake. But just like the lake, this salt pan has its roots in a much more ancient lake known as Bonneville.

Lake Bonneville existed from around 32,000-14,000 years ago. And it was massive, stretching out to 325 by 135 miles. The lake eventually receded, though, leaving behind remnants  like these salt flats and the Great Salt Lake.

Bonneville Salt Flats

The Bonneville Salt Flats are free to visit. Simply park your car and walk out onto the salt for as little or as long as you like. During my visit, the flats were dry, appearing like a vast white desert.

But if you’re visiting during a wetter time of year, you might encounter the salt plan submerged in a shallow pool of water that reflects the sky above, much like Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni.

There are actually two main areas to get out and walk around. One is known as the ‘Salt Flats Area Westbound,’ while the other is the ‘Bonneville Salt Flat International Raceway.’ Coming from Salt Lake City, you’ll want to start with the rest area.

You’ll find very basic amenities here, such as some port-a-potties and vending machines near the parking lot. But all in all, you likely won’t spend a whole lot of time at each section.

Bonneville Salt Flats

As fascinating as the scenery is, the white salt reflects the sun and can get extremely bright. It was largely my fault for not having sunglasses, but I had to walk around squinting the entire time. It felt like someone was shining a bright light at my face.

Bonneville Salt Flats
Bonneville Salt Flats
Bonneville Salt Flats

Discomfort aside – and even though I was far from alone – it was fascinating to experience the vastness and emptiness of the place. Eventually, though, I decided it was time to go and check things out from another angle.

Bonneville Salt Flats

The Bonneville Salt Flat International Raceway is a short drive from the rest area (more below). As the name suggests, this area is used for motorsports, and it has been since the early 20th century.

Given the size and flatness of the salt pan, numerous land speed records have been set here, and the annual Speed Week still takes place here each year in August. 

Bonneville Salt Flats
Bonneville Salt Flats

You’ll access the area via a long runway, at the end of which you can park and walk around. But some people also like to drive across the flats. Just make sure you have the right vehicle.

Some clouds appeared in the sky upon my arrival, making it easier to see. But frankly, aside from photography, there’s very little to do here. Nevertheless, I’d still consider it worth the long drive from Salt Lake City.

Bonneville Salt Flats
Bonneville Salt Flats
Bonneville Salt Flats

GETTING THERE: The Bonneville Salt Flats are located right near Utah’s border with Nevada and can be reached in about 90 minutes from Salt Lake City via the Lincoln Highway.

You’ll definitely want to start with the ‘Salt Flats Area Westbound,’ which you’ll encounter on your righthand side. Next, to reach the Bonneville Salt Flat International Raceway, continue west toward the Wendover Truck and Auto Plaza and make a right.

Either before or after your visit to Bonneville, you can easily make a stop at the Great Salt Lake State Park, which is just about 20 miles west of the city center.

If you’re not in the mood for so much driving, consider taking this tour to the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Great Salt Lake State Park

As the name suggests, the Great Salt Lake State Park offers a view of the Great Salt Lake. And that’s pretty much it. Frankly speaking, this is probably Utah’s most underwhelming State Park.

With that said, it’s an easy drive from the city, and you’ll also pass it on your way to and from the Bonneville Salt Flats. What’s more, is that entry only costs $5 per vehicle.

At 75 miles long and 30 miles wide, the Great Salt Lake is the largest US lake found west of the Mississippi River. And as the name suggests, it’s incredibly salty, with 12% salinity in contrast to the 3% of oceans (for reference, the Dead Sea has 19%).

Various rivers and streams bring water to the lake which then evaporates, as the lake has no outlet to the sea. Salt is left behind, gradually increasing the lake’s salinity over time.

Presently, the Great Salt Lake’s salinity is put to good use, with two million tons of salt being extracted from the lake each year, of which around 400,000 tons are used for table salt.

Great Salt Lake State Park

Aside from checking out the simple Visitor Center and taking in the views from an overlook, it’s also possible to take a boat ride which lasts for either 45 minutes or two hours.

The official booking site can be found here, while it’s also possible to book on sites like Viator. Boat tours only depart during the warmer months.

Great Salt Lake State Park
Great Salt Lake State Park

The Great Salt Lake is so salty that some of the only species that can survive here are brine shrimp and brine flies.

Various types of birds, however, thrive along the shores. In fact, millions of migratory birds stop in the area each year, many of which feast on the brine shrimp and different types of algae that grow in the lake.

Great Salt Lake State Park

And when getting closer to the water, one can’t help but notice countless thousands of these flies – both dead and alive! Understandably, I didn’t see anybody swimming, though several other visitors and I waded into the water.

But I was ready to get out after only a minute. Aside from all the dead flies, I also had to contend with a terrible odor. But why is the Great Salt Lake so smelly?

Great Salt Lake State Park
Great Salt Lake State Park

The sand surrounding the lake is what’s known as Oolithic sand, which is comprised of dead biomass. And when exposed to heat, it can release a putrid odor. 

Furthermore, the lake is so salty that only what’s known as anaerobic bacteria – which doesn’t need oxygen to decompose dead matter – can thrive there. Unfortunately, this bacteria happens to leave a bad odor when decomposing organic matter.

Fortunately, you’ll find a place to rinse off your feet after getting out!

Finished with the main park, I stopped at a building to the east known as Saltair, which was clearly inspired by Islamic architecture.

From the late 19th century, the Great Salt Lake was a wildly popular destination, attracting nearly half a million annual visitors who’d come to swim in its salty waters. And in 1893, the Saltair resort was built by the Salt Lake & Los Angeles Railroad Company.

Great Salt Lake State Park
Saltair

Sadly, the original building was destroyed by fire in the 1920s, while the second iteration was burnt down in 1971. A third version was built in the 1980s, but it was flooded just a few months later!

What we see now is the fourth iteration, which was finished in 1993 for Saltair’s 100th anniversary. Believe it or not, the original Saltair was a gorgeous Moorish Revival structure, while this one appears as a crude mockery.

The building now appears to be closed and abandoned, though you can walk through the gate to get a closer view.

GETTING THERE: Great Salt Lake State Park is about 25 minutes from the city center. To get there, head west down I-80 and take exit 104.

You could also consider this tour, which includes a bus tour of the area in addition to a chance to take a dip in the lake.

Antelope Island State Park

At 28,022 acres, Antelope Island is the Great Salt Lake’s largest island of several. And it’s now protected by Antelope Island State Park, which is easily the top way to experience the lake during your time in Salt Lake City.

At the time of writing, Antelope Island State Park costs $15 per vehicle.

Antelope Island State Park
Antelope Island State Park

At 15 miles long and 4.5 miles wide, Antelope Island is home to numerous hiking trails. And deciding which one to choose can be overwhelming – especially if you have limited time.

The highest point on the island is Frary Peak, which is located in the center. But it’s a strenuous hike of 7 miles (11.27 km) that’s supposed to take around 4.5 hours roundtrip.

Antelope Island State Park
At the base of Buffalo Point

With limited time, I decided to focus on the Buffalo Point Trail. Not only is the hike short and easy at 0.4 miles (0.6 km) roundtrip, it also offers incredible views thanks to being so close to the water.

Antelope Island State Park

Even before the hike, you can already enjoy a great overlook from the parking area. From here you can see what I assume to be Frary Peak above a vast, deserted beach.

Antelope Island State Park
Antelope Island State Park

The trail is relatively gentle, but it does get a bit slippery and rocky in some parts. As such, I’d recommend hiking shoes if you have them.

Even after reaching the top, the hike isn’t quite over. The summit is rather large, with trails taking visitors from one end to the other. It’s worth exploring as much as time allows in order to enjoy the views of the Great Salt Lake from every angle.

Antelope Island State Park

Before leaving Antelope Island, I decided to stop at the Visitor Center. And on the way there, I passed a vast beach situated in front of Bridger Bay. 

While I didn’t get close enough to the water to inspect the smell, it does seem to be a more ideal place for swimming than Great Salt Lake State Park.

Antelope Island State Park

I then checked out the small yet informative museum inside the Visitor Center before heading onward to Idaho. Inside, you’ll learn a lot about the island’s history and wildlife, which is something I wasn’t lucky enough to witness during my time on Antelope Island.

Though I didn’t spot any, Antelope Island is home to over 500 bison. And as the name suggests, it is indeed home to antelope, along with mule deer and bighorn sheep.

As is often the case, dawn and dusk are generally the best times to spot wildlife. I hope I can make it to Antelope Island again in the future, as it would be hard to top the Great Salt Lake as a backdrop for wildlife photography.

GETTING THERE: Confusingly, when looking at Google Maps, Antelope Island appears to be connected to the mainland. But it really is an island, and you can only drive there via a causeway at its north. (There used to be a causeway to the south as well, but it’s no longer accessible.)

From Salt Lake City, it’s about 45 minutes one-way. In my case, I stopped at Antelope Island on my way to Twin Falls, Idaho. I had to take a detour from the Veterans Memorial Highway in the town of Clearfield, from which it was about a 30-minute drive to the island.

It’s also possible to visit Antelope Island by tour, such as this one which takes you around the island and also includes a hike up Buffalo Point. Photographers, meanwhile, should consider this sunset tour, which also includes Buffalo Point along with the chance to see wildlife.

Additional Info

Salt Lake City, a city of around 200,000 inhabitants, is comprised of a compact downtown area surrounded by sprawling residential districts.

The city center is home to Temple Square, home to the iconic Salt Lake Temple, in addition to the impressive Utah State Capitol Building.

I’d recommend most people try to stay in or around Temple Square if possible. Some of the highest-rated midrange hotels around here include the Marriott Salt Lake City Center, The Kimball, Homewood Suites and the Crystal Inn Hotel.

But considering how you will need a car to get around, you’ll also be fine staying a bit outside the center. In that case, apartment rentals will be the best value. Popular options include the Ellerbeck Bed & Breakfast, Cozy Condo Downtown and 3BD Home Downtown.

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