Utah's Antelope Island

Discover the wild side of the largest island in the Great Salt Lake.

Antelope Island seen from causeway, image

Antelope Island, seen from the causeway, is reflected in the Great Salt Lake.

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People in Salt Lake City could see a lot more water from their high-rise office buildings and other vantage points if it weren’t for Antelope Island, a 28,022-acre state park that dominates much of the view of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. From the city, the island looks like an expanse of desert emptiness. But take the six-mile drive across the causeway that connects Antelope Island with the town of Syracuse just north of Salt Lake City, and you quickly realize that long-distance views can deceive. Bison bulls guard the entrance, a coyote runs across the mudflats, avocets and other birds peck along the shore—from here, it’s the city across the water that looks lifeless by comparison.

Settled in the 1840s by a Mormon cattleman tending herds for the church, Antelope Island remains undiscovered territory for most people in the Salt Lake region. “We get locals who are 75 years old and it’s their first trip,” says Michelle Croft, the island naturalist. “They’re amazed by what’s out here.”

Wildlife is a major draw. About 600 bison graze all over the island, often right next to the road where they can blink their large eyes at the occasional cars. The bison roundup in late October—when volunteers on horseback and professionals in pickups or helicopters guide the snorting, bellowing animals to corrals for annual checkups and vaccinations—is always an impressive spectacle.

Namesake antelope are here, too, running way faster than necessary in a place without big predators. The island’s coyotes, badgers, and bobcats are far more interested in rodents and jackrabbits than in any meat on the hoof. Bighorn sheep hang out on rocky slopes. And there are the birds: white pelicans and all kinds of other waterfowl, falcons, eagles, ground-hopping chukars, and five species of owls.

Many visitors take the 11-mile road to the Fielding Garr Ranch, site of the original island homestead. Driving is one option, of course, but cyclists also find the road a scenic, low-traffic ride. (If you didn’t bring your own bike, you can rent one at the marina near the park entrance.) Several buildings, including an adobe ranch house and bunkhouse, are still standing, as are some of the cottonwoods that attracted settlers in the first place.

The ranch also serves as the starting point for guided horseback rides offered by R&G Horse and Wagon. (If you want a tall, gentle horse who’s patient with novices, ask for Frenchy.) The horses pick their way uphill to the crest of the island, skirting wildlife along the way. “There aren’t many places where you can see bison from horseback,” says guide and owner Ron Brown as his horse ambles through a patch of wild sunflowers. “You’d never guess that a million people live within eight miles of here.”

From atop the island, the Great Salt Lake looks bright blue and pristine—almost Mediterranean. But a walk at the white dune beach near the visitor center shows that, once again, long-distance views can deceive. Due to dropping water levels, you may have to cross about a quarter mile of mudflats to reach the lake. Once there, you discover that the shore is buzzing with brine flies (don’t worry, they won’t bite), and the water itself is muddied with slimy, fragrant algae.

It’s a far cry from Saint-Tropez, but it still has its attractions. Kids enjoy wading out with cups and plastic bags to catch pink brine shrimp, the creatures that your Sea-Monkeys would have grown up to be if you hadn’t horribly neglected them as a child. The water is several times saltier than the ocean. If you wade out far enough and lie back, you’ll float like a highly inflated air mattress. Do rinse off at the beachside showers afterward—all that salt can be rough on the skin.

You can finish off the day with a half-mile hike up the Buffalo Point Trail, the shortest and most popular of the island’s five trails. It gets a little steep in places, so you might want to power up first with a well-done bison burger at the Island Buffalo Grill overlooking White Rock Bay. The trail leads to a lichen-covered rock garden with views of the entire Salt Lake basin and beyond. It’s a great place to watch the sunset and muse that sometimes you have to see a place up close to really appreciate it.

Photography by Juozas Rimas

This article was first published in September 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If You're Going: 

Request the Colorado & Utah TourBook and the Salt Lake City–Park City Guide map at AAA.com or any AAA branch ffice. For more information, contact Antelope Island State Park: (801) 773-2941, stateparks.utah.gov/parks/antelope-island.

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