What’s so great about the Great Salt Lake? Spring is the best time to discover its secret beauty.
When famed mountain man Jim Bridger first saw the Great Salt Lake in 1824, he thought he had found an arm of the Pacific. He may have been off by a few hundred miles, but he can be forgiven. The salty air, the gulls, orange sunsets over water that seems to stretch out forever—it’s all here. But in spite of its size, the largest lake west of the Mississippi often goes overlooked. Even on a nice breezy day, its vast waters likely host only a sprinkling of sailboats, just a few specks on this inland sea. You might see some kids wade up to their knees to catch orange brine shrimp in paper cups, or there may be a few swimmers floating like corks in the famously buoyant water. But for the most part, the lake stretches empty to the horizon, 2,000 square miles open and ready to be explored.
It wasn’t always so quiet. From steamboats and schooners in the late 1800s to powerboats in the 1950s, watercraft once busied the Great Salt Lake. “All of the boating in Utah happened here,” says Dave Shearer, harbormaster at the Great Salt Lake State Marina, 15 miles west of Salt Lake City. Locals and tourists flocked to the Saltair resort, “the Coney Island of the West,” which opened in 1893 on the south shore. Swimmers and sunbathers filled the nearby beach, and people of all ages packed the dance floor. The original Saltair burned down in 1925, and a rebuilt version partially burned in 1931 before closing for good in 1958.
Then, with the creation of freshwater reservoirs such as Lake Powell, Utahans began taking their boats elsewhere, fleeing the great lake and its less-than-fresh reputation. “A lot of locals have never been out here,” says Dave Ghizzone, owner of Gonzo Fun Boat Rentals and Tours. “They think it’s dirty, or it stinks, or it’s too buggy. But when you get out on the water, there’s no smell and no bugs.”
The lake’s bad rap is somewhat deserved: Sulfurous smells waft from some of its shallows, and brine flies do swarm the waterline in summer and fall. But spring is the perfect time to discover what Utahans knew in decades past: The Great Salt Lake is fun. On a tour with Ghizzone on his six-person jet boat, the shore— and everything that comes with it— quickly fades into the background. Flotillas of eared grebes bob for brine shrimp, tiny creatures that rule an underwater world too saline for fish. At a rocky outcrop called Egg Island, great blue herons and double-crested cormorants try to keep their cool among shrieking hordes of California gulls. The water, smooth as a glass tabletop, reflects the blue sky and morning sun.
Plenty of trips await adventurers. The state marina and its sister marina on Antelope Island rent kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, an increasingly popular way to get out on the water, and both offer chartered trips on sailboats or powerboats. Paddlers often skirt the edge of Antelope Island and boaters anchor off its western shore to watch for bison and the occasional coyote on the treeless hills. Visitors who get permission to visit Fremont Island, where brackish springs bubble up along the shore, often dock their craft and climb to the highest point to see a little cross that frontiersman Kit Carson carved into the rocks in 1843. “You can go back in time 150 years in just a few minutes,” Shearer says. For another vision of the lake before 1900, visit the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City. Some 25 oil paintings and many sketches by pioneer artist Alfred Lambourne, who homesteaded remote Gunnison Island for 14 months beginning in 1895, are on display through June 15.
As long as you’re contemplating history, consider this: The Great Salt Lake is a mere remnant of Ice Age–era Lake Bonneville, which covered nearly a quarter of what’s now Utah. Over millennia it shrank and the rivers that drained it disappeared. With no outflow, the basin has stockpiled the salts that wash down from the mountains; today, some of its sections are five times saltier than the ocean—on a par with the Dead Sea—which is why bathers seem to be floating on the water rather than immersed in it.
If you’d rather not get in the water yourself, there are still pleasures along its shore. A half-mile trail by the wildlife education center at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge leads to wetlands teeming with sandpipers and sanderlings. Near the state marina, visitors can walk the same beach that once drew resort crowds and watch the same sun sink behind dark mountains in a blaze of orange. It’s not the Pacific, but it’s plenty beautiful.
Photography courtesy DR04/Wikipedia (mountain range); U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (avocets)
This article was first published in March 2014. Some facts my have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.