I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Utahns don’t really know what to do with the Great Salt Lake. When you come to visit, and ask us about it, we’ll stammer something about an ancient inland sea and hope that satisfies your curiosity. The truth is we went there once and never again because it was smelly, the flies were biting, or we were teenagers fighting the family outing. Or it could just be we’re lazy. The lake is out of sight, out of mind. el
Please don’t be surprised when we hesitate with a far off look in our eyes as we try to think how we even get to the Great Salt Lake. Perhaps you can gently suggest we first get a lay of the land. Ask us to take you up to Ensign Peak or out on the Bountiful Skyline Trail where we’ll be able to show you the entire lake and the surrounding mountain ranges from up above. (Free)
That will get us thinking and we’ll almost definitely suggest going out to Antelope Island. Antelope Island is the pride of the Utah State Parks system, and worth the praise. Connected to the mainland by a 7-mile causeway, the water surrounds you immediately. There are beaches for floating in the famous salt water (which most Utahns have never done), roaming wild bison herds, hiking trails leading to edge-of-the world horizon vistas, and a visitor center with junior ranger program. ($10 entrance fee- Park for free at the causeway pay station to look at the island from afar with great photo opportunities.)
The view from up above will remind us that there is a bizarre building on I-80 south of the lake called Saltair. Getting there is easy and the anticipation before reaching the Saltair exit is exciting, as the road slowly raises up high enough to see over the levy and catch your first close-up view of the shining Salt Lake. Originally a 1920’s beach resort, Saltair is now occasionally used as a concert venue and not open to the public. There are pedestrian walk-arounds at the gates. Park on the road and walk back behind the building to explore on the sandy shore. (Free)
Equal distance on either side of Saltair you’ll find Great Salt Lake State Park & Marina with another sandy shore to play on ($3 entrance free) and the Lee Creek Area with a short interpretive trail that stretches out into the lake (Free). Follow the frontage road back into the Salt Lake City for beautiful drive along the lake.
Now that you have your Utah friends out by the lake, they’re going to all of a sudden remember they’re proud land-use owners of the Bonneville Salt Flats. If there is time for the 90-minute drive out to the Utah/Nevada border, this remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville is unlike any place you’ve ever seen. On the way watch for the Morton salt factory with hills of salt alongside the road and a larger-than-life “experience art” steel tree sculpture. (Free)
After trying to explain the big metal tree to you, another man-made art formation will come to mind. The Spiral Jetty is probably not a place we’ve been in person, but having company in town is the perfect excuse to finally make our way out there. Created from basalt rock in the 1970’s, the spiral jetty is now covered in 45 years of drying salt, but still impressive jutting out and coiling 1500 feet out into the Great Salt Lake. (Free-Follow directions to the Golden Spike National Historic Site and continue past it on a dirt road another 30 minutes)
Finally, now that we’ve dusted off the 4th grade Utah State history brain cobwebs, any Utahn will start to tell you about the wildlife and environmental enthusiasts who have devoted their time to protecting and preserving the wetlands surrounding the lake. Utah is a major migratory bird resting area and the fresh water bays emptying into the Great Salt Lake offer respite while traveling through the west’s high mountain desert terrain. There are activities for the whole family at each of these facilities:
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge (FREE-An mp3 or pdf audio tour are also available for FREE)
Great Salt Lake Nature Center at Farmington Bay (FREE-The nature center is temporarily closed while they build a new facility. Two marsh trails remain open year-round)
Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area (FREE-bird watching areas open for auto & foot travel)
Before calling it a day, the one thing Utahns do know is that you have to wait around for the sunset (FREE). Any one of the places you’ve visited with them promises an awe-inspiring show to close your fun and affordable day of exploring the Great Salt Lake.