Drive past the Great Salt Lake today, and it continuously shifts depending on your angle. From one direction, it's a glimmering sliver on the horizon of vast salt flats. From another direction, it's a 1930s-era lakeside Taj Mahal.
Keep driving north, and you pass endless marshes and mineral-laden ponds and flats. Continue onward, and the marshes give way to open water stretching to the horizon, studded with islands inhabited by buffalo. The lake changes color by time of day, seasonal depth, and where the odd little brine shrimp—its primary inhabitants—are hanging out. The lake's shoreline varies dramatically year by year. The relatively flat valley around it means that a slight influx in water content sends the surface sprawling by additional hundreds of square miles. Your visit can help preserve the lake.
If it sounds like an odd place, that's because it is. But fascinating and historically significant, yes. And otherworldly beautiful? For sure.
Thousands of years ago, the lake was part of the ancient giant Lake Bonneville, which covered much of the state. The Native Americans who lived here at the time white settlers arrived let them know the lake wasn't exactly the best to swim in—its saltiness left the skin a little itchy—but the freshwater marshes on its periphery were fine for fishing.
A few decades after Salt Lake was settled by Mormon pioneers, they erected the Saltair, a giant, Taj Mahal-inspired structure intended to be the "Coney Island of the West," complete with bathing beaches, show venues, and rides. The salt water became famous for being so saline that humans could float, perfectly buoyant, without making any effort to swim. The Saltair eventually burned down, and was rebuilt multiple times over the ensuing decades. A modern iteration of the Saltair still exists and hosts excellent concerts for those willing to make the drive from downtown Salt Lake.
The Saltair's heyday may have simmered down, but locals and visitors do still get a kick out of checking out the lake up close. Conditions at the shoreline and in the water are funky to say the least: the water is inhabited by little creatures called brine shrimp, who certainly don't bite but oddly resemble crustacean sea-monkeys. Not everyone's idea of an appetizing bathing buddy. The lake shore is also home to vast numbers of brine flies, who swarm thickly in the summer. The water is so salty, it's a great idea to keep your mouth firmly shut and not risk sipping any. Also, definitely don't wade in with any open cuts—the sting's a real zinger.
But the magic of it all is still there (especially if you avoid the height of brine fly season). It's a gigantic desert lake, so salty that you don't even have to swim. You just bob like a floating cork. The sunsets: exquisite. The novelty of it all: significant.
Many choose not to get into the water at all, and instead they sail on it. The Salt Lake marina has a bustling community of Utah sailors who hit the ocean-like open water and outpace those pesky brine flies at cruising speed.
One of the best ways to experience the lake is to drive across a causeway to Antelope Island, the biggest island in the lake. There you can explore the stark beauty of Antelope Island State Park, with a trail system, picnic spots, and wildlife like buffalo and pronghorn sheep. Take advantage of the miles and miles of mountain biking and hiking trails that zig-zag their way across this exceptional landscape. At times, it feels like a journey to a parallel universe.
Spend an entire day, pack a lunch, and hang out on the island's beaches if the bugs aren't out in force. And be sure to pack a camera—you'll want to stay out till sunset and capture the water and sun rays on the rocks and desert grass.
And if getting up close and personal with the saltwater isn't your thing, you'll be pleased to hear that the Great Salt Lake has a number of freshwater marshes and even an adjacent freshwater reservoir, Willard Bay, that's great for swimming and motorboating. Around the wetlands and marshes, birdwatching enthusiasts can spot herons, egrets, foraging pelicans and cormorants, grebes, and white-faced ibises, to name a few. And boating enthusiasts can rent just about anything their hearts desire at Willard Bay State Park—a pontoon boat, kayak, jetski, or fishing boat.
There's pretty much a perfect way for anyone to have a fantastic day at the Great Salt Lake. Whether you're under sail or floating in salt, it's a place you've got to check out once—or time and time again.