If you are planning a trip to Salt Lake, chances are you have heard of its namesake, the Great Salt Lake. As the largest salt water lake in the western hemisphere, a visit to the Great Salt Lake is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with chances to experience incredible wildlife, outdoor recreation, geography, and beautiful scenery. Utah has two state parks close to the Salt Lake valley that offer a chance to familiarize yourself with this unique body of water. Great Salt Lake State Park and Antelope Island State Park both provide visitors with distinct ways to enjoy the lake. We talked to Antelope Island State Park Manager, Jeremy Shaw, to help you plan your visit. Shaw also helps shine a light on the many challenges facing the lake, and how your visit to this one-of-a-kind attraction can help ensure it is here for future generations to experience.
Great Salt Lake State Park
If you want to get up close and personal with the Great Salt Lake, this state park is the place to do it. Located a short drive from downtown Salt Lake, the park features a visitor center, nature trails, self-guided tours, and miles of scenic lake views. According to Shaw, who once managed this park, it is the best place to touch the water of the Great Salt Lake. “If you haven’t, you should," he says with a smile. “It is so salty that it actually feels different than fresh water.” How salty? Great Salt Lake’s average salinity is approximately 15%. Compare that to the 3% average of the Earth’s oceans and you start to get the picture.
The visitor center is open year-round and offers exhibits, publications, and a gift shop. There is also a video presentation upon request, and a Junior Ranger Program available for young visitors. Self-guided tours take hikers along Silver Sands Beach to a variety of viewpoints and places to take a dip. And, not to worry about those salty feet; there are outdoor shower facilities available for those who take the plunge. The vistas of the lake are spectacular from every angle and offer excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing.
Birders from around the world flock here to view the 250+ species of fowl that use the lake as part of their migratory pattern. Hundreds of species also call the marshes surrounding the lake home, including ducks, geese, gulls, pelicans, and eagles. Further north from the Salt Lake area are several bird refuges, such as the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve and Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, that also offer excellent birdwatching. Great Salt Lake State Park is an ideal place to get acquainted with the history and beauty of the lake.
Antelope Island State Park
Approximately a one-hour drive from Salt Lake is Antelope Island State Park. Shaw is the Park Manager at this destination, and his love for it is evident. “This place, this lake and the island is truly one-of-a-kind. It’s like nowhere else in the world.” He is not exaggerating. With over 28,000 acres of land, Antelope Island is the largest state park in Utah. It is packed with things to do, and you could easily turn this into a full day excursion if you choose.
One of the biggest draws here is the wildlife viewing. In addition to birdwatching, visitors can try to spot one (or many) of the island’s bison. The park manages the third largest publicly owned herd in the United States. If these wooly beasts aren’t enough, take to one of the many hiking trails (there are over 50 miles of non-motorized paths available) and try to catch a glimpse of the bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, and badgers that reside here.
Additionally, hiking, biking, and horseback riding are popular activities on the island. Intrepid visitors can summit Frary Peak. At 6,586’ it is the tallest in the park and provides spectacular views of the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Mountains to the east. If you can’t bring your bike (or your horse, for that matter) don’t fret, as there are rental options within the park. Another point of interest is the historic Fielding Garr Ranch, which was built in 1848 and now serves as a museum.
Antelope Island is truly a year-round destination. “Seasonally, it’s fantastic,” according to Shaw. He says spring and fall are his favorite times on the island but points out that there is something to do no matter what the month. Moonlight hikes and stargazing (Antelope Island is an International Dark Sky Park) are available throughout the year. In June or July, the Friends of Antelope Island host a Moonlight Bike Ride that often attracts upwards of 1,500 riders. In August you can embrace your inner arachnophile and take part in Spiderfest, which began as a way to educate people about the thousands of harmless orb-weaver spiders that inhabit the island every summer.
“Our Superbowl is the Bison Roundup that happens every year,” states Shaw. On the last full weekend in October the park staff and dozens of local volunteers drive the bison herd into corrals to receive examinations and vaccinations before winter arrives. The event is open to the public and quite the spectacle. It seems there is never a dull moment on the island. Shaw says the best way to find out what is happening during your visit is to check the Antelope Island State Park’s website, which is updated frequently.
Your Visit Matters
The unfortunate reality is that the Great Salt Lake is in trouble. If you have not heard or read the media coverage, the truth is a bit shocking. The lake is currently at the lowest level in its history. The receding shoreline is stressing the entire ecosystem. “It’s not just the lake, it’s everything around the lake that gets affected.” Shaw is blunt about the seriousness of the situation but points out that tourism can help reverse the current course of events.
Your visit to the Great Salt Lake matters, especially when you enter a state park. The fee that you pay at the entrance station goes directly back to the state parks. In turn, the rangers and staff can continue to provide programs that raise awareness of both the plight and importance of the Great Salt Lake.
“It gives us the opportunity to educate and contact the next generation of people who are going to help us save the lake.” Shaw stresses that more water needs to get back into the lake, and advocacy is a big part of how that can happen. With so much to see and experience at the Great Salt Lake, it is deserving of a spot on your “must-see” list.
Even a short visit can be enough to stir your soul. Shaw sums it up best: “It’s just a special place that the more time you spend here, the more you love it.” For more information about the Great Salt Lake and the challenges that it faces, visit the Great Salt Lake Collaborative website. There you will find a wealth of knowledge and ways to get involved.