The Great Salt Lake is an ironical joke of nature — water that is itself more desert than a desert.
Many of us who live in Tooele County and drive to Salt Lake City pass by the Great Salt Lake on Interstate 80. This stretch of interstate may become monotonous, but a closer look at the lake reveals unique qualities that are fun to consider.
There are also several good spots from which to begin an adventure, the length of which can be as short or long as you like.
As a history nut, I often think about how the trappers and explorers in the early 1800s contemplated rumors about a great inland sea. I wonder what Jedidiah Smith, Jim Bridger and Etienne Provost thought about as they wandered the shores of the Great Salt Lake and its tributary streams.
The place must have looked a lot different back then. Giant flocks of migratory birds passed overhead and lived on the islands in the lake. Pristine streams flowed down from the Uinta and Wasatch mountains into the Bear, Jordan and Weber rivers. And those rivers weren’t choked by canals, check dams and other route modifications.
Even though things have changed drastically around the lake since then, it’s still a wondrous place that is worthy of a visit.
The Great Salt Lake is the largest salt-water lake in the Western Hemisphere. It is also the largest lake in the United States west of the Mississippi River. The lake is approximately 80 miles long from north to south and 30 miles wide from east to west. The average size and depth of the lake fluctuates greatly, but it is generally around 10-14 feet deep with the deepest point being only 28 feet.
Although still a large lake, it is only a fraction of its giant predecessor: Lake Bonneville. Lake Bonneville was an Ice Age lake that covered a large portion of the State of Utah over 15,000 years ago. The lake was enormous, similar in size and depth to Lake Michigan.
Many of the mountain ranges in the west desert were true islands when Lake Bonneville existed. Pleistocene glaciers fed directly into its waters out of the Cottonwood Canyons in the Wasatch Mountains. Ancient shores of the lake are seen on the northern Oquirrh Mountains, most prominently at Erda about 800 feet above the valley floor and cut into the knees of the mountain. As the earth warmed out of the last Ice Age, Lake Bonneville drained to the north. Over thousands of years it also evaporated and left behind the Great Salt Lake, Utah and Sevier lakes.
The Great Salt Lake is basically a sump at the bottom of a large basin with no outlet, which accounts for its salinity and mineral load. With water five times more salty than the world’s oceans, the lake is one of the most saline on earth. This allows a person to float in its waters. Back in the pioneer days, people with different ailments would travel far and wide to take a bath in the Great Salt Lake for perceived medical benefit. Whether the medical benefit is true or not, the facts surrounding the lake are stunning.
Over a million tons of minerals flow down from surrounding mountains and are deposited into the lake each year. According to the Utah Geological Survey, there are 4.5 billion tons of salt dissolved in the lake’s water. This enormous amount of minerals supports a billion-dollar mineral extraction industry that produces sodium chloride (better known as table salt), and several other minerals such as magnesium and fertilizer components.
The lake is owned by the State of Utah and covers area in Box Elder, Davis, Salt Lake and Tooele counties. It is surrounded by the Great Salt Lake Desert on the west side, the Promontory Mountains to the north, the Wasatch Mountains to the east, and the Salt Lake and Tooele valleys separated by the Oquirrh Mountains on the south.
The level of the Great Salt Lake fluctuates wildly because of drought, flooding and large amounts of culinary and irrigation water that are extracted upstream from its tributaries. It is located at 4,200 feet above sea level in elevation, but it spreads out far and wide during periods of high moisture. During periods of low moisture, it does the opposite and the beaches grow to over a mile wide.
Weather also has a significant effect on the size of the lake. Strong winds and storms can push the lake’s water to the opposite side of the lake. When the winds calm, the waters recede. This is why camping near the shore of the lake is not a good idea. There’s nothing worse than having your sleeping bag and possessions soaked in a foot of brine.
“Lake effect” is another weather phenomenon created by the lake. It occurs when cold, winter storms pass over the lake’s warm waters and pull moisture into atmosphere. That moisture is then released in the form of heavy, localized snow in Davis, Salt Lake and Tooele counties. On some occasions, this “lake effect” can dump a foot of snow on Bountiful while areas of the Salt Lake Valley receive only an inch or two.
There are several islands on the lake, the largest of which are Stansbury, Antelope, Fremont and Carrington islands. The lake’s current level is so low that only Fremont Island is surrounded by water; the rest are connected to land via sand spits and land bridges. The lake’s low level has also forced more than 80 sailboat owners at the Great Salt Lake Marina to pull their boats out of the lake. The state, however, has approved $1.5 million in the 2016 budget for dredging the marina and its harbor approach. Hopefully, sailboats will soon dot the horizon on the Great Salt Lake again.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll recount some early explorers’ experiences at the lake, points of interest not to miss, places that once thrived along the shoreline that have since vanished, and areas from which you can embark on your own adventures.
Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He and his family live in Stansbury Park.