Salt Lake City — Famed western writer Wallace Stegner called it "a desert of water in a desert of salt and mud and rock" -- an apt description for Utah's dead sea.
Only brine shrimp, which are less than a half-inch long, some bacteria and algae can survive in its waters, which are three to five times saltier than the ocean. But everyone gets a whiff when stiff winds blow the lake's peculiar odor -- known affectionately as "lake stink" -- into the Salt Lake valley.
For adventurers who can look past their nose, this desert of water -- much like the desert playa it covers -- is desolately beautiful. It spreads across 1,200 square miles and is home to hundreds of bird species, three state parks and a piece of modern art, Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty."
On a bright fall day near the lake's northernmost tip, a field of salt stretched out from what was formerly a rocky shoreline. Amid the icelike field were old pilings covered in crystalline salt, like open-air stalagmites. The Spiral Jetty juts out. Entirely exposed, the black basalt boulders once outlining the jetty have, like everything else, been overtaken by a thick crust of white. Sunglasses are a must.
Smithson created the "earthwork" in 1970 using black rocks from eons-old volcanic activity and sand. The jetty is 15 feet wide and extends 1,500 feet counterclockwise from the shore. Coral-pink water -- turned that color by salt-loving bacteria -- once covered the jetty, leaving it visible only from the air. But the region's five-year drought, which has dramatically dropped water levels, has left the jetty bone dry, said Wally Gwynn, a saline geologist for the Utah Geological Survey.
Small white signs with black lettering direct the curious to Smithson's work, which typifies his experimentation with environmental art and crude materials.
Drive-through bird refuge
For those familiar only with the lake's postcard scenes of turquoise waters against an alpine backdrop, the jetty is but one of several hidden gems.
About 25 miles as the crow flies southeast of the Spiral Jetty is the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, a 74,000-acre sanctuary and home to more than 220 bird species throughout its 75-year history.
A recent drive along the refuge's 12-mile tour route revealed a few solitary great blue herons standing majestically in the reeds, along with flocks of ducks, geese, soaring pelicans and chattering California gulls. The gulls are Utah's state bird, so designated after they devoured crickets that were destroying Utah's crops in 1848.
The delta was made a refuge by Congress in 1928 and is open year-round. In the dead of winter raptors like bald eagles and peregrine falcons can be seen. Mid-May to early June is the best time to see downy chicks.
Thousands of shore birds, like American avocets and black-necked stilts, migrate through the refuge in July and August. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, reports that up to 500,000 ducks and geese can come through the refuge in the fall.
Great Salt Lake is the remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville, which covered about 20,000 square miles and most of western Utah, along with parts of eastern Nevada and southern Idaho.
|Spiral Jetty: www.robertsmithson.com.Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge: (435) 723-5887, bearriver.fws.gov/. Twelve-mile driving-biking route, free admission. Open during daylight hours year-round.Utah State Parks: See www.stateparks.utah.gov/visiting/tour.htmAntelope Island State Park: (801) 773-2941. The park entrance fee is $8 per vehicle or $4 for walk-ins and cyclists. The camping fee is $10. Open during daylight hours year-round.Willard Bay State Park: (435) 734-9494. Admission is free, with $9 day-use fee for the marinas and a $14 charge for camping.Great Salt Lake State Park: (801) 250-1898. The park is home to a 300-slip marina. The Saltair resort also plays host to concerts and events. Free admission. Open year-round.|
Bonneville's footprint can be seen on terraces along the mountains surrounding the Salt Lake valley that were created as the lake evaporated. In Utah's west desert, about 100 miles west of Salt Lake City, that evaporation left what's now known as the Bonneville Salt Flats, where car-racing enthusiasts gather each September to challenge speed records. The vast expanse of blinding white salt is among the flattest areas on Earth, according to the Utah Geological Survey.
Bonneville was considered a freshwater lake, and whatever salt was left after its evaporation concentrated in Great Salt Lake.
It is a terminal lake, with no outlet. Four rivers flow into the lake -- the Ogden, Weber, Jordan and Bear -- but nothing flows out.
This lack of outflow contributes to the lake's salinity. While the ocean is 3.5 percent salt, Great Salt Lake's southern area is 15 percent salt. The north end, where the saline concentration is enhanced because the area is cut off by a railroad causeway, is 27 percent salt, Gwynn said.
Bison on Antelope Island
The lake has 11 recognized islands, though at its current level several of them are landlocked. The lake's elevation is currently 4,195 feet -- barely above its record low in 1961 of 4,191 feet.
But tourists shouldn't worry that the lake will be gone by the time they get there. The drought pattern is normal, officials say, and just 15 years ago the Spiral Jetty and other lake attractions were flooded out -- a situation that forced the state to spend millions on lake improvements.
In the late 1980s, the lake rose to a high of more than 4,211 feet, flooding Interstate 80 and the nearby Saltair resort. Also lost in the flood, but later restored, was a causeway allowing tourists to reach Antelope Island by foot, bicycle or car.
At more than 28,000 acres, Antelope is the lake's largest island and home to Antelope Island State Park. The park contains the Fielding Garr Ranch House, the oldest continually inhabited Anglo home in the state.
The island's calling card, however, is the herd of roaming bison, which can be seen while driving slowly on the island's miles of paved roads.
About 600 bison live with mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope and coyote on the island. Every fall the bison herd is rounded up to check on its health, and some bison are auctioned to meat producers to keep the herd manageable.
Hikers and cyclists can traverse miles of trails that crisscross the island. Hungry? Stuff yourself on buffalo burgers at a concession stand overlooking one of the island's picturesque bays.
Feel like beaching? When water levels are higher than they have been recently, the island reveals some beautiful, sandy stretches. And with the salt concentration at its current level, one can wade out and float in the lake -- taking care to keep the supersalty water out of the eyes and mouth.
The lake isn't all salt. Waters from the Ogden River feed the lake and helped create Willard Bay State Park, a diked-off freshwater playground that draws water-skiers and fans of personal watercraft.
No Great Salt Lake guide is complete without addressing that peculiar smell, likened by many to rotten eggs, that results from sulfur-releasing bacteria. When a good wind blows across the lake and stirs up the mud, the stench can be smelled throughout the valleys along the Wasatch Range.
But the occasional flood and bouts of "lake stink" aren't enough to change Gwynn's opinion about this inland sea. He's studied the lake for 30 years and likes it just the way it is.
It's been around long before people, and will be here long after.
"It's very much alive, it's very dynamic out there, it's ever-changing," Gwynn said. "One thing we as people have got to remember is you're not going to conquer Great Salt Lake."