Paddling the Great Salt Lake

Many have driven by it. Few decide to swim in it—especially once they inspect it closely. And even fewer seem to paddle it.

The Great Salt Lake must be one of the best-known lakes in the world, but nobody I talk to seems to ever go out on the lake. This is peculiar to me, since Utah is so generally lacking in other bodies of water, and the lake’s so close to the city. Since I need to justify the boat I keep in the backyard, I take it out once in a while on the big salty lake.

Being out on the Salt Lake has been a powerful and solitary experience for me. Everything is so vast. It’s like being between two worlds—you can’t tell where the sky ends and the lake begins. It’s like you’re dipping your paddle into a cloud and pushing it across the sky. Behind the boat, the reflected clouds sway in the breeze, or is it the waves from the boat? 

Sometimes, I swear, there must be sea monsters out in the lake. It’s so big and mysteriously quiet,  you wonder what might be watching from underneath. I’ve read that folklore supports this theory, though I’m not comforted by that thought when I’m out there next time, miles from shore without a soul in sight. 

The southern part of the lake has a post-apocalyptic feel, partially due to the large smokestack of the nearby smelting operation. Once I’ve left shore, I sometimes imagine the world has moved on and bandits roam the land dressed in 80s punk clothing. 

In the summer, the brine flies hatch, supporting a wide variety of waterfowl and crawling all over any potential visitors. There’s no escaping them, even away from shore, unfortunately. But they don’t bite, making them merely an annoyance, compared to what I grew up with in Maine.

All oddities aside, I’ve enjoyed some of the best sunsets out on Salt Lake. With the reflection so clear, it’s like you get double sunsets! 

If I’ve convinced you to check out the lake, easy access points to put in a boat are the Salt Air Marina off of I-80 west of Salt Lake City. It’s about a twenty minute drive from downtown. It’s right across from the smokestack of the smelting operation, so you can’t miss it. Parking is $2. Another easy way to access the lake is at the Antelope Island Marina, reached by the Antelope Drive exit off 1-15 in Layton. Antelope Island also has hiking trails and a museum. The entrance fee is $9.  

Fun Facts

  • Not much lives in the Salt Lake except for algae and brine shrimp, which are harvested to feed fish around the world, and a few fish near where fresh water enters the lake. Oh yes, let’s not forget about sea monsters, too.
  • The Great Salt Lake’s current size is about 35 by 75 miles, with a maximum depth of  about 30 feet. it used to be a lot greater. It was called Lake Bonneville and was 1,000 feet deep, nearly as large as Lake Michigan, about ten times the it’s current size. About 15,000 years ago, a natural dam broke at Red Rocks Pass in Idaho, creating a major flood and letting the water out of Lake Bonneville. This was prior to human settlement in the area, so it’s believed that no humans ever actually saw Lake Bonneville. The Great Salt Lake may have evaporated and reformed as many as 28 times in the last 3 million years.
  • Several levels of the former shorelines are still visible above Salt Lake City, along the Wasatch Front and elsewhere. The appearance of the shorelines is that of a shelf or bench protruding from the mountainside, well above the valley floor. Go for a run on the Bonneville Shoreline trail and experience it for yourself.
  • The Great Salt Lake is the the fourth-largest terminal lake and the fifth-saltiest body of water in the world.
  • A railroad line — the Lucin Cutoff — runs across the lake, dividing it into three portions: the northeast arm, northwest arm, and southern. This causeway prevents the normal mixing of the waters of the lake due. Since there are fewer rivers flowing into the northwest arm, it is now substantially saltier than the rest of the lake.
  • On the northern portion of the lake, an art project was installed in 1970 by American sculptor Robert Smithson. It’s called the Spiral Jetty, and that’s pretty much what it is.