There’s nothing to see at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Nothing but a vast, sublime void stretching just short of forever.
The spectacular expanse that is the Bonneville Salt Flats lies about 100 miles west of Salt Lake City, Utah, and about 25 miles east of the Nevada border. You might recognize this area from countless music videos and commercials that use the stark, moon-like setting for dramatic effect. The Salt Flats’ pavement-like surface also has been used to set several land speed records over the years.
In total, the area is about 12 miles long, five miles wide, and spans 30,000 acres. In the spring, water floods the flats, creating a lake so shallow that those who wade into it appear to be walking on water.
The Salt Flats are part of a basin that was once a prehistoric body of water now known as Lake Bonneville, which covered much of modern day western Utah. The Great Salt Lake is also a remnant from Lake Bonneville, which was named for Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville. He ran a fur trading company in the 1830s and isn’t known to have visited the Flats, but one of his employees, Joseph R. Walker, mapped the region and named it after his boss.
Later, the Donner party tried to cross the Salt Flats but became mired in the mud. The delays they experienced while stuck on the Salt Flats later contributed to them getting famously stranded in the snow while crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains. And according to the Bureau of Land Management, you can still see their wagon tracks in the salt.
Today, a trip to the Salt Flats begins at the “Metaphor: The Tree of Utah” (also called the “Tree of Life”), an 87-foot-tall sculpture erected in the mid 1980s by Swedish artist Karl Momen. At one time in the past visitors could approach the towering sculpture, though it’s now ringed with a fence. Still, it’s an impressive image in the stark desert, and the ground at it’s base is littered with loose tiles that have fallen off over the years.
From the Tree of Utah, Interstate 80 leads directly through the Salt Flats. There are look out points (near where several of the pictures above were taken), as well as turnoffs.
Near the highway, cars whizz by on their way to nearby Wendover, Nevada, but further in, the sound fades away. Wandering a bit on a calm day means finding exquisite quiet. There are a few scattered things to see: Old detritus left by people and bits of tumbleweed thoroughly crusted with salt; a historic plaque recounting the harrowing experience early explorers had in the region; endless jagged fractures in the salt crust.
It’s an otherworldly place, and the best thing to do is simply explore.
If you go: Bring drinking water and be prepared to spray off your car, especially if you drive out onto the salt. Be aware also that it gets very hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Dress accordingly and if you burn bring sunscreen no matter when you visit.
— Jim Dalrymple II