Great Salt Lake, Utah, USA
Also known as: America's Dead Sea
Sometimes called “America’s Dead Sea,” the Great Salt Lake occupies approximately 1,700 square miles of Utah’s real estate. It is the second largest lake (by surface area) that is wholly contained within the USA; only Lake Michigan is larger. Great Salt Lake boasts the USA’s longest lake shoreline – about 10,000 miles.
Great Salt Lake is the largest remnant of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville, and has a salinity much higher (saltier) than ocean water. Despite its nickname, however, the lake is home to many species of flora, fauna, and lake life, and welcomes many tourists to its shores every year.
The ancient Lake Bonneville was a huge mass of water, about as large as Lake Michigan and much deeper at about 1,000 feet. During the climate change after the Great Ice Age, the lake began to dry up and create smaller lakes, including today’s Great Salt Lake, which today averages a maximum depth of about 33 feet. The lake is fed by three major rivers — Bear River, Weber River, and the Jordan River — but has no outlet except evaporation. This great aquatic wonder has long been a major feature of the region, and lent its name to what is now known as Salt Lake City.
Water levels in the Great Salt Lake vary by the amount of rainfall and the rate of evaporation, reaching a high depth of 45 feet in 1987 and a low depth of 24 feet in 1963. Many islands dot the lake, although the exact number depends on the water level. According to the Utah Geological Survey, there are 11 islands with 7 in the southern part of the lake and 4 in the northwestern portion. The whole of Gunnison Island is the Gunnison Island State Wildlife Management Area. Public access is prohibited because the island is an important rookery for the American White Pelican. Antelope Island, the largest, is home to Antelope Island State Park, which is accessible by a causeway. Pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, American bison, and waterfowl make their home on Antelope Island.
The Lucin Cutoff is a 30-mile railroad causeway operated by the Union Pacific Railroad that crosses the center of the Great Salt Lake, connecting Ogden and Lucin. The high water levels during the 1980s threatened the causeway, highways, and sewage treatment plants around the lake. The State of Utah built the West Desert Pumping Project to drain excess water into the Great Salt Lake Desert to the west, creating the Newfoundland Evaporation Basin. Although the pumps are not currently in operation, the state maintains them for future use.
One of the lake’s greatest attractions is its wildlife, which is varied and vast. Though the lake itself cannot support many species due to its high salinity, it is home to brine shrimp, brine flies, and several forms of algae. Off-water, freshwater and saltwater wetlands offer refuge to millions of migratory shorebirds and waterfowl each year, including phalarope, avocet, stilt, gulls, falcon, bald eagles, swans, pelicans, and many more. Bird watchers will enjoy the lake’s offerings, scouting out familiar species and those unknown to their eyes. In fact, there are 27 private duck clubs, seven state waterbird management areas, and a federal bird refuge at the Great Salt Lake, allowing for hunting as well as waterfowl protection.
When at the Great Salt Lake, you owe to yourself to go for a swim. Since the water averages about 12% saline, floating is easier than almost anywhere else on earth, and entire afternoons can be spent watching fluffy clouds pass by. White-sand beaches sprinkle the lake’s shores, and families, sunbathers, and picnickers often flock to these beautiful spots for a bit of sun and refreshing swimming.
Antelope Island State Park offers a great starting point, with a beautiful beach and access to the sparkling lake waters. Head out sailing from Antelope Island Marina or Great Salt Lake Marina, taking advantage of healthy winds and nearly perfect days. Investigate Antelope Island’s diverse wildlife, and enjoy excellent bird watching and island’s colorful indigenous flora.
Boating on the lake is another favorite pastime, and during the summer months, the lake’s blue acres are populated by speed boats, pontoon boats, sailboats, kayaks, and canoes, all sharing in a bit of Great Salt Lake fun. Wakeboarders, water skiers, kneeboarders, and tubers all trail behind motorboats, indulging in one of lake lubbers’ classic favorites. Parasailing is another growing trend, and if you care to test your balance and bravery, parasailing lessons may be just up your alley. But not matter what your preference, getting out onto the lake should be high on your priority list.
Summer at the lake is filled with hiking, mountain biking, sightseeing, golf, and any activity you can dream up. During winter, the lake’s focus shifts to downhill skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, ice skating, snowmobiling, and old-fashioned snowman construction. Year-round, the area offers delicious cuisine, several museums, art galleries, luxurious spas, and wonderful shopping, all promising to fill your time here with many amusements.
The Great Salt Lake is a beautiful blue jewel cut into the Utah landscape, offering visitors and residents miles of coastline to explore and a beautiful landscape ripe with quiet spots for enjoyment and award-winning photo ops. A visit here will enliven your senses and relax your mind, making you wish you could stay forever.
Things to do at Great Salt Lake
- Vacation Rentals
- Water Skiing
- Ice Skating
- Downhill Skiing
- Cross-Country Skiing
- Wildlife Viewing
- State Park
Great Salt Lake Photo Gallery
Great Salt Lake Statistics & Helpful Links
Lake Type: Natural Saltwater Lake, Not Dammed
Water Level Control: State of Utah
Surface Area: 1,088,000 acres
Shoreline Length: 10,000 miles
Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 4,200 feet
Minimum Elevation (Min Pond): 4,185 feet
Maximum Elevation (Max Pond): 4,212 feet
Average Depth: 14 feet
Maximum Depth: 33 feet
Water Volume: 28,000,000 acre-feet
Drainage Area: 21,500 sq. miles
At LakeLubbers.com, we strive to keep our information as accurate and up-to-date as possible, but if you’ve found something in this article that needs updating, we’d certainly love to hear from you!
Please let us know about it on our Content Correction form.
Spread the word! Share our Great Salt Lake article with your fellow Lake Lubbers!