9 Fun Things to do at The Great Salt Lake

It’s no secret that Utah is packed full of stunning landscapes but few are as unique as the Great Salt Lake. It’s a place where you don’t sink when you swim, and your next backdrop for that epic selfie could rival a Martian landscape! With tons of activities from boating and swimming to hiking and mountain biking, there are so many incredible Great Salt Lake activities both in and out of the water. So, whether you’re in for the thrill, the chill, or just the incredible views, keep reading because we’re about to uncover the coolest activities that the Great Salt Lake has to offer. Let’s make some salty memories, shall we?

Background of the Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake, an iconic Utah landmark, is brimming with fascinating qualities and historical tidbits. Known as America’s Dead Sea, it’s the largest saltwater lake in the United States. Its salinity levels are so high that swimmers can float effortlessly on its surface, a phenomenon that draws many people in for a swim. It’s just west of Salt Lake City and has been attracting people for hundreds of years. This high salt concentration is due to the lake being a remnant of the ancient Lake Bonneville, which covered much of Utah over 10,000 years ago. Today, the Great Salt Lake is significantly smaller than its prehistoric predecessor but remains the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere.

Another interesting aspect of the lake is its ever-changing size and shape, largely influenced by Utah’s climate and precipitation patterns. Depending on the year, the lake’s surface area can fluctuate dramatically, which in turn affects everything from the local ecosystem to the salinity levels at various points in the lake. This variability creates a dynamic landscape for visitors to explore, with new sights and experiences emerging from season to season.

Wildlife enthusiasts are particularly drawn to the Great Salt Lake due to its role as a critical habitat for millions of migratory birds. The lake’s surrounding wetlands and islands, such as Antelope Island, provide a haven for over 250 bird species, making it one of the most significant bird-watching sites in North America. Here, you can observe a kaleidoscope of bird life, especially during migration seasons in spring and fall.

Access to the Great Salt Lake

While the Great Salt Lake is just west of the Salt Lake Valley, figuring out where to access it can be a bit of a challenge since a lot of it is surrounded by wetlands. Here are our top recommendations for where to access the Great Salt Lake.

  1. Antelope Island State Park: This is one of the most popular access points. You can reach it via a causeway leading from Syracuse. The park offers spectacular views of the lake, hiking and biking trails, and wildlife viewing opportunities, including bison. There are also facilities for picnicking and camping.
  2. Great Salt Lake Marina/Great Salt Lake State Park: Located just west of Salt Lake City near Magna, this marina provides facilities for sailing and boating enthusiasts. It features boat slips, a boat ramp, and a marina store. The marina is a part of the Great Salt Lake State Park, which offers day-use amenities and beautiful sunset views.
  3. Spiral Jetty: For those interested in art and nature, the Spiral Jetty—an earthwork sculpture by Robert Smithson—is located on the northeastern shore of the lake, near Rozel Point. Access is via a dirt road, which can be rough, so a suitable vehicle is recommended. The area is quite remote, providing a less crowded environment for visitors.
  4. Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge: North of the lake, near Brigham City, this refuge offers a unique wildlife viewing experience. A visitor center and a 12-mile auto tour route allow for close-up views of migratory birds and other wildlife in their natural habitat.
  5. Willard Bay State Park is another excellent access point to enjoy the Great Salt Lake area, although it is technically a freshwater reservoir just adjacent to the northern part of the lake. This spot is particularly popular among water sports enthusiasts and families looking for a fun day out.

1. Sailing and Boating

If you’re interested in sailing, the Great Salt Lake is a wonderful destination. Its high salinity makes floating much easier than in freshwater, creating a unique sailing experience. The marina at the Great Salt Lake State Park is well-equipped with boat slips, a ramp, and a store for all your needs. For beginners, there are local clubs offering sailing classes and organizing regattas. Just remember, the weather on the lake can be unpredictable, so it’s important to check conditions before you go. The best sailing season extends from late spring to early fall, when the weather tends to be more stable and enjoyable.

2. Bird Watching

For bird enthusiasts, the Great Salt Lake is a prime spot, especially during the migratory seasons in spring and fall. The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is an excellent place to start, with its informative visitor center and a 12-mile auto tour route that lets you observe the birds comfortably from your car—ideal for families or those with limited mobility. Be sure to bring a good pair of binoculars and a camera with a strong zoom to capture the diverse bird species. The bird refuge is just north of WIlard Bay and connects with The Great Salt Lake a few miles away.

3. Hiking and Biking

Hiking and biking are also popular activities at Antelope Island, which offers a variety of trails for all skill levels. The Frary Peak Trail is the highest point on the island and provides spectacular views of the lake and surrounding mountains. For a lighter hike, the Buffalo Point Trail offers beautiful vistas, especially at sunset. Mountain bikers often prefer the Lakeside Trail for more of a challenge and for the incredible views.

Note: Avoid Antelope Island State Park from April until July when the bug hatching gets out of control and can make your visit really unpleasant.

People hiking

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4. Swimming and Sunbathing

Floating in the Great Salt Lake is a must-try experience due to the high salinity levels, which are much higher than the ocean, making it easy to float. Bridger Bay Beach on Antelope Island is perfect for families, offering a sandy beach and picnic areas. The mineral-rich waters are believed to have health benefits, including skin and joint health improvements. However, it’s not like swimming in a lake, so be prepared: the water can feel slippery, and the salt can irritate cuts and eyes. We always have our kids wear goggles since the salt water can burn pretty badly. There are showers at Bridger Bay Beach to rinse off the salty water after swimming, which makes this our top pick for where to swim in the Great Salt Lake.

5. Photography and Sightseeing

If you want some stunning scenery, the Great Salt Lake offers landscapes that change with the seasons, time of day, and weather conditions, so you’re always getting a new perspective and unique lighting. Sunrise and sunset provide the most dramatic light, transforming the lake and isky into a palette of vibrant colors. The area around the Spiral Jetty becomes particularly photogenic when the water levels drop, exposing more of the lakebed’s textured surface and a better view of the spiral.

6. Visit the Spiral Jetty

At the site, you’ll find the Spiral Jetty, an impressive earthwork by Robert Smithson, which stretches into the northeastern side of the lake. Made of basalt rocks and earth, the jetty’s visibility changes with the lake’s water levels, creating a unique interaction between art and nature that keeps visitors coming back year after year. You can walk out on it or on the lake next to it. The best times to visit are in the spring and fall when the weather is milder and the water levels typically lower, making the jetty more visible. Spiral Jetty can only be seen when the water is below 4195 feet. In fact, due to rising water levels, it was submerged soon after it was made in 1970 and stayed that way for about 30 years.

The remote location means it’s wise to bring lots of water, snacks, and sunscreen for the day. Getting to the Spiral Jetty involves a drive on rough gravel roads that will require a bit of caution, but most cars can make it out there just fine, but do note that if you do have problems, cell service is weak here.

Note: The road to the spiral jetty is the same road that you’ll use to get out to the Golden Spike, so plan to visit both when you go out there.

7. Kayaking and Paddleboarding

paddleboarding deer creek

Paddling on the Great Salt Lake is one of the best ways to experience the lake at a slower pace. The Antelope Island Causeway is a popular launch site, offering easy access to calm waters ideal for paddlers of all skill levels. The reflective qualities of the lake make for stunning sunrise or sunset paddles. Paddling in the fall can be particularly rewarding when the bug population is lower, and the bird migrations are in full swing.

8. Camping

utah camping with kids

Camping on Antelope Island offers an immersive experience into the wild beauty of the Great Salt Lake. The island’s campgrounds, such as Ladyfinger and Bridger Bay, offer basic amenities including picnic tables, fire pits, and nearby restrooms. The lack of light pollution makes this one of the best stargazing areas near Salt Lake City. Camping here is best avoided from April-July to avoid the swarms of hatching bugs.

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