Visiting the Great Salt Lake is a right of passage for tourists in Utah looking to float in the saltiest lake in the Western Hemisphere. Located outside Salt Lake City, Utah, the Great Salt Lake is surrounded by the Wasatch Mountains on the East and the Great Salt Lake Desert on the West.
You may wonder why you are seeing seagulls in Utah (they are actually the state bird!), but it’s totally normal and creates a great bird-watching experience at the lake. There are hundreds of different types of birds that live in the area surrounding the lake, which includes seagulls. So don’t take your pizza to the beach. Here are the tips you need to know for your first visit to the Great Salt Lake:
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Choose Which Location to Visit
There are many ways to visit the Great Salt Lake. One option is to stop at the Great Salt Lake State Park, which is arguably the closest option to Salt Lake City. This option is ideal for travelers who are already driving on I-80, or visitors who want a quick way to see the lake in person. Activities here include boat rides, sailing, overlooks, year-round campground, etc.
The second option is to drive north and visit Antelope Island State Park. While this park generally costs more than the Great Salt Lake State Park, there are more options for the average traveler. Activities here include hiking, mountain biking, road biking, e-bike tours, a marina when water levels are high enough, and the Annual Bison Roundup. Make sure to keep a safe distance from all wildlife on the island.
Another option is to drive even further north to the Spiral Jetty and Golden Spike National Park. This is the most rural option, so make sure to plan ahead if you want to try this option. Pack lunch, water, and make sure you have enough gasoline to visit this remote location.
Be Prepared to Smell Something Funny
One thing most Utah locals will say when you mention your plans to the Great Salt Lake is how the lake smells. While they may not be complaining, most Utahns simply want you to know that there is a smell. This rotten egg smell hits your nose as you get close to the lake but is usually gone by the time you start walking around.
The smell is most likely caused by a combination of decaying biomass and treated sewage water. Smells like this are common around wetlands, beaches, and swamps, so don’t worry too much about it. Unless you are traveling with someone who has an overly sensitive nose! On some days, you can even smell the lake while walking downtown SLC (don’t say I didn’t warn you!).
Swimming in the Great Salt Lake
The main reason people want to swim in the Great Salt Lake is because the saltiness makes it easy to float. While not quite as salty as the Dead Sea, the Great Salt Lake is about 15% salinity (GLS 2018). The saltiness of the lake varies depending on the water levels, with the north arm being the saltiest.
I decided to drive to Antelope Island for my first swim in the Great Salt Lake. This was also where I encountered a bison on my last visit with my dog (at Buffalo Point, it was intense!). This time, I was familiar with the location and knew what to expect. There are also brine flies at the lake, which you will dislike if you cannot stand bugs. You have to walk through “fly fog” in order to walk into the lake. The flies didn’t bite, but walking through their cloud was not very pleasant.
Once I got into the water, it was clear and cool. You can see brine swimming in the water. Once you get into the water, you really do float! If you are familiar with swimming, you will understand that you have to flatten your body to float. When I was in the Great Salt Lake, my body was in a V shape and I was still floating! As a swimmer, it was a crazy sensation to swim and not have my upper shoulders submerged. If you have ever wanted to float in The Great Salt Lake, leave your bug aversion at home. This is not for squeamish people.
As with most beach trips, pack a change of clothes and your towel. You may have trouble with the salty water if you have any cuts on your legs. Additionally, make sure to wash out your suit, or the heavy salt may damage the swim fabric. One of the best beaches for swimming the Great Salt Lake is located on Antelope Island at Bridger Bay Beach. This location not only has restrooms and showers but has a grill nearby (and does not allow dogs). Stop here for a great experience floating in the Great Salt Lake!
Avoid Biting Gnats at the Great Salt Lake
As with many outdoor activities, traveling to the Great Salt Lake may leave you with bug bites. Winter is the best time to avoid insects, or you can wear long pants and pack bug spray. Mosquitoes love the lake. Also, April-June is high season for biting gnats, which do not respond to bug spray (you have been warned!). As mentioned earlier, there are other bugs throughout the lake, including brine flies — which do not bite.
Try to visit the lake when the biting gnats are not around. However, most travel times are out of our control, so know that you can still visit. You may want to wear long sleeves and pants …or be okay with bug bites.
Water Level & The Lake Effect
As I mentioned earlier, water levels in the Great Salt Lake fluctuate. This has caused multiple resorts to close when water levels dropped. This also means that the lake size changes quite a bit, with an average size of 75 miles long by 35 miles wide (Utah Geological Survey, 2021). Even so, the size of the lake has a major impact on the weather of nearby cities.
During winter months, storms that enter the area experience the “lake effect” which creates more snowfall for nearby locations. As lake levels decline, the average snowpack could decline 5.1-8.4% (Assessment of Potential Costs of Declining Water Levels in Great Salt Lake, 2019). This means that if there is no lake, we will have less skiing in Utah. Then where will we go to experience the greatest snow on earth?
Summing up, a visit to the Great Salt Lake is a great year-round outdoor activity. The lake offers walkabouts for a break from the city, boat tours for a fun experience, plus concessions and bathrooms on-site at the state parks. While it does smell funny, the Great Salt Lake is a great experience to add on your visit to Utah.
As someone who dreamed of swimming in the lake ever since I learned about it in elementary school, I can say that this experience was totally worth the bugs. I floated without even trying, just like a buoy! If you are thinking about floating in a salt lake, try this out before flying across the world.
Have you ever visited the Great Salt Lake? Let me know what you thought in the comments below.
The Basics – A Great Salt Lake Guide
Best Time to Visit:
End of March or late summer to avoid biting gnats
How to Get There:
The lake is about 17 miles west of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Drive a vehicle as public transport does not visit the lake
USD or your credit card
Great Salt Lake State Park Campsites – Lakeside RV accommodations with restrooms and showers.
What to Eat:
Crown Burger as a lettuce wrap at Crown Burger (outside Antelope Island in Layton, but multiple locations in Utah exist)
Buffalo Burger at the Island Buffalo Grill (Antelope Island)
Tacos on a corn tortilla with pinto beans and rice at Costa Vida (stop in Brigham City, but there are many locations in Utah)
Pack your meal on Sundays as most local restaurants will be closed.
Who Should Visit:
Outdoorsy people who do not mind smells, bugs, or getting dirty.