A Year-Round Guide to Great Salt Lake State Park
Great Salt Lake State Park is easy to access from Salt Lake City and makes for a great spot to get out on the water, with unbeatable sunset views.
Standing on the Great Salt Lake’s quiet southern shore, I can almost imagine this place in its heyday. A half-dozen bathing resorts lined the lake, the most famous of which was the Great Saltair, which was nicknamed the “Coney Island of the West” — and people screamed on the roller coaster while couples danced the night away on “the world’s biggest wooden dance floor.” Amazed by the notion that they couldn’t sink in the briny waters, visitors traveled first by wagons and later trains and cars to experience “Floating Like a Cork” for themselves, beckoned by one of the area’s first taglines.
But when the bathing boom went bust, the resorts closed, and the glory days ended for good when the Great Saltair closed in 1958. Today, the area is home to an entirely different attraction: Great Salt Lake State Park, which offers an abundance of outdoor adventures that active-minded types can take advantage of year-round. And your visit can support the the park's efforts to protect the Great Salt Lake's future. (Read: Great Salt Lake Needs Your Visit)
Great Salt Lake State Park’s picturesque views, water recreation and right-off-the-interstate location make it a convenient and appealing stop from Salt Lake City. Taking I-80 from downtown, we exit at Saltair, the site of the amusement-packed bathing resort-turned-concert venue, and follow the road left to the state park entrance. First opened to the public in 1978, Great Salt Lake State Park is located on the lake’s southern side and is best known for its marina.
The visitor’s center bustles with families discovering lake lore, and outdoors sailors prepare and launch their boats to take advantage of the sunny day. Paddleboard rentals, sightseeing boat tours and RV-friendly campgrounds round out the offerings.
Back in the Day
A remnant of the massive, ancient Lake Bonneville, the Great Salt Lake gets its extreme salinity because it has no outlet — and it can be two to seven times saltier than seawater!
Beginning at the Visitor Center deck, we gaze out at Lake Bonneville’s former shoreline along the mountains, imagining how where we now stand was once below 1,000 feet of water. Towering above this natural view is one of man’s marvels: the world’s cleanest smelter, built by mining company Kennecott Copper and reaching nearly as high as the Empire State Building.
Indoors, we pay a visit to one of the lake’s only residents: brine shrimp. The Great Salt Lake is too salty for fish, but these tiny critters — better known as sea monkeys — thrive. See them up close in a tank, or channel your 1990’s nostalgia and take home a set from the gift shop.
"The lake’s best views are found simply by waiting."
Listen & Learn
Dig into the area's extensive history with a free audio tour. Our phones in hand, we tune in to narrators as they describe the oolitic sand under our feet on Silver Sands Beach and as we walk onto the lake’s rocky shores and look out at Stansbury and Fremont Islands from an observation deck.
But the lake’s best views are found simply by waiting. We wrap up our tour close to sunset, follow a dirt path adjacent to the marina to a rocky beach and take a perch to watch nature put on a show. Brilliant colors setting over the water make the Great Salt Lake one of the valley’s sunset secrets.
Sailing an Inland Sea
A 100-year sailing tradition persists at the Great Salt Lake, and once on the water, many say it’s just like being on the ocean. Boat after boat glides in and out of the marina as we walk the audio tour route, and a line of white sails stretches across the horizon as sailors tack in the wind. The park is also home to the Great Salt Lake Yacht Club.
Many still come to bob in the Great Salt Lake, but its high salt content and buggy trek to reach the water keeps other swimmers away. If you want to escape the shore without getting wet, rent a paddleboard from Exclusive Excursions. Paddle toward Saltair and imagine trainloads of tourists floating, or make your way toward the nearby islands for a closer look.
Experience the Great Salt Lake’s legendary sunsets on the water with a boat cruise from Exclusive Excursions. They offer private and group tours, as well as 20-30 minute float breaks for anyone who'd like to take a dip in the Western Hemisphere's saltiest body of water.
A veritable birding paradise, the Great Salt Lake plays host to millions of migrating waterfowl in spring and fall, while many seagulls, shorebirds and ducks make it their more permanent home. Utah’s state bird, the California Seagull, can be seen in large numbers along with endangered peregrine falcons and bald eagles.
Sleeping on the Lakeshore
Open year-round, the campground at the Great Salt Lake State Park accommodates RVs up to 40 feet and has water and electricity available. Advance reservations are recommended.
Because of its high salinity, the Great Salt Lake doesn’t usually freeze in winter, but the tourists (and the bugs) drop off. Visit in early winter to see migrating birds and winter residents like bald eagles and ducks.
What’s with the Smell? What About the Bugs?
On certain days, you can smell the lake before you can see it, but it’s usually confined to the lakeshore so you won’t smell it once you get onto the water. Caused by decaying biomass, like algae and brine fly pupae casings, and organic reactions within the saline waters, the smell is common in many swampy, wetland areas. (Read: A Biologist Explains the Lake’s Mysteries)
Bugs can also be a problem in late spring and summer seasons, but as soon as you’re on the lake they dissipate. All the more reason to go for a paddle or swim instead of standing on the sidelines!
GPS Coordinates to the park: 40.7336857,-112.210824
A Matter of Geological Consent
A billion years of geological history surrounds Salt Lake City, where a modern landscape reflects ancient constraints.
Antelope Island's Bison Roundup
Antelope Island's annual bison round-up (October 28, 2017) takes place in relative obscurity, on a stunning landscape from another geologic era, making this event a wonderful opportunity to view bison close-up. Watching an authentic roundup is like being on the set of an old west movie or transported to a distant era — yet it’s only 25 miles northwest of Salt Lake City International Airport.
Great Salt Lake Needs Your Visit
While you visit this mysterious natural wonder, you can also help save it.
10 Routes Chosen by Utah Cyclists
We reached out to cycling experts and enthusiasts — in some cases to people who literally wrote the book on cycling in Utah — to get a feel for some of Utah's best road cycling routes.
11 Family-Friendly Activities Near SLC
Find fun family activities in Salt Lake City with this guide from the Utah Office of Tourism. From roller coasters to ski slopes, SLC has it all. Plan your trip now!
There’s no better place to go birding in Utah than the Bear River Migratory Refuge. Learn more and start planning the ultimate nature getaway!
Explore Antelope Island's Fielding Garr Ranch
Volunteers Beth and Dennis Simonsen show visitors around the historic Fielding Garr Ranch complex on Antelope Island State Park in Northern Utah.
Reclaiming the Stars
Utah’s public lands are beautiful and dramatic during the day, but they might well become famous for how awe-inspiring they are during the night.
Touring Utah with the State’s Most Well Known Women Writers
The diversity and beauty found in Utah has often been captured by women. Here are the places that seven of Utah’s most well known women writers knew and loved most.
Get Your Spook On: Northern Utah's Most Haunted Places
Looking for a different kind of adventure? One seemingly outside the realms of possibility? Here are some of Utah’s most haunted places.