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About an hour outside of Salt Lake City lie the Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, the city's mountain playground. While you can stay in lodges and hotels in and around the canyons, many visitors base themselves in Salt Lake City to cut costs.

The Great Salt Lake & Antelope Island State Park

You wouldn't expect to come across what is essentially a small ocean in the middle of the desert, but there it is: the Great Salt Lake. The lake is all that's left of ancient Lake Bonneville, which once covered most of western Utah and parts of Idaho and Nevada. Unlike its mother lake, the Great Salt Lake has no outlet, so everything that flows into it -- some two million tons of minerals annually -- stays here until someone or something -- usually brine flies, brine shrimp, birds, or humans -- removes it. Minerals, including salt, potassium, and magnesium, are mined here; don't be surprised to see front-end loaders moving huge piles of salt to the Morton Salt facility along I-80, on the lake's south shore.

This natural wonder might be worth checking out, but don't expect much. Although Salt Lake City residents enjoy spending weekends at the lake, it isn't really a major tourist destination, and facilities are limited. Boaters should bring their own boats, as no rentals are available. Despite its salinity, this is a relatively flat lake -- kind of like a big puddle -- so don't pack your surfboard.

Antelope Island State Park

The largest of 10 islands in the Great Salt Lake, measuring about 5 miles wide and 15 miles long, Antelope Island was named by Kit Carson and John Frémont in 1843 for the many pronghorns they found here. Hunting wiped out the herd by the 1870s, but buffalo were introduced in 1893 -- 500 of them now make the island their home -- and pronghorn have recently been reintroduced. The beaches of Antelope Island don't have the fine-grained sand and shells of an ocean beach; rather, they're a mixture of dirt and gravel. But the water is a great place to relax; because of its high salinity, you don't have to work hard to stay afloat.

Essentials

Getting There -- Antelope Island is about 30 miles northwest of Salt Lake City and about 16 miles southwest of Ogden. Take I-15 to exit 332, go 6 1/2 miles west to the park entrance, and cross the 7 1/2-mile causeway to the island.

Visitor Information -- Contact Antelope Island State Park, 4528 W. 1700 South, Syracuse, UT 84075-6868. The visitor center (tel. 801/773-2941; www.stateparks.utah.gov), open daily in summer from 9am to 6pm and in winter daily from 9am to 5pm, has exhibits and information on the Great Salt Lake and the island's wildlife and migratory birds.

Fees & Regulations -- Day-use fees are $9 per vehicle and $3 for pedestrians, bicyclists, or in-line skaters. The marina offers dock rental overnight. Pets are welcome in the park but must be leashed.

Outdoor Pursuits

Biking, Hiking & Horseback Riding -- More than 30 miles of hiking trails and bike and horse paths traverse the island, most of which are closed to vehicular traffic. Although generally unmarked, trails follow old ranch roads. Check at the visitor center or talk with a ranger before heading out; they can fill you in on current conditions and tell you where you're most likely to spot wildlife.

The 3-mile Lake Side Trail leaves the Bridger Bay Campground and follows the beach around the northwestern tip of the island to the group camping area on White Rock Bay. The walk is magnificent at sunset. Other trails take you away from the crowds, where you might catch a glimpse of buffalo or other wildlife.

Boating -- Boaters will find a marina with restrooms, docks, and fresh water for cleaning boats, but little else.

Swimming -- The largest beach is at Bridger Bay, with picnic tables and restrooms with outdoor showers to wash off the salt.

Wildlife-Watching -- You can drive to the buffalo corral and see these great shaggy creatures fairly close-up. If you head into the less-traveled areas, you might spot pronghorn, deer, buffalo, bobcats, elk, coyote, and bighorn sheep.

The annual bison roundup takes place in late November and early December. You can usually see wranglers herding the bison into corrals on the last weekend of November (binoculars are helpful) and get a close-up view the next weekend as the bison receive their annual checkups. Call to find out exactly when the roundup will take place.

Camping

The park has two campgrounds: Bridger Bay Campground offers primitive camping, or you can use the parking area at Bridger Bay Beach. Although neither offers hookups, each area does have restrooms with showers; Bridger Bay Beach has picnic tables as well. The cost is $13 per night. Reservations are available at tel. 800/322-3770 or www.stateparks.utah.gov.

More to See & Do

Ten miles south of the visitor center, down a paved road, is the Fielding Garr Ranch House. The original three-room adobe house, built in 1848, was inhabited until the state acquired it in 1981. In addition to the ranch house is a small building that served as a schoolroom by day and sleeping quarters for the farmhands at night, plus a spring house, the only freshwater source.

The ranch has a snack bar (open only when the ranch is open), as well as a large, shady picnic area. Half-hour wagon rides are available. Check with the visitor center for current ranch hours as well as schedules and rates for wagon rides.

Great Salt Lake State Marina

This is a good spot to launch your boat (assuming you thought to bring one, since you can't rent one here), but not what one would call a great destination. A less-than-exciting stretch of muddy/sandy beach greets you, but the expanse of water and distant islands can be lovely, especially at dusk or early in the morning. Prickly pear cactus bloom along the shore of the Great Salt Lake in the late spring. And for those susceptible to the lure of the sea, this huge inland ocean is mysteriously irresistible any time of year. Sailing and watersports are the main attractions here -- although you can also laze on the beach. Facilities include picnic tables, open showers for washing off salt and sand, and restrooms.

Be forewarned, though. The air can be heavy with the stench of rotting algae at times, making even a brief stroll on the beach quite unpleasant. At other times, when the wind is right or the lake is high enough, trekking out to the water's edge is downright enjoyable.

Essentials

Great Salt Lake State Park is 16 miles west of Salt Lake City. Take I-80 west to exit 104; head east on the frontage road about 2 miles to the park entrance. The marina is open year-round, and the beach is open daily from dawn to dusk, with admission fees of $2 per car. Boat slips and a launching ramp are available, but there are no boat rentals. Contact Great Salt Lake State Park, P.O. Box 16658, Salt Lake City, UT 84116-0658 (tel. 801/250-1898; www.stateparks.utah.gov). Park headquarters are located at the marina.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.