Hiking & Biking Stansbury Island

It's tradition at my house — we are required to go mountain biking sometime around Christmas or New Years. Usually we escape to a sunny location in southern Utah, far from the cold and storms. But this year the weather was so mild we decided to stay close to home — why go south when temperatures in Salt Lake are warmer than those in St. George?

We decided to ride Stansbury Island. It offers several fun riding options, including a section of marked trail which challenges even experienced bikers. The island is less than an hour from downtown Salt Lake. It's close enough for an afternoon get-a-way.

The designated trail on Stansbury crosses the middle part of the island. It makes a great bike ride, and also offers fun hiking opportunities. It provides access to the the highest part of the island, and from the top you can literally see all around the Great Salt Lake. You can see Salt Lake City, Antelope and the other islands in the lake, Promontory Point, plus all the mountains around the lake. From the island you can often witness gorgeous sunsets.

Around Stansbury there are sometimes hundreds of sea gulls, some soaring over the lake or nearby beaches, some in the water, some resting on rocky atolls. It is also common to see a large variety of other water and shore birds. On Stansbury itself it you can often see hawks and falcons, deer, foxes, coyotes, rabbits and other small mammals. In the summer you may stumble across rattlesnakes.

The Great Salt Lake is huge. It's about 70 miles long and 30 miles wide, covering some 2,000 square miles. It's about the size of the state of Delaware. It's common to see sail boats around the marinas (located on Antelope Island and near Saltair), but the large expanse of water away from the marinas is usually deserted — a wilderness of water, wind and stars. You might forget you are just minutes away from Salt Lake City, as you look out over the lake at sunset, fading crimson lighting the clouds, the sails of a distant boat just visible on the horizon, Venus (the evening star) shining brightly above the empty water.

We visited the island on Jan. 4, just after a rainstorm. There were puddles on the roads, but there is a natural gravel around the island, and driving was not difficult. The access road is suitable for family car. The bike trail drains well, and so mud did not create a problem.

Besides the designated trail, there are several dirt roads on the island which are fun to ride. The previous night had been cold, and there was a thin layer of ice over the puddles on the road. The kids with me had great fun riding into the puddles, smashing through the ice.

We arrived in late morning, and found it very enjoyable riding in the bright sunshine. The temperatures climbed into the low 40s — making it comfortable to ride with just a jacket and gloves.

A couple roads went out to the edge of the water, and we had fun riding them. Near the lake the roads become sandy, making riding difficult. Along the west shore there are genuine sand dunes, composed of a fine, clean, white sand. The dunes are fun to hike through, but it is very difficult to ride through them. Just out from the water the sand firms and so riding becomes easy. Then, close to the water, the sand becomes soggy and riding is impossible. We enjoyed riding along the beach, on the firm sand between water and dune.

Ancient Indian sites have been found on the island. Petroglyphs carved into basalt boulders have been found in various locations. Unfortunately, many have been carried home by vandals; few remain to be viewed. The remains of villages and rock shelters can be seen by careful observers, but they are difficult to identify.

Kris Baughman works at the Guthrie bike shop in downtown Salt Lake. He has ridden the Stansbury trail several times. He says it's a fun trail which is not well known.

The trail is about 10 miles long. A single track takes you up over the middle of the island, where there are steep switch-backs, some with considerable exposure. Most riders walk their bikes in spots.

After crossing a mountain, the trail drops down into a valley and then joins a dirt road on the east side. Riders then follow dirt roads back around the island to the trail-head.

"The single track is rather technical," Kris said. "On a scale of 1-10, I'd give it a 7 or 8. It's steep and rocky."

For more information, call Kris at Guthrie, 363-3727."

Stansbury is the second largest island in Great Salt Lake. It's status as an island depends on level of the lake. During low water periods it has been a peninsula. It is now connected to the mainland by a good, permanent, gravel road, and is surrounded on the west and south by evaporation ponds which are diked off from the lake.

The island is approximately 11.5 miles long and 4.5 miles wide, and covers some 22,314 acres.

The highest point, called Castle Rock, is 6,649 feet above sea level, towering about 2,440 feet above the lake. From the rock you can see over the entire lake, its islands and the surrounding area.

Much of the island is public land, managed by BLM, and is open to recreationists. Some of the west side is privately owned, as is a section on the east side. (See map.) As a result, the public has easy access to the south half of the island, but the sandy beaches and coves on the north end are accessible only by boat, or by hiking through the extremely rugged cliffs composing the center of the island.

Historically, cattle have played an important role on the island. Some Great Salt Lake islands were considered excellent places for cattle because they supplied grass, fresh water, protection from predators, and because the cattle couldn't wander away. In 1850, LDS church leaders set aside Stansbury and Antelope islands for cattle grazing, in an effort to raise money for the Perpetual Emigration Company, which assisted church members in emigrating to Utah. Animals found straying in the Salt Lake City area were impounded and, if not claimed within a month, were donated to the Perpetual Emigration Company. Many animals were shipped to Stansbury Island, where they were fattened before being sold.

Today the island is used as winter range for cattle, on both private ranches and BLM ground.

Stansbury Bay, to the west of the island, has been diked off and is used by AMAX Magnesium for the extraction of magnesium. The American Salt Company operates a salt refining plant and evaporation ponds to the south of the island.

There are dunes along the western shore, composed of oolitic sand. The sand grains are hollow, and so are light and easily blown by the wind.

There are springs on the east side of the island, but they are mineral-laden and not desirable for human use.

There are no developed camping facilities on the island.

The exact size of the island depends on the level of the lake. In the early '60s, the lake fell to its all-time low at 4,191 feet. It reached its modern all-time high in 1987, at 4,212 feet. That's when pumps were installed to push lake water into the west desert and keep the lake from inundating Salt Lake International Airport and 1-80. The lake will probably never be allowed to grow to that level again.

The salt content of the water varies with the lake level. In the '60s it was about 25%, and fell to under 10% in the '80s.

In pioneer times many people assumed the Great Salt Lake was connected to the Pacific Ocean. Early maps showed two rivers, Beneuventura and La Soloda, running between the lake and the ocean.

The lake was circumnavigated and officially surveyed in 1850 by Howard Stansbury, for whom the island was named. Even after Stansbury confirmed that there were no river outlets, many people had trouble believing the lake was not connected to the ocean.

The Great Salt Lake is a wonderful recreation area which is underutilized by boaters and hikers. Some fear running motor boats in the lake's salty water. But that does not need to be a concern, if you take a few precautions. Motor boats have been operated safely in salt water since they were first introduced, decades ago. The concentration of salt in the lake is greater that in the ocean, but that is not a problem. You simply need to wash the salt off your boat and flush it out of your engine after your excursion on the lake. Fresh water for that purpose is available at the marinas.

You also need to get to know the lake, which is shallow and includes several areas where there are boating hazards. Don't venture onto the lake without a good map. Several are available, you can buy them at the various boat or sailing shops in the area, or at the marinas. You also need to monitor the weather carefully before you launch, and while you are on the water. Storms can arise quickly, and high winds are often a problem. Waves on the shallow lake can become monstrous in a hurry.

The white sand beaches on the north end of Stansbury Island are considered by many to be the best swimming areas on the lake. They are accessible only by boat, or by a rugged hike over the craggy middle of the island.

Some people have had an unpleasant experience swimming in the lake. From some spots you must wade through a hundreds yards of mud, battling brine flies, to reach water inches deep. The smell along some shorelines is far from pleasant. But these conditions do not exist on many beaches on the islands. The environment is pleasant and the water ideal for swimming. The temperature of the water pushes up toward 80 degrees most summers, making it very inviting.

For more information, read Marilyn Kraczek's excellent book, "Small Boat Cruising On Great Salt Lake, Past and Present." It is full of detailed descriptions, practical information, and interesting tales of adventure. It was published by Hawkes Publishing.