Salt Lake City, UT

Visiting Antelope Island, the Great(ly) Diminished Salt Lake

Rene Cizio

On Antelope Island, the buffalo roam. And it’s a beautiful miracle.

Not so many years ago, the American Bison, or buffalo, were almost extinct. They say that once in the late 18th century, these glorious beasts numbered over 60 million. There were so many buffalo in this country that a crossing could last up to six days. You’d just have to wait as they lumbered and rumbled past. But then they were hunted. And hunted and hunted and hunted.

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One day you didn’t see any more buffalo. None at all. By 1889 there were just 541 buffalo left.

Now, through repopulation programs in various western states and places, the buffalo have made a comeback.

Still, I never expected to see them roam in herds. I’d watched the National Geographic series on national parks. They created one about Yellowstone and featured the buffalos. So many of them, rutting and repopulating themselves now. Seemingly unstoppable, if not for humans.

The Buffalo of Antelope Island

I’d heard that I might see buffalo on Antelope Island, but what I saw surpassed my expectations and though I had nothing to do with their survival - great pride that they had. It’s humbling to see something that was almost lost to history.

What I didn’t know what the bison are the island's most famous residents. Park officials placed 12 of the animals on the island in 1893 to help the repopulation efforts. Today, the herd numbers several hundred. Now, they hold a yearly bison round-up to check the herd health and sell extra animals. Thus, the buffalo lives on.

Visiting the Park

Antelope Island is a state park and requires a $15 fee or park pass. Getting onto the island requires crossing a roadway built over the Great Salt Lake. Or at least, what used to be a once-great Lake. The biggest lake west of the Mississippi River and one of the saltiest in the world.

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A Salty Lake

The Great Salt Lake, like the buffalo, used to be much more than it is now. It covered the entire region. But now, it is a mere puddle of its former self. And that puddle grows smaller each year. This is the lowest the lake has ever been. The marina is dry, and the white, salty shorelines extend further than they ever used to.

I had come to Antelope Island, not specifically to see the buffalo, which I had no expectations of finding, but to see the Great Salt Lake. This lake is at least four times as salty as an ocean. Maybe more. It is so salty nearly nothing lives in it.

The locals had said to avoid the lake. It stinks, and the bugs were out of control, and nobody goes there, and the beach is muddy. The reviews online said much the same. “Skip it.”

But I am incapable of skipping anything rare and unique, and historically valuable.

So I went, so set my eyes and maybe my feet in the Great Salt Lake.

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Diminishing Water

You can’t prepare for the absence of water as you cross the causeway. Where there should be water, there is only white sandy residue. I wanted to lick my fingers and dip them in the white and taste them to see if it was salty. I held back.

I got out of the van to take a picture. First, you are hit by the heat, always in the upper 90s in Salt Lake City in summer. Then the smell from the Brine Shrimp, Brine Flies and algae hits you. A putrid stench of long-dead fish baking in the sun. It was so foul it burned my eyes. I had thought I might hike, but if I could expect that stench across the island, well, I was rethinking it.

The Beach

I stopped at scenic overlooks and measured where the water should be and where it was. I looked for people and saw too few of them. On the beach, alone umbrella with a family surrounding it held court. A few other stragglers walk along the beach. It looked much bigger than it needed to be. Receded, eroded, expanded. The lone family made it appear even bigger. A place nobody would go.

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The Island

I drove deeper into the island and the stench abated. On the island, they’ve place life-sized fiberglass statues of buffalo. In the park literature, they tell you the warning signs of a buffalo attack and warn you to stay away from them. There are tips if you inadvertently get too close.

Finding the Buffalo

Then, as surprising as seeing a ghost. I saw one. Just one. A big brown buffalo alone in a field, head down, munching on grass.

“Whoop!” I shouted to myself in the van and pulled over immediately. I stood outside my van and watched him, oblivious to other’s presence and not caring.

He was majestic and only a taste of what was to come.

Driving further down the road, I found hundreds of them. They crossed the dry lake bed in a long row—the biggest males in the lead, followed by the females and the babies. There were so many babies. My heart swelled with pride.

More cars pulled over and for a long time, nobody felt inclined to do anything else. We just stood there watching them move, sometimes trot, across the plain.

Where the Buffalo Roam

As I continued to drive through the island, there were frequent stops to let the buffalo cross the road, to see them in a new environment, and to wonder over the way that they’ve taken over the island.

While the Great Salt Lake may be diminished, the buffalo are reborn. It’s a rare and wonderful opportunity to see the circle of life, ecological change, and a great success story.

Visit Antelope Island at 4528 West 1700 South Syracuse, Utah 84075.

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Digital nomad, solo road tripping through the USA in my van. I write about travel, adventure, culture, and self-improvement. Pictures on Instagram @renecizio

Chicago, IL
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