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Bonneville Salt Flats: The Dazzling Beauty of the Great Salt Lake

February 1, 2021 /
Bonneville Salt Flats Utah

Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

Bonneville Salt Flats is one of the most unusual natural wonders that you may be lucky enough to see while traveling in the United States. It is located in the desert plains of northwestern Utah, about 120 miles from Salt Lake City and a few miles from the border with Nevada. There, you will find a huge flat expanse of salt that stretches as far as the eye can see, a surreal landscape that will remind those who have visited Death Valley of the unforgettable views of Badwater Basin. It is a large basin of dazzling white salt that is also used for speed races, where multiple world records have been set.

The reason why this attraction is normally not included in classic tours is certainly not the lack of charm, but the fact that it is not easy to reach. In this article, we will give you information about visiting Bonneville Salt Flats and show you how to include it in a road trip itinerary.

What is Bonneville Salt Flats

how to get to bonneville salt flatsThis large prehistoric lake once covered much of the eastern flank of the Great Basin, a region that included large portions of Nevada, Utah and Oregon, and crossed into California. As a result of climate change, about 14,500 years ago, the lake began to dry up, leaving some smaller lakes with high salt concentrations in their place, the most famous of which is the Great Salt Lake, located west of Salt Lake City.

In the area west of the present-day Great Salt Lake, on the other hand, the drained basin of the lake, whose sparkling white color is caused by the high concentration of salt (it seems that most of the salt used in American households comes from here), extends for a length of about 12 miles and a width of between 3 and 5 miles. Another feature that is particularly striking is the effect created by the pressure ridges, slabs shaped like hexagons that are created in some parts of the ground (these will also sound familiar to those who have visited Badwater Basin).

But there are other reasons that bring visitors to Bonneville Salt Flats, especially racing enthusiasts. Since 1935, world speed records on 2 wheels have been set and then continuously broken until Gary Gabelich reached the frightening speed of 630 mph in 1970. This record was broken again, but not here; it was broken in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada.

The area is also known for having been secretly used in the past by the U.S. government for ballistic testing of atomic (inert) bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the nearby town of Wendover, there was a large military base (now no longer in use) with hundreds of bombers including the infamous Enola Gay.

How to Get to Bonneville Salt Flats

visiting bonneville salt flats
Westbound Area

Bonneville Salt Flats is located in northwestern Utah, not far from the border with Nevada. The nearest major city is Salt Lake City, from where it will take you almost 2 hours by car to get to the salt flats. There are at least 3 entrances to take into consideration (I’ll provide you the names here so that you can find on google maps for your convenience):

  • Salt Flats Rest Area Westbound: A rest area with restrooms and a fountain for rinsing your shoes. It can only be reached from the East (Salt Lake City). After you park, you can go walk on the large salt plain.
  • Salt Flats Rest Area Eastbound: A rest area similar to the one above, but this one overlooks the south side. It includes an elevated platform from which you can take beautiful panoramic pictures and you can get here when traveling from the west (Wendover) or on your way back to Salt Lake City.
  • Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway: The racetrack where the speed races are held. From here you can drive directly on the salt dunes.


WARNING

The Westbound Area can only be visited if you are coming from the east (from the Salt Lake City area, for example) and you must be very careful not to miss it for the following 2 reasons:

  • It is not well indicated; it is a regular rest area and the sign only says “Rest Area” (see image below)
  • If you miss it, it’ll take you about 45 minutes to get back!!!! Because if you are heading east, the first available U-Turn is 39 miles from the Westbound Area!
bonneville salt flats westbound-entrance
Westbound Area Sign

The problem also arises for the Eastbound Area, which also has a normal rest area sign and you will have to drive a long distance to find a U-Turn in case you miss the turn for the Eastbound Area.

bonneville salt flats eastbound-entrance
Eastbound Area Sign

In order not to drive additional miles and lose time, follow these directions:

Salt Flats Rest Area Westbound

  • Coordinates to be entered in the GPS: 40.740677, -113.851430
  • Location on Google Maps: Salt Flats West Area Westbound
  • Directions: Turn right about 16 miles after the sculpture called Metaphor: The Tree of Utah

Salt Flats Rest Area Eastbound

  • Coordinates to be entered in the GPS: 40.737917, -113.858111
  • Location on Google Maps: Salt Flats Rest Area EB
  • Directions: If you are coming from Wendover, the sign for the right turn will be 10 miles away from the city.

Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway

  • Coordinates to be entered in the GPS: 40.763762, -113.887411
  • Location on Google Maps: Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway
  • Directions: Whether you are coming from Salt Lake City or Wendover, take Exit 4, which is also clearly indicated as the exit for Bonneville Speedway.
salt lake city to bonneville salt flats
Speedway Entrance

From Salt Lake City to Bonneville Salt Flats

from salt lake city to bonneville salt flats
The road to the salt flats

The road to the salt flats is quite interesting. It runs along the south side of the Great Salt Lake, near the Great Saltair, where you can make a quick stop, and the Great Salt Lake State Park. On the way up Interstate 80, you will begin to notice a series of saline concretions and I had been somewhere else, I would have mistaken it for snow.

As the landscape transforms into desert, you will have to pay closer attention. On your right, in the monotonous desert landscape, you will be surprised by some land art installations emerging above the ground. The most famous one is Metaphor: The Tree of Utah, made by Karl Momen in 1986, but if you look carefully along the way you will also notice others. If you’re interested in the genre, land art is popular in this area, and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City is supportive of the land art movement.

Metaphor The Tree of Utah
Metaphor: The Tree of Utah

After driving about 2 hours, 16 miles after Karl Momen’s sculpture, you will find the Westbound Area. After visiting this area, get back in the car, continue on I-80 and get off at Exit 4. You will be at the racetrack in about 15 minutes, the same time it will take you to reach the East Bound Area on your way back towards Salt Lake City. Following this route, you can say you have had a full tour of Bonneville Salt Flats.

Best time to visit Bonneville Salt Flats

There’s no particularly favorable time of the year to go, because every season is incredible in its own way. However, if you want to enjoy visiting the expanse during its highest saline concentration you can visit it during the summer. I visited it during that time and the view was really impressive.

In winter and spring, however, you can find the wet salt crust and a line of water along the surface reflects the surrounding mountains and it looks incredible (see photo above). The downside of visiting Bonneville Salt Flats at this time is that, due to the wet soil, the possibility to drive on the salt flats is severely limited both for safety reasons and for the need to preserve the site.

Useful Information

bonneville salt flats things to doBefore visiting Bonneville Flats, here are some recommendations that may be useful to you:

  • The sun reflects on the saline surface and creates a dazzling light. It is a good idea to bring sunglasses, since light could be bothersome if it gets in your eyes. Of course, if you go to Bonneville Flats the summer, bring everything you need to protect yourself from the sun.
  • You should take the following precautions while driving on the salt flats:
    • Always try to stay on the white part of the ground. In the darker areas there may be mud and you may get stuck
    • Drive very slowly when passing puddles
    • Follow the tracks left by other vehicles
    • Pay attention to the already mentioned pressure ridges, which are thick. Consequently, if you drive over them at a high speed, it can cause damage to the vehicle

How to include Bonneville Salt Flats in an Itinerary

can anyone drive at bonneville salt flatsAs I already mentioned, Bonneville Salt Flats is located in a rather remote area and usually not included in traditional road trips. In my opinion, there are 2 ways to include it in an itinerary:

  1. Take a day trip from Salt Lake City, like I did.
  2. Make a stop there if you are traveling from the parks of Utah and are heading west towards Sacramento, California.

Below are detailed suggestions for both itineraries:

Where to Stay

wendover-will
Wendover Will

If you opt for a day trip from Salt Lake City, I advise you not only to look for accommodations in the city, but also in the immediate surroundings. You will find my detailed guide for where to seek accommodations in this article.

On the other hand, if you are coming from Salt Lake City and plan to cross Nevada and conclude the trip in California, you might consider the following stops:

  • Wendover and West Wendover: They are small towns in the vicinity of Bonneville Salt Flats. Wendover is in Utah and West Wendover is in Nevada, but they form a single urban agglomeration. Those looking for accommodations a stone’s throw from the salt flats can look here -> Accommodations
  • Elko: If you want to drive a few more miles before stopping, Elko, almost 2 hours away, may be the right solution not only for the availability of accommodations, but also for its western roots, that you can learn about at the California Trail Historic Interpretive Center -> Accommodations
  • Winnemucca: It is 2 hours from Elko and 3.5 hours from Bonneville Salt Flats. Winnemucca is a suitable stop for those who want to cover as much ground as possible in 1 day -> Accommodations
  • Reno: This is the third largest city in Nevada, about 6 hours from Bonneville Salt Flats, and it offers many overnight options and attractions. Don’t miss the National Automobile Museum, one of the country’s largest classic car collections -> Accommodations
  • Sacramento: The capital of California and the hub of the Gold Rush. It is located about 2 hours away from Reno and has a lot to offer to visitors. If you want to learn more, check out our guide to what to see in Sacramento, where you’ll also find tips on where to sleep.

If you are traveling in the opposite direction, remember that you cannot stop at the Salt Flats Rest Area Westbound, but can only stop at the Eastbound Rest Area. Given the choice, I would go for the first one, going westbound.

Around Bonneville Salt Flats

around bonneville salt flats
Sun Tunnels

If you have some time to explore the surrounding area, the nearby town of Wendover offers a few points of interest, including the Historic Wendover Airfield Museum, the historic military base used during World War II, and Wendover Will, the tall statue of a cowboy, which is a destination for anyone who loves to take selfies!

Those who love desert landscapes and land art can take a long detour to discover the Sun Tunnels, created by  Nancy Holt, which is an installation of 4 large cylinders arranged on the desert in the shape of a cross and aligned at dawn and dusk on the summer and winter solstices. Unfortunately, this work of art is out of the way (about 1.5 hours driving from Bonneville Salt Flats) and I suggest to consider visiting it only if you are staying in Wendover or in the immediate surroundings.

Looking for something really weird?

republic of zaqistan utah

If you’re staying near Wendover and you’re willing to drive 137 miles in search of bizarre and unconventional attractions, you might decide to “expatriate” to the Republic of Zaqistan, an independent state born in 2005, when New Yorker Zaq Landsberg bought a plot of land on eBay to make it a small sovereign state. You will find neither inhabitants nor dwellings here, but there are some symbolic installations that embody the spirit of this young nation. If this place inspires you, you can also apply for citizenship and a passport!

Photo Gallery


Our Tip:
Looking for accommodations for your trip from California to other parts of the Southwest? Read our guide that contains reviews of hotels and strategic tips for finding accommodations near major attractions: Where to Stay: Our Tips for the SouthWest Area

lorenzo puliti

I am fascinated by the wonders of the world I never tire of going in search of them.

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