What do you do when you’ve already accomplished an amazing weekend? It’s a good question to have to ask, a good problem to have. And it’s what faced Elizabeth and myself in Provo on November 19, 2023. We’d already been to Mount Timpanogos. We’d already hiked the Y Trail. We’d seen BYU’s campus and witnessed a thrilling college football game. We’d eaten great food and heck, we’d even been to Provo’s bar! Other people would take that as a sign that they’d had an amazing trip and take it easy in town ahead of their 5:30 flight from Salt Lake City.

Not us, though. I view extra days like that as a chance to discover some unplanned gem from a trip, and this was about to be the prototypical unplanned gem. It started by asking myself what I’d like to see in northern Utah. That had an obvious answer: Great Salt Lake. My second choice would have been the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the transcontinental railroad was completed. Since it was my birthday weekend, I think I even had the relationship capital to get Elizabeth to agree. But a 2 hour drive for a historical site was pushing it even for me, especially when Great Salt Lake had Antelope Island State Park just a little over an hour away. So we set about cleaning up our AirBNB (Elizabeth wasn’t even able to walk up the stairs, the Y Trail had messed her up so much) and then packed our stuff into the rental car.

It was kind of a rainy, gloomy day in Provo. Low clouds hung over the Wasatch well below the snow line. Restaurants all over town were closed for the Sabbath, which left us in the age-old position of relying on Starbucks breakfast sandwiches for sustenance. We took one more lap around some of BYU’s buildings in part to witness the students on their way to their Sunday services (there were some true fashion STATEMENTS underneath their umbrellas) and then hopped on I-15 for the drive through Salt Lake City. The weather wasn’t the best for sightseeing as I drove through downtown, but it looked like a fairly neat place. The traffic seemed like it might be more than Elizabeth’s car anxiety could manage, though.

Antelope “Island” is actually connected to the main part of Utah by a causeway on its northeastern end. Due to the extremely low water levels in the lake in recent years, the strip of land causeway has become much wider than it is at higher lake levels (Great Salt Lake is actually extremely shallow at most points). Elizabeth and I paid our entry fee for the state park, collected our map, anddrove across this weird collection of salt flat, road, and scrub brush for what felt like forever (but was really only 6 miles) before the land around the road began to widen and rise up from the lake bed at the northeastern tip of the island. We had a lot of spirited enthusiasm but no real idea of what to expect or do.

So we decided to start with the relatively short and flat Lady Finger Trail that appeared to head right down to the water. My reasoning: why go to Great Salt Lake if you’re not going to touch the water?

Well, it turns out there are several reasons, beginning with the fact that the water was way back from the shoreline.

Other reasons included the cold day and driving wind in our face as well as the apparently toxic nature of the Salt Lake bottomlands. Did you know that the lake floor contains high amounts of arsenic? Apparently it’s a major concern in the area since the whole lake is in danger of drying up and turning to dust. If I were a state legislator, I too would find an ecological disaster far more pressing if it might send arsenic dust into my face.

With all of that said, there was a certain rugged beauty to the Lady Finger Trail. It passed over surprisingly rocky terrain with little mosses and scrub brushes clinging to the dusty ground.

Beyond that, whenever there was a little gap in the rain showers and clouds you could see a long way out into the vastness of Great Salt Lake.

And the trail was marked by educational signs alongside of it. Those always really increase my enjoyment of a trail (see the signs on the way to Drift Creek Falls in Oregon). Through these signs, I learned something about the wildlife of Antelope Island and the surrounding lake. Unsurprisingly, fish don’t live in the Great Salt Lake due to its salinity, but the salty water is a breeding ground for bring shrimp and brine flies. Those in turn bring in all of the birds. Like, all of the birds. We saw several flocks that must have gone several hundred strong during our few hours on the island.

Our impromptu exploration of Antelope Island continued with a short drive up to the Visitor’s Center, located on a promontory overlooking the northern tip of the island where we’d just hiked. Along the way, Elizabeth and I made a delightful (to me) and scary (to her) discovery; there were bison on Antelope Island. The Antelope Island bison herd is actually quite famous in American conversation circles; a few bison were brought there in the late 1800s as the species was on the verge of extinction by a rich guy looking to breed them then charge money to hunt them. Eventually, the state of Utah bought Antelope Island and acquired the herd, which is one of the largest mostly-free-range herds in the U.S. to this day. And one of those herd members was hanging out right by the visitor’s center parking lot.

I was reminded of our visit to Yellowstone a few years ago. Elizabeth had been in favor of giving bison as wide a berth as possible (although not to the degree that her mom was) while I was just delighted to be in the presence of the living vestiges of America’s past. The bison (and its brethren, which sporadically dotted the landscape) did not share our complex human emotions. It continued to slowly chew the dormant grass in front of us, because that’s what bison do.

The visitor’s center was on the smaller side, but it was well-equipped with exhibits that were educational and fascinating to me. There was a lot about Great Salt Lake and how it formed out of the remnants of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville. There was a lot about the current plight of Great Salt Lake’s water levels and what could happen if it continues to shrink. There was a solid accounting of the wildlife on Antelope Island, which has become a preserve for bison, coyotes, pronghorns, bighorns, and millions of birds. And there was even quite a bit about the human history of the island; the Native American uses of the island, how Jim Bridger was the first white person to see Great Salt Lake, how John Fremont and Kit Carson stayed on the island for several days (and even named it) during their explorations in the early 1840s. I’ll eat that stuff up every time. Combine that with a solid gift shop, where I could get a pin and Elizabeth could buy a Christmas ornament fashioned out of salt taken straight from the lake. All in all, it was a great visitor’s center.

From there, we took a short drive down the east side of the island along the main park road. I’m quite certain that Antelope Island has a wild beauty to it during the green-up season. In November, everything was dead and yellow. But it didn’t take a ton of imagination to think of what that must look like when April rolls around.

There’s a little mountain halfway down the island called Frary Peak. If we’d had more time (and higher cloud decks), the view from Frary Peak would have made for one heck of a nice capper to the trip. As it was, we had just enough time to drive up to the parking lot for the trailhead. Given how cold and windy it was, that was probably enough for the day. The view was nice enough even given those constraints – Great Salt Lake may be noticeably low in water, but it sure is vast.

On the way back to the front of the island, I saw something out the window that was probably nothing, but would be hilarious if it was something:

I had one last thing to do before we left Antelope Island; I needed to touch Great Salt Lake. Of all of the weirdness on this island, the marina was one of the weirdest. There were some floating docks sitting way down in the stagnant pool of water, with just a little bit of the boat ramp still remaining submerged.

We saw one or two boaters out on the lake, so apparently the water levels weren’t too low to keep people from getting out there and freezing their asses off. I took a cautious step toward the edge of the lake and dipped my hand into the briny water. It felt… watery. My hand smelled… salty. And gross. Whatever else you can say about Great Salt Lake, it definitely does not feel like a “clean” lake.

And that was pretty much it for our adventures on Antelope Island. The lack of wildlife outside of bison and birds had been a mild disappointment, and… wait… what was that running across the dried-up lakebed a hundred yards or so to our right?

A coyote! I take back any complaints – Antelope Island was all-around a good visit.

As I’m writing this months later, I wonder if I’m doing Antelope Island justice. I worry that I made it sound like a barren, climate-change-apocalypse wasteland that we only stopped by and immediately turned around at. To me, it was a way more fun visit than that. Great Salt Lake is one of those iconic American landmarks; I couldn’t believe that I was actually seeing it in person, especially since we had no prior plans to. It was also the cap to a really fun and extremely stress-free trip, something I’ve come to value in an era where Elizabeth and I tend to take schedule-packed weekend getaways. Those getaways are fun, but a lot of times they can have stressors (see: our drive to Holbrook from Phoenix, or the soon-to-be-blogged hike on the Ouray Perimeter Trail). Elizabeth and I handle those types of stressors very differently – she prefers to face them head-on, and I prefer to look at the bright side of things. It’s a balance that makes us a good travel duo, but it certainly can lead to conflict along the way. This trip to Utah was almost entirely free of conflict or stressors; this trip to Antelope Island was just fun and spontaneous. We smiled and laughed a lot that afternoon. I cherish that as much as I cherish any view.

Besides, Salt Lake City has something that Oklahoma City doesn’t: In n Out. If I hadn’t been content with this “extra” day in Utah before, a Double Double animal style with animal style fries would have tipped me over the edge. Not even a long drive through the Salt Lake City traffic back to the airport could get me down. The airport required just as long a walk as it had when we landed (don’t expect to have a good time in SLC if you aren’t flying Delta), but at least it had a polar bear with a Santa hat.

AND it had a Shake Shack.

After another flight full of OU fans, we had another long-ish layover in Denver. This time, Elizabeth went up to the AmEx lounge on her own, as there was no real need to pay the $50 guest fee. She got teased for it by OU fans who recognized her and asked where the birthday boy was (he was at Einstein Bro’s), but she saved us money. So it seems like a no-brainer to me!

And just like that, another weekend getaway was gone. My 26th birthday trip was truly memorable in multiple ways – in part for the unexpectedly stunning beauty of the Wasatch, in part because of the unexpectedly stunning football game, and in part because of the totally expected amazingness of my wife. When Elizabeth reads this, thank you for making it such a special weekend, and I can’t wait for what we come up with for my 28th birthday next year!

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