Into the Dreamscape of Antelope Island

“Lovers of science, lovers of wildness, lovers of pure rest will find here more than they may hope for.” (John Muir, Chapter 8: Bathing in Salt Lake, Steep Trails)

Seeing Antelope Island for the first time is like entering a dream, a vision of a Dali landscape, its colors subdued. The largest of ten islands in the Great Salt Lake and a state park since 1981, it still seems like a well-hidden treasure. There was virtually no one there when we drove up one late afternoon in mid-autumn.

Antelope Island - the Dali dreamscape

Like a Dali dreamscape

A narrow 7-mile causeway connects you to the island. The view is entrancing–looking into the lake, you feel like you are looking at the end of Earth, its outer reaches still being formed before your very eyes:

The Great Salt Lake - driving to Antelope Island

“…your eye skims the blue levels of the great lake, out of the midst of which rise island mountains, and beyond, at a distance of fifty miles, is seen the picturesque wall of the lakeside mountains blending with the lake and the sky.” (John Muir, Chapter 6: The City of the Saints, Steep Trails)

California Gull, Antelope Island Causeway

Antelope Island causeway

The Antelope Island causeway, view from the island Expect to linger on the causeway: Birdwatching opportunities here are breathtaking. Migrating and nesting waterbirds are everywhere, feeding on the Great Salt Lake’s clouds of brine flies, which together with brine shrimp make up the charismatic fauna of these salty waters. Flies–they do not bite and tend to stick close to the lake’s shores–are spectacular in their own way. When I tried approaching the water, grand waves of tiny black dots welled up and rushed away from me, their buzzing swelling up and dying down in startling unison. Oddly mesmerizing, I must admit.

Long-billed curlew, feeding on brine flies (Antelope Island causeway)

Long-billed curlew, California gulls, and the dancing circles of flies

An American Avocet at Antelope Island causeway

An American avocet

Seagulls over the Antelope Island causeway

Antelope Island causeway

California gulls, resting along the causeway. California gull is Utah’s state bird in gratitude for this legendary feat of cricket control in 1848: “Just in the midst of the work of destruction great flocks of gulls appeared…. All day long they gorged themselves, and when full, disgorged and feasted again… until the pests were vanquished and the people were saved. The heaven-sent birds then returned to the lake islands whence they came.” (Orson F. Whitney, History of Utah)

On the island, its stark, rugged landscape stuns with another unexpected shape: bison! Brought here in the 1890s, when the species was facing extinction, the herd now fluctuates between 500 and 700 individuals, the largest publicly owned bison herd in the nation and one of its oldest.

Buffalo crossing at Antelope Island

Bison crossing at Antelope Island

Bison at the Antelope Island State Park

Our first glimpses of the bison

Bison at the Antelope Island

Bison beach, Antelope Island State Park

To avoid overgrazing, the size of the herd is controlled through an annual bison roundup in October, apparently stunning to behold, resulting in sale of about 200 calves and adults each year. Having seen these majestic creatures sail through the island, it seems like a more humane population control option could be devised than sale for slaughter, priced and “processed” by weight.

Bison at rest, Antelope Island State Park

Bison at rest

Apart from bison-spotting, you can explore the island’s many scenic trails or visit an 1848 ranch house, built by Fielding Garr, a Virginia transplant. Despite its seemingly barren terrain, Antelope Island was host to one of Utah’s oldest agricultural settlements. We tried to visit the ranch but arrived too late–the access road to the house closes at 5 pm. Our drive to the ranch was lucky in the end, though. Not far from the locked gate we spotted two coyotes. Here’s one of them, examining us examining him:

Coyote at Antelope Island

Sadly, we did not get to spot the island’s other famous inhabitant: the pronghorn antelope, the fastest mammal on foot in the Western hemisphere. John C. Fremont and Kit Carson, the first known European explorers of the island, shot two of them upon arrival in 1845 and, “in grateful supply of the meat they furnished, … gave their name to the island.” The antelopes disappeared in the early 20th century but were reintroduced to the island in 1993, now under careful watch by wildlife researchers.

The surrounding views more than made up for this disappointment–and I will certainly come back. Even winter looks stunning here, and I am yet to experience another of Antelope Island’s grand spectacles–sunset over the Great Salt Lake. For now, I will just have to imagine it, superimposed over these farewell glimpses:

Antelope Island State Park views of the lake

Antelope Island State Park - views Birds of the Antelope Island causeway

Birds of the Antelope Island causeway

Avocets, gulls, ducks–a kaleidoscope of waterbirds

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19 thoughts on “Into the Dreamscape of Antelope Island

    • That’s my reaction too. I learned about these particulars of the roundup as I was writing the blog–and it took away from the charm of the place for me. This must be such a traumatic experience for the herd, one I do not want to witness.

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