Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Richard Rhodes read National Geographic and dreamed of visiting the places in the pictures someday.
Earlier this year, when a company transfer landed him in Utah, Rhodes looked forward to seeing the Great Salt Lake he had read about in the magazine.
Now he wonders what all the excitement was about.
“It’s something I always wanted to see, but it’s disappointing,” Rhodes said.
The view is hardly enticing. Wide mud flats separate the lake from the park and the air is filled with the stench of black, rotting scum that fouls the shore. Touted as a wonder of nature in geography classes from Tokyo to Tupelo, Miss., the Great Salt Lake falls flat on close inspection. Tourists find it a letdown. Utahans simply ignore it.
Visitor centers in downtown Salt Lake City offer tourists hundreds of brochures advertising everything from ski slopes to the city’s Mormon temple, but there isn’t one publication about the lake, which is eight miles away.
Yet as the state struggles to diversify its economy, eyes are turning to the lake and its potential as a tourist attraction.
Seventy miles long and 30 miles wide, the Great Salt Lake is the largest body of water west of the Mississippi River, and so salty that boats and swimmers bob like corks.
Nothing lives or grows in its warm, shallow waters except algae, billions of half-inch-long brine shrimp and gnat-like brine flies. The scummy residue that fouls the beach is a byproduct of the lake’s food chain: brine fly larvae wash ashore in thick bands and rot in the sun. The smell keeps most people away.
The lake’s hundreds of miles of shoreline have only two public boat launches, one small marina and one developed beach. Attempts to build resorts along the shore have ended in disaster: The fickle lake floods them or recedes, leaving them miles from the water’s edge.
But Utah tourism officials say they’ve come up with the perfect way to improve the lake’s poor reputation. The answer lies just 12 miles across Farmington Bay from downtown Salt Lake City: Antelope Island.
About two-thirds as large as Santa Catalina, the rugged island is a never-settled wilderness where hundreds of buffalo graze. Hiking trails wind around its craggy peaks and wildlife abound in glades of native cottonwood and locust. There’s even a waterfall.
Best of all, the island has dazzling white sand beaches with no larvae.
“It has all the right stuff to attract people from all over the world,” said Mitch Larsson, a Great Salt Lake State Park ranger, who envisions as many as 1.5 million people each year visiting “one of the most pristine little Yellowstones in the United States.”
If only they could get there.
Floods in the 1980s washed out an eight-mile causeway that linked the mainland to a small state park on the island’s north tip. The Legislature waited until 1990 to provided money to rebuild it, but didn’t appropriate enough to pave the road or repair the flood-damaged park. The causeway cannot open for at least two more years.
Meanwhile, a Salt Lake City businessman has a plan to build an all-weather causeway linking the island’s southern tip to the mainland, all at federal expense. Bruce Decker wants to build the causeway with clay-covered toxic waste--the lead- and arsenic-contaminated smelter tailings from a nearby federal Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup site.
With two causeways, the theory goes, tourists could bike or drive a 180-mile loop, taking in the beauty of the island, and spending more money in Utah. Officials say they are intrigued by the idea but it would require years of study.
So Antelope Island is out of reach.
“There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t find people sitting at the end of the causeway, wanting to get to the island,” said J. Dell Holbrook, a Davis County commissioner and Antelope Island booster. “If we’ve got a draw like this, we’re damn fools if we don’t do something with it.”