Bonneville Salt Flats

Bonneville Salt Flats

Imagine a place so flat you seem to see the curvature of the planet, so barren not even the simplest life forms can exist. Imagine the passing thunder of strange vehicles hurtling by on a vast, dazzling white plain. This is to an alien world far from earth; it is Utah's famous Bonneville Salt Flats.
The Bonneville Salt Flats is one of the most unique natural features in Utah. Stretching over 30,000 acres, the Bonneville Salt Flats is a fragile resource administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
Thousands of visitors, commercial film makers, and of course, high-speed auto racers, make the Bonneville Salt Flats a world famous destination.


Racing for Speed

The Salt Flat's potential for racing was first recognized in 1896 by W.D. Rishel who was scouting a bicycle race course from New York to San Francisco. Rishel returned and convinced daredevil Teddy Tezlaff to attempt an automobile speed record on the flats. Tezlaff drive a Blitzen Benz 141.73 m.p.h. to set an unofficial record in 1914.
The Salt Flats drew international attention in the 1930s when Utah drive Ab Jenkins lured British racer Sir Malcolm Campbell to compete for speed records on the salt surface.
By 1949, the raceway on the Bonneville Salt Flats was the standard course for world land speed records. On this natural straightaway, the 300, 400, 500, and 600 mile per hour land speed barriers were broken.
In the 1960s, jet powered vehicles and names like Craig Breedlove (600.6 mph) and Art Arfons (576.55 mph) captured the imagination of millions. In 1970, Gary Gabolich's rocket car, Blue Flame, attained a spectacular 622.4 miles per hour.
Since the first speed record attempts in 1914, hundreds of records have been set and broken in a variety of automotive and motorcycle classes.


Ancient Lake Bonneville

Although he never visited the salt flats, the area is named in honor of Captain B. L. E. Bonneville, whose expeditions in the 1830s proved the area was a part of the ancient basin.

During the last Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago, Lake Bonneville was the size of Lake Michigan. It covered one-third of present day Utah and parts of neighboring states. You can see traces of the shorelines, representing different levels of the receding lake, etched into the mountains surrounding the salt flats.

The Bonneville Salt Flats and the Great Salt Lake are remnants of ancient Lake Bonneville. Wind and water combine to create the flat surface of salt. Each winter, a shallow layer of standing water floods the surface of the salt flats. During spring and summer, the water slowly evaporates while winds smooth the surface into a vast, nearly perfect, flat plain.

The salt surface contains potassium, magnesium lithium, and sodium chloride (common table salt).


A Barrier of Salt

Humans have lived in the Great Basin for thousands of years. Excavations at nearby Danger Cave have proven occupation of the area as early as 10,300 years ago. While Native Americans adapted to the desert environment, more recent arrivals found the area less hospitable.

By 1824, Jim Bridger and other mountain men explored the Great Salt Lake desert region. The first recorded crossing of the desert was made in 1845 by Captain John C. Fremont's survey party with scouts Kit Carson and Joe Walker. Early the next year, 23 year old Lansford Hastings retraced Fremont's train across the salt plain. Joe Walker's writings warned emigrants not to attempt the untried route, however, Hastings convinced several emigrant parties to follow him.

Despite Walker's warnings, the Donner-Reed party, seeking a shortcut to California in 1846, attempted the "Hastings' Cutoff." They failed to take enough water and lost a critical number of oxen. Four of their wagons were abandoned just 10 miles northeast of the salt flats. Time was lost, and the delay resulted in their late arrival to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and their tragic winter.

Late, in 1910, the first permanent crossing of the Bonneville Salt Flats was completed when the southern Pacific Railroad was built linking Salt Lake City and San Francisco.

Typically, speed trials are scheduled throughout the summer and fall. The events are open to the public. For more information, contact the Bureau of Land Management, Salt Lake Field Office at (801) 977-4300.


Visiting the Salt Flats

The Bonneville Salt Flats is administered by the Bureau of Land Management for public use and enjoyment. Due to its unique geology, history, and scenic beauty, the Bonneville Salt Flats was designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern in 1985.


Help Preserve the Bonneville Salt Flats

Stay on existing roads or areas designated for vehicles. Despite the appearance of a hard surface, much of the area is a thin salt crust over soft mud. It easily breaks under the weight of a vehicle.

Stay off the salt surface when it is covered by water. When wet, the salt surface is soft and easily damaged by vehicles. Furthermore, the salt water is highly corrosive and can short-out the electrical system in your vehicle.

Be prepared for desert conditions. Temperatures can exceed 100 degrees in the summer and drop well below 0 in the winter.

There are no facilities nor services on the salt flats. Temporary facilities are available during racing events.

Overnight stays are prohibited on the salt flats. Camping is encouraged on surrounding public lands.  Private campgrounds and hookups are available in nearby Wendover, ten miles west of the Bonneville Salt Flats. Other accommodations and services are also available in Wendover.


For Additional Information Contact: 

Bureau of Land Management
Salt Lake Field Office
2370 South 2300 West
Salt Lake City, Utah 84119
(801) 977-4300


For more information visit the Utah Bureau of Land Management website