Article Last Updated: 11/05/2005 04:26:00 PM 


Island escape

Antelope Island offers year-round activities

By Tom Wharton

The Salt Lake Tribune  11/6/05




ANTELOPE ISLAND - Each visit to the largest island in the Great Salt Lake brings with it the possibility of seeing or doing something new.

   This fall, many areas of the lake remain low, revealing marshes and mud that give some of the island's famous bison a new place to lounge.

    Light seems different on each trip. It can be golden, for example, as it was on a late-evening hike to Buffalo Point that overlooks the north end of the island.

   The weather can be warm and the beach buggy on a hot summer day when salt cakes on those who try to float like a cork in the lake. Or it can be frigid, a winter wind whipping across a brown-colored island.

   Each season offers a unique look at the 15-mile-long, 28,022-acre island so close yet so far away from the bustling Wasatch Front.

   Yet some activities always are available. Visitors can see wildlife such as bison, birds and antelope. They can visit the venerable Fielding Garr Ranch, the oldest building in Utah still on its original foundation. They can hike, mountain bike or ride a horse on miles of trail, grab a buffalo burger at the small snack bar near Buffalo Point, view photos and information at the visitor center, kayak or sail out of the marina or take a stroll along a beach.

   The parking lot of Fielding Garr Ranch, built in 1848, features cars with license plates from all over the United States, including Texas, California, Georgia and Washington on a recent afternoon.

   "We're in Salt Lake City for a convention," said Richard Franden of Los Angeles. "The trip is enjoyable so far. I haven't seen bison outside a zoo in a long time."


    The bison: The island is named after the antelope the first white explorers saw and which still roam the grasslands. But Maurice Johnson, a state park volunteer who takes visitors on tours of Garr Ranch, said "Where are the buffaloes?" is the most common question he hears.

   John Dooly, a rancher who owned the island in the late 1800s, introduced 12 animals in 1893, when bison were being hunted to near extinction and numbered fewer than 1,000. Park historians believe Dooly hoped to make money by bringing in hunters to cull the herd, a practice the state of Utah still uses on a limited basis.

   Johnson, though, seems partial to a mule deer he calls Whisper that often visits tourists who stop for a picnic under the grassy elm-shaded area near the ranch.

   "She thinks she's human," he confides.

   The island isn't crowded on this autumn day, and Johnson has time to answer questions. He loves to take children on tours of the ranch, letting them lasso a saddle horse, make a brick out of clay or do the wash with an old-fashioned board. He shows off the spring house where sheep ranchers who settled the island kept milk cold before the coming of electricity.

   Roadside stops reveal tidbits of information, such as the time Hollywood came to Antelope Island in 1923 to film a movie called "The Covered Wagon," which included a bison-hunting scene. A brochure passed out at the Garr Ranch offers even more history, especially about the cattle- and sheep-ranching operations that continued on the island until it became a state park in 1981.

   Bison are evident in many places and, just as they do at Yellowstone, usually cause visitors to stop. One man with a camera unwisely jumped out of his car to get a closer view, something that is highly discouraged.

   This is the time of year when the 700 or so bison on Antelope Island are rounded up and put in corrals, where biologists can check their health and prepare some for a live auction. The auction and limited hunting help keep the animals within their range capacity. The corrals are on the northern part of the island, not far from the visitor center, and are open to the public.

   Today is the final day when bison will be worked in the corrals. The live auction is Nov. 19. After that, the bison are released where they can wander the island. They usually are easily seen by winter visitors.


    Recreation: While there isn't time on this weekday afternoon to hike to Frary Peak at the top of the island or Buffalo Point, rent a kayak or horse or even sample a bison cheeseburger from the Bistro, memories of past trips fill in the blanks.

   This is a place worthy of visiting again and again. It is possible to sample the island in a few hours but just as easy to spend a weekend or even a week experiencing its trails and sights.

   On this day, there is no one staying at the Bridger Bay campground, a relatively primitive facility with a good view of the lake. It has picnic tables, a fire pit, asphalt parking and pit toilets but lacks water, hookups or shade. This is the main campground for individual campers, and sites can accommodate groups of up to eight people. Another group campground at White Rock Bay is available.

   Nearby, brother and sister Becky and Daniel Schilling have the day-use beach to themselves. This is an area on the northwest side of the island with a sandy beach, indoor and outdoor showers and covered picnic pavilions.

   Daniel has just moved to nearby Ogden, while Becky is visiting from Hampton, Va. The views of distant mountains impress the Schillings.

   "This is different terrain than I've ever seen," said Becky. "I came from Minnesota, where there were lots of trees and lakes and none of this mountain stuff. How did they build shelter here? There are no trees."

   There are 11 major trails on the island, some of which are closed during different seasons to protect wildlife such as bighorn sheep. Most are shared by mountain bikers, hikers and horseback riders. No off-highway motorized use is allowed. The trails vary in difficulty and elevation gain. The relatively short (just over three miles) but steep hike to Frary Peak at the top of the island provides amazing views of the surrounding area. A trail map is available at the entrance station or visitor center.

   A new seven-mile trail, the Sentry, has opened another part of the island just south of Garr Ranch to visitors. But registration and a backcountry permit, which can be obtained at the ranch, are required to use the trail.


    Wildlife: Now is the time of year when park interpreter Crystal Carpenter starts seeing birds of prey, including bald eagles, moving into the lake and island. A drive along the east side road to the Fielding Garr Ranch proves her point. Various raptors cruise for prey near a trail where the helmet-covered head a mountain biker can be seen bouncing along the Mountain View Trail.

   Pronghorn antelope often hang out in the flat just below the visitor center parking lot this time of year. The occasional coyote also appears.

   Driving back across the causeway, there might be time to stop and watch eared grebes bobbing in the briny water. Birdwatching is a popular activity on the island. In the winter, for example, pelicans are starting to leave and migrate. In December, coyote sightings are common. Bison bull bachelors stand in groups on the north end of the island. Look for porcupines in Russian olives as well as wintering ducks.

   Antelope Island may see fewer visitors and colder weather in the late fall and winter, but each trip offers a new experience as well as the wide-open expanses that seem amazing so close to the bustling Wasatch Front.


   Contact Tom Wharton at His phone number is 801-257-8909. Send comments about this story to


   Antelope Island State Park


    WHY GO? Antelope Island offers a respite from the bustling Wasatch Front. The island is home to bison, antelope and numerous bird species. At this time of year, the bugs are gone and the weather is still nice enough for mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking. The Fielding Garr Ranch, built in 1848, offers lessons in the history of ranching. A visitor center and informative road signs are located around the island.


    HOW TO GET THERE: Take the Layton-Syracuse exit off Interstate 15 and follow signs to the west. It is about a 44-mile drive from Salt Lake City.


    WHAT IT WILL COST: The daily entrance fee for a vehicle with eight or fewer people is $8 or $4 for walk-ins or cyclists. Overnight camping fees are $11 per vehicle.


    HOURS: The visitor center and Garr Ranch are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Gates close a half-hour after dusk.


    NOT TO MISS: The bison herd, introduced in 1892, is a major draw, as is the historic Fielding Garr Ranch. And the winter sunsets are amazing.


    WHERE TO EAT: The Bistro snack bar, which serves hamburgers and hot dogs as well as buffalo burgers and bratwurst, is at the trailhead to Buffalo Point on the north side of the island. It is open weekdays from noon to 4 p.m. and weekends until 5 p.m.


    WEATHER: Late fall and early winter weather is similar to that found along the Wasatch Front. On a clear day, temperatures can reach the mid-60s. Lows were in the 40s through much of October, but will get chillier with winter. Snow can stick.


    FOR INFO: Call the island visitor center at 801-725-9263 or log onto the Division of Parks and Recreation Web site at Reservations for wildlife safaris or Great Salt Lake cruises can be made by calling 801-726-0850. Horseback-riding reservations can be made by calling 801-782-4946. Kayak tours and rentals can be made by calling 801-710-7167.