Bonneville Salt Flats - Are They Worth Visiting?

Author: Mark Wade
Salt crystals crunched under foot as we traipsed across the vast expanse.  Voices of other enthralled visitors drifted lazily through the windless atmosphere.
Salt crystals crunched under foot as we traipsed across the vast expanse. Voices of other enthralled visitors drifted lazily through the windless atmosphere, and the base of distant mountain ranges glimmered with what was either a mirage or real water vapor.  We fantasized about sitting in aerodynamic wheeled capsules and zooming across the salt flats at speeds so dangerous that it might be impossible to hold the vehicle on the earth's surface.  Historic echoes of high-horsepowered engines could almost be heard whining from a low-pitch and increasing to a high-howl as they zoomed past, and then slowly tapering again as they faded into the distant horizon. Such were our realities, dreams, and delusions on a recent afternoon at the Bonneville Salt Flats. 

We extended our visit to sunset as our shadows lengthened and distorted our feet and elongated our legs as our bodies tapered away for thirty to forty feet. Soft hued color palettes broad-brushed the distant peaks, and accented the cirrus clouds in iridescent fashion. Streaks of light radiated out over the sunset peaks, casting the desperate last rays of day as their luminous fingers desperately clung to the ridges, as if to somehow extend the eventide. Dusk eroded into darkness as we were enveloped by the moonless night.  Mother nature threw a lasso over the southern horizon and hauled the Milky Way up from its roots stretching it so high overhead that we had to crane our necks and widen our eyes just to take it all in.
The Bonneville Salt Flats - Too Cool For School
Recent experiences like this renewed our enthusiasm for the stark beauty of this incredibly unique environment. The salt flats can be hot in the summer months, but we lucked out with a September visit with daytime temps in the 80's (Fahrenheit), and night-time temps in the 60's. We watched as hundreds of westbound visitors on Interstate 80 pulled into the Bonneville Salt Flats viewing area to capture some pictures, walk through the salty waters, model their latest outfits for photographers, and even drive their vehicles on the flats. We stayed till late to watch the sunset, and further into the night to capture some shots of the Milky Way as it rose over the southern portion of the Great Salt Lake Desert. We were back at sunrise to walk, run, and drive our own vehicle across the flats. Below you'll see videos, pictures, maps, and find plenty of text descriptions of our own experiences, and details on what you'll want to know as you prepare yourself to visit the Bonneville Salt Flats.
What Makes Them Famous
The Bonneville Salt Flats are known throughout the world as the place where the fastest vehicles in the world set their land speed records.  The Bonneville Salt Flats and Speedway are located approximately 90 minutes west of Salt Lake City, Utah, on the edge of the Great Salt Lake.  The towns of Wendover Utah, and Wendover, Nevada are just about 10 miles away from the Bonneville Salt Flats viewpoint and the Bonneville Speedway. The flats are a portion of the larger Great Salt Lake Desert and they cover a 46 square mile area (see more details below).
Can I Drive A Vehicle On The Bonneville Salt Flats
Yes, you may drive a vehicle on the Bonneville Salt Flats however, it's important to exercise caution and be aware of current conditions, as the flats can be extremely muddy and may require special tires for traction.  There is at least one access point at the salt flats viewing area (see map below) to drive your own vehicle on the salt flats, but bear in mind that the salt will be spread everywhere on the underside of your vehicle in thicknesses that are between one-half inch and several inches.  The salt deposits will adhere to areas where you cannot see them and can be corrosively damaging to your vehicle.   
Conditions At The Bonneville Salt Flats
Depending on weather conditions portions of the salt flats can be muddy or even covered in a thin layer of water. Be careful where you go out on the salt flats as the mud can be very challenging to walk or drive on. In good conditions the salt flats are crunchy and firm, but still full of moisture, and anything that touches the salt will quickly absorb the minerals.  As we rested camera bags and their straps, clothing, and other gear, on the flats, each was quickly tattooed with moist salt stains.
How Were The Salt Flats Formed?
The Bonneville Salt Flats were formed many thousands of years ago through a combination of the effects of geology and climate. At one time this area was covered by a large inland sea that has been labelled as Lake Bonneville. Over millennia this lake gradually receded leaving behind the concentrated salt deposits. The Bonneville salt flats, as we see them today, are the remnants of the evaporation of Lake Bonneville, leaving a crust of salt and various other minerals.
How To Enjoy The Bonneville Salt Flats

When visiting the salt flats there are several activities you may enjoy. 

  • The most iconic is the land speed racing events that usually occur just once a year. In 2023 they were held in August and this event is where racers, using various vehicle types, attempt to set speed records on the vast, flat surface. 
  • Viewing and photography of this unique natural landscape would be the other key reason to visit the flats.
  • Come prepared with plenty of water, and snakcs as the area can get scorchingly hot, and there are limited facilities (restrooms are available at the viewing area). Please remember to respect the natural environment and to avoid littering.
  • Visit nearby Wendover Utah and Wendover Nevada which are two towns on the Utah/Nevada state border which offer hotels, restaurants, and even gambling casinos on the Nevada side.
  • View the Great Salt Lake at the State Park and float in the highly buoyant water.
  • View the Tree Of Utah (also called the Tree Of Life), is visible on your drive.
  • Visit Wendover Airfield and view the Enola Gay plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, was based during World War II.
  • Stargazing is spectacular especially during the warmer months of the year, on clear moon-less nights when the Milky Way is in a better viewing position. 
The Need For Speed - Bonneville Speedway - Land Speed Records
The Bonneville Salt Flats are most famous for hosting land speed racing events, where vehicles attempt to set world records. The fastest times achieved on the salt flats are different depending on the type of racing vehicle. In the "Unlimited" class, where highly specialized cars compete, world record speeds have exceeded 700 mph. In the motorcycle category, speeds have reached over 350 mph, and land speed records continue to be broken on this rare long and flat surface. Speedweek at Bonneville Speedway brings together racers, teams, and enthusiasts to push the limits of land-based wheeled vehicles. 

The following is a brief look at some of the current competition categories: 

Cars Classes

  • Unlimited: This includes the fastest and most extreme vehicles with world record speeds exceeding 700 mph.
  • Bonneville Streamliners: Specially designed aerodynamic vehicles with records over 400 mph.
  • Vintage Cars: Classic or vintage cars set records based on era, engine size, and other parameters.
  • Motorcycles: This has its own categories, with some remarkable records (350+ mph), one of which is chronicled in the movie "World's Fastest Indian". 

Electric Vehicles: Recently here has been a growing electric vehicle race category at Speedweek (300+ mph).

Special Awards: Speedweek offers special awards for achievements (e.g. "Hot Rod Magazine Top Time of the Meet") and for breaking speed barriers of 200 mph, 300 mph, and 400 mph.

What is that tree on the Salt Flats? 
You may have spotted the isolated, nearly 90 foot tall, tree on the Bonneville Salt Flats as you passed by on Highway 80. Made with over 200 pounds of cement and other materials, this abstract sculpture is a creation by Swedish artist Karl Momen and was given to the state of Utah as a gift. The story goes that Karl was visiting the Salt Flats in the 1980s when he was struck with inspiration of a tree bringing beauty, intrigue, peace, color, and life to this beautiful yet desolate region. He named his masterpiece "The Tree of Life".
Directions from Salt Lake City to the Bonneville Salt Flats 
Salt Lake City to the Bonneville Salt Flats with some sights along the way including the Great Saltair and the Great Salt Lake State Park area.
Directions from Bonneville Salt Flats to the nearby Bonneville Speedway