Of all the times I have flown over the Great Salt Lake, I finally made it to it’s shores and in it’s water. As we popped across the Utah border from Idaho on day 2 of our road trip, I began to look at where the best place would be to pull in for a lake stop. While looking at the map the landmark “Golden Spike National Historic Site” caught my attention. Flashes of U.S. history started to reappear in my mind as I tried to recall a few things I remembered about the great railroad race to connect east and west. Since we didn’t do a hotel stop Friday night, we had the whole day to explore ahead of us before we could even check in to our Salt Lake City hotel.
I ran the idea by my husband who shared my mind set of “why not explore” and we watched for the break off signs from I-84. At the turn, we also saw a sign for “Rocket Display” which I found curious, but made sense since U.S. deserts were often used for missile and bomb testing. As it happened, the rocket display rose up out of nowhere before we reached the Golden Spike. The large white rocket with the ever familiar blue NASA logo painted on the side stood off the side of the road in front of a large building waving an American Flag. It was an impressive display. Besides the NASA trophy in the front, the whole display was actually made up of more than a dozen other rocket engines and missile motors covering the last 75 years of air defense technology. The building belonged to government contractor Orbital ATK.
Not being the most “techy” girl myself, even I was fascinated by the pieces on display and the accompanied explanations of how the missiles and rocket motors worked by their signs and my husband’s seemingly encyclopedia brain. Seeing how the pieces fit together and their massive size was dumbfounding, especially when you compare your ideas to what these things do in real life to your childhood images of the movie Top Gun. Call me dumb, but I had really never pieced together the fact that a missile, or even a rocket required its own motor, and a complex one at that. I only wished that our 5 and 7 year old sons had been there to see it too, though not all was lost on our 2 year old daughter.
From the rocket display, we moved on to the Golden Spike National Historic Site, which was only about a 10 minute drive away. We pulled up to the visitor’s center and could see the two steam locomotives in the back as we entered the parking lot. A quick Wikipedia read before we arrived already told me that the actual Golden Spike was not on site, but I did learn that Stanford University’s founder, Leland Stanford was also the founder of the Central Pacific Railroad that built the eastward connection to the Golden Spike meeting point at Promontory, UT. The fee was $7 per vehicle to “enter” the park. There were a few movie features that showed throughout the day offering historical information about the site and also re-enactments, which we missed. My desire to get to the Great Salt Lake limited my desire to spend too much time at the Golden Spike, but we did walk out to the trains where the tracks had met and there were stairs to platforms for each of the two railroad company’s steam engines so that you could get a good look inside of the pilot’s pit.
The gift shop had some fun and educational items and books highlighting the railroad era as well as America’s expansion into the “Wild West.” I purchased a book and a couple of postcards, along with a train charm before heading out to drive along one of the original track routes. You see, this portion of the historically significant feat of manpower, the first transcontinental railway in the world, has actually been re-routed. I learned from the park ranger’s introduction that a better route, across the Great Salt Lake, was opened in 1904 that cut out 15 miles of travel and took away several portions of uphill grade that had previously required some extra “push” support for the trains along certain parts. During World War II, the government mandated that all of the railroad tracks not in use in America needed to be torn up for use in the war effort. So the tracks that were originally laid, connecting the east and the west, were torn up. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the government decided that it was of historical significance and needed to be remember and was therefore, re-created a small portion of tracks at the original meeting site. Nonetheless, my 2 year old found the trains interesting and more importantly, the rocks fun to play with.
As we heading back out to I-84, we decided to stop for a late lunch/early dinner in Ogden, Utah. I had carried some snacks for my 2 year old with us in the car along with her water bottle so she was pretty satisfied. Since we also had a big breakfast, no one was really hungry until 5:00 p.m. We decided on a Cracker Barrel since that was a childhood favorite of my Georgia born husband, and something that we couldn’t get in Washington. This of course suited my daughter just fine as macaroni and cheese is always a top choice, couple that with some steamed broccoli and we were set. Though we had gotten out of the car to walk around several times that day, our appetizes were not as big as normal so finishing up even a single meal with salad and vegetables left us stuffed! The decision to go to the Great Salt Lake between Ogden and Salt Lake City was perfect. After looking on the map, a trip out to Antelope Island made the most sense.
We paid $10 for our car to get onto the island, which is a state park. While the name suggests you’d see a lot of antelope on the island, the brochure said that bison herds were quite the popular attraction. In 1893, about 12 bison were introduced to the island and today there are between 300-500! As we drove towards the beach area to go into the water, we saw one grazing out in the grass, with a suspiciously pulled over van and people standing out around it. We soon discovered a man running towards the buffalo, much against the advice of the parks department. We pulled over to see if this person was truly stupid enough to keep going at the buffalo, trying to get it to charge. It made a start at the man once, and he took off, back to his van, not to return. After that brief entertainment, we parked over at the beach to go down to the water.
The sand was warm, but not too hot to walk on. It was very dry and felt nice on all of our feet, and being so dry, it didn’t stick to the skin as much. Soon however we found that more rocks and the dried and broken salt blocks to be a little too sharp to walk on bare foot. It was however, still tricky to walk on with shoes, especially flip flops. After we got about a 100 yards out, it became more compact and easier to walk on as we approached the water’s edge. Soon, we took notice of movement that looked like blowing brown sand whenever someone would walk across the beach. It took us both a second to realize that it was a swarm of bugs, Brine Flies to be exact. It made me cringe at first, but the brown clouds they would make when movement was near were fascinating. You could see them along the coast on the sand, and there was no way to get to the water without walking through them. They do however, move away quickly and want to avoid you just as much as you would like to avoid them.
Breaking through the bug barrier was worth it. The warm water was still just ankle deep a good 100 feet out from the shore. My 2 year old loves the water. Nothing made her day more complete then swimming or splashing in water. While we weren’t equip to take a full dip, just walking around in the lake was fun enough. You could feel the water pushing your leg up if you shifted weight to just one foot and let the other one go. If you stood completely still on both feet would feel yourself starting to sink into the lake floor’s sand too. We spent about 20 minutes walking and splashing around before we headed back, beginning to feel our only 5 hours of sleep through the night before. I dreaded the walk back through the sand with wet feet but it actually wasn’t too bad. Same issue though with the difficulty of walking with or without shoes that resulted in me having to also carry my toddler half the time on the 200 yards back to the car. A quick rinsing off at the showers outside of the restrooms and we were loading back up into the car. My daughter had gotten about 2 inches of the bottom of her dress wet in the lake, and when it dried, you would see the stiff salt crystals on the fabric!
We pulled into our hotel, a Sheraton in Salt Lake City, the capital also caught my eye with its attractive skyline backed by mountains with a beautiful sunset. I was pleasantly surprised by the warm feeling Utah left me with at the end of a long drive, full of fun and educational pit stops. And we haven’t even been to the rest of the state that gets the most press! For now, I will leave Utah as a pleasant pass through state that I look forward to visiting again with my whole family!