Bonneville Salt Flats

Ballena Blanca sits on the flats, dreaming of setting speed records.

June 7 – June 9, 2020.

“Oops”, thought Craig Breedlove. “The braking chutes won’t deploy. ‘Spirit’ and I are in for a rough stop.”

It was October 15, 1964, at Bonneville Salt Flats. Craig, driving the ‘Spirit of America’, had just iced the world land speed record on his second pass at 526 MPH. ‘Spirit of America’ was basically a narrow space-age car on three wheels powered by an engine from an F-86 Sabre fighter jet. The salt flats cover a lot of area, but not enough to allow coasting to a stop from that speed.

At the edge of the flats, he started skidding. He clipped off phone poles like they were matches. He was still doing 200 MPH when he hit a pond full of brine. He and ‘Spirit’ finally came to a stop. He climbed from the cockpit saying “And now for my next act I’m going to set myself on fire”.

Craig Breedlove’s feat wasn’t recognized by the Federation Internationale l’Automobile (FIA) because ‘Spirit’ had only three wheels. He did hold the record under the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) — for almost two weeks. He still holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for the longest skid mark (five miles).

Breedlove wasn’t the only person to race here on the Bonneville Flats. Many speed records have been set over the years. But the most dramatic race occurred around 15K years ago when this was Bonneville Lake. The race ran continuously for two months. Any visiting spectators would have been quite impressed.

At the time Bonneville Lake was about the size that Lake Michigan is today, covering much of western Utah and stretching into Idaho. In Idaho, volcanic activity suddenly diverted the Bear River into the lake. The water level rose. Near Preston, Idaho the walls of Red Rock Pass caved in, and the race began.

For weeks waters washed out of the lake, and down the Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific Ocean. In total, 1200 cubic miles of water running as fast as 70 MPH poured out. Chunks of basalt lining the Snake River were ripped from the canyon walls. They tumbled along, leaving a trail of large rounded “melon” boulders which can be seen along the Snake River today.

Normally geologic processes seem slow to us. In this case, though, they moved at a record-setting pace.

Bureau of Land Management sign at entrance to the flats. Salt levels have decreased recently. The BLM has partnered with private industry to replenish salt levels. In early spring brine is pumped through canals that run along I-80, then pumped out onto the flats. When the water evaporates salt is left behind.
View looking down on the flats.
Sunrise from our camping spot looking toward the flats.
We saw some pronghorn families here.
Pronghorns race to set a new record.
The flats are 12 miles by 5 miles. In the center, salt can be up to five feet deep. It fades to an inch or less on the edges.
Drivers are asked to stay off the flats if it has just rained. It’s easy to bog down then.
Vegetation near the edge of the flats.
Water level marks on the mountains north of the flats tell scientists how deep Lake Bonneville was 15,000 years ago.
Wendover Will guards the town nearest the flats. West Wendover is a Nevada border town where Utahans can come gamble, and buy alcohol and cannabis products.

9 thoughts on “Bonneville Salt Flats

  1. Five mile skid mark! Oh my. I actually dug into salt flats for my latest novel. My folks needed salt and after some walking, found it on the east coast of Spain (this was 850,000 years ago). It was so interesting learning about salt flats for that scene.

    1. That’s pretty cool. I’ve never really thought about where salt comes from and it is interesting to think about just walking somewhere to find it – especially in prehistoric times!

      We missed our opportunity to your a salt factory several years ago in Mexico – we didn’t know that the place gave tours when we were by the salt fields but later met a Mexican gentleman who went on the tour and really enjoyed it.

  2. What an out-of-this-world place! Did you guys visit the portion of the salt flats in Nevada or Utah? Or Idaho? Or does it not extend into all three states (anymore)? Was it OK to drive Ballena Blanca on the flats? Did you sink in at all? Cool shots, as always! You two are hitting an array of spectacular (and new to me) places! I have to start taking notes. 🙂

    1. The salt flats are only in Utah – right on the Nevada border. We had no problem driving Ballena Blanca on the flats, no sinking – but we didn’t go far.

      The camping was BLM directly north of the flats. We tried walking from our campsite one morning to the salt flats but the wind was terrible. Not sure if it is always like that.

  3. Such a fascinating environment and one can see why it would be good for setting speed records or skid marks for that matter. I was interested by this, ‘The BLM has partnered with private industry to replenish salt levels.’ Can you explain the purpose behind the replenishing? Is it for environmental reasons or is there a business aspect to the salt field?

    1. I believe the BLM has partnered with racing organizations for the replenishing to facilitate racing in the future. If the salt becomes to thin it won’t be sustainable for vehicles.

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