Silver Island: a desert escape well worth a visit

Jul 3, 2019, 11:30 AM
silver lake loop west desert...
Photo: Maria Shilaos

DISCLAIMER: The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of KSL or its ownership.

It probably makes no sense for someone like me, who loves flowers, to be able to see the beauty in a desert landscape. But over the past couple of decades of exploring the roads less traveled across the state of Utah, I’ve come to love and appreciate the beauty and wonder of nature on each trip.

The truth is, beauty can be found wherever you look for it.

Many people who travel to Wendover from the Salt Lake Valley do so to try their luck at the casinos on the Utah/Nevada border. But if that’s your only reason for heading out into the West Desert, you are missing out on a wonderful opportunity to explore the desert at its finest.

Not only can you see the area through the eyes of the Native Americans who once inhabited it, but you can also imagine the desperation of the ill-fated California-bound Donner-Reed Party that had to abandon their wagons along the route.

If you aren’t in a rush, you may also see prong-horned antelope and bighorn sheep.

Oasis in the desert: Silver Island Loop

On the last weekend of June, our 4X4 group decided to explore the Silver Island Loop northeast of Wendover. It’s a Bureau of Land Management Byway loop that encircles the Silver Island Mountain range.

silver island loop west desert

Photo: Maria Shilaos

The loop includes jagged volcanic peaks and meadows of sagebrush and other blooming desert plants. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a desolate area, but there’s also a surprising mix of snow-capped mountains in contrast to a dry lake bed that creates a mirage of water on the salt flats. There are flowering native plants but they aren’t anything to brag about — a mix of yellow and white blooms that quickly become dried flowers in the desert heat. Still, the red stems of some of the weeds contrasted against the pale green skinny leaves of the plants do add to the beauty of the surroundings.

We mistakenly started our journey on the west side of the loop rather than taking the east side as our trail guide recommended. As if to greet us, a beautiful prong-horned antelope posed on the hillside as we set our odometers to zero.

Driving the loop

Off to our left, we could see the magnificence of Pilot Peak. It’s a dominant feature in the landscape because it shoots up 10,716 from the ancient lakebed. The contrast between the purple snow-capped peak and the surrounding desert floor is one of the gems along the way.

The variety of geologic features along this loop adds a lot of interest to the drive. On the west side, you find the beauty of Pilot Peak and the ancient lakebed, while on the east side, there’s the Bonneville Salt Flats with a backdrop of volcanic ridges.

Silver Island Loop west desert

Photo: Maria Shilaos

While Pilot Peak was on our left, we found a bighorn sheep and caves in the rocks to our right — a reminder of the Native Americans who took advantage of Lake Bonneville’s fish and waterfowl more than ten thousand years ago.

The dirt road is a mix of ruddy clay and loose rocks. For the most part, it’s in good shape, but beware of the deep ruts caused by water washing across the road in a rainstorm. They paint a dramatic picture of how the rainwater must come pouring off the surrounding ridges. The adventure is also best suited to a four-wheel drive vehicle, which has extra ground clearance.

Looking for the signs

silver island loop west desert

Photo: Maria Shilaos

Sadly, the Donner-Reed Pass was one of the disappointing spots on the trail. While I didn’t expect to see remnants of the wagons that had to be abandoned in the soft mud as the Donner-Reed party made their way to California in 1846, I didn’t think I could drive right past it without noticing it. There’s only a small roadside marker of the California National Historic Trail, which shows the route taken by mountain men, explorers and pioneers that were making their way west.

The trail guide maps make it look like the mountain ranges are close together when in reality the term “canyon” (Donner Canyon) is used loosely. Without the California historic trail marker, you could miss it altogether. In fact, my only frustration with the Silver Island Loop is that the lack of any signage leaves you guessing as to exactly which peak is which.

Bottom line

The Silver Island Loop is great for explorers and families looking for a weekend adventure in the desert. It’s not only a great way to share a bit of Utah history with your kids, but it’s a fun way to gain a greater appreciation and love for our desert state.

I-80 bonneville salt flats west desert

Photo: Maria Shilaos

The loop is only 54 miles long and can easily be done in a half day and that’s including a lunch break. The rest area along I-80 just outside the Bonneville Speed Way is also a great, shady place to enjoy your lunch and a view of the magnificent salt flats. There are no trees to provide shade along the loop.

Getting there: The Bureau of Land Management recommends taking I-80 to exit 4, near Wendover. Drive north toward Leppy Pass, then follow the signs for the backcountry byway.

Important note: The West Desert gets incredibly hot in the summer. Try to plan your adventure on a weekend where the temperature will be below 90 and pack plenty of water just in case you have car trouble.

The BLM’s own website about the Silver Island Loop recommends travelers be prepared for extreme conditions — routes that become impassable because of weather conditions, and temperatures above 100 degrees in the summer and below freezing in winter. Visitors are encouraged to bring along not just water, as I advised, but also spare clothing, food and shelter as well as a first aid kit, tools and a spare tire.

Cell phone coverage may be spotty; it’s always a good idea to let friends or family know where you’re going and when to expect you back when you are headed into the backcountry.

Maria Shilaos is a news anchor and reporter at KSL NewsRadio and host of Utah’s Noon News. To follow along on more of Maria’s adventures, subscribe to Let’s Get Moving with Maria on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever else you enjoy podcasts. 

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Silver Island: a desert escape well worth a visit