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Benneville Salt Flats, Utah

Salt Flats and Hoodoos (2015 Road Trip, Part 2)

We just returned from our annual extended road trip and after wading through hundreds and hundreds of photos we’ve sorted them into three chapters. This is chapter two.

Let me start off with saying that from here on out the trip included several places that have long been on my bucket list. Admittedly, my bucket list is actually a Google Map with about 80 pins on it in the US alone, but the Salt Flats was definitely one of the earliest additions. So please forgive me – that fact, along with a little drama I experienced, has weighted this chapter in favor of the Salt Flats. Sorry!

I arrived in Wendover, NV just before sunset with the plan to meet up with the Steller crew (more below) outside the Flats later in the evening. With some time to kill I decided to trek out to the end of the access road and lay my eyes on the Flats to wee what it was all about. There is a 2-3 mile long paved road across mud flats out to where the salt begins.

Many people actually mistakenly take photos from the road believing these are the Salt Flats – or worse yet drive out onto them after a rain thinking the salt crust will hold them. Don’t make that mistake! The actual salt does not begin until you hit the end of the access road and drive off the end. I am detailing this because for some reason there is very sparse information online about accessing the Salt Flats themselves.

Immediately at the end of the access road all of the warnings of how dangerous the Salt Flats can be were driven home; four people were being helped by a good samaritan after rolling their vehicle on the wet salt, I assume because they had hydroplaned after leaving the concrete. And I don’t think this would be hard to do after getting out onto the salt myself – it’s a very strange surface, especially when wet. Although there is mud beneath the salt crust, the crust itself is very thick and can support a vehicle easily. That combined with the absolutely flat surface creates a barrier for water when it rains so that it simply collects as a thin layer up to two inches deep all across the Flats. Although this does make traveling across the Salt Flats dangerous at speed, if you’re careful it is safe to do and makes for stunning photo opportunities with a mirror-like surface. Most times and places I would not ask for rain during a trip but I’m very happy I was able to experience the Salt Flats after a rain storm and was able to get some great photos due to the unique conditions.

After checking out the Flats I did a little exploring up in the Silver Island Mountains that form the Northern border of the valley. There are many, many trails in this area – some more rugged than others – and it’s worth noting here that this entire area is BLM land (see our previous post for the benefits of camping on BLM land) and we indeed planned to camp here, so I scouted out a few possible locations before dark. I then headed back into Wendover…and here I need to digress as Wendover is a place that requires some discussion. The City of Wendover actually straddles the Nevada-Utah border and thus has an East and West side. The East side (Utah) is mainly an industrial area: there are no restaurants, no hotels, and very few residential homes. It mainly consists of warehouses and a railway yard. In one word, it is bleak. HOWEVER…as you drive down the main road and pass the sign announcing your entrance into Nevada it’s almost like stepping into a wardrobe and being transported to a magical universe of talking animals. In one word, it’s a party! You’re instantly assaulted by flashing neon, multi-storied casinos spanning entire blocks, restaurants, bars and hundreds or thousands of homes radiating out into the valley. It struck me for the first time the stark difference between these two neighboring states and made me wonder what kind of sarcastic person put Nevada next to Utah; you could not have found odder bedfellows!

I planned to meet a group of photographers for a rendezvous coordinated by the folks at Steller, a great new app for telling stories through images and written content  (like a short photo editorial in a magazine). If you haven’t heard of Steller yet it is definitely worth checking out. There are some very talented people using it to create some pretty remarkable things. The group, which eventually numbered 20-25, congregated at a small Mexican restaurant adjacent to the Salt Flats access road and from there we all headed out to the Silver Islands area to set up camp at one of the spots I scouted earlier. Setting up in the dark wasn’t easy for the ground dwellers (ahem) so after the 15 seconds it took to pop up my rooftop tent I tended to the bar and handed around a bottle of the Tatoosh Rye I’d brought with me. That night we chatted late into the evening and I was really struck by what a great group of folks these people were. This was going to be a fun little side trip!

The next day we accumulated more meet up participants and headed out to the Salt Flats for photos. At first there was hesitance to drive out onto the salt with standing water of unknown depth, but as I was best equipped to make the attempt I just went for it and discovered it was easily drivable. That, along with a promise to rescue any stuck vehicles should we have problems, encouraged others to follow and we drove several miles out onto the Flats. That’s when I discovered how truly huge the Salt Flats are. I mean GIGANTIC. At nearly 30 miles long and several miles across it covers a lot of area, and as there are no marked roadways or boundaries it is simply an open playground for exploring. What’s more, with the water on the salt we were alone the entire time we were out there which made for fun touring around! We stayed out there into the night to witness the sunset reflecting off the mirrored surface. Very, very worth it. That night back at camp we messed about taking picture of shadows on the rock walls and our colorful tents above the flat valley floor.

The next morning we woke to break camp and see about spending a little more time on the Flats before going our separate ways. This however is where I experienced the first of two mechanical failures with my truck. Now let me put a disclaimer in here right away: Although our rig is very well maintained, it is indeed a 20 year-old vehicle with over 270,000 miles. Many parts have worn out and been replaced but many have not, and one of the latter was the alternator whose brushes had now stopped spinning (so had thus stopped generating power, so had thus stopped recharging the batteries). And I did not bring a spare alternator for two reasons: 1)I knew I would not be so far from civilization that I could not at least get close enough to call for assistance because, 2)Our truck is equipped with a dual battery system and both batteries are deep-cycle AGM types that together could provide at least 100 miles of driving before running out of juice and leaving us stalled. That said, these types of batteries are not cheap and running them down to nothing would harm them and require replacement sooner rather than later, so driving on them with no alternator was a last-ditch resort. So what to do? Here I sat in the desert above the Salt Flats with a dead alternator and no success from beating on it to unfreeze the brushes that had stopped spinning inside (yes, this can actually work). After calling around to the nearest parts stores with no luck and a wait of several days to get an alternator to the nearest Toyota dealer in Salt Lake City I faced a disappointing reality – that I would lose substantial time and be forced to skip one or two stops on my trip. That would not do, so it was time for one last attempt at getting up and running. Armed with a can of WD-40, an even bigger wrench than the one used previousl, and extreme determination to get back on the road, I started the truck, popped the hood, and went at it spraying lubricant into the alternator while beating on it until my arm grew sore. Then suddenly a spray of lubricant came back at me as the brushes began spinning again. Hallelujah! It worked!

Note: It is not recommended that you spray silicone lubricant into your alternator without being prepared for sparks and/or short bursts of small flames as electrical contacts are made very rapidly within the alternator. This is not good for your alternator but if it has frozen it is worth attempting. At some point in the near future you will still need to replace your alternator, but if it works this will get you back up and running temporarily.

Elated, I packed up camp and set out toward Salt Lake City and South. To make up for several lost hours I moved quickly, straight for Bryce Canyon which was my next planned stop. I arrived at the park in the late afternoon and after navigating the unexpected crowds I found and reserved a campsite inside the park. This was Sunday and my assumption that the park would be less busy after the weekend campers had packed up and left was dead wrong. Bryce Canyon seems to be the kind of place that is busy most any day of the week, and after seeing what it had to offer that makes sense. In retrospect, and as a word to the wise, it would be smart to reserve a campsite here in advance. Nevertheless I did find a spot and after leaving a few items to make it look lived-in I decided to drive the tour and see all the various outlooks had to offer.

Bryce Canyon is set up as a driving tour with hiking opportunities leading out from the parking lot at most of the lookouts. To be honest though the best and most dramatic trails and views are to be had at the first two lookout points – Sunset and Sunrise Points. These are also the busiest though, so be ready for buses full of foreign tourists cramming in to take photos. After encountering this I opted to wake up early the following morning and hike out from Sunset Point to take photos (ironically) of the sunrise. However, that plan was thwarted by the French who had taken over the camp spot next to mine. It happened like this: two younger couples had rented an RV to travel around the US for a month seeing the sights. In all of their preparations though they had failed to learn how to build a fire, and after watching them for 20 minutes attempt to sustain one with pine cones and full logs (entertainment while I warmed by my own fire with a drop of my favorite whiskey) I moseyed over to lend an appreciated hand. This was a fatal mistake, because they were too damn nice and we ended up drinking the entire bottle of whiskey, piling on a beer or two (or three?) while hilariously attempting to converse in a half-spoken, half-enacted, charades-type of discussion about all things under the moon. I don’t recall exactly what time I made my way into my tent, but I do know that I got there…and it was late (or early depending on how you look at it). And I do know that I didn’t awake until well after sunrise…sans my French neighbors who proved to be a little more resilient than I.

Alas, after somewhat slowly packing up camp I drove out to Sunset Point for photos before getting on my way. In no mood for a real hike I opted for a stroll along the rim to take photos of the striking hoodoos in the valley (hoodoos=rock spires growing from the valley floor) and a promise to myself to get back at some point and do this thing right. Passing back through the park entrance though my disappointment grew to contentment as I realized that this was actually a success; this trip was about experiences and although watching the sunrise from deep in the canyon would have been a great one, staying up late to make new friends was something I wouldn’t soon forget either. Now content, I stayed due East toward Monument Valley and made some  great discoveries along the way. Stay tuned for more in Chapter 3!

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