A few weeks ago, my family, Mike and I spent a week out in Park City, Utah. I hadn’t been anywhere in Utah since my field camp adventures of 2013, so I was pretty excited to get back and explore. However, our decision to visit during the season in between seasons meant we were a week too early for just about everything in Park City–Gaurdsman Pass still hadn’t been plowed, hikes I was familiar with were still under a foot of snow, and shops and restaurants were closed. So instead (and thankfully for its proximity), we just moved our daily adventures a little further east and about 3,000 feet lower in altitude to Salt Lake City. PC or SLC, my family still wanted a serious hiking adventure. So, despite being the site of one my worst hiking experiences ever (…field camp), I had to take Mike and my family to Antelope Island State Park.
Antelope Island is about an hour outside of Salt Lake City (~1.5hrs outside Park City), and has some of the most seriously gorgeous views I have ever had the pleasure of setting my eyeballs on. The park can get busy in the summer months, so I recommend getting there earlier in the morning before the crowds start pouring in. We got to the park a little later than I usually like for a hike/climb (or even visiting a popular park), but the park wasn’t crowded (it was May-season), the weather was beautiful (60s-70s) and the forecast was clear (i.e. we got lucky ducky). We didn’t have a plan for a hike when we got there, so my mom and sister looked at the trail map and settled on Frary Peak (they, as with me, like climbing high things). By 10 am, we were on the trail and trekking upwards (and already taking 100 photos).
You gain about 2,000 ft of elevation over 3.2 miles on the trek to the Frary Peak summit. The elevation on Antelope Island is not as high as Park City or some of the surrounding mountains, but you will likely still feel the climb. There are lots of opportunities for photo-ops along the way, but the summit views are the best (so don’t linger too long down low). While most of the trail is easy to moderate and highly visible, things start to get a little scary at mile 3–I will discuss below. Visiting in May gifted us with some really wonderfully mild temperatures and not so many bugs, but if you decide to visit anytime in the summer you will more than likely experience the opposite. No matter when you decide to hike Frary Peak, be sure to have plenty of water, sunscreen, bug spray and most importantly, FOOD!
As I mentioned above, the first three miles of the trail are pretty easy going. You will be climbing up pretty much the whole way, but there’s nothing technical to the first three miles. About a mile in, you will see a trail to your right that heads toward Dooley Knob. If you want to hit both Frary Peak and Dooley Knob, I recommend saving this short detour for the way down. Frary Peak will give you the best views, so you may decide (like us) that hitting Dooley Knob isn’t really necessary on your way down. Plus, you’ll probably be happy you saved your climbing legs for what comes after mile three. Throughout your climb, keep your eye out for wildlife, particularly bison, and please, PLEASE do not take selfies with them (just don’t be that person).
Let’s pause for some geology.
Around mile 1.5-2 of the hike (I didn’t have Mike’s gps on me, so I’m not exactly sure of the mileage), you will pass under a little cave (you won’t miss the cave). The rock here is, according to my field camp notes, a part of the Mineral Fork Formation, and is a diamictite, which contain grains of all sizes suspended in a matrix of finer grained sediment. These type of rocks have been attributed to glaciers. And while you may not be surprised to be reading about evidence for glaciers on a mountain, these rocks are much, much older than the mountain they currently sit on. This diamictite is 750 million years old, and 750 million years ago these rocks were sitting on a very large supercontinent (very different from our own) near the equator. Glaciers near the equator you say? How is that possible? Well, these rocks have been used as evidence for the theory of Snowball Earth, a term coined to describe a time period in Earth’s past when the entire globe was covered in ice. Scientists still argue whether or not this time period was actually more snowball-like (completely covered in ice) or more slushball-like (mostly covered in ice), but the evidence is pretty strong that much of the planet, even at low latitudes, had ice of some form covering it.
At mile 3 you reach a false summit that plays host to a radio tower. From here, there a two distinct trails to the summit: one that goes to the left and leads over the ridge and another that goes to the right and starts with a small decline. Before I go any further I must get this out: IF YOU ARE AFRAID OF HEIGHTS AND/OR ARE NOT AN EXPERIENCED HIKER, DO NOT GO ANY FURTHER. I have small bouts of fear of heights (usually when I’m forced to hike close to cliff edge with no protection), and I was feeling it. My father, who has a serious fear of heights, had to turn around almost immediately after we decided how to approach the summit.
We did not take the ridge route (trail to the left of the radio tower) up or down the mountain, so I cannot speak for the ease or difficulty of that scramble–many people online have commented that it is exactly that, a scramble, so just be prepared if you select that route to or from the summit. If you decide to tackle the route to the right of the radio tower, I can tell you all about the oops, we should have stayed right at the fork, irrational me thinking “I’m going to die up here” mistake.
Not too long after embarking on the downhill trail to the right of the radio tower, you will reach a fork in the trail. Stay right and you will find a moderate trail that circles around the bottom of the summit before coming up around the other side. Stay left (as we did going up), and you will be scrambling on all fours up a route so steep that wooden stairs have been nailed in to keep you from sliding away. We came down the happier trail, and despite still feeling a little weird on the side of cliff, it was MUCH, MUCH better than the left side of the fork.
If you make it through the scary after mile 3, congrats! The views at the summit are some of the most wonderful views my eyeballs have ever had the pleasure of looking upon on a hike. As Frary Peak is the tallest peak on Antelope Island, you have an amazing 360 degree view of the mountains and lake surrounding you. Definitely be sure to have some snacks to enjoy at the summit because you’re going to want to hang out here for awhile. After basking in all your summit glory, your faced with a decision for getting down–choose wisely and go slowly. But once you get through the “scary”, the rest of the way down is a breeze. Roundtrip, the trail took us about 4 1/2 hours of steady hiking with lots of brief breaks for photos and breath-catching.
Once you get down, and especially if you’ve never done it before, you should head straight for some water access and float your tired body in the Great Salt Lake. Now, if it’s summertime, your experience will probably be something like my first time: scorching sand and pebbles, people everywhere, piles of dead bugs, choking on live bugs, stinky degrading algae, lots of brine shrimp, but still oh so glorious. Mike’s experience this last May was much more enjoyable: walkable sand and pebbles, no people (seriously, where was everyone?), no piles of dead bugs, not so stinking degrading algae, very little live bugs and extremely glorious. Swimming in a saline lake is really a cool experience. Floating is totally effortless, so leave those arm-floaties at home. But do be prepared to be covered in salt for the rest of the day if you aren’t able to rinse off, and please don’t scream when those little brine shrimp scuttle on by.
Now for some more geology. (Last time, I promise).
The Great Salt Lake is a remanent of a much larger pluvial lake called Lake Bonneville, whose water levels have been fluctuating since its creation. From Antelope Island, you are able to see many of the ancient shorelines preserved as distinct terraces along the edge of the lake. At its height around 15,500 years ago, Lake Bonneville reached about 5,100 feet above sea level forming the Bonneville Shoreline. Around 14,500 years ago, water breached the Bonneville Shoreline destroying a dam retaining water in Lake Bonneville. This triggered a rapid drop in water levels in Lake Bonneville, which lead to the formation of the Provo Shoreline. A climate shift, starting about 14,000 years ago, caused water levels to drop in Lake Bonneville again until 10,900 to 10,300 years ago when water levels rose one last time in Lake Bonneville to form the Gilbert Shoreline. Water levels of modern day Great Salt Lake fluctuate drastically due to the shallowness of the lake, and are greatly affected by the Pacific Ocean ocean/climate oscillations, such as El Niño (it really matters you guys!). The visitor center has some really cool graphics on Lake Bonneville, so I definitely encourage all you rock-curious tourists to check it out.
I highly recommend Antelope Island State Park for anyone visiting the Salt Lake City or Park City area. There’s tons of hikes for a variety of skill levels, and you don’t need to summit Frary Peak to get a piece of the amazing views. And if hiking’s not your thing, you can also just plop your bottom on the sand and enjoy some Salt Lake beaching–just don’t be jealous when your friends come back from Frary Peak with some incredibly Instagram-worthy photographs.
Oh, and remember, summit selfies are the best selfies.