Bonneville Salt Flats and Pilot Peak

May 21, 2013

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Photographer: Ray Boren
Summary Author: Ray Boren

A thin layer of pooled, mineral-laden water bathes and slowly sculpts a portion of the Bonneville Salt Flats, east of the twin desert towns of Wendover, Utah, and West Wendover, Nevada. The sheen slightly reflects the vault of the blue sky, as shown in the photograph above, taken on April 23, 2013. Nevada’s snow-topped Pilot Peak rises in the distance, peeking over the brown and mostly barren Silver Island Mountains, which are on the Utah side of the state line.

Winter and springtime snow and rainfall replenish and revive the surface minerals, including sodium chloride (table salt), potassium and magnesium that compose the Bonneville Salt Flats; a 159 sq mi (412 sq km) pan left behind by the prehistoric waters of vanished Lake Bonneville. The ancient lake covered much of western Utah and eastern Nevada during the Pleistocene ice ages. Due to climate change and geologic factors, the great lake dried up thousands of years ago, leaving behind only encrusted basins like this and a notable remnant, the Great Salt Lake. The salt plain is so extensive and flat that in late summer and fall, when the standing water has evaporated, racing aficionados bring their powerful vehicles to the Bonneville Speedway, hoping to break speed barriers and achieve land speed records –- a tradition here that dates back a century. Moreover, on a number of days layers of air trapped near the surface act as lenses, creating liquid-seeming mirages. As the British rock band Yes sang long ago in “Roundabout”: “Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there.”

Distant Pilot Peak was an important sentinel for trail-blazing 19th-century explorers and pioneers headed to California across the sterile and mucky Great Salt Lake Desert. Among these were members of the ill-fated Donner-Reed Party, whose oxen and wagons bogged down a short distance away in 1846. The pioneer company lost valuable time and resources, which led to tragedy when the expedition was caught by snowstorms in the Sierra Nevada range, 400 mi (640 km) to the west.

Photo details: Camera Model: NIKON D60; Focal Length: 12.0mm; Aperture: f/8.0; Exposure Time: 0.0013 s (1/800); ISO equiv: 100; Software: QuickTime 7.6.4.